Monday, March 31, 2014

Sarcomancy - DEMO (2010)

Sarcomancy is a name unknown to many who don't play black in Magic: The Gathering, but also a fairy obscure black metal band out of Massachusetts who I have a feeling we'll be hearing a lot more of in the future. This 2010 demo is only a three-tracker, traded directly from the band on a blank cassette (I even cheated and turned the logo into a faux cover), upon which they wasted no space, adding a mix of hard rock and metal tunes to fill out the tape! It's been a long time since anything like that has crossed my doorway. But all that is beside the point, because the original material here is strong enough to be counted among the gradually burgeoning New England black metal scene alongside groups like Infera Bruo and Autolatry; with a few aesthetic distinctions that hint at a greater ambition than merely cutting and pasting from the Scandinavian standards.

This is relatively dextrous black metal with a more prominent bass presence than the norm, courtesy of Josh Staples, who I'm sure I've likened to the 'Alex Webster' of Massachusetts, but if I haven't: well, consider it done. The guy has a strong death metal background, having played with a number of locals (currently Abnormality who kick all manner of ass). His lines here are fast, fluid and slightly higher in pitch than what you might expect from a lot of bottom feeders, but it adds a nice, almost classic heavy metal (Steve Harris-on-amphetamines) texture which lends some vibrancy and pulse to the streaming chords. The blasting feels a little thin and/or tinny, but it might have just been the old hunk of junk deck I was experiencing the tape on, and it's certainly adequate enough to drive the riffing selection and seat the filthy rasping vitriol being spit over the proceedings. As for riffs, they're generally pretty melodic in structure, giving it a very mid-90s appeal in how they contrast against the vocals, but I'd also point out that the leads and bridge elements here possess a semi-speed/heavy metal charisma to them which works rather successfully; in fact it was this and the bass that made me wish there were a lot more material to listen through.

In terms of overall aesthetics, I feel like the fell Romanticism inherent to Quebecois black metal is infused with a more savage Norse or Swedish convention; glorious but tainted. If you could imagine a hybrid of Bathory or Marduk with old Deathspell Omega and Forteresse, this might fall somewhere along that axis. Atmospheric, but largely just through the core riffing elements rather than any of the additional layers. The production is a bit disparate across the three tunes, but just because they're essentially basement recordings that were either recorded or mixed at different times, and this is all clearly outlined on the notes I was given (along with some amusing historical notes). The sound levels could be better, and obviously the packaging, but it's not as if this was presented as something it wasn't, and if you're unable to pick this up through a trade, there should hopefully be some manner of reissue in the feature (there are a few live YouTube videos available). As of this moment, these guys are actually bigger than the britches of this recording would have you believe, having performed up North at some fests with some overseas talent, and there is ample evidence of the conviction and darkness to go much further.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Grim Legion - Unholy Resurrection (2014)

So you learn something every day, and the other day I learned about a New Jersey death metal band called Grim Legion who were formed back in the late 80s and kept a fairly low profile through the dawn of the genre, until folding in the early 90s. Fast forward 20 years and they've returned at an appropriate moment: when nostalgia for death metal is an infectious high, and fandom is simply starved for the music that reminds them of Death, Autopsy, Obituary, Morbid Angel and other favorites along the Floridian axis of antiquity. I promise you that Grim Legion does not surpass such comparisons (or expectations), nor do they wish to; but Unholy Resurrection, an album composed of older demo material refreshed into a full-length format, is incredibly fun regardless of how generic you might think it sounds after about 30 years of death metal. Hell, I even dug the comic book logo and the cover art which looks like it might have been an alternative cover for the old D&D Fiend Folio published way back in 1981. Cheesy to some, eye candy to others.

Yeah, the late 80s sounds about right, Scream Bloody Gore meets Mental Funeral with a few traces of Altars of Madness for good measure, plus perhaps a little Cianide or Cancer. Definitely love this guitar tone, which is natural and noisy but possesses a pummeling saturation that doesn't rely too much on the worship of Swedish techniques. Bass lines are evil and bouncy, not often disparate from the rhythm guitars of tunes like "Necromajesty" or "Beyond the Grave", but always pumping like an oilrig. The vocals are just gruesome with character, a little bit of Chris Reifert or Killjoy in there but they also have some sinister sneers or baleful moans (like in the intro) to add a little variety and keep the record fresh. Riff construction might be construed as a little plain or ordinary considering just how many albums like this have come out across the decades, but remember that a lot of this was actually written during that primal dawning, and so that lends a little more be accurate, the chord/grooves are more like Autopsy and the tremolo picked riffs and harmonies more akin to the first two Death records, and that right there will tell you whether or not this is something you're going to pick up.

Personally, I've enjoyed spinning this a good half dozen times already, perhaps because it's an incredibly concise effort at 27 minutes and for some will feel more like an EP. They're wise to keep the material flashing between faster, aggressive rushes and mid-paced, murky breakdowns without often resorting to totally banal chugging or other tired tropes that just aren't very necessary. Even if the singer doesn't have the most unique chops in the field, he sounds about exactly how I'd want over material of this nature. Plenty of sustained growls that will shudder your nethers, and at times he almost sounds like a hoarser, beefier sibling to the late Chuck Schuldiner. Some will actually be thrilled to note that the blazing, atmospheric leads are provided by none other than John Paradiso of funeral doom gods Evoken, another well done component of this record that helps distinguish it from a disturbing number of throwback death metal bands that seem afraid to let those higher strings ring out in diabolic squeals. Anyway, it might be a little late to welcome Grim Legion back, since they've been reformed for a few years already, but this album really surprised me, because frankly I've been very jaded on the nostalgia trips of late and this one confirms to me that when it's done well, it still matters.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Possession - Anneliese EP (2014)

There was a pretty obscure Kansas death metal band called Possession, and the logo's slightly similar, so when I first saw the promo for this 7" in my inbox I thought they might have reformed. Not the case at all: this is actually a Belgian band of a more infernal pedigree, performing a primal concoction of black and death metal which hearkens back to the age of bands like Hellhammer, Bathory, Venom and other diabolics of the early to mid 80s who were satisfied with committing the most gruesome and unholy works of simplified aggression to tape. How successful these guys are? I can't exactly form a firm opinion of just the two tunes on this, but if you're really into the basest of metal tunes, evil cover artwork and a 'true' sensibility to what they're doing, this quartet might not disappoint.

Personally, I found the stuff pretty crude and inoffensive, with a strong rock ethic to the riffing of the title track which is admittedly sort of bland when you consider all the raving, theatrical rasps of the front man and how much better they would have been served with something more interesting in structure. The drums are very slappy sounding, the bass thick and oozing with distortion, the murk of the rhythm chords unbreakable, but honestly the only thing here that was distracting me was the reverb-soaked ranting accompanied by descending back-up howls that feel like gargoyles free-jumping off burning cathedrals. Unfortunately, when a rock creature strikes the ground at terminal velocity, it's likely to break up into pieces, and there just wasn't enough to this particular song to keep me wanting to go back to it. The B-side "Apparition" was a little more to my liking, with evil wailing guitars, more morbid chords and even a breakout blast-beat section, so there was just an innate if minimal level of variation which kept my imagination better occupied, and even if the mid-paced rhythm guitars were comparable to the first tune, they are simply more menacing.

So that leads me to believe that, while the Anneliese EP itself might not be a prime showing of the band's talent, given a longer record they will likely have the chance to shine between the faster and slower-rock material. With a vocalist like this, I think putting some more nuance into the guitars, with more compelling or eerie note choices would go a very long way towards making Possession one of the most goddamned evil sounding acts on the planet. But they're not quite there yet...which is fine, they've only been around a few years and definitely have the potential to pull in that proto-extreme metal crowd who worship a time when black, death and thrash metal were often woven into a singular, sinister package. Those into bands like Bones, Usurper, Venom, Von, Darkthrone and comparable sounds might want to give these guys a listen, but I feel like they've got better in them for the future.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Friday, March 28, 2014

Jumalhämärä - Songless Shores EP (2014)

After taking quite an eclectic detour with their 2013 organ music effort Resitaali, which I might add was quite good, Finland's artsy, Bizarro world black metallers Jumalhämärä return to a heavier, semi-familiar terrain with but a single, extensive 17-minute opus entitled Songless Shores. Right from the start, before you've even begun to listen through this, they've got you wondering with that excellent, completely abstract cover artwork that is almost impossible not to stare at; and to little surprise, the music has the same effect. Okay, your ears can't necessarily 'stare' (at least I hope not), but if they could, they would not be able to avert their gaze from this song, which is both tremendous and completely off the wall. That is what Jumalhämärä does, what they will continue to do, and you can either lay back with a surreal set of shades and enjoy the experience, or fuck right off.

