Monday, September 29, 2014

Halberd - Remnants of Crumbling Empires (2014)

It would be challenging enough to put together an album the quality of Remnants of Crumbling Empires while standing in the same room as one another; yet Halberd have accomplished this across at least three continents. An international band formed on the forums of the world's largest metal database, whose constituents somehow unified their visions enough to manufacture what is hands down one of the most memorable (and least boring) death/doom hybrids I've heard lately, by adhering to an important philosophy: that the strength of this niche comes chiefly through riffing and atmosphere, rather than the lamentably monotonous drudging and 'oh we're so fuckin' heavy' guitar tone which seems to delude a lot of listeners into thinking every single sludge, doom and drone band sailing across the information highway is somehow genius for stringing along a number of contrived, derived chords at a crawl.

Dynamics. Halberd has them, and the fact that they never settle snugly into just one glacial pace or progression is critical not only to the album's flow, but the impression it leaves upon the audience. Just as much of a pure, late 80s death metal effort as its more prominent mating of styles, the band will break out into resonant tremolo picked patterns whose melodic inclinations reminded me (in a positive way) of the Entombed debut, but overall the churning and grinding of the rhythm guitars feels like it traces its lineage back to British legends Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death, perhaps even older Godflesh if we were to eschew the industrial instrumentation and just go with the riffing alone. Remnants of Crumbling Empires is essentially this cocktail of classic death metal tropes circa England, Finland, Sweden and Florida, shaken and stirred and served from the gut with an infusion of eerie keys that lend the experience an even more ominous, exotic presence like you might remember from a record like Celtic Frost's To Mega Therion. In fact, I've seen the band compared to Tom G. Warrior's latest incarnation Triptykon, but as a rare person who finds that band high on production values but bland on riff quality, I came away from Halberd with more of a Hooded Menace impression, sans the kitschy horror lyrics and titles. Which brings me to the next point...

Theme. Halberd is war metal, not in the genre sense that they sound like Blasphemy or Bestial Warlust, but through the lyrics and atmosphere. The band has a designated lyricist who pens these passionate odes to historical conflicts which are just not often enough thought about in metal music, and this was easily one of my favorite characteristics of the album. The Proskurov Pogroms in the earlier 20th century Ukraine, the Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896, and the Boer Wars a few years after that, and not just written as a detached social studies lesson, but imbued with impassioned imagery that often puts the listener/reader right into the middle of the fray. This not only gives perspective to the album title, but also provides an entire other dimension of enjoyment that you wouldn't get from just another 'woe is me', vapid inscription of lily-white skinned lost lovers and tombstones that you'd expect from a lot of death/doom bands toeing the (My Dying Bride) line. As a prolific listener of metal, so often inundated with the same topics ad nauseam, I appreciated this, and the music reflects the subject matter well...faster sequences feel like your flesh is being ground up by pre-WWI artillery, and the slower, atmospheric passages feel like wraiths haunting the shadowy afterlife eaves of a battlefield.

The drums are programmed, which might prove an obstacle to purists, but not at all for me, since they keep themselves very busy, pregnant with fills and breaks in any mechanical monotony one might perceive. Vocals are divided into three tent camps: a deeper guttural, a bloodier Carcass-like rasp and then a few rare Warrior 'hoomph' exclamations that help usher in some excitement for a new riff switch. Even better, they don't skimp on the leads and melodies...Remnants if flooded with the things, so at any moment you're thinking some riff might feel a little too pedestrian or predictable, in comes this wild and furious relish. There's even a little bit of structural experimentation, particularly the slow and sparse chugged pacing found chunks of "Ignorance of Morbidity" where they let the cleaner guitars and dissonant ambiance glide alongside the gruesome growls (one of the Godflesh moments I hinted at earlier). The mix of the record isn't particularly grating or raw, but it's not clean and spiffy either, so it ends up with a sort of timeless quality about it that works hand in hand with the musical aesthetics on parade.

Few complaints, honestly...the bass guitars are not exactly obscured, but could certainly be a lot more interesting than they are for the vast majority of the album. I'm guessing there wasn't a devoted bass player when they put this together, and to be fair, a lot of older death metal records which inspired this one weren't bass heavy; yet there were points through the music in which a nice, unique groove could have been established alongside or even counter to the rhythm guitars. Also, I don't know that the longer of the four tracks (12 and 15 minutes respectively) benefited that much from their duration. Halberd compensated by keeping them kinetic, instead of endlessly recycling static chord patterns, but I really thought their style worked best in the 5-8 range, where they just roll over you like a horse-drawn cannon. These are minor issues, though, even more so when you consider the difficulties they must have faced in putting everything together without that physical proximity most bands have. On the whole, this is an excellent debut, never too derivative of any one source, and the leads, lyrics and hellish vitality of the rhythm guitar patterns are all immense. This should not be an unsigned act for very long.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (revolution rhymes with annihilation)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Horrendous - Ecdysis (2014)

I have a tendency to lavish incredibly huge expectations upon the sophomore outings of promising newcomers in the thrash, death and black metal mediums, which is probably not the fairest way to approach when I saw the cover and read the buzz for the second Horrendous full-length, the high bar they had set with The Chills became an ever looming presence. Easily one of the better of the retro death metal records hailing from the States in the past decade, that album took everything I loved about luminaries like Death, Pestilence and Obituary and re-engineered the formula just enough that it could feel fresh again, while standing out against the hordes of Swedish sound-a-likes and overhyped cavern core elite that had been well on their way to exhausting me by 2012...not that both crowds didn't produce their own brilliant offspring, but they just never gave me the same amount of hope that this reach back to the roots of the genre was much more than mere idol worship; no, this was retracing death metal in order that it might strike out on a path where the songs mattered a lot more than the aesthetics.

