Friday, February 28, 2014

Behemoth - The Satanist (2014) *Album of the Month*

The Satanist was a bit of a stunner for me, because I've never been the most vocal advocate of Behemoth. I like a lot of their albums, sure, from both the earlier black metal period and the transition into a more mainlined brutality, but there has long been this sort of vibe rolling off generation Hot Topic that this is somehow the greatest band since, like, Pantera. That their albums and videos have achieved some form of death metal nirvana, reflected through their successful tours, sales, and at in their home country of Poland, a sense of mainstream legitimacy that few extreme metal acts could claim. This is not necessarily any fault of the band, which works hard and puts out a consistent level of product; but if I'm being truthful, it's difficult for me to think of Behemoth as this messianic (or anti-messianic) force in metal. Though I've bought and enjoyed a number of their post transition records from the late 90s and beyond, I find them little more than a re-branding of aesthetics already present in bands like Morbid Angel, Deicide, Vader, Marduk, Dark Funeral and Krisiun. Maybe they have better stage costumes and makeup department, maybe they've got better art direction packaging on their albums, and surely Nergal is far more consumed by occultism than a lot of the death metal diocese which would claim otherwise, but the fact is that most of their music blasts straight into one ear and out the other...

Not the case for The Satanist, which has been for me the first instance in which Behemoth truly lives up to the surrounding hype; an album that is not only phenomenally well-written, but bolsters production standards that crush the fucking sun. Not a major stylistic deviation from their last few discs, but the plotting here at long last seems to translate into an actual slew of songs that I feel like listening to repeatedly, which is more than I could say for stuff like Evangelion, which possesses a proficient, punishing quality that seems to plateau at 'good', eluded by 'greatness' and only ever broken out when I want a reliable, indistinct bludgeoning. The Satanist is just such a more well-rounded experience...blast beats are weighted off against genuine moments of poignant atmosphere and restraint. Individual tunes are distinguishable from one another, and after hearing one I couldn't quite put my finger on what would happen in the next. The death and black metal genre tropes which have shaped Nergal's career are more evenly balanced, and the robust production aesthetics and the precision instrumentation have just never sounded better. While The Satanist is still not a perfect outing, and leaves some area for further expansion, it oozes conviction from every pore. We all know Darski had a rough spell health-wise, but that this is a testament to his survival gives it all the more impact. Coming back stronger and superior is after all a chief virtue of Satanic self-enlightenment, and so I'm not at all surprised he chose the absurd profundity of its overt title.

At any rate, much of the album is still a locomotive of seamless blasted structures which weave together the resonant tremolo picking and mildly dissonant chord choices, ominous octave chords sliding around the underbelly of hellish beats and Nergal's powerful if not entirely nasty sounding growls. If you were worried that the advance snippets of "Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel" somehow lacked the intensity you'd come to expect, tracks like "In the Absence ov Light" or "Amen" make short work of the assumption like a hurricane whipping through a field of origami blossoms. The bass tone on the album deserves particular praise, it's just so fat and voluptuous and only ever loses some presence when the band is blasting full force, but there is just never a moment where the compositions feel 'empty' or lacking...layers of rhythm guitars or wailing and blustering lead passages always arrive, or tempo shifts where that fat, fat low end starts pummeling into your imagination like an infernal juggernaut. The ambient orchestration that both sets up "Blow Your Trumpet Gabriel" into those enormous riffs, and returns, even more horrifying in the bridge, was the perfect touch to balance out what are occasionally average chord choices. In fact, I wish this had occurred more often through The Satanist than it did, but thankfully the record is ridiculously effective regardless.

Lyrically, it's not a departure from anything else Behemoth has done in the last 15 years, but as with the mix on the bass, the vocals are just gruesome and over the top. You can feel the guy barking his guts out as he drives all the evil ego-tripping home. He sounds revitalized, recharged, and though I doubt the purpose of an album like this is 'fun', that is ultimately the effect of such a visceral, convincing performance. Their albums have always had that sense of entertaining intimidation. 'Look how fast we can play! Look how great we look! Look how comfortable we are in our wicked skins!' But then I'd put on one of the better efforts from Lost Soul, Calm Hatchery, Decapitated or almost anything from Vader and smirk at how much more I preferred their songwriting capabilities. Suddenly, Nergal and company belong amongst that crowd. Not that they weren't already a more smashing financial success, enjoying a level of popularity flush with Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, but I can no longer safely relegate them aside to the ranking of 'overrated', or dismiss them like a snob. This is a genuinely excellent album, both in appearance and sound, caving in my skull nine times straight and making everything before it seem like the warmup. There is still a distance to go before I can hail a Behemoth disc as a masterpiece for all the ages, but The Satanist at least flirts with that idea, and inspires belief beyond barren praise.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (in euphoria below)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Morbus Chron - Sweven (2014)

Morbus Chron had already proven it was anything but the cliched Swedish death metal experience on its debut Sleepers in the Rift and the ensuing EP A Saunter in the Shroud, so color me unsurprised that their full-length sophomore proves an even greater departure from the base, traveling about the same distance from the norm that Tribulation did with last year's The Formulas of Death, or the latest record from Norway's Obliteration. This is a good thing, people, because of late I've found the typical regional tone and d-beat aesthetic exceptionally redundant and stagnant like a half-open pickle jar that's been let out into the sun for too long...not that I enjoy pickles to begin with, but Sweven is just as tart, crunchy and acidic as any you've had in recent times.

The title is, I believe, an old term for 'slumber' or 'dreaming', and it's remarkable how the musical decisions (and obviously the cover art) capture this state of unconsciousness with a wonderful contrast of tension and trepidation. Acoustic guitars are used throughout the record as if a backdrop to some slowly building horror, as catchy as involved as any of the electrical-charged emissions they run us through once reverting back towards that sort of curious antique-Morbid Angel-meets-Autopsy aesthetic they cultivate through the gruesome, unhinged vocal growls and the hectic nature of the guitars. Though aggressive, Sweven is laced with note selections of an even more melodic texture than the debut, shifting between brazen, bristling death metal progressions and a sheen of bright blackness in some of the tremolo picked passages, with a clean and harmonized tone that continues the band's juxtaposition of the otherworldly and organic. Tasty licks like the spooky thrash harmony in "Aurora in the Offing" or the atonal, almost bluesy open picking in "Ripening" are constant, and I never felt like anything was repeated over the substantial 53 minute experience.

The drums sound fantastic, from the restrained but effective blasting to the excellent balance of cymbal crashes that emphasize the atmosphere; crucial since Morbus Chron doesn't exactly saturate the sounds with psychedelic keyboards or effects beyond those that the core band might tear out on stage. The bass is somewhat relegated to a muddy, supportive flow, which is partially the point, but due to the heavily melodic focus of the riffing it definitely stands out enough, and considering the sheer variety of riffing techniques over Sweven it's thankfully consistent. But perhaps the greatest sounds on the album hail from the aforementioned acoustic tones, beautiful in a cut like "Solace" which is pregnant with the ringing of what sounds like deep piano tones that lend it some gravitas. This is such a perfectly implemented component of the album, not only on the shorter instrumental pieces but also when used to set up some morbid, harrowing metal track that it makes a lot of other metal bands who eschew the use of cleaner guitars seem like they're really messing out. It's not 'cheap and folksy', and it's not just something they use for an intro and then abandon.

I can't emphasize enough just how important this small group of Scandinavian pioneers has become amidst the insipid ambitions of so many of their peers...sacrificing the security of numbers for an adventure into the possibilities found only on the borders of classification. Morbus Chron, Obliteration, Tribulation and Necrovation are to me the bands that will be remembered long after the Entombed-a-thon, which has widened its gyre now to swallow a lot of American grind/hardcore bands in addition to its local practitioners, at last subsided. While it might not be incredibly memorable during individual moments, Sweven creates a constant swath of mood and subtle malevolence which I can't imagine would fade if I listened through it in 10 years. A truly timeless production which does not neglect a sense of dread and the unexpected once the listener closes his/her eyes to consume it. I liked the first album a little bit better, but at the same time I think this one will cast a much wider net. Was very near my album of the month, will certainly have a presence on many year's end lists, and cements the Swedes as one of the most legitimate and talented acts on a Century Media roster which seems to be half-intent on returning to substance and quality (or piggybacking on the retro death metal bandwagon, but if that results in this, so fucking be it).