That's not to say that Songless Shores isn't so bonkers that it often devolves into a disheveled, disjointed wreck, but it's a beautiful mess and not one to take for granted when one is so often bombarded with the predictable and traditional. What sounds like a cacophony of chiming clocks builds up into a swell of roiling tremolo picked guitars, swerving bass line bombast, wretched growl/rasps and groovy drums which feel more appropriate for a prog rock record. Admittedly, the beats seam a little smothered in the mix, to the point that they become disparate from the thinner, droning guitar lines, but the way all these fragments come together feels like someone writing shoegaze music while taking a lot of prescription meds and staring at a Dali painting. The tune calms near the center, with some folksy strings and native instruments that seem like you're a few streets away from a festive urban center on a peaceful eve, until it transitions into a distorted, unnerving landscape of ambiance and semi-industrial clatter, ominous choir harmonies and then ultimately the sound of some running water and some male chants that drift into closure...

I was half expecting the thing to cycle back into some metallic augmentations, but can't say I'm dissatisfied with this sort of linear, adventurous songwriting. Point A gave me absolutely no warning whatsoever of where I'd be ending up at Point B, and it was like watching a fresh-to-my-eyes, but antiquated art film at college. Granted, not all of the forward motions through various genres wind up as the smoothest mutations, and the experimental nature of Songless Shores seems to be worn proudly on the sleeve, but ultimately you just have to be grateful there are bands like this unafraid to take a piss on convention and search themselves through a plethora of unusual aural environments. The lyrics to this were great, they definitely seemed to have a more folk/historical theme to them, which I also felt through the sheer musical output of Resitaali, but as an outsider I wasn't able to completely decipher their cultural significance (my own shortcoming). Still, this is not a hindrance for me, because if anything, the track becomes even more enigmatic and obscure. At any rate, I have never disliked anything I've heard from these Finns, and though this was a little less fulfilling than their 2010 full-length Resignaatio, they continue to stand alongside their other band Mörkö and the slightly more accessible Oranssi Pazuzu at the leading edge of psychedelic black metal from that part of the world.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (remember to flog your children properly)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wormreich - Wormcult Revelations (2014)

Wormreich is one of those band names so fantastic that you just wish you had gotten to it first. These Southerners have a seasoned spin on traditional black metal which remains vile and claustrophobic with some slight nods to ambient orchestration due the incorporation of keys and atmospherics, not only in their own intro/interlude pieces but as an added layer of texture to the blasting violence they induce. I don't recall ever having heard their 2011 debut Edictvm DCLXVI despite the cover seeming very familiar to me, but at any rate Wormcult Revelations has a fairly sinister appearance to it which I believe the band does well enough to match in the songwriting throughput, even if this isn't ultimately 'novel' or something we haven't encountered in the past.

But it's well-paced, and reasonably well-played. Floods of faster guitars and blast beats are interspersed with slower, ominous passages where dissonant picking patterns hover above busier bombardments of double bass, groaning, murmured vocals that evolve into hacking cough rasps which invoke evil. There's enough variation in the structure of the riffs to make a difference, though it all seems coherently oblique and ritualistic in disposition. The harsher usage of the vocalist isn't exactly unique, just a nihilistic traditional snarl which is barked out pretty loudly, occasionally accompanied by a lower-pitched growl for emphasis. The drumming is an incessant thunder through which you can make out a lot of the crashes and toms but the snare is partly subdued. Bass lines are thick flumes of dark subtext which don't often distinguish themselves from the rhythm guitar notes, but in conjunction with those bricklaying kicks they definitely give the album a firm bottom end over which the guitars just simmer with malevolence, or at least try to.

There are definitely some more chaotic, swirling components to the writing that involve driving walls of uncomfortable notes, and there is also a slightly disjointed aesthetic to how they transition from one rhythm to the next, but I took this more as a calculated risk than just sloppy playing. The vaunted, dark choirs, organs, keys and other backing sounds here are used a little more sparsely than the typical symphonic black metal record, but where they appear they definitely give this a more grandiose, subversive horror sensibility. I really enjoyed how the symphonics swelled through "Codex Lvcifervm", which is the most substantial non-metal track on the disc and reminds me a lot of 90s ritual/ambient or dungeon synth, only using a more fulfilling sound set which is akin to the soundtrack for some horror/haunted video game. I felt like Wormcult Revelations actually had just the right balance of the arcane, wondrous and menacing, though if you broke down a lot of the guitars the actual riffs can seem bland in spots. Anyway, while you've got traces of old Euro black metal circa Limbonic Art, Emperor, Mayhem, Old Man's Child or Enthroned in there, they don't resemble anyone too closely, and along with labelmates Haeresiarchs of Dis from San Jose, we might be seeing a new wave of high concept symphonic black metal that's nothing to scoff at. Ugliness meets eloquence.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Massacre - Back from Beyond (2014)

Stagnation is stagnation. No matter how many coats of armor it's clad in, no matter how you attempt to further 'brutalize' it, a death metal album cannot work without some balance of quality riff composition, morbid or malevolent atmosphere, or at the very least some head-spinning level of technicality or complexity which forces the listener's brain into a series of mental acrobatics. Funny enough, Back from Beyond has none of this, it's simply a pure 'ca$h in on the fact that we were a death metal band signed during the formative years of the genre' reunion which offers absolutely nothing new or credible with its formulaic, exhausted riffing progressions. That it's an obvious 'sequel' to Massacre's decidedly average 1991 debut From Beyond, arriving to strike when the iron of death metal nostalgia is hot, only serves as emphasis to its dubious nature, and about the only thing in its favor is that it's nowhere near as awful as the shitty sophomore Promise. But that's faint praise, because:

One Direction is not as shitty as Promise.
Li'l Wayne is not as shitty as Promise.
The Last Airbender was not as shitty as Promise.
Having the Earth and everyone and everything you love on it incinerated simultaneously by a solar flare might arguably not be as shitty as having to listen through Promise.

As you can see, Massacre and I have not always had the tightest of relationships, but the worst I could say for From Beyond was that it was 'just alright'. An early 'also-ran' record, sure, but there were only a few coattails to ride on at that point. Not the case with Back from Beyond, which is more or less an effortless doppelganger of decades of traditional death metal. And I mean effortless...Rick Rozz could hardly have spent more than mere moments conceiving such predictably insipid note progressions, and if you've already heard the Condemned to the Shadows EP from 2012, there's almost no point in tracking this down, since those are by far the best tunes here and the rest is monotonous filler with samey sounding rhythm guitars, and vocal patterns that are rarely distinguishable from one another. Of course, if you've listened to Autopsy, Death or Obituary's material from around 1987-1990, there's not much point listening to Massacre in the first place, but that goes without saying. This completely lacks the ambition one could hope for in a band who were around in the old days, and in fact the whole thing seems like its merely struggling to achieve the level of its 1991 predecessor, and settling for a comparable result. It goes a little too far in its quest for 'purity'.

I'm not as offended by the lack of Kam Lee as some purists will be, because the guy was never one of my favorite growlers, but he's moved on to better bands; not to mention Edwin Webb functions close to a modern analog for that sort of grotesque, sustained guttural. But this is so far below the gruesome character exhibited by a John Tardy, Chuck Schuldiner, Chris Reifert, Martin van Drunen or Paul Speckmann during their primes that it might fall out the opposite side of the planet. Likewise, the chords and tremolo picked guitars, as meaty as their tone is, are unshakably bland, patterns that have all been done to death (rimshot) countless times whether we're talking Benediction, Bolt Thrower, Death, Obituary or 72 other bands from the early waves...not to mention the myriad of newer aspirants to the throne of banality. I mean, on a purely production level, I don't have many complaints...the bass is loud and raunchy, the guitars fleshy, the drums accurate and struck powerfully, and the vocals cut right across the instruments, but Back from Beyond is just so devoid of creativity and passion that it seems like it might have just been assembled by robots as some sort of distillation of 'death metal' principles meant to teach children what the genre sounds like.

