Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Helstar - This Wicked Nest (2014) *Album of the Month*

I could really do without the generic politicizing on metal albums! My own politics are barbaric, dubious at best and fall somewhere between the Klingon and Sith Empires, but when I hear some cliched quote like the one you'll find at the beginning of "Fall of Dominion" circa Thomas Jefferson, my eyes start to roll up. Not that these words have somehow lost their relevance or meaning in a world saturated with gamma male government media bullshit (i.e. today), I just think it's a case where artists will pluck a fat, ripe fruit safely from a low hanging most Hollywood films or television shows, they seem to think we're all stupid lemmings and can't dig a little deeper beyond our History 101 texts. Holy crass over-analysis, I think I'm actually supposed to be writing a music review here...

Fortunately, that is where Helstar excels on This Wicked Nest, their eight full-length effort (I'm not counting the rare one with the re-recordings), which continues the 'THRASHSTAR' legacy they embarked on with Glory of Chaos four years back. Not that they've suddenly transformed into a Houston Slayer, or anything, but they mix up the shred-infused power metal aesthetics with a lot of harder hitting, low-end palm muted phrases and pure propulsion that worked for me last time, and it works again here...hard. Despite me scoffing at the quote in the first tune, the inaugural melodies really do a lot to set up that air of elegance, emotion and sophistication they imbued into their cult classics like A Distant Thunder and/or Nosferatu, and once those Branagan/Trevino riffs start blazing along, I was immediately infected. Furthermore, once James Rivera lets out that first Halford-esque scream, I must have reverse aged about 25 fucking years to better days when the metal was put to the pedal and bands like this very fucking one used to dominate my Walkman as I delivered the dailies to middle class suburbia. Oh what a sight and sound I made.

(Ed: Tried to review the rest of this from a 14-year-old perspective, failed, deleted. So allow me to fail from my normal, frighteningly-close-to-middle age.)

At any rate, if you did not enjoy the harder hitting spin on the classic Helstar formula present on the last album, it's unlikely this will alter that perception, but I for one just enjoy having a USPM band open the silos and just let goddamn loose. Attacker did it last year, and while This Wicked Nest is nowhere near as brilliant, it's chalk full of bustling thrash chops and James' indistinguishable voice which sounds just as powerful, cutting and unique as it ever did 25-30 years ago. I like to think that New Helstar continuously seeks atonement for Multiples of Black with these newer albums, and if they continue to entertainment on this level I may eventually offer my personal forgiveness. The riffs are hardly rocket science, and not as individually memorable as those you'd fine on Nosferatu or any of the albums before that, but there's this great balance of forward-charging patterns and formidable, traditional leads, interspersed with slower, harmonized mute picking patterns reminiscent of their 1988-1989 stuff which just gets me every time I hear it. The bass-lines are thick, the drums are a little too poppy but otherwise inhabit that fulfilling sense of ass-kicking energy the Texans espouse.

This is not exactly the dirtiest or evilest material, but it's that contrast between the pummeling rhythm guitars and Rivera's higher range that gives it a Painkiller-on-steroids feel in tunes like "It Has Risen" and the title cut, which is pretty much perfect for pumping iron and makes me air-kick at the nearest wall like a pussy. The good ole spry triplet gallops return, as do the slicing effects on Rivera where he'll echo off some higher pitched scream at the edge of the pan, giving him the audio countenance of an alien air raid. In truth he doesn't sound a whole lot different than a quarter century ago, with the exception of marginal studio wizardry, and the guy even throws out some nasty black/thrash rasps which don't sound nearly as hokey as they might have. There are points where this transitions directly into what feels like a meatier castoff from A Distant Thunder, or something which might have sufficed on either of the Destiny's End records, and while that's not 'news' it still feels as vividly and appropriately entertaining as anything this band will likely ever write again...

This Wicked Nest suffers slightly from a lack of subtlety, nuance and variation, and I for one would love another concept disc like Nosferatu where those elements are better formed and fulfilled, but in the meantime I am more than happy to hear Helstar clad its nostalgia with the armor of the present. Might lack some of the surprise reaction I had towards Glory of Chaos, but at the very least this was the most 'fun' album I've experienced in several weeks, and so once again I offer my thanks to Rivera, Branagan and company for holding this beast together way beyond its expiration date.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Holy Moses - Redefined Mayhem (2014)

When I'm 50 years old, I'd love to be able to shout my thrash vocals at an audience, or even just a wall in private, and be proud of what I hear emitted from a tongue and throat that have held and/or beheld countless concerts, conversations, and cruelties. Sabina Classen, who is hands down the most consistent and veteran thrash frontwoman in our entire fucking Solar System, has unlocked this achievement with no sign whatsoever of slowing down. For all I know she'll be doing this when she's 100, and I will be listening from these headphones, or BEYOND. Redefined Mayhem is not exactly the sort of outing that returns her vehicle, Holy Moses to near masterpiece status like Finished with the Dogs, my past and present fave of her entire catalog, but it's vintage Teuton-meets-Bay Area thrash with a handful of modern flourishes that are far from annoying.

She continues to surround herself with people who just 'get it', and there's a particular atmosphere to the songwriting here which feels uniquely uplifting without sacrificing the full-on aggression. You can hear it in the slightly more melodic texture of the chords, which almost feel like a collision of late 80s Forbidden with the more urban-sounding melodic death metal acts out of Scandinavia. A lot of little lead sequences and fills seek to accent out the hammering rhythm guitars with some hints of technicality, and while these can sometimes become annoyingly methodic when they feel like they don't belong, the specific sequences of songs set out for such playing definitely work wonders. Riffs are really concise feeling, but almost always pure 'thrash', with only a modicum of influence from pesky 90s groove metal or other trends that once infiltrated Holy Moses when they suffered a bit of that identity crisis that so many of their peers did post-80s. In spots, a bit of that mundane modernity which occupies recent efforts from bands like Exodus and Onslaught does drag the experience down a little, and in others there seems to be this 'master-becomes-the-student' vibe redolent of Cripper, but in general this was solid stuff that mirrors Kreator's latest in how it doesn't dwell too strongly on the past...

Of course, whether or not you will accept this sound coincides with whether or not you just want all thrash to sound like Darkness Descends, Reign in Blood and Ride the Lightning. Redefined Mayhem is true to its title in that it more closely resembles the great 30th Anniversary: In the Power of Now collection they put out a couple years back, than just the first handful of seminal full-lengths. One of the rare cases where a re-recording package takes a bunch of average material and kicked a little life into it, I really enjoyed that and am not at all disappointed in hearing this as the 'two' punch in that combination. The drums are quite clean, the guitars punchy but polished, the bass lines and Sabina's voice are the only anchors here that moor the music into the cracked concrete and violent Cold War diatribes of the band's first decade of dirty existence. Many of the riffing structures could also be traced back to the 80s, but they've got a more clinical sensibility, a marginally jazzed up resonance to them which creates thrash that might as well just be performed in a corporate boardroom or lounge party as a ratty, dingy basement or club. Even a bit of "YYZ" like Rush riffing ("Sacred Sorrows"). Think the last Heathen album, or the last few Paradox outings, and you're in the right ballpark, though musically I think this is somewhat less explosive.

The main attraction is always Sabina's voice, and as I hinted above, she is still packing a lot of that rage and genuine rasp which I couldn't mistake for anyone else. To an extent, she hangs on a lot to the death growl tone that dominated her later 90s/00s material, but she brings back the clenched anger of classics like Finished with the Dogs when it seems fit, and she even experiments with a slightly higher pitched scream which reminds me of  Schmier's varied abilities in the band Headhunter. It isn't quite so powerful, but it exhibits that Classen has never been opposed to taking risks, and when they stick, as they do here, it only enhances her performance in a tune like "Fading Realities". The only thing which really lacked for me is how the album lacks the total killer songwriting ability they showcased in their prime. This is a solid and steady 45 minutes of content which doesn't feature a lot of particular highlights, but also doesn't often come off weak or offensive. Though I'd define it as the most 'progressive' of Holy Moses' albums, in truth there were records by other bands 30 years ago which better deserved that descriptor.