Ecdysis is a symbolic title, since it represents a shedding of exoskeleton and 'skin', something the trio have clearly done for this new material. It's not that Horrendous have flipped the script to the point of becoming unrecognizable from the earlier work, but the sophomore is imbued with this dynamic, death & roll sensibility that fully represents their ability to harmonize the melodies and bust out the beautifully tempered leads, against a backdrop that is slightly more groovy and rocking than the more death/thrash foundation upon which the former full-length was built. Again, the production is given a rawer than expected treatment, with the guitar tones slightly reminiscent of the Swedish school but disparate due to how Herring and Knox compose the riffs together. I know the comparison might elude some, but try imagine if you were to mix a more melodic analog of Clandestine with the eloquent, emotional soloing of Andy La Rocque during the King Diamond hot streak of the late 80s, and then a bit of that clinical progressive Death which took off the following decade, especially the bass playing and meandering but adventurous nature of some of the rhythm guitar progressions. Only unlike Schuldiner's work, this doesn't go for that absurd level of production polish. Anyway, if you can imagine that mashup, you'll arrive at what this album creates. Does that sound fucking great?

Well it is, not to the degree that it trumped The Chills for me, but established Horrendous as a persistent forerunner in the 'real death metal' category that also includes bands like Tribulation, Morbus Chron, Binah, Lantern, The Wakedead Gathering and Necrovation, songwriters all, driven by where the music is going just as much as where it's been (which too many like-minded bands get hung up on). While they're by no means 'technical death' as the term implies in today's market, the level of proficiency here never falters behind the morbidity of the medium, these guys can play and they let you know through the sheer versatility of rhythms being fired out in any given tune. The vocals are still a more resonant, rasp-heavy and gruesome product of Chuck Schuldiner and Martin van Drunen influence, and the bass guitars also warrant added attention, since they don't just follow along subserviently to the rhythm guitar notes. The drums are slappy, snappy and natural, and what's more, they don't shy away from throwing you a very 80s' sort of curve ball like the wonderful acoustics of "The Vermillion" or the more speed/heavy metal licks of the second instrumental, "When the Walls Fell", which took me entirely by surprise amongst its more malevolent neighbors while sharing that subsistence on strong lead work and RIFFS FUCKING FIRST.

If The Chills didn't put Horrendous on everyone's map, then I really hope this Ecdysis will not only serve that function but encourage those that missed the debut to explore that too; it was a little more 'evil' sounding to me than this follow-up, but the tradeoff is that this material seems a little more adventurous and busy, even though the two share a level of accessibility you won't get with the more subterranean, clamorous strain of death metal molded in the image of Incantation and Immolation. Great album, I've been revisiting it regularly since the press promo started circulating and I can't see myself stopping anytime soon.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mare Cognitum - Phobos Monolith (2014)

Where a band like Darkspace explores the 'cosmic' aspects of black metal through sheer nihilism and oppression, there are others who approach the subject matter with a little more elegance and dynamic range. Chief among these atmospheric astronauts is Californian Jacob Buczarski, aka Mare Cognitum, who has lain somewhere beneath the radar only in so much that he's drifting so far beyond the satellite range that it's often difficult to pick his signal out among the stars. That's not to say he's advocating the most unique or experimental brand of black metal, for a lot of his writing has traits in common with the melodic European sect that went viral in the mid 90s...but like label mate Ayloss and Spectral Lore, he gifts us with a more colorful and balanced glimpse at the universe, at the colors of fields of celestial bodies burning and inert, at the nebulas unleashing a spectrum of beauty across the universe. No wonder the two bands chose to release their split album Sol together, a recording that had me primed for Jacob's next full-length solo offering...which has arrived in the autumn of 2014.

Four tracks of fulfilling, melodic black metal saturated with resonant rasps, intense drum patterns and enough tempo and rift-shifting moments to fill out their oft-staggering durations, generally beyond the 13 minute mark. At once, there is little 'new' to how he puts these progressions together: floods of tremolo picked, somber riffs layered together to create an intense, often desperate sense of beauty, like an expedition through space which encounters periods of turbulence and danger; in particular captured through the speed of "Entropic Hallucinations", the album's shorter, 8 minute piece. Against these we are presented with more solemn, introspective passages where the frenzy of the beats drops to a steadier, magnificent pace and the individual strings of the guitars are slung into lavishly picked harmonies that flesh out the slower overall rhythm ("Noumenon"), and there are also some periods of lush interstellar ambiance like the excellent intro to the 15+ minute finale "Ephemeral Eternities" which absolutely feel like one beholden to an alien landscape...a cerebral scoring that generated images of an astronaut on some lifeless moon staring unto infinity, so good that I wish there had been a higher ratio of the pure ambient tinkering measured against the metallic material. Fortunately, the songwriting is scripted well enough that Buczarski never dwells on any one riffing structure or tempo for them to ever wear out their welcome...