It hits harder than From Beyond did, but not in any meaningful way...drum and guitar tones just sound so much brighter and more voluminous than they did 24 years ago. The fact is, no matter how heavy it tries to come across, the vacancy of quality songwriting holds it back. Even the leads just feel like sound effects that escaped the Leprosy recording sessions, and have no interesting structure to them. A real failure to launch here. 6-7 minutes and just two songs of this on that previous EP were decent enough, if not exceptional, but hearing them plugged into a 45 minute framework with 14 songs that almost all sound similar beyond the one minute dark ambient intro. Didn't anyone in the band listen through this batch of songs and think to himself 'we could use a little more variety'? By about 10-15 minutes into the album, it was nap-inducing, but by the time I finished, it was practically torture. It's unfortunate, because I almost always want these old timers to kick some ass, and teach the newbies how it's done, but judging by what I'm hearing on this, Massacre seems to require that lesson themselves. It's not the worst thing I've ever heard by a landslide, but sadly you hear one cut from this and you've essentially heard them all; they should be capable of better.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spectral Lore - III (2014)

Here at the Auto-Ranch, Spectral Lore serves as a sort of 21st century analog to the reactions I used to feel for black metal during it's 'prime' of the mid-90s: In the Nightside Eclipse, The Archaic Course, Nemesis Divina, Frost, you name it, there was just such a tangible balance of exploration, trepidation and intensity on a lot of those records which felt so overwhelmingly unique and inspiring that they still number among my favorites. Ayloss, the sole musician behind this project, might not benefit from having created or innovated such techniques, but it's what he does with them all that makes this music so captivating, rare, and endemic to that headspace I rarely get to crawl into when I've got so much black metal on my radar, that jadedness towards the genre becomes a very real threat. III, which is actually the fourth full-length to my knowledge (discounting the fantastic 2013 split with Mare Cognitum), is ultimately one of those few records that I put a lot of faith in and don't feel even remotely spurned; a varied, textured, immersive experience that I can listen through a dozen times without feeling as if I've grokked every detail...

There's an underlying compulsion to the compositions: that black metal can remain loyal to its scriptures while applying a fresher coat of ink to their dictation. Apart from the fluid blasting passages redolent of incendiary Scandinavian might, there was no one point throughout this album where I could predict to you exactly what was going to happen elsewhere. All seven tracks possess an individuality which not only complements, but strengthens their neighbors, even when the styles of music being contrasted against the black metal core are so wildly different. For instance, "Cosmic Significance" begins with a sort of alluring, primal ambiance to it which evokes 60s-70s New Age space synth, while "Drifting Through Moss and Ancient Stone" involves a moody, incidental folksiness with the clean guitars that feel out new pastures with seemingly every measure. But all is bound together with the eloquent savagery of the tremolo picked melodies, harmonies against which Ayloss sets an added layer of angelic resonance, organs, choirs, multi-faceted growls and howls that seem to assault the listener from a panorama of ancient and cosmic landscapes. If Giordano Bruno had channeled his heretical astral revelations into a symphony, it might sound a lot like this (sans distortion), and it's that larger than life air of discovery and fulfillment which precludes any chance of these incredibly lengthy tracks (10 to 16 minutes) from lapsing into tedium or dissatisfaction.

It's of course impressive that this is all one individual's imagination coming to light, but on equal footing are the guy's instrumental skills. Never cheesy or excessively indulgent...the classical acoustic guitars here have the grace and complexity you'd desire from a seasoned player, and the chord choices are evocative of those tenets of adventure and escape that was characteristic of those aforementioned 90s gems. Granted, a blast beat is still a blast beat and few of the riffs sound unusual for the form, but there's a patience to the writing which doesn't aim for cheap, quick money shot melodies, rather more swarthy cycles of guitar notes that merge into a bigger picture. Bass lines are less overt than the more atmospheric instruments, but they've always got a warm groove going or something else that helps anchor the airier embellishments on the strings or synthesizer. Drums are always maneuvering between a standard blasted precision and a proggier set of beats, with loads of fills to keep them interesting and give the songs just a fraction more depth and flavor, while the growls and rasped vocals maintain the spectral sensibility exhibited on past works: themselves more of an atmospheric exhibition of suffering and bewilderment than a harder driving syllabic framework. III is a yin and yang of the elusive and tangible, ethereal and grounded, with replaybility in spades, and somehow I knew it would be, because sometimes a guy just 'gets it'. And you should, too. Get this.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Monday, March 24, 2014

Malhkebre - Revelation (2014)

If, like myself, you had experienced this French band's 2006 EP Prostration, then you'd know to expect some rather uncanny, ugly as excrement black metal which doesn't so much live by conventions as it tends to sodomize them with some charismatic, off the wall vocals and occasional weird riffs. We're not talking Peste Noire levels of oddness in how the songs are structured and executed, but clearly these guys are only a few categories removed from that level of brilliance and they're going to stand out to you for that very reason. Like the image on the cover art, you will feel as if something, maybe a meathook, maybe an old rusty axe, was forced or hacked into your being numerous times, and while Malhkebre might seem just as goofy as they are evil thanks to the vocal style, Revelation deserves accolades for its homegrown black metal aesthetics and careful contrast of unruly dissonance and more straightforward tremolo picked sequences.

The lo-fidelity of this recording gives the impression of hearing it in a jam room, organic and natural and completely unprocessed. Sometimes that means the vocalist has to struggle a little to attain the level of grotesqueness that the instruments flourish in, but it really highlights the hysteric precision of the drumming, the lighter, almost melodic groove of the bass lines and a bevy of riffs that range from full-bore blinding speed chords which resemble their Scandinavian forebears (Mayhem, Bathory, etc) to the slower, creepier components which breathe a little more malevolence into the work as a whole. Vocalist Eklezjas'Tik Berzerk growls out in this outrageous bark, which in spots will sound more guttural and serious, at others like a spectral moaning, and other yet almost seem like the guy is completely loaded, collapsing over himself in some alleyway, rolling about in the filth and offal of humanity and just reveling in it. Nowhere does this performance feel contrived or excessively planned out in advance, there's an almost sporadic, angry and passionate nature to this that oozes fucking character and had me wondering what the hell was he going to do next? Some might argue that it doesn't feel like he's always taking things seriously, but the fact is I'm going to remember this approach a lot more than the last 20 copycat black metal raspers who sound like Satyr, Ihsahn or Fenriz...and that's really part of the reason I also like Famine's style so much.

I don't know if I'd call the riffing 'inventive', per se, but it definitely cycles through a number of interesting variations with jazzier minor keys and vile melodies that blend in a little ugly death metal influence into the more ritualistic black metal encounters. There are tunes like "IHSV" which are tour de forces of absurdity and violence that play out like a more primitive alternative to 21st century Deathspell Omega, and there are also a few experimental interludes like "Dogma" which is like distorted martial noise with growled French narrative, or "Hystérie révélatrice - Part I", where it sounds like some unfortunate woman is about to get jumped and murdered while in the midst of her passions. Really, the entirely of Revelation is like a drugged up tactile exhibition of obscure occult rituals being performed in the midst of an orgy in a catacomb through which all the depravity and sewage of humanity sifts. It's not immediately memorable when dissected down to an individual 'riff' or 'song' component, but the whole thing just seems like you were up late at night watching some schlock giallo or snuff horror, something that you know you shouldn't get involved with and yet cannot turn your eyes (or in this case, ears) away from. Drunk off its own debasement and fuckery.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Woebegone Obscured - Marrow of Dreams (2013)

Though I laud these Danes for expanding greatly upon the sounds of their 2007 debut Deathstination, I still found myself having several hangups with a complaint I usually lodge against doom metal albums which overstay their welcome: if you haven't got enough material to really swell out a track between 13-20 minutes in length, then it might be better to chop them down. Not that there's anything particularly terrible in how Woebegone Obscured 'pad' out the intended epics, but as a sort of transcendental, 80 minute listening experience, this one often seems more empty than full. 'Empty' in the way that a lot of doom metal bands feel this genre needs to feel, perhaps, but hardly conducive to a mesmerizing or compelling auditory escape, so as much as I attempted to engage with the naturalist imagery of the packaging in contrast to the dreary glories of the compositional style, I just never sunk into that next level of immersion.