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Jute Gyte - Vast Chains (2014)

You know, one day I'm probably going to make a weekend out of revisiting these DVD-shelled Jute Gyte albums, and when I do, it's not likely that Vast Chains will rank as the favorite. Yet this is hands down one of the most fascinating and fucked up products he's produced, memorable not for that alone, but for Adam Kalmbach's continued ability to stretch at, and tear through those amorphous membranes of stylistic convention that so dearly require disintegration if extreme metal is to overrun the roadblocks it often seems to set up for itself. Perhaps the most accurate means I could summon forth to describe this would be as a grand disjunction of black, death, thrash, doom and post-punk aesthetics as translated by a deep schizophrenic so beyond treatment that he or she was locked in the asylum basement and nearly forgotten...only the Bizarro World of that situation.

You'll recognize the use of microtonal riffing if you've experienced last year's Discontinuities, only rather than repeating that album, he's interpreted the technique into a more unpredictable, angular geometry that throws you curve balls in almost every track on the album. Songs are divided into harsher passages of insectoid, bristling dissonance, or springier and cleaner riffs set off against distorted dementia, with the tempos fluxed between the faster black metallic rushes of his prior works and a slower, creepier miasma of impenetrable doom that is compounded by the fresh intervals being picked and strummed. I couldn't even begin to accurately compare this to anything outside of Jute Gyte's own body of work, but strange word puzzles like 'Philip Glass being filtered through the unwashed demos of the stranger LLN bands' seem to pop into my imagination as I'm listening. That this is a difficult experience goes without saying, he's never been all about the comfort of music but rather in seeking that comfort through unusual circumstances, and yet there is certainly a consistent set of traits (certain rhythm guitar tones, drum tracking) that fasten these Chains into a fairly cohesive album...or at least as cohesive as any strain of madness I've encountered.

Probably my favorite tracks were "The Inexpressible Loneliness of Thinking", which was like having a few gallons of effluvia dumped upon my head after being pumped through an Escher-designed sewer sytem, and "Endless Moths Swarming" which becomes so bonkers nearing the bridge that it's almost comical. In fact, this sense of black humor permeates the entirety of the disc, but not for cheap laughs, for unbridled horror. It would also be remiss to not mention how damned excellent the lyrics's pretty early on in 2014, and I've often enjoyed Kalmbach's words as much if not more than the compositions they represent, but these are superb even among the esteemed crowd of his past releases, and the best I've read so far this year. On the flip side, there are definitely a couple riffs here that simply aren't ugly enough to live up to others, so there's a sense of clashing and contrast which doesn't always subdue the listener levelly. I also thought his raving snarled vocals were superior to the death grunts, as you can compare in the first tune "Semen Dried into the Silence of Rock and Mineral", but it's strange to say that these are the most sanity-tethered components of the album, which is just this tornado of disjointed nightmares whipping across the plains of Missouri. Recommended with the lights on, but're on your own there, friends.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (solitude may rust your words)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cynic - Kindly Bent to Free Us (2014)

If there's one thing I wouldn't have expected of a new Cynic album, it's that it heavily remind me of, or felt like some stylistic retrogression towards anything they'd released in the past. That's not to imply that Kindly Bent to Free Us lacks fresh ideas or an arsenal of riffing structures we hadn't heard from them before, but with each new listen through this I kept thinking as if it were just an amalgamation of Traced in Air and the Carbon Based Anatomy EP. On paper, that looks pretty good, since I enjoyed both, but after a strong initial impression this turned out not to have the staying power I really wanted. To be fair, the gulf between Focus and Traced was so enormous that it would have been silly to expect such progressively-inclined musicians to repeat themselves, and the gap between full-lengths #2 and #3 was far shorter, so the aesthetic similarities make sense, I just predicted a much more expansive evolution and didn't get one, so poo on me.

If anything, Kindly Bent to Free Us bridges Cynic back towards a slightly more mechanistic variety of winding, dingy metallic grooves that counterbalance the soothing Beatles-esque vocal harmonies; a clean and tidy style which can sustain the natural variety, experimentation and ambiance with which they play. I mean, there is still nobody who truly sounds like Cynic...they are a league unto themselves and will live or die by their willingness to either succeed or cede to what they've previously offered, and I found this the least impressive of their long players, with the caveat that it undeniably provides a few curious listens through. The drums and bass are superb, the guitars busily constructed if not entirely catchy, and this is probably a more technical and 'metal' direction than Traced in Air, though it shares the same proclivity to lapse into these somnolent passages of cleaner guitars that sound like 90s prog rock lite. A number of the songs like "Moon Heart Sun Head" sounded like Yes or Watchtower being filtered through later 90s era Queensryche or Jellyfish, and a cloying haze of 'hippie enlightenment' seems to hover over their composition, but it's still a case where you can never quite predict the blueprint of an individual track, only that the vocals will remain consistently melodic and not too catchy throughout the 42 minutes.

It sort of saddens me that each consecutive listen to this evokes an even further negative reaction, so it might just be best if I don't revisit it next week, or the one after that. I like a lot of the subtle processed effects and nuances which either lead into the tracks or supplement their depths, more than the riffs, vocal hooks and choruses themselves, and that's not really a good sign. I kept pining for a joygasmic song like the ill-titled "Elves Beam Out" or "Integral Birth" but they're just nowhere to be found, even though Kindly Bent is very clearly clogged with efforts to capitalize on similar motifs. In the end, I had to console myself that this was merely a 'good' Cynic record for a few spins, but very quickly forgotten about when I break out any of their earlier works I own. It's also unlikely to generate any of the divisive buzz that surrounded their reunion earlier this millennium, since there is no real surprise or advancement upon what they've already produced. A shoe in for the appreciation of prog metal nerds who care more about smooth sailing and the showcasing of musical talents, but the older material went beyond that into a realm of obsessive, explosive passion that seems to be replaced here with a little bit of studio gloss and familiarity. Good, but never 'good enough' for a creative outlet like this which inspires such high standards of divergent sonic exploration.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (absorbed into a fossil site)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Midnight Odyssey/The Crevices Below/Tempestuous Fall - Converge, Rivers of Hell (2013)

Converge, Rivers of Hell is significant for a number of reasons. While I'm pretty sure it's not the sole case of an individual artist producing a split release of his numerous recording projects, it's certainly rare in both its unified theme, and the ability of Dis Pater to create such a consistency of flow between three disparate aesthetics while maintaining the identity of each. And 'flow' is the key here, because we're dealing with a concept album about the Greek mythological rivers, so it's important that he can translate the classic characteristics of these bodies of water into musical form while keeping Midnight Odyssey, The Crevices Below and Tempestuous Fall stylistically flush with their constituent backlogs. To this extent, I was rather surprised by a few choices...for example, I'd have thought "Lethe" was a shoe-in for Tempestuous Fall, but ultimately this is little more than nitpicking, because Converge, Rivers of Hell is overall both an excellent proof of concept, and a fitting swan song for the two projects which would be Dis-continued after this recording. :rimshot:

This is for all intensive purposes a full-length record at around 64 minutes, with six songs all over nine minutes in length, but in this case it's a brilliant tactic which allows the listener to settle in to the current of each 'river' and ride it down- or upstream to its fellows. What keeps the three musical entities coherent is the heavy use of atmosphere and synthesizer orchestration throughout, so that there's a seamless feel to each of the tunes which are alternated in the track list (two apiece). Naturally, the Tempestuous Fall material is slower and more rooted in doom/death aesthetics than its peers; a mix of death gutturals and soaring clean vocals exhibit Dis' arching range over the medieval theatrics of the keys and percussion. Whereas The Crevices Below is still the stuff of subterranean majesty, despite being so expansive and busy with blast beats, driving chords and sweeping symphonic arrangements, you still get the impression you're at the foot of some underground castle, at the knees of some troglodyte liege who raves at you with a combination of slightly higher pitched gutturals and deeper bellowed vocals which ricochet off the stone and earthen borders of his domain. Midnight Odyssey then lives up to its more 'open' nature, beautiful and skyward and without restriction, ever his most varied creative outlet and the one which seems to have survived the purging of the others...