...some new melody is always being woven forth, and thus the album becomes much like that surreal space tunnel which bridges the two (uneven) 'halves' of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a funnel of color through which the unknown-yet-suspiciously-familiar awaits us all. Buczarski's rasps and growls remind us of the eminent, imminent hostility of the emptiness as it presses in on all of us, here on our fragile eggshell of a world, but the Phobos Monolith as a whole serves as a symbol of space's eternal beauty, regardless of how much it is touched by the manifest destiny, or 'stain' of humanity, relative to how you personally view the gradual transmigration of our species. It's not so much that the man has uncovered some entirely new form of language in the genre, which anyone with even a cursory history with black metal will tell you when listening to these riffs, but more that he's taking the quality and integrity of that 90s approach, when the style hadn't yet been victim to endless cycles of derivation, and giving it berth on a rocket ship, hurtling towards some distant galaxy where it might be shared with some other race. Like the ethereal, ascending figures on its covers, it's out of here, man, on a one way trip to the infinite. Would it have left more of an impact with me if it the theme had been imbued with a more distinctly bizarre, left of center musical approach? Absolutely, but Mare Cognitum's third album is nonetheless a thoroughly engaging, memorable sojourn beyond the sky, the product of a consistent and welcome voice in USBM.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, September 22, 2014

Tongues - Thelésis Ignis EP (2014)

Unwilling to conceal themselves completely under one genre or the other, Denmark's Tongues straddle the border between the death and black metal genres, the former coming through largely in the growled vocals, the latter via the blasted drumming element and spurts of rollicking, warlike chords whipped up into a frenzy I imagined to be redolent of the mid 90s fervor of a number of their European forebears, whether as 'A-list' as Mayhem or lesser revolutionary like Belgium's Enthroned. What separates this duo from the usual grist for the mill, however, is the very organic tone which they've applied to their guitars, as well as the atmospheric and wildly unpredictable liberties taken within their compositions. Obeying the rules here, shattering them elsewhere, Thelésis Ignis is, if not a masterpiece, then at least a lesson in see-sawing between expectations and experimentation.

It's not so avant-garde as to slap you in the face, but Tongues likes to fuck around with both purely ambient passages and those created by dropping out the steady thrum of metallic percussion to let a few guitars drudge on in desolate oblivion, or to implement all these strange, atonal zipping guitars and dissonant chords which don't always seem to align themselves so closely with the firmer rhythm guitar riffs found elsewhere in the tracks. Not to mention how the vocals bounce back and forth between the aforementioned guttural, lots of layered howls, trad black metal rasps and then some really gruesome exhibitions of excess as early as the first tune "Void Meditation", a 10-minute piece through which most of the ideas I've already mentioned are cycled, but was also ironically the one I enjoyed the least here. "The Will of Fire" has more a more compelling, irreverent structure where the riffs are a lot more interesting, the vocals meshed into these patterns where they howl above the fray like someone having left a window open at night in a hillside asylum when the wind picked up. "Last Grip of the Hand of Guilt" pursues a more disjointed, doom-laden pace with these huge backing guitars that fuzz out at the top of their frequencies...

And the closer, "Bloodline of the Blind" is this yawning, apocryphal ambient piece with droning, deep vocal incantations and a wonderfully wrought palette of backing sounds, steady drips and tones that seem as if I'm listening to them in some extradimensional cathedral. That deep gut-felt vocal does grow monotonous, but that was actually hands down my favorite part of the album, to the point that I almost wished they'd distributed more of this ambient bliss throughout the longer metal cuts. But either way, Thelésis Ignis is far more interesting than your usual cut & paste Scandinavian black/death, with a resonant, fulfilling but unnerving production to it which doesn't necessarily obscure it's more subtle touches, but gives you plenty to think about on multiple listens. The riffs were a little mixed in quality, some compelling and some blander and less rewarding, but I mentioned the two bands in the first paragraph for a good reason: if you enjoyed the weirder deviation the former explored on records like Ordo ad Chao/Esoteric Warfare, or the more recent, atmospheric iteration of the long-standing Belgian fiends, or maybe even some of the stranger output of the last decade's Swedish black metal orthodoxy, then these are Tongues worth wagging.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, September 19, 2014

Inconcessus Lux Lucis - Crux Lupus Corona EP (2014)

I've grown increasingly keen on those black metal bands these past few year who have opened the floodgates for a sort of 'trad metal' revival when it comes to riffing choices, threads of melody and variation that simply do not exist when it comes to most of the atypical Scandinavian-blast aesthetics which so much of the genre can't seem to grow beyond...and maybe it doesn't have to, but the existence of works by Negative Plane, Funereal Presence, Head of the Demon, Hail Spirit Noir, and the latest records by veterans Zemial and Pest (Sweden) have all grown legs for me, and as soon as I started listening through Crux Lupus Corona I recognized a kindred spirit, albeit one who spins the technique into their own distinct flavor. Looking at just the cover art, with all its Latin, I was not at all expecting what I ended up hearing, and now realizing that I've missed an entire full-length earlier this year, you can bet my next action will be to track it down...

Synopsis: raw, fuzzed out guitars playing with a mixture of involved, folk inflected Euro melodies and more Eastern-themed embellishments, dowsed in the gnarled rasp we so often associate within the raw black metal medium (in particular I was getting Nocturno Culto vibes, but bloodier in many spots, maybe a little Famine too). Tunes are kept rather tight at about 5 minutes, rather than running off the tracks entirely, and they're varied up with breaks in the percussion over which the band spouts a more atmospheric mesh of dirty to clean vocals. The bass lines aren't the most corrosive, but they are voluminous, constantly ascending, descending and generally strutting their stuff interestingly enough that I'd probably enjoy hearing them without any of the other instruments involved; though they contrast wonderfully with the hustle of the guitars. The drums are peppy, loose, and with a lot of clank and crash at precisely the right moments where they would heighten their impact. Riffs are like this mesmerizing labyrinth of scales and melodies, but occasionally they'll bust out an old school, tinny blasted sequence where they fragment off into the dissonance and dark drama of the parent genre (as in "Crux"). The performance is quality all around, and simply more interesting than the lions share of their peers who have stuck to the same predictable patterns circa Norway and Sweden in the mid 90s.