That said, Marrow of Dreams is an acceptable listen if you're in the mood for just something slow that might sort of fade off into the background, mood music for glade-gazing and cloud-counting which maintains a fraction of the gloomy edge of its predecessor. In fact, this is sort of like a 'life' alternative to the 'death' of the debut, and conveys its sense of sadness and expression in brighter shades than that crushing murk. There are still some pretty pure death/doom tunes like "In Suffering Darkness Dwell" which border upon the funereal, but even there the glacial melodies or cleaner strings woven throughout have an almost abstract notion of warmth that permeates the dusky, drawn-out chords. With almost no exceptions, I greatly preferred the more spacious and ambient-imbued passages of the album, where the strings really breathe, or where the cleaner melodic vocal tones reign supreme, or perhaps you'll hear a natural sample or two, but this is not exclusive, since the chugging and growling is almost inevitable, and it's almost constantly mundane in construction with no real creativity beyond the fact that there are often other atmospherics measuring off against it. Intuitive and simplistic as a rural trail, but lacking thrills or surprises around any corner.

Even though they occasionally drift into awkwardness, the variety of the vocals is actually a stronger point, with the more ethereal, tonal voices balanced against death/doom gutturals and a slightly higher rasp, it seems like there are multiple personalities in contemplation against the mourning naturescapes. The guitar melodies are also quite solemn, like a slow rain on tree leaves as it crashes to a forest floor, sort of reminded me of what I liked so much about Paradise Lost's amazing Icon record, only nowhere near as catchy or concise. This blend of slower, almost folkish doom atmosphere also had me reminiscing over the Yearning debut With Tragedies Adorned, a little known Finnish album which conjured up a comparable, rustic sense of environment with rays of sun glaring off hillsides and woodland canopies. Alas, where those works had the benefit of tighter songwriting, this one just tends to drift along the river for far too long, never quite losing sight of its purpose, but nevertheless rambling on inoffensively. It's not a bad album, but perhaps a little more indulgent in its vacuity than I was prepared for, and as a result not much about it stood to memory, very few moments inspired me to return to them repeatedly.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Erebus Enthroned - Temple Under Hell (2014)

If the incredibly distinct art style here seems familiar, it's probably that you've seen the work of Russia's Denis Forkas Kostromitin on the latest Behemoth album, The Satanist, or perhaps on the debuts of lesser known acts like Altars and Wrathprayer. I find it incredibly oblique yet alluring, and while I've no idea whether he just has it commissioned or he actually sits through the albums in advance and uses them to summon up imagery, they're almost always a lock for the sounds they herald. The Erebus Enthroned sophomore Temple Under Hell is no exception, a murky concoction of black metal extremity which is true to the purpose of 2011's Night's Black Angel: lightless nihilism, fleshy and misanthropic dissonance, no source of comfort or happiness or warmth anywhere.

In some ways I might define this disc as 'bog standard' it certain doesn't reach far beyond the bounds of its genre, and thus you'll only discern slight differences in production from other works in the field. I certainly felt a few traces of De Mysteriis dom Sathanas-era Mayhem on the first album, and those remain prevalent here, though the music has a bit of an awkward, swarthy eeriness to it that reminds me of the last 3-4 efforts from another Enthroned (the Belgian one). Riffs vary between all-out assaults of cavernous tremolo picked patterns to rolling, churning chords being crested by sprays of gleaming dissonance (as in "Trisagion"), but this whole fucking thing is infernally dark and impenetrable, masked with a caul of gloominess, brutality, and occult hunger. Anyone remember the 'black pudding' monster from D&D? Okay, if those things could wear headphones, this is what they'd probably listen to while they're slinking along the cellars, crypts and corridors of Abyssal shrines and torture chambers. The album title is just too accurate, and if you don't come out of the music feeling less hopeful for your future than you went into it, then congratulations, you are fucking immune to the affectations of the black metal genre.

It's not incredibly unique, once again having components that are drawn from an obvious source or three, but where it might lack in nuance or creativity it compensates with harrowing effectiveness. Plenty of details in the vocal performance, which ranges from growls and rasps to haunted howls and groans, basically whatever manifestations of pure evil the drummer/singer 'N' conjures forth straight form the nether. Guy sounds like a living digderidoo in the middle of the title track, which is perhaps the most explosive piece though it drags a little long at nine minutes. Also want to comment that the bass tone here is great, nice and loud and gives you a morbid substrate for the thinner, dissonant driving guitars that fly all over it; while the drums are more than up to the savage standard of the genre. Blasting effortlessly, but also creating a vast calamity upon which the instruments are forced to sit uncomfortable. Really, Temple Under Hell is just another 'total package' sort of black metal album which should draw in purists who can listen beyond the fact that they probably own this already through its ancestral bloodlines to the mid 90s. Greatness? Perhaps not yet, but I'd say these New South Welshmen have edged out the first album with this offering. Goes well with black candlelight and the consumption of a still-beating human heart.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, March 21, 2014

Septuagint - Negative Void Trinity EP (2014)

With Hail Spirit Noir's mesmerizing standard setting the standard, and a looming new full-length from Spectral Lore, the floodgates of my excitement for the Hellenic black metal scene have once again burst open in 2014. Upon finding this Septuagint EP in my promo pile, I had half hoped this might add a little kindling to that fire, though they err a little further on the side of convention than a number of their peers, pursuing a more forceful, blast-oriented style of songwriting that mirrors some of the more extreme Scandinavian black metal acts like Marduk or 1349. That's not to say this quartet (formerly dubbed Destination: Holocaust) pursue that path to a fault; they are quite conscious of incorporating some slower, moodier variation into the punishment zone, but apart from a few curious chord patterns, Negative Void Trinity isn't likely to surprise anyone who expects his/her black metal to possess a momentum rivaling the speed of light...

Seriously, this guy's blast beats are so unrelentingly freaking fast that they leap entire time zones, so it's a good thing he'll pace himself or else the listener might get dragged along in the quantum current and begin to age at a frightening speed. Hyperactive tremolo picked progressions fly everywhere, often a fraction more mystical or unpredictable than we might assume from 20+ years of the stuff, and the floods of chords utilize a lot of dissonant Norse structures that keep the material unnerving and 'on edge'. Even when the group slows down a song to something which won't rupture your arteries, they go for haunting vistas over which the ugly and harsh vocals drift, and thoughts become specters wafting through the winds between the surges of incendiary speed you know are right around the corner. It's almost at a grind level during some stages, only without the politics or hardcore spastic attitude. Sometimes they'll throw in these weird, almost siren like riffing melodies (like in the bridge of "Psalm II") which add a layer of alarming discomfort while the voices seem more manic and subdued, and Septuagint are just that sort of black metal which reminds us that we are not safe and NEVER SHOULD be safe. Having recent suffered what might be my first 'anxiety attack' (sorry anti-thralls, I'm still very much alive), I can honestly say that Negative Void Trinity wasn't far removed from that experience!

There are a few concessions, of course. This isn't material that I'd define as memorable, even when it grows the most interesting doing the mid-speed segments. Also didn't notice the bass much, or rather I heard it but it just seems drowned out by the blood spatter of the guitars and the constant madness of the vocals which often erupt into these screw-loose, raving shouts or sustained, hostile rasps. The composition is not long on complexity, but instead juxtaposes intensity for subtlety; and in fact it is so damned belligerent in spots that I think it possesses a measure of appeal for fans of insane war metal stuff like Impiety, Angelcorpse, etc just as much as those seeking sinister, agile black metal. Is this one of the more interesting Greek acts? No, far from it, but something could be said for how they weave in just enough deviation from the norm to keep the content menacing and invigorating, no chance of hearing this without your pulse quicken and succumbing to either a major migraine or cold chills to the forehead...if just a little bit. Didn't love it, truthfully, but I found it compelling enough that I'd enjoy checking out a full-length with some further variation, though the ferocity should always remain a focus.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Facebreaker - Dedicated to the Flesh (2013)

Dedicated to the Flesh is a cockfight between the memorable and the mundane, the magnificent and the redundant, but I don't think there's any argument against the fact that it's the best SOUNDING record that the Swedes Facebreaker have released. Curiously, the Zombie God 7" had kind of sent me into this expecting a more atmospheric, evil effort with deeper songwriting than the earlier releases, and yet this is, in a way, every bit as straightforward as Bloodred Hell, with a lot of pure thrash influence in the simplistic riffing progressions, but a whole host of nods to classic death metal records ranging from their own countrymen to Bolt Thrower, to I hate to say it: Six Feet Under. Yeah, this has about the same range as Chris Barnes' hemped up horror, and in fact some of the songs ("Zombie Flesh Cult" for example) gave me fits of unwelcome deja-vu...