Not my thrash album of the year by any stretch, not even my favorite German thrash album of this month (more on that soon)...I'm simply impressed that Sabina and crew are doing what they want and not just writing an album full of "Current of Deaths". Yeah, we'd all love that, but even if Redefined Mayhem is evolved from 2008's Agony of Death by a slim margin of gradation, it still seems like a band trying to make thrash 'now' and not 'now' into 'the 80s'. Many will have mixed feelings on this, since the subgenre suffers the biggest division between grumpy old men and youngsters (note that I am not excluding myself from the former category), but I can take it either way, as long as it seems genuine. Holy Moses are rarely 'incendiary' on this album; even the vocals seem measured and not always off their hinges, but I found it was just a consistent disc that took me somewhere I was not. Perhaps not a surprise, since I felt about as strongly about most of their 21st century output (Disorder of the Order, Agony of Death, etc), but I'm never dissatisfied that German thrash continues beyond the 'Big Four'. Redefined Mayhem might not suit the tastes of those who want their headbanging more wild in essence, or not released after 1987, but I have to hand it to this band: they try.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, April 28, 2014

Killgasm - A Stab in the Heart of Christ (2014)

There have been times over the years where I've been flooded with promos for so much mundane, uninteresting music that I've felt my resolve weaken. So I've stepped away, occupied myself with some other form of escape, and then returned with what were hopefully a fresh set of ears. Unfortunately, there is no 'retreat' from just how middling a reaction I could ever form over Killgasm's latest opus A Stab in the Heart of Christ...the riffing patterns here are so banal, so 'been done before' and were frankly so uninspired to begin with that I'm shocked the band members can't recognize the fact...although, if they're doing this on purpose then I guess I've been successfully trolled. A shame, too, for the cover art really seems to promise a repulsive, scathing audio crucifixion.

The Californians play uber-simplistic blackened grind metal, not a formula that many artists can claim to have achieved much success or notoriety with, and you can hear why. To be fair, this is more the former genre than the latter. The blasting is repetitious to the point of droning, with snappy, popping snares. Riff structure is pure black metal, with some really average low chord count patterns interspersed with mildly busier tremolo picked sequences, none of which seem to ever come up with anything compelling or authentically malevolent beyond the fact that they are fast and played with distortion. Vocals are a slightly wilder spin on the standard Scandinavian rasp, but the syllabic flow just seems like a lot of raving and barking with nothing spectacularly gruesome or standout to be found. There is some slight air of atmosphere, with some samples, reverb, layers and dissonance to a few of the chord series; and also a propensity for variety where the savagery will briefly drop away, but so much of this is a banal blast-off that goes absolutely nowhere...

Where they exhibit more mood or texture, usually in a mid-paced environment, they run vaguely less against such bland shores, but even there it's just maudlin black metal without much haunting resonance. The mix of the guitars and drums is fine, but there are no interesting bass lines or samples though the album which work nearly as well as the band probably thought. A group like Anaal Nathrakh tackles this mix of genres with testosterone and explosiveness, threaded with memorable melodies and unforgettable song structures, but Killgasm seem too complicit in its own mediocrity to ever take a successful risk in 39 minutes. I hate to lay it out like that, but honestly is my only currency, and this was one of the least impressive, creatively dry records I've had to sit through in several months.

Verdict: Fail [3.75/10]

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Zoldier Noiz - Regression Process (2014)

I'm pretty grateful that Zoldier Noiz decided to put out another record, and that Unspeakable Axe was the vehicle to do that; without this, I would have forgotten their first one from 2009. Not because I didn't like it, because I did, and even wrote about it on these pages; but sometimes I become overtaxed with information and some interesting band evades my memory, and now I can make sure that doesn't happen again. This is a French thrash band who come across as a 'grounded' version of the Canadian legends Voivod, if that makes any sense. Specifically, if you took some of their first few albums (War and Pain and Rrröööaaarrr) and then replaced some of the more uncanny sci-fi components with some raw Hellhammer swagger, and mildly gruffer vocal barking.

There's always a punk aspect, some dirty crossover thrash and even some wildly rock & roll lead stuff to give it an anarchic, frivolous atmosphere akin to Children of Technology. Riffs aren't exactly intricate, and to be truthful they often stray too close to familiar terrain, but the general noisiness and body of the songs, and that slight air of dissonance and gutter resonance really makes for a fun listen, even if it's not quite so dazzlingly out there its influences. The production is muddy but excellent, with thick and repulsive guitar tone which doesn't feel too oversaturated, just caked with effluvia, garbage and grime. They're not afraid to break out an occasional blast beat or slow things slightly to a head-banging mid-80s thrash fervor circa Nuclear Assault or Exodus, so there are enough dynamics in play that the dingy central aesthetic doesn't grow too dull or repetitive. Once in awhile the guitars will warp into this more clinical sense of understated melody that winds beneath the brute momentum, and it really casts a shadow as gnarly post-apocalyptic street metal.

I, for one, would not mind if they went even more nuanced or intricate, with even more bizarre melodies or atmosphere chords being flung about the asphalt construction of the tunes. Reaching a little more into that Voivod well wouldn't hurt, but I can understand some hesitation to do that. That said, as material which thrives off its own ugliness, Regression Process is every bit the equal of their debut Schizoid Reject, and I had fun with it for a few spins, and if I'm ever hanging with some street-punk or sleaze-thrash associates, this is something I'd love to break out and share with them, assuming they don't beat me to it. Filthy, French, slightly left of the beaten path, and evocative of the 80s without sounding like every other goddamn band wearing a battle jacket, this is the drainage catacomb lying beneath a high concept, where imagination flows like human waste, gray matter splashing about in the rubbish on its way to pollute the sea. Meanwhile, broken glass bottles somewhere above the process are scarring the cheeks of nuclear gangs, pimps are collecting their dough so they can blow it up their nose, and the restlessness and regression are in full swing.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Waxen - Agios Holokauston (2014)

Toby Knapp might be best known as a guitar virtuoso of some repute, and for his work with the Century Media power metal act Onward earlier in the millennium, but the guy has ever been a genuine lover of extreme underground metal, and Waxen is not his first dance with the stuff. There was the tech black/death project Darken, and his team up with ex-Vital Remains vocalist Jeff Gruslin for the second Godless Rising album Trumpet of Triumph, which was pretty good. Here he's gone all out 90s black metal, which I was anticipating since I think his guitar skills might lend a lot of musicality that you don't otherwise hear very often in a very rhythm-guitar-grounded genre like this. In the end, Agios Holokauston does present us with some vivid composition work, but I can't say it feels distinct enough to evade the confines of its medium or really register much personality.

These are some of the most rancid, raw rhythm guitar's he's worked with, so there's an air of suicidal post Burzum black metal which is then driven home by batteries of electronic drums, squelching rasps that are faintly audible as support for the guitars, and then a slightly more eloquent countermeasure of melody and dissonance than you're going to hear off the garden variety bedroom band. Harmonies abound, embedded in the sick filth of his tremolo picking, while there is this added layer of ambient, shining texture supplied which was frankly my favorite contrast of the music. On occasion he'll hit this cacophonous fit of tempo shifting and violence where his vocals are really prominent, and this gave me a Deathcrush vibe which I enjoyed, but this aspect of his performance seems inconsistent throughout the 36 minutes. There are also a number of slowly developing, soul-leeching slower dissonant passages like "Hollow Eyes" which never seem to transmigrate into something truly devastating, despite the initial promise they show.

At any rate, Agios Holokauston can't be accused of lacking some versatility and genuine pathos, and if you've ever found yourself wondering what a Leviathan or Xasthur effort might sound like if written by a guitar god with a trad heavy metal background, I can't think of many more examples beyond this. It's lo fi enough to sate those seeped in underground obsession, but at the same time that could be a turnoff for those wanting more highly developed black metal, which is not exactly Knapps' aim with this project and that's fine. I was in rapture for a few tunes, but losing interest elsewhere. Don't let this serve as a discouragement if you want to experience raw black metal with an angle, but I think some further time in the think-tank will likely serve Waxen well. I don't remember the debut Fumaroth enough to make a substantial comparison, but I feel like that album was stranger in disposition. Nonetheless, this is unfriendly, agonizing extremity that falls somewhere in between Burzum's pre-prison catalog and the Nattefrost solo records; worth a listen once but I will make no wagers that you'll want to hear it twice.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sabbatory - Endless Asphyxiating Gloom (2014)

Autothrall is getting so jaded with this style that he should buy a lager for every old school oriented death metal act that comes along out of the ether and doesn't immediately tick him off by sounding like a direct approximation of either the Swedish originators or the American cavern core-fathers. So by that policy, he might owe Canadians Sabbatory at least a six-pack of some lite beer, because while they clearly owe a lot to Autopsy, Repulsion, Death and a number of other antiquities, he didn't feel like they were just cutting and pasting any particular record, but trying to revisit the late 80s/early 90s with their own time machine and put together a pastiche of what they found there. Not that it makes for a particularly good record, or a refreshing one, but this was tolerable.