If I were to go out on a limb I'd brand this a combination of 21st century Darkthrone with the first few albums by the Lord Weird Slough Feg, and yes, this is as fantastic as that sounds. A lot of charisma being distributed over only about 17 minutes of music, yet structurally consistent to the extent that I couldn't choose one track over the other as a favorite. The riffing feels inventive simply by nature of its volition to shuck the trends that might otherwise confine it; not that they're coming up with their own scales or theory but just entertaining the idea of something , with almost all the atmosphere created in the various guitar effects that crop up, plus that fundamental contrast of filth and eloquence concocted through the selected rhythm tone and stylish execution. These two Englishmen have themselves a wonderful sound here that I can only hope they take even further...the duration of the recording provides possibly its only restrictions, because you definitely feel like if they opened this all up another 30 minutes you'd be getting an even broader palette of tempo and experimentation, possibly even with more exotic instruments. Anyway, this is easily recommended to fans of Peste Noire, Lugubrum, or really any of the bands I've mentioned in the first 'graph.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bullet - Storm of Blades (2014)

Bullet are yet another of those Swedish bands, or to be fair, modern day heavy metal throwbacks which advocate absolutely nothing out of the ordinary or unique whatsoever, yet manage success despite themselves because of a genuine love of their material which joyfully remonstrates just about every negative criticism I could possibly level at them. On the surface as below. You've seen this album cover a number of times before, only then it was by a band called Razor or Anvil or Exciter. You've heard the music before too, since it walks the same path Accept once did in borrowing AC/DC's charismatic grating vocals and then applying them to a heavier riff campaign; but Bullet actually manifest that influence through a mix of hard rock and heavier metal compositions which seem to pay careful tribute to both sides, one never alienating the other, with a few flashes of Ram It Down/Painkiller power metal to dial up the excitement value even further.

Vocals are the standout, sharpening Brian Johnson's raving into a vorpal edge by tempering them with traces of Rob Halford's screaming capacity, Udo's air raid belligerence and then painted over with a thin sheen of Ronny James Dio's higher inflection and lyrical meter. I never get tired of these singers who understand that it takes more than a crystalline range to deliver an ass whooping...the personality is instantly realized, the EDGE; even if it's nothing new, and you don't feel distanced from any sense of highbrow attitude...this guy's voice is perfectly fit for the scrapyard, the assembly line so many of us slave away in until our shift's over and we can get a beer. The tunes are divided pretty evenly between savage Teutonic semi-power metal Dio/Priest/Accept ragers like "Hawk Eyes" and the title track, mid paced melodic NWOBHM stuff like "Riding High" which wouldn't have been out of place for a Praying Mantis, Saxon or Def Leppard, and then some bluesier, rock tapping infused pieces like "Tornado" which hearken more directly back to AC/DC but endow it with drooping balls of iron. There isn't a single tune on the whole album that doesn't feature some prominent, catchy hook, even when they feel like they've been partially lifted from obvious classics like "Balls to the Wall", "Dirty Deeds", "Breaking the Law", and so forth.

Production is punchy but appropriate, with guitars in perfect syncopation, but Dag Hell Hofer's throat is just so raw and ugly in nature that it helps contrast the instruments to they never feel too polished. But I'd probably compare the mix most to a band like Saxon during their later 80s-90s period. I did find the bass lines to often lack much of interest, where they clearly could have walked along beneath such a simple riffing palette with some catchy grooves, and the drums obviously aren't meant to create an earthquake, they are mostly just the standard hard rock full court press with solid fills and never any attempt to congest the spaces between those chords. In fact, the whole rhythm section is so taut and compacted that it actually highlights the vocals and blazing, Scorpions-like lead guitars even further than they might have been with a more raw and ripping tone, or more splashy use of cymbals.

Really, though, this is all about the 'spirit' of the medium, which the Swedes do absolutely nothing to mock or belittle, something shit 'comedy' acts like Steel Panther could take a lesson or two from. Heavy metal is not a fucking joke for some of us, not just a convenient stereotype we use to distance ourselves from the rest of civilization. And it never was. I find it so refreshing to have outfits like this one and Enforcer and their ilk doing no disservice to the style they celebrate, which for a more jaded audience has long since been trampled on by increasing aggression and disaffection in both lyrical themes and musical timbre/technicality. To an extent, a record like Storm of Blades can never be knows that, it knows it is 30+ years late to the party and for much of the world there is just no turning back. Even the band's name is retread from a relatively unknown German act active from about 1978-84. But it proudly flashes the middle finger anyway with a well written, archetypal effort that I just can't imagine anyone couldn't have a good time with this. Simplicity for the sake of craft. I haven't delved heavily into all of their older records but this is certainly the most fun I've had listening to them to date. Even my nine month old smiles and bounces around to this one when it hits the speakers.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, September 15, 2014

In Flames - Siren Charms (2014)