...but, not all of them. There's probably enough quality here to qualify a really fun EP, like the Motörhead fueled title cut which busts out into the total old school evil tremolo picked chorus, or "Nuclear Outbreak" which is a mashup of Repulsion and Hellhammer chord structures; even "Legions of Doom" which had already appeared on the 7" the year before, which along with a few other cuts sounds like a lighter contemporary Bolt Thrower for those belligerent melodies it hurls at you. The tone here is incredibly clean and crunchy, first impression is that it's very 'Swedish' but I definitely think it doesn't choke up enough gravedirt like the classic Entombed/Carnage style. Heavy and chest-pounding, with plenty of bluesy hard rock solo flair to the leads, though I'd say those are probably a little too sparse on the record and should have been doubled up to give the songs a more compelling, infectious edge to them. For instance, the solo/bridge to the tune "Mutilator" is awesome and you just aren't getting enough moments like that. Otherwise, the rhythm section is tight as a vice, still with loads of double bass pounding married to grainy bass guitar lines, again with a rich level of polish thanks to that polish and production.

Robban Karlsson sounds as forceful and brutal as ever, but there's very little variation to his delivery here, so essentially after hearing 1-2 lines of any given track you've already heard the whole entirety, chorus parts included..."Zombie God" teased a more vicious and evil timbre which doesn't dominate over this selection, and after 12 cuts and 45 minutes, it had well worn out its welcome. And that's sort of the biggest setback Dedicated to the Flesh's just so goddamn repetitive, not just in terms of its own riffing choices, but to hundreds if not thousands of records to come before it. Lyrically and musically it doesn't take on the subjects of mangling, murder and undead mayhem with any individuality, just a collection of genre tropes that are breastfed by the same aspirations you find in most lowest common denominator death metal. I mean these lyrics look like they read a handful of Mortician/Cannibal Corpse tunes, cut & pasted a couple lines and called it a day. Not that Facebreaker has ever been original, or that they ever NEED to be, but there's just not a lot of progression of ideas between 2004 and this disc almost a decade later, no nuances or intricacies or distinctive traits that should have me picking this off the shelf at the record shop rather than just going home and listening to The Bleeding, or any of the Bloodbath albums which cover these themes and riffing techniques so, so much more explosively and memorably. Aesthetically, this looks and sounds good, but more than half the tunes should have been left on the cutting room floor, or gestated further to the point where they had some compelling riffs and ideas, rather than just settling for whatever.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Facebreaker - Zombie God EP (2012)

Am I alone in thinking that, when you're putting out a record with your band's logo on it, even something more like a collector's item, that it deserves a little more than just the bare minimum of content and effort? Facebreaker's Zombie God was little more than a teaser for their fourth and most recent record Dedicated to the Flesh, a 7" limited to 666 copies (never seen that before!), two songs, only one of which I believe to be exclusive to this release, the titular "Zombie God". It strikes me as a missed opportunity, because had this maybe 3-4 more songs the same quality as that one, all available only on this record or an mCD version of it, you'd have a pretty killer little EP.

Don't get me wrong, both of these tunes are pretty solid, the first side being "Legions of Doom" which would also be included on Dedicated to the Flesh, but it's just not a great value unless you're actually friends with the band or something. Not even the fairly bland b&w zombie artwork. On the other hand, Zombie God does exhibit some musical evolution, or rather devolution, since the songs here take on more of a thrashing death hue than the pummeling rent-a-Swede death metal dominant on the older discs. The guitar tone is still dirty, but thinner and less about kicking you in the chest, rather it tries to seem more coherently filthy and evil, with spikes of leads and a more seasoned, laid back tempo in the title track. Karlsson's vocals here are also a little more standout than usual, a hoarse and psychotic sounding growl rather that still lays in a few of the old gutturals, he simply generates a lot more natural malevolence with this style, which fits music that is more atmospheric and nocturnal than what you might have heard on Bloodred Hell or Infected. There seems to be a sheen of coldness here, like the grain filter you'd see on a modern horror flick trying to look more edgy and retro than it really is, but if nothing else, it spoke well for the forthcoming full-length...

In the end, while "Zombie God" is far from a disposable track, I just felt this 7" came up short. That's rather the point, sure, but I've got a number of EPs, splits and demos in this format which have all original content and give a little more bang for the buck. Imposed scarcity, collector's item, put it in your 7" bin and forget all about it until the day comes when you wanna wave dicks around with other hardcore vinyl fetishists, maybe in 20 years when people will be looking back on this old-new-new wave of Swedish death metal, mourning over how there were like these 417 bands that arrived over a ten year period that all sounded like the real forefathers Entombed, Grave, Dismember, etc. Ironically, here is where Facebreaker started to branch themselves ever-so-slightly away from that crop, so if nothing else hearing this ensured I was going to check out the next album, which I'd also advise you to do if you've never spent time with their music; either that or go all the way back to Bloodred Hell when they had that more straightforward, 'innocent' sound. Not a total loss, since you do get "Zombie God", but far from necessary as a product.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Facebreaker - Dead, Rotten and Hungry (2008)

Dead, Rotten and Hungry does not seem the sort of album that would take four years to release, but by the time it showed up the Swedish retro death metal movement was in full swing, no longer the province of a few artists who were lovingly paying tribute to themselves or their countrymen, but a bona fide fad harboring the masses of the creatively lacking. Apart from the slight zombie nod, another trend that has gotten completely out of fucking control as we neared the Teens of the 21st Century, this was aesthetically a direct continuation of Bloodred Hell, albeit with a few production tweaks that brought it more in line with the pure Dismember/Entombed worship and a few nods to the mighty Bolt Thrower. It's almost an enjoyable experience if you've not already become jaded with the style, which is much more likely today than in 2008 for anyone paying attention to the myriad records coming out that sound like this. Facebreaker nearly succeeds by the seat of its maggot-jacked underwear, but has a weaker second half, and ultimately doesn't leave an impression beyond a few quickly healing bruises.

The guitars here are definitely a little uglier as they reach even further into the legendary Swedish playbook, but I also think they've got a more built-in appeal to the masses of retro worship, not to mention all the Entombed-core bands at large that have also taking this cruddier tone into extreme music at large. They're not as gruesome or dirty as Mr. Death or Tormented, but enough that this is the sort of album kids are gonna pick up for the production without even caring about the quality of songs. As for the riffs themselves, they're quite a bit like a blend of later Bolt Thrower meets early Dismember, with nothing really sticky about them, but the tremolo picking just feels so huge here that it's easy to get into, and the meatier chords come off as as a potent counterbalance. Spurious, infectious little leads break out here or there but not often enough, and I also felt like the track list got a little more redundant and uninspired as the record progressed. The first half feels more repulsive and powerful and the latter lapses into a semi-lazy arrangement of tunes you might find on any random Rogga Johansson record circa Ribspreader, Paganizer or Revolting, big grooves and 'authentic' atmosphere to those seeking the re-Swedening, but nothing compelling beyond a handful of fact, if not for 3-4 lacking tunes, this would be closer in quality to Bloodred Hell.

Otherwise, it's basically 'Double Bass: The Album', because Jesus Christ...double bass. A fortress of brick flinging, always in time, reminding me again of how Bolt Thrower used to do it only ramped up on 'roids, and only disappearing when it just wouldn't make any sense to continue the barrage. 'Robban' Karlsson's vocals have a little more sustain this time around, but once more he's rather indistinct when you compare him to death metal frontmen at large...a little Karl Willetts, a little Steve Tucker, and nothing that would stand out if you had him in a lineup. That said, his growling definitely hit me in the mid-section for the first 15 or so minutes of the record and the production is just excellent, layered upon with a few higher pitch snarls that seem like paeans to Carcass and Deicide, but never dominate that lower end. The bass guitar 'shows up' and collects its pay, but never does much to distinguish itself beyond achieve the raw sewage appeal while sniffing along the guitar progressions. Facebreaker also adopted one of those logos which looks to have that tough guy US hardcore font, only a bit more grotesque because this is undead fuckin' death metal we're talking about, and yet it largely has the same effect as pissed off, highly produced 21st century hardcore, a zombified beatdown with nothing necessarily creepy or malevolent included, just locker room death metal that you'd pump before the big game.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (this world won't last)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sargeist - Feeding the Crawling Shadows (2014)

If Let the Devil In threatened to teeter upon the threshold of melodic accessibility, Feeding the Crawling Shadows does a 180 into the raw and murky black metal filth from with Sargeist was first spawned. Not that the music itself is constructed much differently than on that excellent last album, but the production has been inverted to create something more tangibly raw and disgusting, not unlike a few of the outings of Shatraug's mainstay Horna in the past. Ultimately, this doesn't throw me off the scent quite so much as the fact that a lot of the songs here just don't resonate nearly so well. There's a long history of this guy's music juggling back and forth between mediocrity and stunning effectiveness, and I feel like he's almost decided to 'retreat' after the breakthrough he made in 2010. To some, this might come as a relief, but my reaction was unfortunately the opposite...