The lower-end tremolo picked riffs no longer seem as malevolent as they once did on Scream Bloody Gore, Leprosy or Slowly We Rot. The mortician has turned over his keys to the new leasers and gone into a well deserved retirement. But Sabbatory write songs with a distinguishable opening, middle and end, while shifting lanes from the faster subterranean slaughter to a morbid groove, tinny little leads that at least attempt to graft some additional depth onto what are really straightforward tunes. Pluggy, ugly bass lines woven straight into the rhythm guitar's underbelly, and splashy raw drumming which doesn't focus too much on extreme metal techniques, but more on laying out an appropriately dingy groove. The vocals are hardly going to reinvent the wheel, but they're ghoulish growls with a tail end of ghastly sustain and seem appropriately humble in the context of the level of nuance and quality put into the riffs. Once in awhile, they'll lay out a generic d-beat ("Infantasy") or other annoyance, but these were at least not dominant portions of the disc.

Ultimately, I don't want to get into the habit of allowing 'okay' albums to distract me from the tedium death metal has suffered of late, and Endless Asphyxiating Gloom is just that: okay. A lesser of two evils when I'm faced with another band that wants to steal Left Hand Path or Severed Survival from their creators, but I definitely banged my head out to a few tunes like "Being, Thy Eternal Perplexor" and "The End of a Pessimistic Voyage", if only because I had nothing really else to do at the time. If you've got room in your brain for another death metal throwback, Sabbatory could occupy that space without insulting or boring you too excessively, but they by no means offer an ample replacement for the scores of genuine classics from the epoch they identify with, and there are more creative pastures to pick from, as few and far apart as those might be in the spectrum of extreme metal redundancy. In the meantime, I'll hold aside a $10 spot for these chaps at least not sucking.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Violation Wound - Violation Wound (2014)

Violation Wound is raw metal-punk interpreted through the imaginations of Autopsy god Chris Reifert, bassist Joe Orterry (Zombie Holocaust) and drummer Matt O'Connell who had previously played with Orterry in another band called Fog of War. The project was formed quite recently in the summer of 2013, and so what we're hearing on this debut album is actually some fertile ground which has had only a modicum of time to properly develop. And that suits the trio's M.O. well, because the fuel here is pure riffing punk aggression with perhaps a fraction more depth than you're going to find from some awful Orange County sunshine pop garbage. That's not to say this is entirely inventive or left of center, but it's dirtier than usual with some inbred appeal to fans of crossover and splatter core....whether that's Cryptic Slaughter or The Exploited.

Now, I am one picky mother fucker when it comes to punk rock, far more so than with death metal, and almost all my favorite stuff in the genre hails from the 70s or 80s when you could pull out those trite 3 or 4 chord patterns and rock my face off with a distinct, charismatic vocalist. Since then I've leaned more towards the Gothic or post-punk niches due to their propensity for more creative riffing, something that seems to elude the vast majority of 'true punk' bands no matter how much alcohol they can down, how many car windows they can kick in. To me, 'punk' is rather self-defeating when instead of rebelliously shaping music, so many acts are just recycling the same boring riffs we've been hearing over and over since they were stolen from rock & roll in the 60s/70s. But if a band seems dirty enough, passionate enough, and just a little bit out of the box, I'm usually forgiving enough...I'm not sure I can be with this album, because while for all intensive purposes it's meant as a fun, expendable experience, the 2 minute or under tunes are plagued with generic chord patterns that don't seem particularly exciting, and might have been with a little more effort.

I say that with the caveat that: 1), Volition Wound is not at all a 'bad' or annoying first attempt, and 2) I think it works quite as intended by Chris and his companions. There is constantly an audience for these sorts of cruising, cruddy riffs and this might well be celebrated by crusties, skaters and disaffected death mavens the world over. As advertises, it's honest and simple and ugly as fuck, soaked in beer and sweat and so it gets that part of punk or hardcore proper. I actually dig Reifert's growls over the brighter, sunnier punk chords, a cool contrast, but I'm far more into what he does within Autopsy. The bumping bass lines and driving fills here don't add much personality, but plenty of enthusiasm. 18 tunes, 26 minutes, not a lot of depth and none was sought: a pretty straight paean to the forefathers of the style, whether that be the Stooges, the Misfits, the Damned, Black Flag or Minor Threat, and for some this is going to prove enough, but others like myself who want to hear punk music invested with something hellish and unique will have to seek that out elsewhere.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Gluttony - Beyond the Veil of Flesh (2014)

As soon as those repulsive, punchy guitars and d-beats arrived to inaugurate "The Revenant", I knew Gluttony's full-length debut was going to face an uphill battle to distinguish itself among the myriad of backwards Swedish bands making their rounds. I can imagine there must be some incredibly devout legion of fans out there who have absolutely no qualms with half their record collections sounding exactly like the Entombed, Dismember, Carnage, or Unleashed albums that they enjoyed in their youths (or their late metal blooming); however, I cannot count myself among them, and have grown increasingly wary with a bunch of bands that seem to progressively show less remorse over living as knockoffs to the original sound. Occasionally, there is a well wrought gem among them, but Beyond the Veil of Flesh, for all the sincerity of its production, is not one of these.

Honestly, it doesn't even seem like this group had an iota of imagination in even conceiving the song titles here, because if they've not been used 100 times before, then they're just paraphrased from those that have. Rhythm guitars are chugged in banal patterns that couldn't have taken more than a few minutes to arrive at (they seem to have run with the first ideas rather than played around with note possibilities), and there was not even a single progression of chords anywhere on the eight songs and 30 minutes which would make me remotely regret just playing Left Hand Path, Dark Recollections or Clandestine once more, albums that seem obsessively creative when compared to this despite being over 20 fucking years old! Drums sound great, and there is effort there with the rampant fills attempting to fill out such minimally competent riffs, but they're incapable of carrying an album to themselves; as for the bass, it seems too busy being teabagged by the guitar lines to matter beyond adding just that subtle level of grit. Speaking of which, the vocals are just more L-G Petrov/Matti Kärki, maybe more gravelly or garbled but not by a large margin.

I'm afraid that just looking and sounding the part is no longer enough, and that I'm on the precipice of not covering these sorts of throwback Swedish death metal acts, until more bands come along that actually do something of note with the inspiration (ala Morbus Chron, Tribulation, Necrovation, etc.) Seriously, this might be the straw that broke my camel back. You could do anything to make this more interesting: a capella vocals, ska parts, pop melodies, you name it, it would seem like less of an affront than persisting in such a safe, sterile environmental. When I saw Gluttony's logo and cover art, I was crossing my fingers for something truly visceral, horrifying and morbid, but this has got to be one of the most contrived recordings to visit my desk lately. Even among the company of doppelgangers like Entrails, Miasmal and Revel in Flesh, this is just so uninspired...or TOO inspired, to stand out. I understand there is no harm intended, and they just wanna join in the fun of their forerunners, but you'd honor them more by taking that groundwork they laid and transforming it into something juicy and palatable. Back to the drawing board, or more appropriately, the zombie clawing board, and try your arms, hands, fingers and throats at something fresh. Not this.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Expulsion - Certain Corpses Never Decay (2014)

Is any Swedish stone yet unturned at this point? Must we till the soil, and find the rocks buried underneath? Apparently so, and thus Vic Records has excavated the 1989 demos of Expulsion, a band with relations to the whole Tiamat/Treblinka family which went on to record a handful of forgotten, ill-received records through the 90s, but once performed with a very authentic death/thrash roots aesthetic that seems fully in line with what a lot of underground purists seek out these days. I'm at a point now where my own enthusiasm waxes and wanes for these sorts of releases; on the one hand I get a chance to add some long forsaken gem into my collection, on the other you can kind of see why some of this stuff never broke bigger in the first place...

As for Expulsion, their Cerebral Cessation and Veiled in the Mists of Mystery demos seem to fall in between these poles. This is pretty crude material with riffs that should have been considered average even in their day, and yet it has that general authenticity and innocence which existed prior to the redundancy of their sound. Harshly barking guitars woven into threads of Napalm Death grinding bursts, thrashing mid-paced chops and even a few sluggish grooves redolent of something else British like Bolt Thrower, complete with the mulish little guitar fills at the end of phrases. There's also a heavy doom aesthetic here revolving around some of the slower, drudging riff progressions which remind me of Candlemass if they'd had a primitive black/death metal frontman rather than the operatics of Messiah Marcolin. Thanks to the bloody, hacking vocals here, there is an internal consistency through the demos, but otherwise there might be a little of the disparity we heard on the earlier Tiamat recordings, where the band couldn't quite lay its roots in any one niche, and so explored them all through a dynamic, occult atmospheric blend of seminal extreme metal.