It's never easy when listening to an aberration like Siren Charms to admit to oneself: 'This band meant something to me once'. But I'd be lying to say they didn't, because for at least the first half of their career they were churning out a very strong case for the melodic death metal archetype as a whole, and in particular The Jester Race remains for me an obvious go-to album whenever I'm craving some guitar-driven, melodic, inspirational bliss. And, to some degree, they have morphed into one of those bands I have so much history with that I probably will never 'ignore' one of their new records outright, clinging to the faint hope that they might one day rekindle the strength and momentum of the songwriting that used to define them. Once in awhile, they will still surprise me, as they did on A Sense of Purpose in 2008, the one album they've released past the turn of the century which I have actually enjoyed. Modern and 'emo', with a little groove, sure...but packed with great In Flames riffs and a few tunes (like "Alias") that I daresay were unique enough that you're likely never going to hear them anywhere else.

But since that point...six years of steady declination, first with Sounds of a Playground Fading, a watered down and 'safer' alternative to A Sense of Purpose (which was already plenty accessible and kid friendly with the Korn-like artwork), and now with Siren Charms, as structured a squamous midlife crisis turd as they've ever escorted out the studio doors, and I'd be hard pressed to think of a past album I enjoyed less...maybe Soundtrack to Your Escape, or Come Clarity, but I'd have to go back and re-listen to them, and after forcing myself through THIS a requisite third time (with alcohol stirred into my coffee), the mood does not strike me to do so. Siren Charms is a record that not only gives credibility to the voices that have been shouting down this band for whatever reason (changes in sound, general visibility and appeal), but compounds their complaints by channeling some of the most shallow, redundant grooves and banal plastic pop-rock oriented songwriting you've ever heard outside fucking Abba (who are exponentially better than this on a bad day). Disclaimer: I have no problem with a band evolving or devolving its sound in whatever direction. If In Flames put out a record that sounded like Seven and the Ragged Tiger, or Thriller, and it was GOOD, then I would be the first on board and let the naysayers choke on my exhaust.

This is not good.

UN-good. You keep waiting for the money shot and it stays softcore, with your eyes affixed on its shaved bottom as it thrusts halfheartedly for the camera crew. Let me slightly abridge that...there are two, possibly three minor 'positives' to the experience. The electronics used throughout the disc, like in the intro to opener "In Plain View", gave me the false impression that the album might explore the sort of retro future synth stuff that I've been heavily into lately, which I admit might be a pretty cool blend with some solid melodeath riffing (bands have done synth stuff in this niche before, but not quite in the way I'm picturing). Where these lines appear, they're sort of cool, but there just aren't enough of them to feel like it's a fully realized idea, they are simply intros or distractions. Secondly, as much as I'm not interested in hearing Anders' whining, cleaner vocals, he has actually succeeded here in smoothing over his pitch and delivery so they don't feel quite so ragged and screamy as they have since Reroute to Remain where he started leaning in this direction. I'm just saying, if N'Flames was truly to become N'Sync, now he just needs the dance moves, because he could get by on his voice with the support of another four boys. Finally, there are a handful (less than a handful) of riff passages on the disc that don't deserve my complete loathing, because they approach A Sense of Purpose levels of memorability at the very least, with that same style of processed nu-thrash.

Otherwise, the album is one for the dogs. The band spends so much time trying to build a strong chorus that they can barely stick one...even on a tune like "Through Oblivion" where it does carry some emotional poignancy but it always feels half-formed, like they were going to induce another melody or twist in there and it just doesn't happen. There is far, far too much fucking restraint on this album, to the extent that I almost found myself pleading for Anders to RETURN to that dirty and whiny voice, only because it felt more passionate. This just feels heavily overdubbed, punched in laconically in-studio and generally scrapped together, whether it's the vocal placement or the riffs, a few of which have nice, gently layered harmonies in a cubicle, corporate pop metal sens. There are some tracks like "With Eyes Wide Open" which are downright embarrassing, like they were trying to write material for a long lost Boston album for the ladies and the lighters. And without exception the groove/nu metal riffing substrate is lamentably bad, without even an inkling of a stylish idea or a pattern of chords that at least makes you want to genuinely shake your ass.

Some will take exception as always to the tidy, mechanized production values, but that is the least of the issues with this disc. The cover artwork: bland. The female guest vocals on "When the World Explodes": ridiculous, making it sound like a throwaway Epica/Nightwish/Within Temptation crossover. Who-cares bass-lines and paint-by-numbers metalcore chug-downs. The lyrics are generally very ambiguous accessible emotional crap like 'In the darkest of nights/you are my endless fire inside' or 'Where I have nothing/there's no hate/room to breathe/no envy and nothing to lose'...a bunch of nonsense that the guy will claim is very 'personal' and 'self-affirmation' oriented but was probably written lazily on a napkin at some restaurant on tour. Song titles are almost unanimously cliches that have been done so many times before (with the exception of "Siren Charms" itself), and at its very best, they've only got tunes on this that are 1/4th of what a good modern In Flames track should incorporate. Even if we ignore the band they used to be, when they were constantly on the upswing career-wise, and pretend they formed up in 2001, there are infinitely better songs on Reroute to Remain or A Sense of Purpose. Even the last full-length was an order of magnitude superior and I struggled to remember many of the specifics 15 minutes of hearing them...