Back off, night ghasts! Your mascara is running. I clarify: I don't have any problem with the choice to dial back the production to something more primal and pissed off, on the contrary that is what I expect from a lot of the Finnish black metal I encounter. If the music here was sufficiently memorable or engaging, this aesthetic might even serve to enhance is value. The blast beats here are so uniform and splashy that they seem to fade into nothingness when you concentrate on the streams of chords. Mid-paced late 80s Bathory-like charge riffs erupt through the hyper-maelstrom at steady enough intervals that the record isn't monotonous, and yet a lot of the blasts really translate into a sense of sameness that renders them indistinct. Guitars are performed with a lot of ferocity and passion, no doubt, but I found the majority of the tremolo progressions here a little bland and lacking those surprisingly warmer textures Let the Devil In celebrated. There's a real lack of depth in service to a presumed aura of 'emptiness', but when you break them down they just sound indistinct from so much of the Scandinavian extremity we've previously encountered. Bass lines might not have been of tantamount importance on that album, and here they offer a comparable presence, hovering in the low end but rarely breaking from the guitar notes. The biggest difference, though, is arguably the vocals, which are part the black metal status quo and then part more ominous guttural...only you really need that, because when he's rasping along I also struggled to hear him against the guitars and beats.

That rotten, romantic desperation infused in the last album survives here, but it's repressed quite like the older Sargeist demos and full-lengths, and this is simply more orthodox and presumably 'evil', or it would be if the actual composition of the notes felt more sinister in structure. As it stands, a handful of the tracks like "Inside the Demon's Maze" have a few haunting moments, but overall Feeding the Crawling Shadows just blurs against Shatraug's sum body of work. It's certainly not lazy or arbitrary, nor would his aesthetic decisions lack poignancy through stronger songwriting, but the riffs just aren't as great as what he's put out before, and the guy could probably put out a half dozen records of this quality in a week. I'm not advocating that he's run out of steam, or that his proliferation hasn't produced a number of surprise gems, but there's an unwillingness to refine or grow his formula, which puts all the more pressure on having songs that rule. Of course, those who were seeking a retrogression towards the primeval epoch of Horna, Behexen and this project itself will enjoy (or not enjoy) this on principle, as would anyone seeking records in the blueprint of Darkthrone's Transilvanian Hunger or Mayhem's De Mysteriis dom Sathanas (if rendered even icier and more hostile), but as true to its roots as Feeding... is, its impact is too fleeting, and I struggled to remember it in the hours between listens. One of the blackest of the black metal albums I've heard this year, indeed, but that unfortunately doesn't warrant further compulsion in this case.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Facebreaker - Bloodred Hell (2004)

Facebreaker is another of those 'slightly behind while simultaneously ahead of the curve' 21st century Swedish death metal throwbacks which formed about 15 years ago and started churning out records about half way through the prior decade. A little too late to be Bloodbath, but they arrived on my radar well before this current tsunami of Left Hand Path and Dismember soundalikes, along with some of the Rogga bands like Ribspreader. Comprised of a number of that scene's veterans, including growler Roberth Karlsson of Pan.Thy.Monium, Darkified, Edge of Sanity, the Bloodred Hell lineup took an approach to the style that had a more urban, tough guy aesthetic rather than the graveyard eeriness and atmosphere pervasive in so many of their peers, and as a result this does have a streak of straightforwardness that should appeal to fans of records like Grave's Soulless or Edge of Sanity's Cryptic. That's not to say it's at all unique, in fact this functions on a fairly generic set of chord progressions, death metal 101, somewhere between mid 90s Cannibal Corpse and the Swedish 'regulars' of that era, but it's probably one of the most likeable Facebreaker discs, and one that, apart from shifts in studio production, they never seem to deviate from even a decade later.

Obvious chugs and denser, repulsive chords definitely carry forth the borderline Entombed death & roll influence while seeming a lot like a meatier spin on 90s thrash; there are certainly some d-beat driven segments on the album ("Total Wasteland"), but as a whole they go for that real sense of groove balanced against a moderate death metal momentum. Normally such a stripped down, barebones style wouldn't contribute much to my enjoyment of an album, but the pacing of the tracks and the general quality of the riffs seem strong enough that I can listen to this 10 years later and still get as much value as I did in 2004, though it was never and should never be considered any sort of 'exemplary' entrant into the medium. But there's enough charm to Roberth's growling, even if he's not so distinct among peers, and the lead sequences here seem excitingly scripted (like the one in the bridge to "Crushed") that it reminds me often enough of why I got so into the stuff as a teen in the late 80s. A savage, honest crunch to the rhythm guitar, solid drumming, and a bouncing and repulsive bass tone that always hovers through the mix, it seems really that all the instruments are set here at an appreciable balance and that's one of its strongest points, really. They're also not averse to throwing out some cleaner guitars ("Hater") but these do seem a little more subtle and drowned by the crushing force behind them.

Ultimately, the Facebreaker debut is by-the-book, blueprint Swedish death metal which is  probably not going to convince anyone these days who has become jaded with the form. I actually include myself among that crowd, but happened to have heard this band long before most of the stuff that arrives in my promo box, and I can still throw this on with a little Jagermeister, some gore flicks and/or boob rags and have a pretty good time with it. I mean no insult when I say that this is like the equivalent of 'frat house death metal', a phrase that might be meaningless outside of my lacking American culture. The intention here might be some brutish, lowest-common-denominator death, but in knowing their limitations, these Swedes pull it off with some integrity. It's the kind of record where, if you just shut your mind off and lower your expectations, pretend your a teen again, or a kid, or whenever you first caught the bug, you'll find it amusing and moshable and the antithesis of pretentiousness. Absolutely for fans of Ribspreader, Paganizer, Mr. Death, Revel in Flesh, etc. A solid guttural expose for the next kegger, you might imagine if there were like a fraternity of student morticians they might get down to this late at night in their classroom/labs while the instructors remain blissfully ignorant. Beer bonging off body bags, party hats on cadavers, vuvuzelas waking the dead, Bloodred Hell, motherfuckers. This isn't Thug Life, it's Thug Death.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (nothing is my truth)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Heresiarch - Wælwulf EP (2014)

Similar to their Hammer of Intransigence EP from 2011, Wælwulf presents this incredibly stark and apocalyptic cover image and then attempts to meet its crushing effect with some of the most brutish and savage black/death war metal possible. But despite the buzz the New Zealanders had surrounded that outing, I wasn't quite sold on their style. The guitars were just too drudging and simple, imagination and creativity eschewed for pure primacy, the riffs and vocals void of nuance, and at the vortex of their intentions, hostility seemed a trump card over the notion of evil; barbarism besting malevolence. So, for some listeners, I'd imagine it was working very much as Heresiarch intended, but if I'm bored within a few riffs and there's nothing unexpected on the horizon, it doesn't speak well for my reaction.