Alas, the songs just aren't nearly as poignant or timeless as those on Sumerian Cry or The Astral Sleep, and so I'm just sort of left appreciating the material for its stark simplicity and hopefulness of transforming into something more. There are a few points at which the songs sound like barely brushed up rehearsals, and others where they delve into a solid, morbid chord progression somewhere around Autopsy or Treblinka in architecture, with crud coating the rhythm guitars and ugliness aplenty, which even the sparse acoustic guitars cannot effectively pierce. Cool for collectors and completionists that had yet to add these to their catalogs, since to my knowledge they haven't been released before (with the possible exception of online rips), but I can see why this probably didn't generate much interest in the first place. I'd also say, that if you're not opposed to a richer production and songwriting more similar to fellow Swedes Cemetary or Lake of Tears, their 1994 full-length Overflow might not be a bad place to start instead. I was never really into that, nor am I feeling these more primal origins, so I can't highly recommend any of it; their material with the other eventual bands was more my style.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Monday, April 21, 2014

Johansson & Speckmann - Sulphur Skies (2013)

Having already become a one man suburb of the Swedish death metal scene at large, Rogga Johansson has begun complementing his original projects (or not so original, depending who you ask) by partnering up with a few veritable death metal legends. He's already done this with the venerable Kam Lee, and with some success (The Grotesquery), so when I heard he was teaming with the Master himself, one Mr. Paul Speakmann, I paid attention. Now, being that I'm a fan of Paul's vocals a lot more than the music on most of his offerings, and often I really like Rogga's writing a lot (or not, he's just got so many bloody projects), I was immediately interested in the possibility that the best of both worlds would collide here into an album more memorable it looked.

Thank fuck, it is alright! We're not talking an inconceivable amount of effort here, but somehow that ghoulish countenance present in Speakmann's growling seems to get a hellish injection from the playful derivation of Rogga's riffing, which is more or less his usual hybrid of d-beat and Floridian fluidity. Sulphur Skies is far from brilliant, mind you, but had it been written as the third Master album in the 90s, or just some other random record from that period, I think it might hold a sort of cult classic status. Most of the tremolo guitar patterns are rather predictable, but there's just that marginal level of genuine evil in their construction that is so often lacking from the more boring cadre of nostalgia bands. With twelve tracks, I could certainly have done without about 4-5 of them, and would rather the rest had been strengthened up. All are relatively concise at around 3 minutes each, and feature a few rhythm changes and diabolic leads, but the quantity could have been shelved to tighten up even an EP's worth of material with more quality riffing and this could have been something really special among the crowded rebirth of the 90s so prevalent lately.

Got no issue with the sound of it...the vocals just have that usual gut ripping quality to them, unmistakable for any other vocalist in the field. Bass lines are thick, the whole record feels really visceral like a killer stalking his prey, and perhaps more importantly, there's no mercy when he catches up. Riffs and leads are stricken with a rawness that doesn't eschew clarity, so Sulphur Skies sustains its violent ethics even when churned out at the highest volume. I would not have minded some more variation in the songwriting, but then I could say the same for most efforts both these guys have involved themselves with in the past, and it's the reason I usually pick out a few tunes and then find the rest skippable. But, to this album's credit, it's definitely a fun enough ride that you won't always want to escape in the middle of the takes you right back to those crucial early 90s when death metal had an air of excitement and danger about it, and I think that is what both parties intended when they got together to record it. Well enough done, but if they put out another it'd behoove them to sink a little more time and effort into sculpting a genuine new classic.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ignivomous - Contragenesis (2012)

The artwork on my CD booklet for this is incredibly dim, so I was glad to score a brighter digital pic for the review. Really, though, just adjust your eyes, for when the pyroclasmic finale of humanity arrives, it won't be pretty. All roiling lava, sinking structures, smoke-filled sky and lungs slowly breathing their last. Then darkness. Contragenesis, being the counter to creation, is mildly more vivid and exciting in texture than that suffocating imagery might hint, but there is nothing comfortable about this record, just a damned consistent pummeling of the skull packed with tension and dynamics, a Mortal Throne of Nazarene sitting in the second row at a demolition derby and hurling popcorn at the destruction below. And if Death Transmutation hadn't been an ample enough effort to convince you of Ignivomous' magma-spewing audacity, this one surely secures their spot as one of the chief retro-brutal death metal exports of all the Australian continent.

Contragenesis' production is perhaps the best thing about it, with these caustic, crushing flows of riffing fuzz that cascade across a number of low end, tremolo picked harmonies that are so fat sounding I can barely comprehend how they manage to fit them over the dextrous drumming without the amps exploding. Loads of low end grooves round out the pacing, and just about every time they set up some bristling new progression they manage to mold the listener's imagination back to excitement with some sort of endtimes aural dopamine drug that constantly refreshes you, no matter how tired you might be of hearing the subterranean death metal craze of the new 'teens. Vocals capture all that cavernous resonance of a Craig Pillard or Ross Doland, and while that's probably not the sickest or most distinctive of styles so many years after the originals were first spawned forth, they do such a good job mixing these to the guitars and drums that it they sound fucking monolithic. The bass does tend to blend too much into the rhythm tracks, and the frilly little leads peppered sporadically among the compositions could be a little louder and in the face, but otherwise Contragenesis is one of the best sounding throwback death metal gems in my entire collection...

Now, this is not a 'riff' band. They have a hundred of the things, but they're not individually impressive or varied enough to really make it an album where you'd pick out particular songs to throw on a mix for your new girlfriend. No, Ignivomous once again demands that you sit there and take each molten spray in the face, endless gushing 'gasms of melted matter; but for what it's worth, there is certainly a level of complexity and nuance with what they do...these are busier patterns than your normal cave evil, and the constant threat of leads or end-phrase embellishments keep it interesting. Contragenesis might have lacked some of the surprise and malevolence of its predecessor, but it very nearly compensates in that it's a tighter effort with a meatier tone that sounds ridiculously morbid and voluptuous bursting out the speakers. I'm not sure how long their style will last without some tweaking and progression between releases (there is a little here from the first), but in the meantime this is just a corpulent libation to both Finnish ghoulishness and the darker, more impenetrable side of 90s NYDM which should not be ignored by anyone who revels in such claustrophobic, evil flatulence from below the Earth's crust.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (inimical to existence)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ignivomous - Blood and Mercury (2011)

I've seen discussions which place Ignivomous uncomfortably close to being waived away as an Incantation knockoff, but even though I think that's such an obvious influence in their sound, I have really enjoyed the total package of what this band brings to the table. Their influences have themselves moved on to a more accessible (but still excellent) sort of songwriting aesthetic, and Ignivomous simply takes a healthy heaping of that cavernous, turbulent early to mid-90s NYDM, slathers it in some Finnish viscera from the same time period, and then produces the audio equivalent of sentient, roiling magma that wishes very much to consume its listeners flesh. Otherworldly, hostile and consistent are all qualities that come to mind when experiencing their debut Death Transmutations, and so too do they apply to the earlier material featured on this comp.

Blood and Mercury is more or less a 'perfect' collection of the band's pre-full length recordings, perfect in that it spares a lazy arse like myself from having to track them down individually. The Path of Attrition demo (2007), Eroded Void of Salvation EP (2008) and a split track they did with Tzun Tzu are gathered up and presented in chronological order, then topped off with a previously unheard cut called "Corpse of the Redeemer". Nothing unexpected, but low end, grinding death metal with a fibrous, diseased tone to those rhythm guitars which possess an unerring level of anger redolent of war metal bands like Blasphemy, only affixed with the Craig Pillard-like guttural vocals and primal aesthetics more prevalent on the first few Incantation albums. There's a natural dissonance incurred through the tuning and tone alone, but it's not as if the Australians are playing a slew of unusual riffs here, this is all rather straightforward from the blasted side to the more sparing, death/doom passages. Bass lines are engraved into the riff progressions, but there is still a 'hovering' din of the low end over the ripping flesh guitars, while the drums are feisty and energetic but not so polished or soulless as you'd find on a modern tech death recording.