And thank the stars for that, since Firmament remains one of my favorite metal records of the last decade and its successor was not far beyond. Regardless, Dis Pater has seen fit that each of the three projects complements one another more than you might have suspected if you were just to compare the raw recordings each has put out in the past, to the extent that there is some degree of blending amongst them. In other words, while there are differences in style and architecture, he could have probably released this strictly under the banner of Midnight or Crevices and gotten away with it, especially the former since it's quite clear he's bent on evolving that sound over the course of distinct releases. But that's why Converge, Rivers of Hell works so bloody well, why it so effortlessly transports you from the shores of Hades to the euphoria of Elysium. Had the production been wildly jarring between projects, it would feel disjointed and distracting. As it stands, the split proves a fitting finale for The Crevices Below, and even Tempestuous Fall (the one outing of his that I wasn't initially impressed with). Catchy, dense, drifting, textured, absorbing overtures to classicism and tragedy, accessible and yet uncompromising. Perhaps the greatest living musical tribute to its subject matter, and a guaranteed refresher to anyone's appetite for whatever Midnight Odyssey comes up with next. I only regret I didn't cover it sooner.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (in conveyance of the dead)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Germ - Grief (2013)

One of Australian metal's most distinct and diverse personalities, Tim Yatras (here known as Germ of Germ) has worn more hats than one might rightfully fit on a single rack, and yet shown some style with each. Generally a power/heavy metal drummer in the past, his exploration of the black metal spectrum gifted us with Austere, and inevitably this project Germ, on which he performs all the instruments while revisiting the wailing, Varg-like rasps he tormented us with in that prior group. Yet what makes Germ a truly compelling creative outlet is not necessarily its black metal roots, but how its dreamy shoegazer rock progressions and somber electronics are meshed in to plot course over an emotionally draining, vivid landscape. This isn't entirely unique, I'll grant, since other groups like Lifelover, Alcest, Katatonia and ColdWorld have wrestled with similar aesthetics, but all similarities are usually felt strictly in the vocal style and chord patterns, and there's something just so bright and 'warm' about what Germ translates through his guitars and synthesizers that it really resonates.

I had liked the first album, Wish, released the year before this, but there was the impression that he'd only begun to carve out this realm; Grief being the natural refinement and gradual evolution which might still not be the magnum opus, but takes a step closer to that honor. There are essentially three narratives flowing through this, the first being the dreamy, driving patterns of the chords which alternate between the traditional tremolo picking passages and a 90s alternative post-punk tinge; while not unpredictable, they've got this unusual sheen to them applied through both the tone and texture, and the melodic lead licks that seem to erupt through the shining rhythms on a fairly consistent basis. Then you've got a harder edge through the percussion patterns, and the dying animal vocals which are responsible for the greatest contrast against the relative beauty of the compositions. Lastly, there are the threads of ambiance ("Intro") and IDM/beats ("Departure") which are generally confined to shorter tracks, though Germ also takes some more substantial risks here like the piano piece "How Can I?" with him using cleaner vocals and adopting minimalistic beats that propel steadily to the tune's climax. He also does well to divvy up the harsher moments between a lush, languid pace ("I Can See It in the Stars") and roiling tempests ("It's Over...").

It's all awash in a clean but not despairingly plastique/polished production which gives me a comparable psychic impression to both the last record and Austere's Lay Like Ashes...that is to say steady and pressing waves of sadness on a summery seascape, or golden corn or wheat fields as far as the eye can see. Genuine emptiness would not seem to have to be a negative thing here, since the aural colors painted are not those of what you'd normally expect from the latest grimnauts on scene. These songs are like knowing that life and the world will go on despite your own personal sphere of suffering, and there's a beauty both overt and elusive to the style that I don't tend to experience with a lot of the bordering-on-boredom blackgaze I've heard. It deserves to be experienced for that reason alone, but its also formidable in how it presents the listener with a sense of cohesive variation, wonders unexpected buried in its heart, a Gemini of joy and agony. Germ has not yet reached the apex of its inclinations, but if this sense of individuality and quality persists, it will remain a pleasure to follow the project towards each stage of its escalation.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (I kept my broken bow)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Crematory - Antiserum (2014)

Crematory has always been a pretty hard sell around these parts. Let's face it, their entire 'death/groove metal with keyboards and clean chorus parts masquerading as Gothic metal' aesthetic just doesn't look good on paper, nor is it something the American extreme metal audience is likely to open their minds to and embrace, where you can really see the Euro scene into bands like Atrocity, Dreadful Shadows and Theater of Tragedy digging on it. That said, there have been a number of albums or individual songs by these Germans which I have fallen prey to, because as goofy as the style might seem with Felix's grunts mixed into the barebones chugging and flighty techno/orchestral synthesizers, the band can actually write a catchy fucking song or two. One that never eludes me is "Red Sky" from their 2004 album Revolution, sticks to me like glue and I can't pry it off no matter what solvent I used to dissolve it. But being that they write what is essentially darker 80s New Wave pop circa Depeche Mode or Peter Murphy repackaged into a death metal skin, I can see how they would possess a limited appeal...

Antiserum is an interesting record at first because it takes a visual turn into a possibly conceptual, science fiction territory which is further emphasized by what we might have once considered 'futuristic' keyboard pads, the sort that weren't uncommon in radio house/techno tracks from the 90s; still used a lot in Asian pop soundtracks for dancing video games. So take those sorts of melodies, and apply an undercurrent of dense chugging riffs, which admittedly do at least attempt to be catchy themselves rather than 100% banal palm muted insipidness, then layer on the death growls and cleaner, deep male choruses redolent of Finnish Goth metal bands like H.I.M. or To/Die/For, or for a closer comparison, fellow Germans Darkseed on some of their later output. This is what Crematory have served up here. The production is clean as a whistle, but that doesn't mean the guitars lack an ounce of natural grime, punch to their grooves. Drums aren't exactly intense but they are at the very least level and potent enough to stand alongside the rhythm guitars, and the keys and vocals both distinguish themselves with plenty of clarity. This is quite simple stuff, lacking much by way of musical complexity or innovative ideas, but the one thing Crematory have going for them is that this whole sort of 'rave metal for Euro-Goths' would seem so damn obvious that you wonder why more bands don't go for it, and as a result, these guys automatically sound distinct.

I mean, when I hear a Crematory tune, I know exactly what band I'm listening to, and the fact that they've survived for over 20 years and have just released their twelfth full-length speaks to their perseverance, and a reasonable level of success. SOMEONE is into this stuff, or they wouldn't have had such a long relationship with high profile European labels like Massacre, Nuclear Blast and now Steamhammer. On the other hand, Antiserum is far from the band's most sugary, memorable material. I kept feeling underwhelmed whenever they'd open up to the full-on chords and Felix's singing voice for some chorus, they just never really stick the landing. It all 'works', there's nothing remotely offensive or pathetic about what they've written here, and to be fair there is plenty of variation, from songs that focus more on the electronic/industrial side to those that implement your standard metalcore palm-muted pit slams and then wax atmospheric with them, to the more soaring Gothic metal tunes redolent of the other German bands I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. 'Heartfelt' might seem a silly contrast when you hear Felix belting out his gutturals in a tune like "Welcome", but these guys (and gal) have always been sincere, and apart from the decision to go from a more pure death metal sound (Transmigration, 1994) to the more eloquent, catchy ...Just Dreaming, they have remained persistent in crafting their sound.

Ultimately, this one sort of disco danced into one of my ears and then raved on out the other, but apart from the cheesy limited edition bonus EBM/techno remixes of the tune "Shadowmaker", nothing was outright bad. They know how to set the stage and develop their ideas out to their natural conclusions, but I just didn't think the note progressions and melodies here were all that interesting, whereas earlier records like Awake and Revolution had a fair degree of staying power. Anyway, Crematory has always faced a bit of an uphill battle...the death growls often prove too much for the Goths, and the industrial components and clean singing parts too accessible for the death mavens. If anyone out there is interested in a happy medium between the two, or loves stuff like Sweden's Pain, Darkseed, Dreadful Shadows' Futile, or meatier European EBM with more guitars, then this may just fill that gap. Still, I'd recommend a half-dozen of their older albums over this any day, several of which I've already named, and here is a case where the cover art proved much more compelling than the musical content. This isn't exactly bad...they're just capable of better.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Friday, February 21, 2014

Decapitated - Organic Hallucinosis (2006)

After a few years of decline, Organic Hallucinosis was both a welcome surprise and my second favorite of Decapitated's works, but that comes with a couple caveats. Firstly, that they sound like a much different band than on Winds of Creation and Nihility. Also, I can completely grokk why some people wouldn't be into this whatsoever, including long term fans of the band who were even on board for The Negation. The truth is that Organic Hallucinosis presents us with a bludgeoning, futurist death thrash experience which to me sounds like Meshuggah being run up against the Polish death metal roots; not that they employ the same djent style as the Swedes, but they both lend that impression that you're facing some industrialized, machine-like calculation of intelligence rather than the organic warmth associated with humanity, and without need for incorporating excess electronics. 'Posthuman death metal' is not a bad descriptor, and coupled with the first compelling cover artwork of the band's whole career, the album just hit me so hard that I was not left wanting.