Oddly enough, Wælwulf continues this very practice, but I felt it was more successfully engaging to the ear. Unapologetic and perhaps even more nihilistic a discourse than its predecessor, but the simplistic chord structures bleeding into tremolo patterns, frenzied and listless outbreaks of distant lead guitars and layered growls and grunts seem to present this primitive, angry maze that I was more absorbed in. Granted, they're still not about to win an award for subtlety or stickiness of writing, since the rhythm guitars seem to hone in on the same small subset of chords and just fist them repeatedly, from open, muddy notes to belligerent, berserker chugs over which the vocals have a sort of call/response nature and some ambiance howls off in the backdrop ("Endethraest"); but despite any shortcomings, that's probably my favorite tune they've written yet. Another interesting piece is the closer "Abrecan", which largely consists of voluptuous, sludgy bass and feedback driven, downtrodden riffing influxes with more ritualistic, chanted growls that capitalize on the atmosphere of the second tune...I'd liken it to an 'epilogue' of war metal, when the bodies lay blasted and spent about the theater of violence, ravenous, howling vultures circling in the form of wailing feedback akin to nuclear warning sirens...

So, yeah, this is more experimental than the last EP and ultimately a lot more resonant with me; I think they might even be 'on to something' with the latter 2/3rds of the experience, though the material would still really benefit from  some more interesting guitars once they hit full burst. To describe Wælwulf on the whole would be like early British brutality like Bolt Thrower or heavier Godflesh meets Incantation/Disembowlment, and then the resultant, roiling mass irradiated with Canadian psychopaths like Conqueror, Revenge and Blasphemy. If you think about such an equation, there's a lot of potential there for just clubbing the fuck out of the listener to such an extreme that only an imprint of his skeleton remains like chalk on the barren rock beneath. And this new EP really services such an analogy, so if you were on the fence with the last record or simply never heard them before, start with this fractionally abhorrent evolution.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, March 14, 2014

Phantom - Incendiary Serum (2013)

I've seen the Danish Phantom described as a hybrid of black and doom metals, but despite a few of the moderately paced, monastic chord progressions often associated with the Gothic doom style, this really fell to the former side of that equation more often and not. I'd deem their debut Incendiary Serum an attempt at elegant, atmospheric black metal with rather passionate, grisly horror inspired lyrics, very well produced albeit with a few rather predictable contemporary riffing passages that remind me of the usual suspects, i.e. mid-to-late 90s Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir, and possibly even a little Morgul in how they construct their ambiance with the very simple chord patterns or tremolo rhythm guitar progressions in mind. It's neither the most savage or grandiloquent disc in this style of extreme metal, but ultimately its tasteful, partially absorbing and there's one particular aesthetic choice that I found compelling...

That, of course, is the use of ambient sounds which really fill out the mix. Whether that's some ghostly little nuance, or a sample of something natural, even the preacher used in "The Sickening Sermon", which might have seemed a little obvious a choice, but wasn't something I'd heard much of lately. At any rate, this addition really gives Incendiary Serum a sort of 3D panorama of sound, with subtleties that made even the more banal metal components seem fresher than they might otherwise have proven. It's a small thing, really, and Phantom might not approach it as some technological wonder of production, but you have to wonder why so much of music hasn't evolved more in this direction. I understand that there's a natural adherence to core rock instruments in the field, but I think the human mind is really capable of translating these lavish environmental sounds into the riffing and growling, traditional experience, and I for one am ready. Usually when you attribute 'ambiance' to a band, you're talking specifically of passages in the songs that are scripted to that effect, or the surplus of atmosphere created by repetitious, resonant chords, but here it is a more literal, subtle distraction that intensified my overall reaction to the music.

Otherwise, this is vaguely symphonic with lots of pianos and grandiose synths that enforce the airy, 'phantasmal' rhythm guitars which are more or less a standard slew of genre tropes with a few more interesting, memorable variants spliced in. There's a slight berth of dissonance or psychedelia in how they compose, whereas the momentum of several songs recounts modern Rotting Christ (Triarchy of the Lost Lovers and beyond), with some threads of golden melody grafted onto the starlit night-sky mood that so many of the songs evoke. Shades glimpsing off some ancient battlement at the firmament. Lyrics are sufficiently creepy, more so than the songs. Death and black rasps intertwined, with not a lot of distinction among many other acts, but clearly some grotesque emotional attachment to the subject matter. The mix of the drums also felt really fantastic, and the cleaner bass lines helped create a 'classier' depth of sound than you'd find on your average basement black metal effort, for better or worse. Ultimately, this was an album I spun through a number of times, and semi successful, but it was that sparse ambient subtext that was the prime draw, and even then they could have used it more pervasively and I wouldn't have disapproved. A decent album. Another Danish band to watch, and with a stronger song set and some more creative guitars, potentially one to follow.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (inanimate but breathing)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Blizaro - Strange Doorways (2013)

Italian horror/giallo films have always been distinguishable from their peers through the sheer, unsettling atmosphere they cultivate. Even the BAD ones, so it makes a lot of sense that Italo-doom or Mediterranean Occult metal exhibit a lot of the same characteristics; whether we're discussing Paul Chain's solo career or Mortuary Drape, there's always that elusive, permeable shadow of dread lurking over the scenery, as in a strange film like Fulci's The Beyond where victims seem to give themselves over to these outlandish fates, creeping out audiences even when the visual aesthetics seem 'cheesy'. I bring this up because John Gallo's Blizaro is almost assuredly one of the best musical acts I've heard outside of Goblin to draw upon that same well of psychedelic malevolence, though it by no means limits itself to strictly that one influence...stir in a heap of pulp fantasy or horror stories circa Lovecraft or Howard, soak it all in an acid haze, and you'd begin to form a picture of what Strange Doorways offers the listener tired of the 'doom standard' and seeking something specialized, trippy and sinister.

This is beautifully packaged...and I mean gorgeous, folks. Not only is Costin Chioreanu's cover so impressive that I inevitably had to own the t-shirt, but each of the interior panels he designed could have easily served the same purpose! This is more or less the entire body of Blizaro's non-Razorback works, so it earns some points instantly for its completeness. Pick it up with City of the Living Nightmare (2010) and the Wooden Stake split (2011) and you've got everything to date. Having heard that album, as I check out anything the 'Back releases, I can honestly say that the selections here, culled from a number of demo mini-albums and bonus materials, are either equal to or superior in quality. There's such a wealth of variation and experimentation here that I often felt as if someone had mixed me a tape of Zombi or Jon Carpenter outtakes and then dispersed some random Sabbath or Pentagram tracks throughout, and frankly the music is often so good that I can't tell you which I prefer...the pure synth adventures or the rock tracks. Thankfully there are plenty instances of both, hours of content covering all four of Gallo's demo releases (2006-2012), so much even that after numerous attempts to start this review I felt like I had to go back and delve a little deeper into each of the individual 'eras', because there's just no end to the charm.

Not that it doesn't come with a small handful of flaws (a few dud riffs or less trance-inducing synthesizer environs), or that every track is equally poignant and/or memorable, but Strange Doorways shrugs off that caul of mere 'collectivity' that most demo anthologies champion...this is genuinely great, not because its a band sharing its earlier imperfections and vulnerabilities with you, but as a coherent view into the workings of a solitary, otherworldly imagination. Warm, mildly fuzzy guitars offer not only a miasma of gloom, groove and downward spiraling depression, but the structures the guy uses are even 'innovative' in places, belonging more to the realm of 60s-70s progressive rock than they do proper metal music...whether they exhibit a Ghost-like ability to stick to your mind like sugar, or a more monumental grandeur somewhere between Black Hole, Cirith Ungol and Candlemass. Synth/ambient selections have a natural lo-fidelity to them that seems stripped directly from some VHS dub of an obscure Italo horror flick, but they're so epic that they also scratch my 'swords & sorcery' itch and I found myself writing a lot with them on in the background. Sure, I pen little stories and game materials to anything from opera to technical death metal to Immortal, but pieces like "Lifestream" or the frightful organs of "White Frijid Mass" seemed to directly fertilize the creative process that they, in turn, sprung up from. Arguably, others like "Sobering Through Darkness", where the two persistent musical styles are joined, are even more listenable.