If I were to gauge the quality of songwriting here to that of the debut or its successor, then Blood and Mercury does represent the weakest in their career. There isn't a lot of natural malevolence here, nor are the patterns much more than acceptable for the genre, trying perhaps a little too hard to pass on production alone. Not that I expect a sense of melody when listening through death metal of this style, but sometimes the guitars are too muddied and sporadic sounding to really consider the axis of notation upon which they trudge, so there's a lot of sameness and running on here precluded only by minor production shifts between the releases that make up the comp. I actually found that they progressed in quality, with the tumultous closer offering the more compelling structure with that noisy feedback and distant whispered chanting that arrive in the bridge segue. Death Transmutation wasn't wildly varied, but it was stronger overall, with riffing components that translated into evil signals in my brave and just felt oppressive and so, so ugly. This is ultimately one for the collectors, not as an introduction, but at least they ensured that it was an 'all-in-one' deal and you wouldn't have to further track down a bunch of obscure cuts.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (your flock of wretchedness)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Hail of Bullets - III: The Rommel Chronicles (2013)

I've been comfortable for years claiming that Hail of Bullets provides my favorite Asphyx material, because it so ramps up the tension and potential of that seminal death metal entity while also offering the same enormous clusterfuck production which the members' primary act also has capitalized on with their recent releases. That said, this Dutch act plays with such a simplistic, strength-minded sensibility that there is constantly the threat of them burning themselves out, writing a set of riffs too complacent or plain in structure that they can fail to achieve, and I do think to an extent this has happened with the third full-length III: The Rommel Chronicles, only not so much that I didn't still pump the fuck out of this thing on a number of occasions.

No, riff for riff, this is not the equal of either of its predecessors, nor does it start off particularly promising with "Swoop of the Falcon", but there is enough meat on its bones that retro death metal pundits the world over should find some common ground being tread. Van Drunen's vocals have lost nothing with age, but I would not say that his performance here is among his more memorable...that award still belongs to his old Pestilence material, on which he pretty much created every pattern he'd later re-arrange. I am surprised that his voice has held up this long, he's got such a bloodiness in there which seems like it would have cracked a million times over in 30 years, yet the ugliness persists, the desperation and hostility which is almost like Lemmy Kilminster gargling gunpowder while chomping on an unlit cigar...always about to explode! Rhythm guitars maintain that corpulent fleshiness of the other albums, only a few tunes like "To the Last Breath of Man and Beast" contained groove riffs so unfuckably exhausted that part of The Rommel Chronicles feels more like an obligation than an advancement further along enemy lines...

Many of those grooves unfortunately also remind me of stuff you'd hear on an average Six Feet Under disc, not that it's such a bad thing with Van Drunen taking the helm in place of Barnes, but stuff like "DAK" could have used an added sheen of atmosphere or complexity to help raise the roof. Like a lot of acts these years, Hail of Bullets seem to be increasingly relying on the momentum of their production values alone to mask rehashed ideas, and if that's going to be the case they might have just ended with the excellent sophomore album. On the other hand, lyrically I found this fascinating, since Rommel is one of my favorite historical military figures and perhaps the most competent of the Axis strategists, and when listened to in one lump sum in my car, the disc fucking crushed me on a number of occasions that I still consider it a solid success, even though it really lacks the surprise value of the others, and the riffs are a few tiers lesser in quality. It'd be nice now for the Dutchmen to take leave for awhile, come up with some new ideas and perhaps even attempt to dial up the complexity of what they write rather than just do the same shit time in and time out, which is also symptomatic of Asphyx. Just because you can write the same, progressively redundant riffs and stay 'loyal' to a sound does not mean that you should pursue the course indefinitely...Rommel is strong, but like the figure himself, not invincible.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (on to the next duel)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Infernal Curse - The End Upon Us EP (2014)

As the pestilent pulpit of old school death metal continues to preach into the ears of more parishioners, the sounds continue to grow uglier and more unrefined, as is evidenced by the latest EP of the Argentinian graveyard union known as Infernal Curse. Similar to several bands from their neighboring Chile, you're being presented here with an alternative accumulation of late 80s/early 90s death metal tropes which have been twisted into something mildly unique due to what might or might not be a more exotic interpretation of the seminal works of acts like Autopsy, Rottrevore, Necrovore and Incantation, though this is restricted more to production choices than musical technique.

The End Upon Us is a great looking EP, with cover artwork that does well to visually ascribe to its musical aesthetics, which are unapologetic in their primacy. Stripped down. Base. Smeared in offal and viscera. Like the unearthing of some dirt tomb where plagued paupers were recently buried alive. You can never quite shake the stench of this from your ears after listening, with voluptuous and bruising bass lines and soiled, smearing chords and tremolo guitars which don't evoke a lot of variation or melody throughout their evocation. The drums seem peppier and able to offer a contrast to the dinginess of the strings, with enough reverb on the fills to lend some atmosphere to the muddy script. Chord progressions are exceedingly primitive and unfortunately don't arrive at any creative ideas; I'm getting to the point where I'm well beyond loving this stuff just because of its purism alone, and when they concede into even more simplistic doom death grooves, it feels agonizingly retread and dull.

A shame, because I'd be much more compelled if they used this same, impenetrable production and then wrote some resonant licks or leads into it which could cultivate the feel of alien, obscure death metal so missing from many of its nostalgia-addicted champions. Infernal Curse has been at this awhile, but apart from the fact they promulgate an even more deformed visage to the music than some of their better known peers, there's just not a lot here that I felt myself wanting to return to. Again, The End Upon Us has that initial, visual stimulation where the artwork and musical goals seem aligned, but then there is no surprise awaiting you behind each leaning structure, each withered limb, each whorl of blackened miasma sucking on the soul stuff of the intended victims. Even the Hadez cover doesn't sound much different apart from the possible chord placement, and while I've heard much worse, the EP ultimately dissolves amidst the blurred, swelled ranks of its fellow retrogressors.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Grief of Emerald - It All Turns to Ashes (2012)

Keeping a review to a concise length is no mean feat when the cover artwork speaks to just about everything you need to know about the musical content. Fire and blasphemy, hatred of the holy, Grief of Emerald seem about as sincere and serious about its sacrilege here as anywhere else in their career. The Swedes' sophomore, and fifth album overall, through Dutch Non Serviam records, It All Turns to Ashes is quite likely their most professional and musically evocative offering, but 20+ years into a band's existence I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a little more distinction and personality, which is sacrificed here in what could be best described as an attempt to compile all their tricks and techniques over the prior four albums into something simply 'better'.

In all fairness, it really is. Namely, the production has hit another plateau, with the crisp and forceful tremolo picked guitars hitting their stride in most of the band's most involved and ear-sticking melodies to date, while the synthesizers embedded into the atmosphere are mixed with more of an airy grace, using a lot of similar pad/organ sounds as on the earlier material, but seemingly more nocturnal and scintillating. Grief's flaw was never the band's actual musicianship, and they further exemplify their grasp of technique with a firm balance of faster paced, blistering note progressions that erupt into convulsive, percussive palm muted patterns and leads imbued with an exotic Eastern mystique. It All Turns to Ashes might not be stuffed to the fiery gills with solo work, but I like how these guitars are slathered and squealing over the meatier rhythms with a more defiant rock & roll attitude, and yet never steer the listener's attention away from the feisty, brutal momentum of pieces like the mighty "Warstorms" or the title track itself, amongst a suitably varied lineup.

Of course, when you break down the riffs further, the patterns seem like a standard admixture of the lines populating the busier tunes of Cradle of Filth, Marduk, Lord Belial or Dark Funeral around the dawn of the millennium, played firmly and with precision but never truly imaginative or compelling to develop an identity. This dearth of nuance extends to Johnny Letho's vocal rasp, which is likewise pretty commonplace among the Swedish legions, and lacking the more sinister decree of black metal frontmen who leave you with an unmistakable impression that they've been damned below the surface world. In fact, It All Turns to Ashes is really all surface stuff; speed and flash and little depth of malevolence. Just because consecrated ground is set ablaze here, doesn't mean I think these guys have much of a concern for the subject matter beyond the fact that it fits their musical objectives. This is without question their most accomplished effort, likely to sate those who retain an investment in fast, clean, proficient Scandinavian black metal, and the one to check out before any others if you're new to them, but that doesn't preclude the interested party from checking out of their catalog once these particular altars are cinders and the priest have been run off.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Grief of Emerald - The Devils Deep (2011)

My heart was hardly broken when Grief of Emerald took a seven year dirt nap, but nor was I really surprised when they returned a half decade later to produce a demo recording that was essentially 50% of their forthcoming fourth opus The Devils Deep. It's a little disappointing that all this time was put to poor use, since the material here is vaguely distinguishable from even their 1998 debut Nightspawn, and yet I think the subtle advancements in production techniques paired up with their already sharpened musical ability to produce what was possibly their most 'accomplished' record to its day, or at least the best looking, since it has the first cover art I actually thought was pretty cool.

The Swedes always suffered from the fact that, despite their general level of competence and proficiency, they were essentially a retread of many other bands who released music like this when it was freshly infernal and resonant, albums that still spin in the regular rotations of a million extreme metal fans to this day. So if The Devils Deep would have already seemed generic by late 90s standards, what does that make it by the Anno 2011? Clearly there has been no popular retrogression back towards this style. A few other Swedish bands like Watain had championed the more Dissection/Dark Funeral-esque style to some degree of notoriety (more through their inconsistent and confrontational personalities than some of their music), but the genre as a whole had moved on to other territories...depressive black metal, 'blackgaze', or folksy, veiled Nationalism. A disc sounding like The Devils Deep was never in high demand, and yet, there are certain nuances to the material here which allow it to surpass all the older albums through Listenable.