Granted, I've cooled off a bit on my admiration for this over time. It was originally one of my favorites the year it dropped (2006), but these days I don't hold it in such high esteem, apart from a few tunes like "Visual Delusion" which still turn my brain and knees into jelly. Essentially they'd ramped up the aesthetics of The Negation to a mechanical cohesion, intensified the battery and applied a new frontman (Covan) to the fold, who had a more burly timbre to his voice which reminded me slightly of Max Cavalera's barks or Burton C. Bell's brutal vocals. Actually, thinking of this disc as Fear Factory's faster and heavier material meets a Morbid Angel or 21st century Behemoth is quite appropriate. Seven songs, concise plotting at just around 32 minutes, in and out of the conscience and leaves you bleeding from the ears. Still a reliance on heavier palm muted riffing progressions than their debut, which functioned brilliantly off those acrobatic note choices by Vogg, but this is way more explosive than even The Negation and that cybernetic merger of flesh and nihilism in the rhythm tone just lets this one take off so much further in the imagination, especially when engraved with tasteful little lead licks and often some jarring shifts in tempo/direction that erupt where you wouldn't necessarily be expecting them.

Organic Hallucinosis often makes my heart feel like it's freezed up and is slowly being coated in chrome, like the Borg virus is taking over my person and I'm being ghosted in my shell. The brutal, thrashing, punchy guitars in tunes like "Flash-B(l)ack" manifest enough groove and excitement while the album as a whole does maintain a relatively blasted momentum, often to the extent that exhaustion might set in were it not so short. But that's really the theme running through this material: that the human frame gives out and its skin and muscle is replaced by unfeeling metal, lyrics exploring the pessimistic side of civilization, from being covered in its waste ("Day 69") through the inevitable 'evolution' into machinekind ("Post (?) Organic). The drumming is simply ungodly, one of the most incredible exertions I've heard on a Polish death effort, and contributing more than any other factor into how inhuman the experience leaves you. To some extent, I do these days find a lot of the actual riffs pieces to the whole they function unanimously, but I did still long for the mindbending musicality Vogg was capable of at a younger age, and therefore Organic Hallucinosis could really not ever replace Winds of Creation. Yet at the cost of distancing themselves from their origins, they managed to breed some new motivation and potential...

...which only adds to the tragedy of this being the last album for almost all the members involved. Vogg would continue with a new lineup for the mediocre Carnival is Forever, a bouncier and dumbed down Decapitated for a new decade. But we lost Vitek's substantial skills in the Belarus car accident, as well as Covan (who is still recovering from massive head injury); and then the long time bass player Marcin Rygiel departed before the band went into a sizable slumber. The universe fucks us once again out of a dementedly talented musician, well before his time, and its a shame that we would never experience what the same four would have done on an Organic followup. I like to imagine that they might have gone back to that creative riffing of the debut and then embedded that into the caustic brutality employed on this record, a potential game changer. Alas, I'll never really know, but I do know that this is the first Decapitated disc I reach for when I'm not in the specific mood for Winds of Creation. There are some imperfections, and it doesn't hold up for me quite like that initial exposure eight years back, but it belongs in that once-future classification I attribute to albums like Demanufacture or Darkane's Rusted Angel, and while that's not the sort of hardware that everyone will enjoy, I can plug right into it.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (son of serialized destruction)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Decapitated - The Negation (2004)

The final album from the classic Decapitated lineup (before Covan stepped in to replace Sauron) also happens to be the one I most struggle to remember. Both the cover art and production values of The Negation are superior to Nihility, but musically they seemed to continue a process of stagnation without abandoning the energetic musicianship. A lot of the riffing passages remind me quite a lot of Morbid Angel circa Covenant or the faster Vader blitzes, or more accurately an analog to Behemoth's death metallic tirades of the late 90s/21st century; sufficiently explosive and muscular, but lacking much real staying power once the percussive consistency has vacated the listener's brain. This album does indeed sound great through the speakers, and I kept waiting for those money shot guitar progressions circa the earlier albums to help fill out the intensity of the execution, but they never seemed to up. It's safe harbor to a number of retread ideas thickened with a little more meat.

For example, "Three-Dimensional Defect" has a lot of that pinpoint muted aggression circa "Spheres of Madness", only with more shredding in there; while a number of other tunes have opening riff salvos that almost remind me of new millennium Slayer material if it were to quickly be subsumed by Sandoval blast storms and picking punches that lack a lot of individual character. This is very likely Decapitated at its densest, and I do enjoy the guitar tone a lot here as it eschews the aridity of its predecessor, but as one seeking those winding, hectic but highly musical note progressions that defined Winds of Creation, I felt like this album often suffered from a lot of what might plague a band like Krisiun, that Morbid Angel or Deicide-inspired reliance on heavy brickwork without much clever or unique songwriting. Brutality and speed first, and a lot of insipid palm mute passages to which distinction is a foreign concept. The sword is mightier than the pen this time around, and the best I can say for it all is that Vitek's drumming certainly seemed to have continued to develop. This is probably his most intense performance over the four albums he was with the band, but without anything interesting to beat the skins to it just doesn't matter so much.

I have a hard time coming up with even a half-dozen guitar parts on this album that I'd consider keepers, like in "The Empty Throne" or "Three-Dimensional Defect" which felt like leftovers from the Nihility sessions, or a lick or two from the title track. Sauron sounds a hell of a lot like David Vincent on Domination, which is not a negative necessarily, but the guy would simply never evolve his gutturals into something that a hundred other guys don't already have covered (he's a little better on the second Masachist effort, Scorned, but still not unique. Lyrically Decapitated remain consistent, they've never been a gore band, so the song subjects deal with the constraints of our flawed beliefs, religions, human vices/impulses or civilizations as a whole, but then the music is just too rarely thoughtful to drive them home. They cover Deicide's "Lunatic of God's Creation", but unlike the Slayer tune on the debut, there's not much making it their own, because aside from a few production tweaks its exactly like the origin...stylistically dependent, and that post-bridge section seems to have directly translated into a handful of their own riffs on this album. The Negation is ultimately one of those albums which comes off as effectively brutal without much need for dizzying complexity, but after a decade of second chances, it just don't cultivate enough sticky chops to bother with.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (the myth of the reward)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Decapitated - Nihility (2002)

Nihility was the second and final Decapitated album. Okay, that's a lie, but it was really the last to truly deliver on what I felt was so strong an aesthetic foundation, and even then the well of brilliant riffing had begun to dry. It would be a stretch to call this a 'disappointment', but it was certainly a step down from Winds of Creation, retaining only a handful of tracks that were created at that same level of quality, and seemingly watered down with some simpler chugging death metal architecture that would create a more accessible interface with their growing audience. Really, though, it comes down to a selection of riffs which are simply more banal or boring than the debut, and might have been written by anyone in the Polish scene. There were a lot more points at which my 'oohs and ahs' were replaced by 'that sounds like Vader, or Morbid Angel', or whatever, and I also felt like the production here was also a bit more arid and non-compelling.