I understand Fridén is probably venting his anger that he's not in Killswitch Engage or Ariana Grande's dance partner or something, but I just can't understand how members like Gelotte and Iwers let themselves be continuously booked a berth on this sinking ship. Are the paychecks really all that fat? Perhaps at the next 'minutes in the meeting of the hiveminds of In Flames' the two of you can just get up and each kick Anders in one of his balls, though I have my doubts they are still in place, and put out a proper fucking metal album again with blazing, inspirational harmonies, savage words and riffs that get the heads banging. This album has no heads banging, in any sense of the phrase... impotent, joyless major label tripe that deserves all the excrement foisted upon it. Despite what I said in the opening paragraph, I'm going to have a hard time justifying any curiosity for what comes next.

Verdict: Fail [2.75/10] (another feeling dies)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Colosus - Blestem (2013)

I had intended to cover Blestem last year, but it slipped my mind completely, not due to a lack of quality, but simply for the lack of having enough time in the year to write as prolifically as I'd desire. This is the solo work of one Khrud aka Klepsy aka Daniel Neagoe who also participates in a number of other bands one might have picked up, in particular the English death/doom covenant  Eye of Solitude, who also have put out some material through Kaotoxin Records, who are coincidentally re-issuing this disc so that various ignorami like myself can get off their lazy duffs and give it the once over. Or, in my case, more than that, because I enjoyed Khrud's hybrid of black and ambient metal, not for any profusion of raw or  innovative characteristics, but for the sanctity with which it approaches its desolate sound set.

One of the grayest albums I've heard in ages, it patterns blackened tropes like raucous, distant rasps, blast and double bass drum sequences and roiling tremolo picked guitars into a landscape of utter misery that finds little redemption through melodic construction. What traces might exist are keyed to a few warmer chord progressions that feel like tints of sunlight penetrating a smoggy haze, and even those are smeared into oblivion by the incursion of bleak, dry passages where simple chords ring out through the emptiness, a suffering background cry will erupt or some other element woven into the record's pervasive sense of hopelessness and isolation. Riffs are never even remotely complex or individual, used entirely as means to a painful end and not inspirational in of themselves. Nothing you'd pick out of a lineup, but effective in the context Khrud intends here. The real highlight for me were the purely sweltering ambient segments, often occupying entire tracks, and occasionally affixed with a minimalistic industrial pulse ("Intuneric") which satisfactorily supports the haunting, sewer like resonance of the protracted growls, chords or other instruments of torture used to function as an unsettling, cinematic aesthetic.

Again, it's pretty simple stuff, and just as much a low budget horror score as a distinctly 'black metal' experience, so it's not one to invest in with the expectations that you'll be able to trace it directly to the usual Scandinavian suspects. In fact it almost feels like he's mashing up bleaker ambient death and black alloy as a sample set which he can channel through something like a minimalistic early Godflesh, only without the big grooves and charismatic grunts that crafted their legend. To some the effect will be none other than that of staring repeatedly at a decaying wall, one whose entropy is overt rather than subtle, lacking in the nuances of rare lichens or curious cracks leading to secrets beneath the surface. But I think that was rather the point of Blestem, an anathema to the guitar-fed strength of its parent genre, in that it just dumbs down everything into that barren atmosphere of the psyche which responds to the same cold corridors, concrete infrastructures and vapid repetition of the urban waste surrounding us. Sufferscapes. Graystuff. Brooding, meandering grime. With those all too rare glimpses of something greater...a cathedral...a monument...which quickens the heart just in time to flatten it once more into a sulfurous paste.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Binah - A Triad of Plagues EP (2014)

Binah's 2012 album Hallucinating in Resurrecture was a fairly outstanding effort amidst the miasma of trending caverncore. Long on suffocating, evil atmosphere and short on wasted riffing choices, it's something I'll still break out from time to time when I want to do as the natives do and wax subterranean. That said, this new EP A Triad of Plagues blows it away in approximately as long as it takes for the first track "Rupture of Silence" to begin and end. While I might have ignorantly assumed that the UK trio would channel their sound into something even more ominous and dreary, they instead have injected it with some momentum and vivacity, a hint or two of more overt melodic tendencies that contrast very well against IRG's piercing, resonant growls.

The atmospherics are still fully intact, mind you, with those roiling layers of rhythm guitar suspended just beneath the haunting synthesizers, but there is a definite sense of 'shit kicking' here that makes you wanna strap on the combat boots and pirouette straight into a delicious d-beating. Somewhere in there you've got the Swedish guitar tone embedded in the songwriting, but like other killer bands (Corrosive Carcass, Repugnant, etc) it just doesn't take center stage to the point that they ever feel like some mere copy of Left Hand Path or Dismember. There's also a Finnish influence circa bands like Convulse and Purtenance, only the first tune is a little more uptempo, and the last, "Torpid Blight of the Spirit" centers on these fiery chugging passages with loads of airy atmospheric embellishments sounding off in the distance, multi-tracked growls and snarls and just this massive nature to it which has kept me listening repeatedly. The sound effects are great, the lyrics awesome, the eerie distortion on the guitars when they're shifting into a more cautious, soundtrack-like perspective, and some really sweet drum fills to help the music feel lively and organic even though it is clearly very much fucking dead.