The sound is tighter and sharper than any since arguably their debut, with a lot of those razor-snake riffs and melodies compounded into punishing fruition with another tireless battery of blasted and slower contrasts. I felt like the lead-work in particular here was the best they'd yet recorded, parting a veil to reveal another level of malignancy in composition, and the decision to toss on a few soaring, cleaner vocals is also managed rather well. The level of structural variation here also reached a new peak, though there was still a tendency to lapse into derivative and predictable riffs during blasted sequences which almost make everything else more compelling by association. However, there are at least a dozen sweet riffs in among the lattice of the forgotten, whereas the keyboards have more compunction and resilience. When Grief of Emerald fire on all cylinders here, they can at least stay in the race with much of their competition, and though three of the seven tunes are mere re-recordings from the first two albums, these versions are very much superior. Not a good album itself, perhaps, but The Devils Deep is adequately seasoned enough to taunt that the Swedes were capable of writing one.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (there the blood of the ancient boils)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Grief of Emerald - Christian Termination (2002)

Problems persisted with Grief of Emerald's ability to stand out among a very crowded crowd, but one has to give them a little credit for at least settling down on a few things here, not the least of which are the choice of logo (and a decent one) and more vicious production values of their third and final record in the Listenable deal: Christian Termination. I grant you, the label might have been glad to wash their hands of such a decidedly average black metal execution for the time, but the Swedes did end on their highest note yet and if nothing else, I cannot challenge the level of aggression and persistence here, or the fact that they so boldly wore their sacrilege on their sleeves in a ploy that might have worked to attract more brutal/occult death metal fans into their fold.

The death metal component here is of course understated; you could classify a few of the slower chugging riffs in that category, but this is still keyboard-induced orchestration with a lot of predictable Scandinavian black metal riff progressions which veer between mid-paced simplicity and sinuous, serpentine melodies which sadly are just never that great. I actually dug the ruddy sewage of that rhythm guitar tone, it stands out far more than on the prior albums and made the vocals by comparison seem a lot more grisly and fucked up. Drums were still a power storm of blasts and double-bass, void of subtlety or dynamic range outside of the tempo alone, but they definitely bludgeon away like a lot of the faster Floridian evil death metal via Deicide or Diabolic. If Christian Termination has one notable aesthetic departure from its predecessors, I would label that the more chaotic like "The Almighty is Rising" feel like they take more random turns in pacing, and while this is occasionally obnoxious, it does at least reveal a mild sense of misdirection. Grief of Emerald were trying to break out of their box here, just not really succeeding so well...

The cover art was still insidiously lame, with some strange orgy of giant snakes and skull-faced nuns, but you could at least laugh at this one where the others were just too awkward to stare at for more than a second. It's all dowsed in fire and evil with crucifixes and stained-glassed windows for background, and that sort of showiness permeates the music itself, and the constant nagging organ tones being run off in the background but heavily crushed by the volume of the riffing force and vocals. Once in a while they'll fire off an exotic level of escapism like that melodic intro to "Those Who Bear the Mark" which hinges on some actual quality music, but for the most part Christian Termination tends to thrive off its cliched blasphemies and genre alone. That said, of the band's first phase (prior to the ensuing hiatus), this is hands down the strongest of the three full-lengths and might possess some limited appeal to fans who number mid-list Swedish black metal albums amidst their collections of Deicide, Krisiun and Vital Remains.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (your easiest prey)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Grief of Emerald - Malformed Seed (2000)

While the second attempt at creating a Grief of Emerald logo using some arbitrary low-level font failed miserably, and the cover artwork to their sophomore is more laughable than demonic as intended, I do think Malformed Seed takes a single stride forward in terms of effectiveness. The Swedes seemed to have better settled into the symphonic black metal histrionics here with a little more compulsion than merely to blast away as derivatively as possible and ride in the wake of far better bands who released prominent recordings 5-6 years earlier. I'm not implying a broad stylistic gulf between this and its predecessor Nightspawn, but a few times on this album I felt like I almost heard a genuinely decent riff churned out amidst so many vapid impostors.

There is a slightly deeper end to this, with perhaps a lot more double-bass groove patterns infested with the incendiary tremolo picked guitars and basic chord configurations that defined the debut. The synths seem to swell with a more voluptuous malevolence, all strings and fell angel choirs splayed out in rather common and predictable patterns that lend a fuller body to the thinner sound of the guitars. There are also a number of more chug-like bottom end riff patterns which fall somewhere between Samael's "Jupiterian Vibe" and any random sequence off Dimmu Borgir's Enthrone Darkness Triumphant or Spiritual Black Dimensions, performed with a warlike, steady bombast that gives the impression of a couple of gargoyle armies launching themselves to war in a massive subterranean cavern, its vaulted walls alight with the radiance of magma. Of course, whichever of these forces the ugly 'cover model' belongs to, I hope would be the loser, so that its ugly countenance can be smashed to pebbles...but I digress. Occasionally these lower, loping grooves take on a more death meta vibe circa Morbid Angel's Blessed Are the Sick or Domination, albeit with less interesting notation.

While atmosphere was not exactly vacant from Nightspawn, Malformed Seed ramps it all up with that stronger contrast of bass-like tones and cavernous faux-organs. The vocals retain a stock rasp which presents them as indistinguishable from a hundred other bands in the medium, never arranged into anything that remotely resembles a fascinating threat, and in fact they often feel quite independent from the music, due most likely to the production. That aforementioned focus on the double-bass beatdowns also leaves me with the mild impression that the Swedes were going for a more mosh-friendly sound here, still accountable to all the Norsecore hordes, but aimed more centrally at an audience that at was the time more concerned with chug-laden melodic death metal and whatever was on Nuclear Blast that week. The result is at best like Samael's Passage without the soul and songwriting, and at worst just another of those countless late second wave duds that populated the later 90s to bursting. 14 years later, this retains a small modicum of cheesy entertainment, but it's absolutely faceless when paired up against any record that meant a damn.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (even you carry the thorn)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Grief of Emerald - Nightspawn (1998)

Grief of Emerald is a Scandinavian black metal band lost among so many other Scandinavian black metal bands almost as soon as they left the starting gate...and for good reason. Take a look at this album, and then, say, take a look at Darkthrone's A Blaze in the Northern Sky, which remains so stark and effective, or Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse; evocative and threatening. Not that I like slagging a record for packaging decisions alone, but even if this were some work of musical brilliance, which it really isn't, the lame digital cover art and choice of non-logo give it absolutely no sense of identity beyond a million modern groove metal or melodic death albums of its day, much less vaulting into the black metal elite. I had no idea when I first acquired this what the hell it was, only that being released through Listenable it was going to be some combination of death and black metal. The band name was bizarre, I'll grant you, but that's unfortunately their most memorable aspect, at least when it comes to the 1998 debut Nightspawn.

Once we arrive at the actual musical content, we're greeted by a competently performed 43 minute burst of precision black metal which falls completely short of distinguishing itself from the Emperors, Dissections, Limbonic Arts, Dimmu Borgirs or other 'symphonic' black metal bands of its day which use keyboards to create a vaster cosmic/nocturnal impression and some tension with the razor-honed guitars. Don't get me wrong, these Swedes can play the shit out of their respective instruments. Riffs are somewhat dazzling and complex and flying all over the atmosphere, while the blasted drums are tireless and responsible for much of the belligerent ballast. Just about everything on this stage is set for a tremendous career of potential, but where Grief of Emerald could not compete with their myriad peers was in summoning up some semblance of personality or uniqueness. Every riff choice, every rasped vocal battery, every keyboard pad is more or less a composite lifted from a few dozen albums that had already hit market, and while they did well enough to try and straddle between the atmosphere of old Covenant and the sheer intensity of countrymen Naglfar, and really this feels like a group of session musicians from other acts just got together to impersonate them after being handed walking papers...

To be fair: it's far from terrible as a debut, and I've got rather a soft spot for this old 'night-sky', haunted castle sort of recording which carries off my imagination to old Dungeons & Dragons adventures or pagan alternate universes where demons reign over corpse-painted barbarians. But even then, there are just too few riffs which stand out, and considering how many they throw your way over the course of the nine tunes, I would have expected a few left hooks that justified the remainder. Instead, it's just a seamless showcase of banal tremolo picked chords or single note streams, occasionally dispersed with slower, dissonant shining chords that are no different than many of their peers. Lyrics are quite similar to other Swedish bands like Dark Funeral, Lord Belial or Marduk, that is to say decent if not outstanding. The vocals are nasty and impassioned enough that he doesn't seem to be fronting, but the album very badly wants to come across as evil or menacing and instead it seems like filling out a black metal connect-the-dots book hosted by some ghoulish mascot throwing you the horns. Almost like a proto-Dethklok without the failed humor, everything about Nightspawn screams 'me too guys, surely you have enough space in your hearts for another Norsecore band! We're totally legit!