Funny thing, though, is that I know a number of folks for whom this was the first, and remains the favorite Decapitated listening experience. These people are wrong, of course, but let them have their delusions! Nihility seems to pursue a more cosmic, philosophical side than its predecessor, which was already fairly serious in terms of its lyrical bent, but unfortunately the ideas on parade don't really take that progressive next step which would have integrated more melody or stranger song structures you might expect of a maturation effort. Instead, this is a mix of about a half-dozen of the brilliant guitar patterns off Winds of Creation with a slew of death/thrash tropes redolent of the bands I listed above. You still get that drop-of-a-dime sense of concussive stop/start precision, and Vogg can swerve off into a monstrously memorable passage that stands among the best he's ever written, but they're just not as consistent. There are 'filler' songs here, without a doubt, if not many of them, and rather than listen through the entire 35 minutes and find myself questioning my worth as a musician, I always seem to skip around to particular tunes. And even then, there is nothing quite on the level of a "Blessed", "Eye of Horus" or any of the other masterworks they produced at a younger age...though a few tunes come admittedly close.

Exceptions are "Spheres of Madness", which has an effortless punctuality to the chugging that becomes instantly recognizable once it breaks into that second, clinical muted riff. "Eternity Too Short" and "Nihility" itself also feature some of those dizzying feats of dexterity, but other tunes like "Names" and "Babylon's Pride" leave something to be desired and I could list a number of other post-Morbid Angel bands in the same scene (Behemoth, Hate) who also might have created something similar as they were eking out their own stylistic transitions. That's not to say Nihility is lazy or lacks some creative drive behind its blueprint, but having expected the band's sophomore to splatter my brains everywhere and perhaps arrive as one of the most frighteningly intelligent albums in its niche in many years, I was pretty bummed that it was at best more of the same and at worst evidence of the 'sophomore slump'. The production itself, while technically not bad, seems to work against the seismic wonders of the performance...louder drums and a less warm guitar tone give it less depth, and Sauron's vocals felt rather dry, dull and might have been contributed by just run of the mill guttural guru, though they use some panning and other techniques to blend them into the atmosphere.

Still, I don't wanna seem too 'down' on this one, because if I were to pick some random gore splatter tech death record off the shelf in this period, Nihility would have still proven superior. The band fires on most cylinders and retains its concise and exciting impressions at times when the material isn't at the particular standard I expected, and surely they don't embarrass themselves, or experiment with the djent or groove-like elements that populate their more recent recordings. I can't help but wonder if the successful buzzing of the debut kept them so occupied that they simply didn't have the time to let a number of these tunes fully gestate, but then that material had been around years prior to the Wicked World signing, so I doubt it. I should also note that, while remaining sort of lame, abstract and computer generated, the color scheme and imagery on this disc were more welcoming than on Winds of Creation; the lyrics are also on the same plane as the first effort, if occasionally hinging on philosophical gibberish. Ultimately, Nihility hovers below that horizontal border of greatness, and has not improved with age, but if I were to collect a 'career best' I might snap up 2-3 of these songs, remix them, tag them onto the tail of the debut and call it a day.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (devoured by perfect entirety)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Decapitated - Winds of Creation (2000)

Winds of Creation is not the sort of album one experiences every day, and at the dawn of the 21st century, that was exponentially the case. I had grown quite jaded on a lot of brutal/technical death metal and was finding my thrills elsewhere, but records like this and Cannibal Corpse's underrated masterpiece Bloodthirst rechristened my attention span for the style. Decapitated's Earache/Wicked World debut is hands down one of the better efforts the Polish scene has produced, proudly standing alongside Calm Machinery, Lost Soul and about half of the estimable Vader backlog, while taking only minimal cues from their countrymen or really any regional death metal sound the world over. In fact, Winds of Creation was so anomalous that even the band's own future output, as hard as they might try, could not really compare to it riff-for-riff, so I've obviously revealed my hand here... This is The One. This is my favorite Decapitated material and very unlikely to be dethroned if they keep producing duds like Carnival is Forever in the immediate future...not that they haven't put out other good albums in the interim, but whenever I journey back 14 years to experience how refreshingly intense they were upon their debut to the world, I become fairly frustrated at such an inconsistent legacy.

Let's clear the obvious: I don't know of too many death metal bands who were performing at such a level of proficiency at so early an age...most of them still teens during this era, and playing progressions of notes with both a precision and agility that would make Trey Azagthoth blush. I chose that man intentionally, because I feel that somewhere along the line, it was his intense velocity picking on records like Altars of Madness, Covenant and Domination which might have inspired Vogg's playing. Other than that, there's not much of a comparison I might make elsewhere in death metal...Decapitated were brutal and incorporated a lot of the dense chugging components one might expect, but they were always interesting and served primarily as bridges between the classically-inspired progressions that put the band on the map. The riffs included some inherent groove to them, but were also incredibly detailed and complex...which would mean nothing if they weren't so goddamned catchy. Even if I listen to renowned records like None So Vile or Pierced from Within, the intricacy and forethought of these particular tunes reveals an entire other level of calculation and execution. Mysticism and technique translated into pure concussion, and hopefully (but not ultimately) the precursors to many such exhibitions to come. Part of Decapitated's appeal was pure spectacle, but these were not songs lacking in fact, they patented a form of gluey guitar porn here which has been gangbanging my gray matter ever since.

Fuck, just the riffing of "Blessed" alone is more inventive and impressive than the sum of ideas found on most brutal death metal records, and though I won't call the music 'accessible' to a broad audience, it's surprisingly easy to follow regardless of the acrobatics. A fusion of old school tremolo picked death metal aesthetics via the Floridian forerunners with something more eloquent, accurate and explosive. Eager and technical enough to assert itself into a younger generation of listeners raised on soulless, brutal death metal where technique, mosh culture and soulless brutality took center stage above songwriting, but also itself a flavorful and solid example of the latter, substantial enough for death vets like myself to spin it endlessly (at least so far). This is not a PERFECT album, it didn't entirely rewrite the playbook for me like those first two Pestilence discs, or Left Hand Path, or Realm of Chaos, but it was certainly unexpected that such a young band could come forth and help reinvigorate my interest in the largely stagnant cesspool of soundalikes that the medium had long been steered towards. And it doesn't just end with the rhythm guitars, because the leads are frilly and exciting, the drumming of the late Vitek far better balanced and grooved out than on the band's previous demos, and even the bass-playing here dextrous and mandatory to anchor down the mile a minute guitar picking centered on endlessly genius 'fills' of note choices.

Sauron's probably the least advanced figure in this equation, but his blunt guttural presentation proves a welcome contrast against the brighter, thinner guitar picking. Like a neanderthal being tapped to present the latest NASA technology, he's got an expressive low-end roar somewhere between a Karl Willetts and Frank Mullen, and throws a lot of decayed sustain that stands out against the clinical production of those goddamned guitars. Though Winds of Creation is largely culled from the Eye of Horus demo (1998), it sounds deeper, darker, more serious and sinister, otherworldly beings channeled into the limbs and lips of a quartet of young Polish gentlemen. It's also quite compact: just about 30 minutes of concise, incredible content before the "Dance Macabre" ambient outro leads into an excellent cover of Slayer's "Mandatory Suicide" which maintains the original's sense of heinous despair, while making it their own. Granted, I felt like, as with most album-closer cover songs, that it did detract a little from the supernova of excitement and originality that they were creating with their own content, but if you're going to include one, even such a safe choice, then it must be at least this good.

Otherwise, the only complaint I might have is the shitty imagery on the cover art, which looks fiery and acceptable at a distance but really just seems like the cluttered, computer-generated garbage you'd find on a lot of records in the latter half of the 90s (Monstrosity was also guilty of this on their sophomore). But it seems a moot complaint when the music is just this impressive. Winds of Creation might not be perfect, and I might not short-list it among the 10-20 death metal records I'd bring with me to a desert island, but it is the only valid justification for the band's considerable career hype, and an album they have yet to match. I do appreciate other Decapitated discs for other reasons, and the aesthetics of this one certainly fuel the followup Nihility to some extent, but the amount of effort Vogg packs into individual tracks seems to have devolved, to have dumbed itself down on subsequent recordings. I can only imagine what travel in the opposite direction might have offered us, but at least this debut still stands as a standard-setting monolith for what a musician can pull off, even at such an impressively young age. Am I jealous much? Well, I definitely was the first 50 times I popped this in my CD player. How could I not be? Tremendous stuff.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (their gods are only illusions)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Dodsferd - The Parasitic Survival of the Human Race (2014)

Sleep is for pussies, and as Wrath and crew roll on with their tireless body of work, they prove it is unnecessary to create of some of their most raucous and feisty material yet. Coming off two of their strongest black metal works in 2013 (A Breed of Parasites/A Cursed Heritage), Dodsferd takes one by surprise with a more directly punk-inspired, angry set of riffs and raw production choices that almost had me feeling that they had mislabeled a new record from their alter ego Nadiwrath. It wouldn't be the first time that influence bled over into the Dodsferd discography, but unless they can write a better set of riffs the next time out, I hope it should prove the last...