The only complaint I have for this is that it's so freaking short that I felt slightly unfulfilled, craving a sophomore full-length almost instantly after the first time I ran through the two and a half tunes on the 7". 12 minutes of morbid escape is sometimes just not enough, but if they can put out something of this quality while keeping in mind the variety hinted at on these songs, I feel like the proper follow up to Hallucinating will trump it without much difficulty. In the meantime, if you can find this 7" I'd advice you check it out. As jaded as I've become with the whole death metal throwback scene, with diehard blowhards lauding every single recording in the field regardless of how derivative and/or mediocre it really is, there are still a dozen or so acts in it that are churning out that beautiful festering flesh that has devoured me since the late 80s, and Binah I count proudly among them.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (idle is the nature of fallen man)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Jute Gyte - Ressentiment (2014)

I'd like to afford myself the convenience of dubbing this or any other Jute Gyte album 'fucked up beyond recognition'; only by Adam Kalmbach's standards, Ressentiment is honestly a rather accessible experience, at least as much as anything else he's issued from the heavier half of the project's discography. That's not to say this is safe for family gatherings or airplay at a local retail outlet, but here he's reached a new height of broadening the scope of his dissonant, dramatic composition style to better intertwine the black metallic traits with a flood of caustic (but warmer toned) post-punk or post-rock experimentation which, unlike most of the inoffensive stuff out there on the market to bear that 'brand', actually lives up to the descriptor. The third in what I might incorrectly assume is a triptych of microtonal guitar driven efforts, he puts the technique to excellent use here, in the most unexpected of contexts...catchy songs.

Let me clarify that, since that term might not mean the same to myself as other folks. This is not the soothing, pop-glossed sort of catchy, but droning, oddly ebullient passages of rhythm guitars that ingrain themselves into your conscience, dowsing it in their alien landscape while Kalmbach's bass lines seem to develop themselves along busy, industrious, factory floor lines, and his grainy vocal ravings remain rooted in the black metal tradition he has gone Kafka on, peaking with the passionate howls of "Worms rob the honeycomb..." near the close of "The Grey King" (and the disc). There are other traces of that lineage here, in the form of a few hyper-blasted passages in which the rhythm guitars transform into halos of whirring hornets, but Ressentiment works its best where it remains at a moderate or slower pace, with the jangling guitars or simultaneously driving/laconic chords who seep through that strange microtonal tuning. For instance, he transforms the opener from a surge of disheveled higher pitched warp-riffing to a slower roil accented by these incredibly effective cleaner guitar lines, the whole process sounding like one tragic mistake that turns out...isn't. It's that sense of constant collision between the listener's expectations and the direction he's steering his chord and note progressions which keeps the material constantly fresh and engaging, even if it never hinges upon the consonant comfort zone most rock and metal music dwells within. It's 'art metal', but in a finer sense than just splashes of colorful paint...

Jute Gyte is more like the work of a forgotten master, hanging in the corner of the gallery where most with only a superficial interest in the museum can just ignore it. Sort of like the classics he mines to represent the face of the music. You might also think of this as an Erich Zann transcribed into our shared, non-fictional universe (I know, that's a bold assumption on my part). Every few months, Kalmbach revisits that otherworldly muse which guides him, and commits visions of the unknown and obscured straight to the earspace of those daring enough to loiter about the Rue d'Auseil and experience it. On a base level, Ressentiment is resplendent ugliness set to gnarled, visually stimulating poetry, but the twisted mind can invert it right side up to something of both abstract melancholy and fractured beauty, reactions constantly being generated for me throughout the six tracks and 56 minutes of unhinged escape. Does it go 'off the rails'? Sometimes. Was Jute Gyte ever ON the rails? Oh, no. Ressentiment will prove no surprise to those who have come across and appreciated his previous output, but it retains the project's irreverent relevance in a sea of sameness. This album isn't going to convert the crabcore elite or anyone who drowns his/her blue collar sadness in an Alestorm record, but Jute Gyte remains one of our most creative and challenging American black metal extracts.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (silent hammers of decay)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Calm Hatchery - Fading Reliefs (2014)

Calm Hatchery has a tendency to 'undersell' itself based on its choice of cover imagery, first with its excellent 2004 debut album El-Alamein and now with the third full-length Fading Reliefs. Don't mistake me: the choice of color palette and photograph does indeed complement the Eastern sounds present through the disc, but your average grave monger perusing the racks for either the newest, vibrantly graphic brutal death disc or old school throwback might pass this one by just on its looks. Which would be a mistake, since this is by far one of the most consistent Polish death metal albums, and while placed well below the trinity of Behemoth, Vader and Decapitated in terms of overall popularity, they can often rival any of those names when it comes to sheer riff sculpture, personality and sum musical capabilities. That they've not created bigger waves I can only attribute to the international saturation of the genre, but trust me, folks, along with Lost Soul, they represent one of Poland's mightiest, and Fading Reliefs continues that high level of songwriting consistency. The 4-6 years between albums are well spent.

This might not be their best material yet, but it's for sure their most interesting, as they've dialed up those aforementioned Eastern folk influences to include not only a slew of well-executed chants and mantras to back up the predictably guttural barking, but also for some pretty amazing arrangements of cleaner, acrobatic strings as in the intro to "Blessing Mantra". This stuff flow seamlessly into and out of their surgical percussion and riffing progression palette, which essentially scours the annals of bands like Deicide and mid 90s Morbid Angel and then gives them a more clinical spin with these excellent, pinpoint harmonies across the two rhythm guitars. The punctuation of each pattern and fluidity of performance is easily the equal of any on the Polish scene (similar to Hate but much better on average), and yet I also feel like they could have an enormous appeal to fans of the current Californian craze, where a lot of bands have this same balance of technicality and memorable composition. But that exotic mysticism and Middle Eastern ethnic charisma in many of the arching riffs and gorgeous leads also leads me to believe they serve as a proxy for Nile with a lot less of the hit-or-miss turbulence and occasionally blander guitar work that band exudes in its quest to be the darkest and fastest band to ever hail from the East US.