Verdict: Indifference [5/10] (kindred cadaver dine)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Dornenreich - Freiheit (2014)

Dornenreich has always struck me as an act which puts such a tremendous amount of effort into its songwriting that I feel a few pangs of guilt that they've never left more of an impression with me. Despite immersing myself into a number of their past works, including 2011's Flammentriebe (one of their best), I simply don't find much of an allure to reach back once the initial listening period has passed. That said, I do not in general maintain an obsessive desire for such polished, folksy pastures upon which these Austrians graze. My preference was always for the dingier, more obscure sojourns of a Falkenbach or the Middle Earth majesties of the legendary Summoning, both of whom fill a comparable niche, while sounding very little like this band. At the end of the day, though, there is a massive audience for what Dornenreich commit to their albums, and Freiheit should continue to make new fans out of listeners within and without the folk metal genre, a nearly perfect 'period piece' band whose adherence to glinting traditional instrumentation should make the the toast of many faires and the emerging cultural awareness of younger European generations who were seemingly lost for decades.

This is more of a folk album than a metal album, to be sure, but not the sort of navel-gazing predictable stuff you'll find at a local coffeehouse open mic. They keep their writing engaging, narrative, weaving varied emotions through the rugged/smooth paradigm shifts of vocalist Eviga (Jochen Stock), who often seems just as much on the attack as he would during a more metallic shift in the band. Speaking of which, those only start to erupt around the mid point of the album's eight tracks, and usually just involve heavy chords to back up the violins and acoustic guitars, but Freiheit is so confident and invested in this neofolk side that you can honestly listen through without any expectations of metal content and not feel as if you're missing out. Bass lines are timid, drums as crystal and impacting as the more eloquent strings, and the production of this just sounds absolutely incredible at almost any volume. So accessible and involved are these guys that you have to wonder why they aren't booked for every Medieval/folk festival on the Eurasian continent, because they surpass most strictly folk/classical string-based ensembles I've experienced on record. But on the other hand, there is enough here for a rock fan to enjoy, what with the uptempo maneuvers and dreamy, ebullient melodies woven over the rambling rustic structures.

The only points at which the disc veers away from the accessible are the more tortured, gut-fed black metal vocals which arrive in a cut like "Das Licht vertraut der Nacht", which might turn off a few old timers but really just contribute to Eviga's overall charisma through these tales. Lighter than air, but eternally tormented, it clearly reminds you of Dornenreich's more aggressive roots without selling short the atmosphere and mainstream viability cultivated elsewhere through the instrumentation. The Austrian German lyrics might throw up a language barrier for those beyond the band's borders, but I think ultimately that anyone seeking out such a folksy purity on a recording wouldn't find this much of a hindrance. Their practice of packaging the music with a very common naturalistic image continues here, and yet strangely doesn't grow old since it jives with the authenticity and tradition implicit in the musical aims. I do feel that I got more out of the last album Flammentriebe than I did here, but this is certainly another of those records which has me pining for a past on the European mainland that I am far too removed to have ever experienced. With the appropriate lager and company, this is a pretty substantial trip into time, as Dornenreich persist in their evolution from some folk metal guys into a cultural artifact.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lantlôs - Melting Sun (2014)

Although I had become decreasingly fond of Lantlôs over the course of Herbst's first three albums, Melting Sun is one of those records that offers me affirmation as to why I often stick with bands when I think they might have something hidden in there which has yet to surface. Granted, the last one I experienced (Agape) was more or less a creative coma of dull ideas. This project was by and large surfing on the trending wave of shoegaze oriented black metal expatriates, with nothing more to show for it than meeting the laws of supply & demand, to the point that Neige of the tragically overrated Alcest himself was involved, but it seems that after nearly a decade of gestation, Lantlôs has at long last settled into a comfort zone and begun to produce some quality assurance.

Disclaimer: this is so barely metal that I'd sooner just categorize it with the post, indie and space rock waves of the mid 90s, the black-tinted riffing progressions now a thing of the past, though you might pick out a few tremolo picked guitars or drudging chords which can frankly belong to a number of rock genres. But that's quite alright, because like its title hints, it provides this fulfilling, warm cycle of emotions which brings to mind Chicago abandon-rock darlings Hum from when they had a few singles 15-ish years ago, or perhaps more recognizably a few drop of Smashing Pumpkins' massive alterna-rock bleeding through. Solar flare drifts of brighter guitars careen across the vacuum of weighted chords, thick and juicy bass-lines pumping fresh blood through the glacial rhythmic veins which supply Melting Sun's circulation. Most of these tunes require a little patience for the payoff. Not to the point that they're truly time-consuming, and Herbst reins in the experience at around 40 minutes, but he takes his time in delivering the most heightened and passionate passages above the sailing, soothing strains of ambiance, progg-ish low-end lumps of bass and dreary yet uplifting vocals.

His voice is not exactly memorable, per se, but I think it fits the spaciousness of the music through some of the sustained passages; also helps 'ground' the songwriting aspirations with an everyman quality that sounds like any of your random middle aged neighbors going out to pick up the morning paper and then stopping to ponder a cloud, rainbow or some other unspeakable phenomena of the natural world. Gentler, ambient clean guitar passages and swelling backdrops ("Golden Mind" being a prime example) help round out some of the harder hitting, bulky guitar progressions, and Melting Sun never abandons its central ebb and flow of calm and crushing contrasts, star-tides radiated through the cosmos and soaked into the skins of the living. I would not deem this a massive stylistic departure from any of the previous records I've heard, but it seems handling all the instruments/vocals himself has resulted in more consistent, catchy fare that borders on poignancy, and while it's nothing intensely intellectual or amazing, I enjoyed listening to it...and coming from an individual who though the prior works were middling at best, I hope that means something.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Howls of Ebb Interview

Interview with zEleFthAnD by Autothrall.

When launching this site six years ago, my original intention was not only to write up critiques on a comprehensive body of metal works, but also to converse with the creators behind some of the most compelling and inspirational of recordings I've encountered through my listening. Well, as the months (and years) rolled on, I really failed to launch on this aspect, finding it difficult to dig up the investment I had in the 90s when writing for a print zine. That all changes this Spring, as I embark on a monthly quest to pick the brains of some of the more fascinating authors of agony in the underground! Who better to start this with than the esoteric consciousness behind the Howls of Ebb, whose debut album through I, Voidhanger records has spent several nights with me on the very precipice of sanity...I was honored to speak with songwriter, vocalist and guitarist  Z.L.H..

Auto: The question a lot of people probably want me to ask: what's behind the name Howls of Ebb? Definitely sticks out...

Z.L.H.: I had the name prior to writing any content. It came to me quite easily because I already had an idea of the sound and approach in mind. I suppose ‘Howls of Ebb’ could be construed as an (almost) irreconcilable duality of those that are in denial, fearful and/or mournful of humanity's inevitable demise (or decline), and those that embraces it with vigor and might. As the creator, I like to weave through both simultaneously, as a voyeuristic watcher, static, benign, only observing. It’s all very real and directly ties into the concepts and lyrical themes of the music.

Though this is the first album for this particular project, you've actually been at this for quite a long time. Could you tell us a little about your earlier band Nepenthe from the 90s? What was it like performing black/death metal in Kansas City so early on, or was there a relatively populated scene? Why'd you call it quits back then? Is its newer incarnation Ligeia a direct continuation?

Yes, Nepenthe started in 1992-93. At that time (and I imagine till today) there was no scene in Kansas City. It was just Order From Chaos and a few other folks. We all hung out together, and would occasionally play live for friends and OFC. Nepenthe technically played one live audience show, which was recorded and released as a cassette called ‘Live at Howards’.

In ’95, I changed the band name to Ligeia. The two primary reasons for the change were that the sound and style changed considerably, and band members trickled down to just myself, and Chris Overton, which made it more a project than a band. After the 1996 Ligeia release, In Death Overshadow Thee demo, I became pretty bored with metal in general. The second generation BM bands like Emperor, Mayhem, Burzum, Blasphemy, Impaled Nazarene, Samael, Beherit, etc…quickly were being duplicated (and still are now!) In addition to the stale nature of DM, it just all became hugely repetitive and predictable. The inspiration to create music quickly waned and I just moved onto other things that I enjoyed. My desire to write music picked up again around 2006.