This is meant to sound street-like, with intros that involve ambient, often riotous urban noise, and a raw production rivaling even their most malicious black metal material from the past 12 years, but those are pretty much where the compelling choices end. The real issue I took with The Parasitic Survival of the Human Race was how plain and uninteresting the riffs are. Pretty much standard high velocity punk rock & roll chords you could hear from any sort of throwback over the last 30 years, more muscular than the seedy punk or horrorpunk that inspired them to head in this direction. Naught but bulky, predictable chord patterns that have been written a hundred times elsewhere, with a minimum of Hellhammer swagger and a few bursts into more accelerated black metal territory. This is an album where the sheer attitude, aggression and atmosphere are all that keeps the music afloat, because the four originals that front-end the experience are mutually dry in the idea department, whether they're surging along with faster, groovier chords or straight angry US hardcore stuff like "Doubting Your Worth".

Now, there's no question that Dodsferd love this base simplicity, and I didn't hate listening through this; I simply wish they'd pad that adoration with a more interesting variety of notes...maybe some dissonant chords in there, or eerie picked harmonies to accent the workmanlike chords which don't sound like they took a great deal of effort to conceive. I'm all for hearing this style of blackpunk, only I want there to actually be riffs I remember afterwards; like on Darkthrone's Dark Thrones and Black Flags, a masterpiece of the style with some amazing, surprisingly intricate guitar progressions. Another album I could compare this to would be Horna's Sotahuuto, which likewise had some arguably banal chord selections, but that album was so saturated in filthy fucking evil through the production and vocals that it hardly mattered. Here, I felt like the 6-7 minute track lengths were too long to feature no riffs that stick or sequences that took me by surprise, it was just basic stuff with Wrath's pissed off vocals spitting over the top to deliver the much needed personality...

If the Misfits cover ("We Are 138") is the most exciting part of the record, then you know it wasn't that infectious; not that I dislike the Misfits, on the contrary, but I've heard so many of their songs covered so many times that I almost want to hold up a Stop sign when I encounter them. In Dodsferd's case they were clearly one of the compulsions that led them to eke out the blackpunk territory, but considering how starved the original content was effectiveness this doesn't really offer a grand finale, when the riffs leading up to it were basically just like Kvelertak's mostly-boring sophomore album, or any other recycled 'rebirth of rock' punk from the 21st century, only uglier and more vicious. Not that the Greeks were ever incredibly creative through the years, nor was that necessarily the aim, but after a strong 2013 I was sort of hoping that they'd continue to climb, and this is just sort of a step sideways and back. The aesthetic they're chasing is a cool one, but needs more risk, more detail...they're a better band than these riffs reveal.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Decapitated - The First Damned (2000)

Decapitated stormed onto the scene at the dawn of the new millennium with not one, but two recordings, a phenomenal debut through Earache and a collection of their demos through Metal Mind Productions, which was pretty much THE homeland label for about a decade before this. The First Damned did arrive earlier than most 'first compilations' in a band's career, but it's not hard to understand why they would generate such excitement and warrant the treatment before even spreading a name for themselves beyond their local region...and in truth, hearing these guys mete out such technical finesse and unique spin on technical death metal while several of them were still in their teens was incredibly humbling and mind much so that I almost didn't believe it at first...

Yes, I thought Decapitated must have been a band of proxies for scene veterans, because I couldn't admit to myself that these youths could be so brilliantly, blindingly talent, but I'm happy to have been proven wrong. The downside to The First Damned is that so much of its content, in particular the 1998 demo (The Eye of Horus) was also found on Winds of Creation where it sounded superior, not to mention the Polish Assault split released on Relapse which is basically the same demo. I'll get into a lot more of a description when I cover that beloved debut record, but coming out so close it certainly seemed redundant. My preference is for the album, simply because I prefer the drum and guitar tone, but this is nonetheless quite professional, with a clean and potent mix of rhythm guitars that advertises Vogg's bewildering level of dexterity and all around quality of composition when run up against almost ANY OTHER guitarist in the genre at the time, several of which were obvious innovators before his time, and perhaps even technically comparable, but not writing such an inspirational bevy of riffs in 2000. Once again, it's difficult to be a guitarist interested in this style and not feel bewildered by the playing, though the guitars outclass the rest of the performance.

Of a bit more interest to me was the Cemeteral Gardens material (1997), which was perhaps slightly less proficient but still impressive for the guys' age. Style-wise this isn't much different than what they'd create later, with tunes like "Ereshkigal" cultivating a mildly more old-school Florida death meets Vader style albeit more upbeat and frenzied in the picking. The production was still good, but the guitars took the center stage here a bit much (just like the second demo), and the drums and bass settled more into the background, though I don't want to leave an impression they're inaudible...they are. At any rate, this material was the reason I bought the disc when I saw it advertised, I had already acquired Winds and was interested in having it for completion's sake just to hear the other demo content that didn't wind up on the full-length. And it's quite good, even the substantial organ intro to "Destiny". It's simply unbelievable to me that by 1997 Decapitated was already this polished, and they immediately made an impact on a budding death scene that hard largely consisted of tape releases outside of Vader, Behemoth's transformation from black to death metal, and a scant handful of other bands that had jumped to CD.

The two live offerings, "Way to Salvation" and "Nine Steps" were from the Olsztyn, Poland 'Thrash Em All' festival in 2000, not to be confused with several other gigs that shared the same name later, and they sound fantastic, giving a louder mix of the drums and a level of performance that is nearly consistent with their studio time. I mean, you put these tunes together with Winds of Creation and you can tell this was not just another band of brutes churned out the genre grinder, but something dressed to impress, built to last, which we all know now would not be the case due to a number of internal tragedies and inconsistent output, but was something to get excited for at the time. As to how I would rate or evaluate The First Damned, I must give it points for its completeness and even offering a small bonus, but I would not want to turn anyone away from the debut album where the band sounded even greater. If this was your first exposure to the Poles, then it would assuredly seem more resonant and remarkable, but alas it was my second, so it suffers from the redundancy I often face with demo anthologies of songs that were successfully refined. Still, a good collection, with no fucking around, and the chance to support a strong label that was delivering the goods long before the rest of the world could readily access them.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (a thorn in your eye forever)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Howls of Ebb - Vigils of the 3rd Eye (2014)

One surefire method to reduce your chances at getting lost among the sheep of the 'retro death metal' movement: re-invent the stuff, return to what first struck your fancy about the style and then scrawl your own alternate manifestation of the medium into being. Howls of Ebb is not the first, and won't be the last to take such an approach, and naturally there is no means to guarantee its 100% uniqueness, but this is one of a precious few death metal records I've heard lately where the immediate reaction wasn't to compare it to album A by artists B and C. Yeah, if you stop to think of it for awhile, your memory might drift back to other examples of comparable vocals or guitar stylings, usually on the 'fringe' of the genre, but Vigils of the 3rd Eye nonetheless is a fresh invigoration which takes a few liberties with the form while retaining the morbid, unnerving narrative of extreme metal.

First and foremost, this is just a collection of more organic sounds than you're likely comfortable with in a market saturated with thickly distorted, raw guitars or clinically polished technical wanking. Howls employs a cleaner tone throughout, whether that be on the tremolo picked patterns, dissonant chord abuse or all the jangling, sporadic insanity playing out in the background of a tune like "The Arc. The Vine. The Blight." It's almost like opening the rehearsal room doors between a methodic, meticulous death metal band and a bunch of guys fucking around in some sort of progressive post-hardcore aesthetic, and then recording how they play off one another in a contrast of chaos and control. Some inspiration has clearly drifted over here from creator Patrick's other project, Trillion Red which had a unique spin on progressive rock with metallic underpinnings; and I also might describe this as Gorguts' Obscura if it were produced by jam rockers in Nashville...which probably makes no sense to anyone but myself, but that's the strength of Vigils of the 3rd's so uncanny and open to interpretation that few individuals will come out of it feeling the same.