Sure, one can probably tell that the constituent materials were recorded across a number of years and sessions; Gallo himself provides a brief history of each track in the liner notes. Yet I found that there was a lot of coherence and consistency over the broader range of content that it might have been branded just a new two-disc concept album transferred from demo reels and I mightn't have noticed the difference. John handles most of the instrumentation, joined by a number of his friends like Orodruin bandmates Mike Puleo and Mike Waske. Smooth bass lines and organic drums, zany blues leads and a smorgasbord of wet, evil riffs that range from friendly to freakish. The one component that took some getting used to was John's voice, which is basically an Ozzy-meets-Liebling pitch with some Messiah Marcolin theatrics, but ultimately I thought it was just the superb accompaniment to music so threaded and unafraid of employing sequences or atmospheres. Strange Doorways is something to truly be proud of, not only as a historical document of this project's musical transition from an 'idea' to a vessel of nuance and refined complexity, but as one of the best New York epic heavy/doom works I've ever experienced. If any more bands with the talent of a Blizaro or Realmbuilder pop up, we're in the very best of 'trouble'. 40 tracks, 2 and a half hours of pure escapism. Mandatory to at least check this out, and whether you're hearing this or the full-length first, the style and substance translate well across each.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Monarque/Forteresse/Csejthe/Chasse-Galerie - Légendes (2014)

I knew I was going to like this 4-way split about 30 seconds into the first tune, Forteresse's "Wendigo", which just completely takes charge and kicks ass far more than I'm accustomed to with their music. It's proud, melodic and endowed with at least two of the catchiest riffs I've heard them write, while still maintaining that nearly hypnotic style they're known for, only hitting a lot faster and harder to drive home that atmosphere. But even before that, the idea behind Légendes seemed exhilataring... Four Quebecois black metal acts, four 'legendary' themes from their homeland, Sepulchral Productions. Most of you reading this have likely opened your checkbooks and are no longer reading what I have to say, but just in case you lie on the fence, I'll endeavor to continue...

The quality doesn't end with Forteresse, for next I was introduced to Chasse-Galerie, the one band here I had no prior experience with, whose very name is derived from a folktale. I don't exactly know how a lot of their other records sound, but here the style plugs in seamlessly where the first tune left off with "La Boies de Belles", a fit accompaniment for some French-Canadian Renaissance Faire, mid-paced triumphant black metal which plays out like a hybrid of Moonspell's classic "Alma Mater" and late 80s Bathory. Dirty and oppressive in terms of production, but nevertheless magnificent, with textured tremolo picked guitars and a pumping, melodic bass-line that stands out below the grotesque, growled ravings of Blanc Feu. A good song, flush with its predecessor and will prompt me to track down their older efforts. That said, the third offering, Monarque's "La Griffe du Diable" is perhaps the best of the lot, a raw, melancholic, odious epic which falls right in line with the A-side tunes, only harsher and more sinister via the raunchy rasping. An excellent song, an excellent band, perhaps the one thing I could find lacking is that there's simply not much unique about it, but we're beyond that with really any black metal in the 21st century.

Another wonderful track closes out the release courtesy of Csejthe. "Murmurs Nocturnes" is a mildly more dense and emotional mirror to the prior material in that it offers the same wistful tremolo picked melodies and obscure beauties, only the use of the synth in there makes it 'prettier' perhaps. If you experienced their last disc Réminiscence on Eisenwalde Tonschmiede, you'll be hooked in short order, as the dreamy darkness there is present in spades. But perhaps even more impressive than any one song is just how fluid Légendes flows as a whole...there clearly seemed to be some collaboration here, interaction between the four acts, so that the split seems incredibly coherent and consistent beyond the 'We're in the same ballpark musically, or pen pals, so let's do a split' mentality' that I usually come across. There's no need for the songs to stand alone and compete with one another, because they work in unison as a 20+ excursion into the imaginations of their forefathers, a smooth thematic blend that culminates in continuity for the aesthetic rampage Sepulchral Productions has been on lately, following up the latest Gris, Sombres Forêts, and Neige Éternelle records with honour, grandiloquence, and style. Merci to that.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Neige et Noirceur - Gouffre Onirique et Abîmes Cosmiques (2014)

Like fellow Quebec luminaries Forteresse, Gris and Sombres Forêts, Neige et Noirceur inspires a little patience from the listener, which is basically a requisite if Spiritus' music is going to resonate whatsoever. While I don't hold his past works in the same high regard as a few of those others I just mentioned, what I can say for this project is just how much more it exudes a sort of lingering darkness than many of his peers. I've never heard a record by the guy that I haven't liked, and the same can be said for Gouffre Onirique et Abîmes Cosmiques, which offers a contrast of measured, melodic 90s black metal reminiscent of a lot of Swedish or Norse second stringers, with some passages that rely more on ambiance, or some drawn-out, doom-like riffing configurations.

For the most part, though, I feel in listening to this as though I've warped back to around 1996 when the production on black metal records was still quite dark and distant but perfectly audible without overbearing levels of polish. The guitars here, largely driven by tremolo picked melodies over driving programmed kicks, wouldn't be out of place on the first Old Man's Child record or perhaps a better produced Nattens Madrigal, plus a little swagger redolent of Borknagar or older Marduk. But with this album, they're woven into this massive, nearly 60 minute tapestry of triumph and torment, given a lot of space to breathe in, and if you can slow your heart to keep pace with the stuff it's quite effective. Personally I was really happy with the ambient components, too, like the three-part "La Cavern de Glace" sequence which grows progressively more evil on the third movement, when dark chants and droning guitars arrive in a morbid conjunction. Spiritus' is great at coming up with these lower-fi dungeon synth moments where everything seems as if its cast through a black & white lens of creepiness, and I almost regretted that this wasn't just the dominant feature of the whole album...

I say that, because no matter how solidly plotted and well dressed the standard metallic songs are with their percussive backdrops and Spiritus' vile, snarled black metal rasping, many of the riffing progressions here do occasionally border on excessively repetitive and predictable in nature. There is some variation to pacing and he does throw a few more twisted, dissonant curve balls, just enough that it's impossible to write any one song off here, but there are certainly moments where the drifting nature of the songwriting grows a fraction more dull than I might have hoped. It's persistently dark, leering and soul-leeching, but ultimately a handful more unique and compelling riff selections would have made a great difference. However, on the whole I still must say I got 'into' Gouffre Onirique et Abîmes Cosmiques. It's not quite so profound as several of the other Sepulchral Productions releases I covered in recent months, but whenever I see the name Neige et Noirceur I certainly want to listen to what he's written, and am far from disappointed with this, ranking it somewhere between La seigneurie des loups (2010) and Hymnes de la montagne Noire (2012) in sum quality.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, March 10, 2014

Beast Within - Adversity/Servitude 7" (2014)

The simplicity of expression on this 7" sadly tends to work against it, by which I'm referring to the extremely basic riffing concoctions that Beast Within bring to the fore. It's not necessarily that the technique is one I don't welcome, and these guys make the most of the few chords they muster, but that, even at around 4 minutes, these songs went on too long with too little of import happening. This is a group composed of fellas from various other acts, including Thesyre, who had a similar penchant for minimalist aggression, but it seems almost all the stress here went onto the meaty production of the guitars and there's just no sense of intricacy whatsoever, coupled with nothing interesting in the guitars beyond just their burly sincerity.

The saving grace is probably the vocalist, who has a really strong, angry presence with just enough nastiness, reminding me of Martin Walkyier (Sabbat) if he were a little less glib of tongue and sustained all his lines, or maybe a little bit of James Hetfield's style if he had a different tone. Riffing is pretty clearly inspired by the mighty Celtic Frost of olde, but this is really only a superficiality because the chords seem more direct than the weirder, morbid choices of the Swiss legends. Drawn out, repetitive grooves and a hint of chugging, with no decent leads or atmospheres anywhere in sight. Just a slowish to mid paced drudging that cocks back its fist, winds up a punch, delivers the strike and then the remainder of the songs are just follow-through on that one brutal motion. Drums are deliberately simple, semi-crashing beats and the bass-lines are just swarthy doppelgangers of the rhythm chords. It could not have taken Beast Within a long time to come up with these, and alas that straightforwardness juts doesn't offer enough nuance or detail to spur compulsion for more than a handful of cursory listens...

It's not exactly horrible or anything, I just came away with wanting more. More structure, more of a reason to care. I do like the vocalist Eric Syre's approach, and I think with a more varied musical backdrop he could change his own pitches a little and veer away from the monotony that this release embodies, but that said, I do think there are a lot of folks who might appreciate the sheer, heart-on-a-sleeve anger exuded from the music until it very quickly becomes redundant. Hopefully this short-form release is a test run, so they can get some feedback and offer something a little more detailed. This sort of doom/thrash hybrid is certainly an uncommon one, and there's a lot of room for someone to arrive and exert a little dominance. I'd prefer to hear Syre over some more monolithic, descending, dreadful doom riffs than these which just sort of crawl along with trite rockish riff patterns.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]