I've encountered a number of your previous releases on badGod music, specifically Trillion Red and King Carnage. Like Howls of Ebb, both were pretty unusual. Did a lot of that unconsciously influence you when conceiving Howls' sound, or was this a decision to completely flip the script on anything else you'd written? Will this be taking full priority or will there be future Trillion Red material?   

I think HoB has enough room within its boundaries to keep my creative juices flowing for a long time, so I suspect it will be my only working project for many years, or until I either I get bored with it or feel I nothing left to contribute. If I were a gambling man, I would say there are probably 2 to 3 more significant releases to come. I certainly do not anticipate any distractions or other projects.

Moving backwards, Trillion Red was an experimental phase of mine when I learned a lot about production, mixing, effects, processors, and recording. Anything I had available to me, I used. It all ended up quite complicated, and without much of a focus. Later, the urge to create something deadly, stank, and bludgeoning spawned King Carnage. That was a one-off I did for fun, but indeed an excellent record! After I got that ‘urge to kill’ out of me via King Carnage, I thought the ideal candidate for a long term serious project would be a combination of Trillion Red and King Carnage, i.e. something complex, elusive, original, deep, dark, but with a sharp cutting pendulum swinging at all times.

How did you meet the other guys in the band, who operate under the handles of Rotten Bliss and Benign Blight? Did they think you were mad when they first heard you jamming some of this material, or did they actually prompt you along this left hand path?

Although I always see my own material as nothing out of the unusual, I do think of it as original. I do hear or read a lot of people saying HoB is “strange”, “weird”, “experimental” or “crazy”, but I think in this particular case, these are typical words to use when hearing something original, but not actually fully realizing it yet.

As for mates in the band, B.B. is a long time friend I have known for over 20 years. We share the same tastes in music and have written together in the past, so there were no surprises. On a side note, he happens to write way more bizarre stuff than I do. R.B. is a freak among the most gentle of trolls. He probably has the most diverse taste and skill set I have come across, and a young lad too! For the most part, I don’t think anything I showed him was a surprise, and that is why I liked him so much. He just takes what I have and runs with it.

A lot of what we create is pretty symbiotic. It all starts with seeds and ideas I pull out of the old pocket, and then we break it down, expand it, and put the proverbial puzzle pieces together as a group.

When did you cross paths with Luciano and I, Voidhanger records? Was it through a shared love of Darkthrone's Plaguewielder, or did you demo the material to a bunch of labels? How about sharing a roster with other killer bands like The Wakedead Gathering, Ysengrin, Spectral Lore and Bloodway, did that tip the scales?

No shared love of Darkthrone here. We actually began talking after I purchased some records from him, as well as traded the King Carnage for albums he released, like the Ysengrin, Ævangelist, Seperent Asecending. I mentioned HoB and showed him a song. He loved it and I also hold his label in very high regards, so it just made sense to work together.

It's probably contrived to describe Howls as a 'deconstruction' of death metal aesthetics, but can you actually explain what inspired your decision to tackle this from such a loose, organic and extraordinary perspective?

The musical objective I had (and still carry forth) when writing Vigils of the 3rd Eye was to have loosely defined limits and boundaries, but strictly stay within them. A lot of that is simply a ‘sense’ that comes from years of playing, a decent ear, and a bit of grey hair wisdom. Secondly, it is to create a very dark, deep and heavy morbidity. There wasn’t any midi or digital music going on in the instrumentation and recordings, just guitars, vocals, drums and bass (and that isn’t because of some sound or production ideology we hold). Within the structures we create, we give everything enough breathing room for ebb and flow and to tell as story. That leaves a degree of room for experimentation, and even some improvisational material as well. I coin the HoB sound/style as ‘Limbonic Hymnals’. And surely, there will be more to come.

Vigils was entirely self-recorded and produced, and then sent off to master. Can you reveal a little about the setup, I'm curious how you arrived at some a natural but uncanny sound?

The recording / rehearsal studio was put together over the last 6 years. A pretty penny went into all of it, but certainly worth it, as we are able to create a decent sound without the limits of time. As for the setup, I’ll skip the gear-head talk and just say it all consists of solid fundamentals: a properly treated recording area, good microphones, a great board, and outboard compressors/processors etc…Beyond that, it is just a matter of getting high quality source recordings so that the mixing process is as simple as can possibly be.   

Is there a lot of studio improvisation in there, or are all those subtle, bizarre effects and details plotted in advance?

Actually, there is some improvisation captured in the recording. If it sounds good and wasn’t intended, we will surely use it. That often is the best source material.

I enjoyed reading through the album nearly as much as listening to it. Would you say the lyrics of Vigils of the 3rd Eye are uniformly, thematically linked, or disparate in meaning? I noticed an occult thread throughout, but are there any particular works of fiction or philosophy that influenced you directly or indirectly? Perhaps some horror? 

Many of the lyrics were originally written as short poems over a course of two years. A lot of it was harnessed into lyrical form to fit the structure and cadence of each individual song. There is a loose thread all throughout. No occult content or philosophical derivatives were involved, but perhaps I could say ‘poetic justice’ of a sort.

‘Martian Terrors, Limbonic Steps’ is a first hand account of our coming demise. ‘Of Heel, Cyst and Lung’ is a personal mystic journey in the 4th dimension.  ‘Opulent Ghouls, Blessed be Thy End’ is what happens when an Observer oversteps his bounds and directs death upon undesirables.

Then we have the song ‘Vigils of the 3rd Eye’. This lyric and 'Illucid Illuminati’s' really are the fundamental thread that weaves throughout the entire album. In ‘Vigils’, The Grand Voyeurs are ever-watching and observing the decay of societies, cultures and civilization. Such observations are only seen with a keen and clear eye; e.g. Illusions of pop and underground culture are largely silly inbred and regurgitated ideas that either serves as red herrings in thought and action, or as catalysts to quasi-solutions that only produce more harm.  Humanity lacks the will and path to save itself. Those that try to save it are usually apart of the problem. It is here that we must accept mankind’s inability to see its underline failures and faults, and understand that it will soon come to an end. Only few will embrace it with open arms, and importantly, not to meddle in it, only observe.

Conceptual themes for the 2nd album won’t be dealing with just tangible ends, but deal with more elusive, abstract, and dark ideals and spiritualities I have surmised over the last 25 years. I expect the new batch of material to have a much stronger contextual linearity.

Wiley Trieff's artwork for 'Vigils' is outstanding, some of the best I've seen this year. All the panels burn themselves into your mind and won't seem to leave. Was there are a lot of input from you on the booklet images, or did you just let him run with the lyrics and concepts?

Actually no. These were paintings Luciano had in his back pocket, waiting to use for just the right release. It is indeed one of the best layouts I have ever laid eyes on, as it is a perfect merriment of sound, lyrics, and art. Quite the experience!

San Francisco has had a long, eclectic history across a number of metal sub-genres, like the Bay Area thrash in the 80s or the USBM stuff more recently. Have you ever socialized with others in the scene, or do you actively record any of them?

There are some really great modern bands here in the SF area! It has quite a vibrant and innovative dark artistic scene now. However, I rarely go to see live performances, so it doesn’t lend a lot of opportunities to meet other artists and forge ties. All 3 of us have other significant obligations that keep us at bay! Hah! I can barely sneak in a good midnight sacrifice these days. It’s a damn shame.

Any live shows on the horizon? Are there any particular acts you feel would complement you on tour if given a choice? Or that you'd love to support? I almost find it difficult to imagine you playing alongside more conventional death or black metal acts. 

We have been discussing the idea of playing a few shows, but any kind of tour would be out of the question.  HoB would really require another guitarist to get the full effect live, and of course, time away from work. Its all entirely possible, but we aren’t really being entirely proactive in making such a thing come to fruition.

As for acts to share a stage with, I can certainly think of several: Murmur, Morbus Chron, Sonne Adam, Negative Plane, Sol Negros, or Irkallian Oracle would be great bands to share an evening live.

Awesome record, sir! Thanks so much for bringing out that creativity and leaving such an impression. I realize it's but a couple months old, but when might we expect a sequel?!! 

Thank you! We are currently smack in the middle of writing a 20 minute’ish piece for the second Chapter of I, Voidhangers Yogsothery compilation. That should see the light of day in 2015. Right after that we will begin writing the follow-up album. Assuming our flow continues unabated, I would expect to see a full-length release maybe in late 2015, or early 2016. Tough to say, but I would like to keep up the momentum; however, quality governs!

Check out Howls of Ebb on Facebook.
Hear and/or purchase Vigils of the 3rd Eye through Bandcamp.