Not all is heavy and harmful here, because there are a number of spacier ambient guitar interludes and sparser, disjointed riff passages that I could only liken to bizarre groups like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum or The Book of Knots; these are crucial to how the album pans out as a whole, giving the listener a brief but 'unsafe' respite between periods of madness. A great example is how that wailing guitar in the title track sets up the broken, harder guitars and eventually gallop into thundering catharsis. Vocals are a dour guttural which teeters between the traditional black and death metal techniques, but is often paced with more of a spoken word, narrative syllabic structure than just straight lines delivered over riff measures. The drums and plodding bass lines are airy and natural and contribute fully to the naturalistic feel of the recording as a whole, though they're obviously a little more vacuous in terms of inventiveness when matched against the guitars. But despite the relative 'looseness' of how Howls of Ebb conceives its materials, as sandboxes in which to play about in rather than rigid constructs, there is a glaring cohesion to the experience which seems to slap the listener around a little over the first few tracks, and then erupt into a creative climax with the last 20-ish moments: "Illucid Illuminati of the Dark" and "The Devious Nectar" which will fuck your head right off its stump...

Sound intriguing? Well it is, and Vigils of the 3rd Eye is without question one of the more curious death metal concoctions you're like to hear amongst the faceless legions of cavern core aspirants and classic Swedish cut & paste that is flooding the market to a state of overflow. The most accurate I might describe it is as a median between the fragmented nightmarescapes of Ævangelist and the springy gloom of Arizona's TOAD, but there's a lot of space in there for Howls of Ebb to splash around in, and though this isn't the most obsessively immortal, catchy thing I've heard lately, anyone who can crack his/her skull open long enough to let it properly seep in will appreciate its instinctive, eclectic, alien and atmospheric textures.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, February 14, 2014

Lake of Tears - By the Black Sea (2014)

22 years does not at all seem an unreasonable point at which to question oneself: 'just how would we sound on a live record?' Lake of Tears has always maintained a niche appeal for a niche market, in my opinion this is due to their failure to completely embrace the psychedelic visuals and atmosphere pervasive on records like Headstones, A Crimson Cosmos and Moon and Mushrooms, settling half the time for a bunch of cleaner cut, predictable retread records like Forever Autumn or Illwill. Still, they have persisted through near obscurity, settling in with AFM records and now presenting us with a CD/DVD combo pack of a 2013 live performance at Bucharest which, in its defense, is not reluctant to celebrate most of the band's considerable history, even if that means I gotta sit through a handful of duds to get to the good stuff, or not...since technology has provided me with the ability to skip those moments.

At any rate, while this isn't the most emotional of performances, it's great to hear that Lake of Tears sound just as rich on stage as on record. The guitars here are quite loud, but also a little too clean sounding, where I would have preferred a little more crunch as it related to the older material. Instead, they are smooth and seamlessly performed, professional and melodic and somehow manage to drown out the other instruments without being louder than them... That's probably due to the overly simplistic drum beats and a lot of bass lines which are anything but adventurous...only Daniel Brennare's vocals take on a new kind of grit or agony that transforms from the studio records and become more flawed and personal. I also noticed that it's really just the quality of each song to begin with which translates to how much I enjoyed them here. For instance, "Raven Land", "Sweetwater" and "Cosmic Weed" provoked at least a fraction of nostalgia for when I first experienced and loved the fuck out of them, but more modern tunes like "Illwill" or "Forever Autumn" did little for me. Some other tunes I dig like "Making Evenings" falter because the melodic guitars that drove their appeal seem rigid or occasionally sloppy in presentation.

Gotta say, too, the utter lack of material from Moon and Mushrooms is appalling, that was easily one of their most poignant and important works and I can only imagine how much better this set would have worked if 4-5 songs from that one had replaced others here. Shameful to leave "Children of the Gray", "Head On Phantom" or "You Better Breathe..." out of the lineup, but then this is really more a flaw of set selection than the live recording itself. Still, By the Black Sea automatically suffers as a result, at least to this listener, of Lake of Tears' inconsistent career, in which brilliant and inspirational works are rotated with duller, dispassionate albums that for some strange reason still seem to generate interest (Forever Autumn is widely considered the fan favorite album, which baffles me since it was all done far more raw, potent and memorable on the first three). This live offering is solid enough, and granted I'd have a hard time scoffing at anything with tunes from A Crimson Cosmos, but the Illwill videos weren't much of a bonus for me, and granted they're not the most intense performers, since the music they play doesn't lend itself to that aesthetic, so watching them perform isn't much beyond just listening to the audio-only.

I haven't been anticipating much from this band for years (since the blander followup to Moon and Mushrooms), so I can't cite disappointment here, but a more solid track selection and perhaps a dirtier mix overall would have made this a night to remember rather than a sort of belated 'product', which ultimately is how it feels. Lake of Tears deserves a live album, don't get me wrong, but this wasn't terribly impressive, and by no means would I ever break it out over the studio efforts I hold so dear. Certainly, though, there are worse examples of bands finally putting out such a release and ignoring their respective pasts, which is not, apart from the one glaring 2007 omission, what the Swedes have done here.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nocturnal Breed - Napalm Nights (2014)

My relationship with Nocturnal Breed's music has remained tenuous down through the years...I've got fond memories of their first two records (Aggressor and No Retreat... No Surrender) as an example of 'thrashing like the 80s before it became cool again', and certainly they were one of the forerunners to blacken up the medium, but even their explosive 1997-98 period did not produce what I might define as a masterpiece. Since that time, I've listened to most of what they've released, consistently had some fun with it, but records by other bands like Aura Noir, Raise Hell, Antichrist and Deathhammer just seem superior at capturing precisely what I desire out of this infernal union of styles. That said, these Norwegians have truly stuck by their guns here, retaining the prevalent war themes we've encountered on several of their prior full-lengths, and a ridiculously infectious energy level. Let's face it, if you don't smile at least a half dozen times in response to what you hear on this record, you're probably not cut out for the thrash police force...

The vocals really sell this more than any other component: an intensified spin on the visceral ravings of one Mille Petrozza, with a second singer shouting in a higher, melodic pitch to add some manic texture. At once both raw and ridiculous, they absolutely establish nostalgia for what was just so exciting about European thrash in the 80s...that immediate distinction generated by both the taint of a native accent and a willingness to keep it no-holds-barred filthy. When it comes to the riffs, they're a little less impressive. West Coast-style thrash progressions redolent of old Exodus and Dark Angel threaded with thrilling, sporadic leads and a handful of tremolo picked patterns which seem to blaze more directly into late 80s death metal territory via Death or Morbid Angel. The drums sound brash, crash, hellish, homegrown like the Dave Lombardo we all worshiped on the first 4-5 Slayer discs, but on the other hand the bass guitar never really sticks its neck out beyond the rhythm tracks, and I feel like more interesting lines would have made the songs as a whole more unique. You'll really only notice the guy when he's alone solo to the beat, like the "Dragging the Priests" intro. Architecturally, the music finds a comfortable medium between the Bay Area and Teutonic pioneers during the Golden Age, but few if any individual guitar parts here transcend the whole or have any intention of competing with the classics.

The songs are actually quite involved, most clocking in at around 4-7 minutes with a lot of tempo change-ups and sensible arrangements. I also have to hand them credit for trying their hands at a 12+ minute Vietnam war-like epic title track which would make Sodom proud; complete with a sort of 'narrative' sequence where they use uglier, lower pitch vocals not unlike Tom Angelripper or Lemmy. Like most of the better thrash opuses of the last 30 years, you're getting a balanced attack between lightning volleys of incendiary speed, mid-paced headbangable rhythms, and even some slower, moodier material, from an incredibly seasoned line-up. The only 'new guys' are the guitarists, but one of them (Axeman I Mastor) is a returning member from their earlier, prime years, and the performance is quite seamless from the 2007 album Fields of Rot which was comparable to this as far as being fun, furious, somewhat forgettable but never futile. In the end, Nocturnal Breed remains a dependable brand name for those seeking out nasty thrash nostalgia with a bit of that Scandinavian black metal attitude, but the riff-writing is probably a little too loyal and familiar to the quartet's influences to establish its own sense of concussive timelessness.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Bloodway - Sunstone Voyager and the Clandestine Horizon (2014)

Thanks to an unhealthy obsession with nearly all that Negură Bunget has released over the years, Romania has long been a scene I've turned to expecting to hear new sounds, fresh spins on stagnant genre tropes which aren't always a bad thing, but generally redundant. To this end, Bloodway's inaugural MCD Sunstone Voyager and the Clandestine Horizon has not let me down. Even just looking at this, with its simple but unusual logo choice, abstract artwork, you've just no idea what it might sound like apart from some potential psychedelic influences, and knowing that its being issued through Italy's I, Voidhanger imprint grants some measure of quality control and reliability. So, it's really no surprise that Bloodway is fascinating, and within 26 minutes had already hooked me through both lips and reeled me on board without much of a struggle.

I saw this categorized as 'dark metal' somewhere, and while this isn't an inaccurate aesthetic identifier, I'd prefer to think of it as alternative black metal which meddles in a few of the fundamental characteristics but sets its own course quite early. Voluptuous, muddy bass lines sway below organic, dissonant guitar riffs that favor a blend of jazzy post-black, post-sludge, post-me-saying-post structures which immediately engrave onto the imagination that this will neither be the most uncomfortable nor comforting listen. They very early on prove they can seamlessly transform between crawling, shadowy grooves and unnerving, horror flick blast beats in "The Skeleton Key", but as with any great record (or horror flick), you can't exactly predict what is to come in the next scene or measure. That's not to say they become so eclectic that they break character, but it's ever a pleasure to hear what the guitars will mete out, and the vocal rasp of Costin Chioreanu has this truly spirit wrenching quality about it which seems to find a medium between Sakis Tolis' passionate bark and Martin van Drunen's visceral ghastliness. Even where Sunstone Voyager... seems at its kindest, there's that constant undercurrent of pain and cruelty.

Drums bounce flawlessly between fragments of rock beats and extreme metal techniques, and really the whole production of this disc is loud and functional like a really excellent jam room performance which can rival most studio wizardry. It's not quite so hazy and psychedelic as I might have thought, nor would I dub this 'progressive' metal, but its adventurous and has a subtle Gothic taint to it which makes the more somber, bass and vocal driven passages just as profound as when the riffs are jamming out. Really, this is something which stands on its own, easily recommended to followers of prog sludge/doom, Greek black metal (Rotting Christ, Necromantia), or other artsy regional acts like Sear Bliss and Negură Bunget. But even that doesn't paint the entire picture of what this sounds like, so you'll just have to hear it for yourself. The material isn't immaculately catchy, but compelling and subduing enough that I've given it a half dozen runs through, and have no intention of stopping there, or missing out on whatever they'll create next. I just hope I don't get tetanus in the meantime from this damn thing in my mouth.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Brood of Hatred - Skinless Agony (2014) *Album of the Month*

Brood of Hatred would not be the first time I've been surprised by a Tunisian metal act, and while their debut Skinless Agony is an entire world away from ethno-progressive pundits Myrath, it's an intelligent, detailed spin on the adventurous, atonal deathscapes pioneered by favorites like Immolation, Gorgoth and Ulcerate. And yet it actually stakes its own ground by incorporating more accessible, melodic guitar lines/leads in with the dissonant groundwork, and exemplifies the talents of its constituent musicians without becoming too flashy, indulgent or self-absorbed. Varied, professional, and packed with both depth and memorable riffing progressions, this is very much one of those records which comes along from left field and immediately demands an audience.

Consider me part of that audience! Incredibly consistent, inhuman kick-work serves as a concrete base for the explorations of the rhythm guitars, which swerve between tremolo picked sequences, winding cycles of clinical melodies, and dustier atmospheric textures serviced by the panning of each player into his own curious headspace. I won't say that everything these guys write is incredibly catchy, but it's persistently interesting and you can never figure out precisely what is happening next, so tunes like "The Mind That Emerged" and "Cacophony in the Creation" seem like vortices of fluid but fragmented ideas which cautiously measure off a harmonic warmth against the steady brutality of the bass drums, and plugging certainty of the bass-lines. Vocals express the least range, a deep guttural roar redolent of Ross Dolan or Luc Lemay, but it's almost a positive here to have something consistent to hold onto amidst the roiling, atmospheric precision of the instruments which are like sand-waves stretching against an obscure horizon. There's never a dull moment, and even the longer track "Obsession" is padded out by these refined, progressive drone metal elements that feel like recent Ulcerate albeit with more catchy licks.

Some might find the production here a little too modern, compact and refined, as they would with a lot of the later works of Brood's influences...and perhaps the bass drums seem a little too callous, machine-like and loud by comparison to the riffing passages, which were for me the highlight. However, I just can't imagine that dirtier, raw retro death metal tones would be able to deliver the entirety of this experience with the same level of fervor. Skinless Agony is a journey from fore to stern, and even if it never entirely abandons its core aesthetic principles for anything truly unusual, its 43 flowed seamlessly together, the one exception being the brief interlude "The Singularity is Near" which is comprised of keyboards, cautionary narration and what sound like nuclear fallout sirens or something; which come to think of it, casts a sort of post-apocalyptic, Damnation Alley feel upon the rest of the record. But this isn't much of a distraction, and at the end of the day, Brood of Hatred warrants an easy recommendation to fans of works like Gorguts' Colored Sands, Flourishing's The Sum of All Fossils, Nader Sadek's In the Flesh, Ulcerate's Vermis, and nearly anything Immolation has released in the 21st century. Killer, compelling death metal.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Monday, February 10, 2014

Tortorum - Katabasis (2014)

Considering black metal's reputation as one of the more 'evil' strains of music humanity has yet conceived, it's often surprisingly just how many albums fail to threaten or unnerve me in the slightest, and this is largely a symptom of the massive derivation and redundancy found within this medium. Granted, there are a lot of bands who have carved out their own identities within the expanded style, but too few can adhere to the base aesthetics and still evoke a chill. Thankfully, Norway's Tortorum, comprised of veterans from another of other acts (Aeternus, Dead to This World, Spearhead, Gorgoroth, etc) are one of this diminishing number, and their sophomore Katabasis is a fine example of malevolent black metal which capitalizes both on its conservative genre techniques and atmospheric embellishments to haunt the listener well past the midnight hour.

Yes, eerie atonal guitar passages picked through both tremolo progressions, spine-tingling melodies and even cleaner guitar tones; slathered in sustained, nihilistic rasps and not exactly something you haven't heard in the past...but written well enough that I must have busted through this not-insubstantial 53+ minutes of material four times before I even thought of what I could say about it. That's not to say there isn't a little extra padding or unnecessary repetition in a few places, but Tortorum generally reign in their tunes around the 5 minute mark and really only go overboard on the closer "Beyond the Earth and Air and Sun", a tune with a more spacious construction to it that allows for some malignant night-wind segues into whispers and moonlit guitars instead of just an endless loop of content. Add to this the general quality of the riffs, which are not entirely unique sounding but generally on the more memorable side...bluesy, mourning leads...tight drums on both the more prevalent double-bass/blasting extreme and the sparser moments...and last but not least, the great grooves manifest by the bassist that bind the entire experience into one shadowy stroll into the subconscious, and you've got one opaque plunge into sinister obscurity that won't soon evade your conscience.

Best of all, the production sounds absolutely ravishing, with an eloquent balance of airiness and meatiness relished with guitar lines that spring right out at you, angrier thrashing components which send the neck into strain-city, and just an overall seamless quality between tracks that takes into account a good deal of variation. There are moments where I felt the black metallic vocals could grow a little monotonous, and something even more psychotic might have made for an improvement, but Barghest is certainly adequate in terms of just meting out the traditional black metal vocal, and inserts a handful of lower pitched guttural growls so that it's not entirely one-sided. I guess I just wanted wails and screams over this shit, to enhance my own nightmarish investment in the proceedings. Otherwise, while not incredibly imaginative or too far outside the norm, Katabasis is a beast, a fully negative affirmation of its genre and just one of those black metal records which reminds you why you shunned society and started listening to the style in the first place. Fans of anything from Mayhem to Ondskapt to Shining to the members' other offerings would be wise to spend some time with this ghoulish drinking partner. Spite given musical flesh. Absinthe helpful but not required.

Verdict: Win [8/10]