The eight new originals here are simply stunning, busy and compelling. While I can't cite that the licks they rupture are wholly original, the way they position particular rhythm structures comes across like they are at least trying to be, and Fading Reliefs hits that 'special place' between retro obsession and modernity that I like to dub 'real death metal', although to these Poles, nostalgia dwells more in the influence of works like Legion or Covenant than Scream Bloody Gore and Left Hand Path. Once again, I am bludgeoned by the realization that Calm Hatchery is such an unknown, but equipped to write and perform at this level, and have painfully few complaints here. The bass could be a little louder, but it's good anyway; and I didn't care much for the one track that was included twice (the second version in Polish), since it sort of sours the momentum of the album (but it's just meant as a tacked on bonus for their local fans anyway, so no real harm). Anyway, fucking awesome record, with excellent drumming, excellent guitars, and enough depth to cycle through a half dozen spins without anything blending together to the point that you'd become exhausted on it. Buy this, buy everything they've done, and let's get some of these deserving stalwarts of the dead a little more spotlight...even if it would be difficult to make out in the blinding desert sun which inspires them.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Reverorum ib Malacht - De Mysteriis Dom Christii (2014)

Now there's a title to turn a few heads, almost as if the duo of Reverorum ib Malacht was mocking and challenging the very foundations of the genre which spawned them. Truth be told, that is kind of what their musical vision also embodies: swaths of noisy, dissonant and distant ambient black metal which is almost entirely unfriendly to an ear that is unwilling to accept the vector from which they are approaching the timeworn tradition. Now, while the style of De Mysteriis dom Christii is unconventional, it is not precisely original, since bands like Abruptum were engaged in this crossroads of ambient, noise and atmospheric black filth decades ago; but it is one that has never ceased to engage me, when done well, and while the songs these two write might require some general 'decryption' via the ear canal, I found the sophomore album appropriately grimy, unsettling and best of all: unforgiving.

Essentially I ask the reader to imagine he or she is listening to a black metal act from the far side of some castle wall or other interposing object, while ambient passages fill in the whorls of wind or other natural embellishments. Only instead of the typical rasp vocal, some decrepit and twisted preacher is addressing a pestilence audience along to the robotic presence of a steady blast beat. You can make out subdued tones of instruments like organs being woven into the harsher tunes, while there are others like "III" which are purely roils of dark ambient textures whose effects lurk entirely in the dark, shadowed corners of the listeners' psyche. Bass lines are audible, and they do often burst into more morbid, evil sounding choirs of vocals more characteristic of the black metal genre, but in terms of structure, De Mysteriis dom Christii is written with the sole purpose of presenting an unbroken nightmare, an antithesis to the normal rock band practices of having the instruments front and foremost and letting the 'riffs' do the speaking. If anything, you could view this as 'riffless' black metal...the patterns are there, sure, but entirely buried by the choirs, synthesizers, and vile chants.

As such, it will not be for everyone...not that it's a complete deconstruction of the form but it relies far more on some of the accoutrements of the medium rather than that core instrumentation. That could be a point against it if it weren't so fucking unnerving and effective as this unwholesome screed, but here's the REAL rub...supposedly these guys became 'Roman Catholic Black Metal' a few years back, so it's entirely possible that this record is the most disgustingly wicked incursion of 'unblack' you have ever heard. But probably not fit for a Sunday Dinner with Auntie Grace. We're a long way from Stryper and Mortification here, folks, but regardless whether or not Jesus has now outfoxed the Serpent, De Mysteriis Dom Christii is a compelling experience for its masochistic, projected audience, a disc which ingests all the darkest colors of the spectrum and regurgitates them like a sermon from a crumbling cathedral sinking into a mire of utter darkness and despair. And remember this: I warned you.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mortuus - Grape of the Vine (2014)

Mortuus hail from that Swedish migration of black metal towards both its roots and a slower, atmospheric interpretation. That's not to imply that every band in its niche avoids the blasting conservatism of its Scandinavian forebears, but generally groups like Shining, Ondskapt and IXXI leave more of an impression upon me when their crawling, psyche-subterranean rhythm guitars are cast about their oblique mindshares like bats inebriated off philosophers' blood, flittering and crashing off the walls and vaults of some ancient, forgotten place. I never got around to covering their first record De contemplanda Morte; De Reverencie laboribus ac Adorationis, but it was one that generated not a faint amount of praise, and while Grape of the Vine seems a more concerted, I daresay 'accessible' effort, I feel it not only lives up to the gloom of its predecessor, but surpasses it.

Tehôm simplistic, meandering riffs are the key to the experience, never bordering on technical or complex but wonderfully layered into these resilient, shining patterns of malevolence which always hover upon the precipice of suicide and dark humanism. Tunes like "Torches" fulfill the steady rock of the drum beats with these deliciously evil fills, while octave chords occasionally slide about the atmosphere to create a more melodic immersion than one would expect from staring at the stoic, beheaded statues on the cover. Some tracks like "Disobedience" are even sparser and more purely mood-driven than others, and these are where the man's massive, sustained growl fills in the void with its own brand of misery, echoing alongside the peals of feedback and stolid grooves of the bass guitar. "Tzel Maveth" is another beautiful track, one of several which lends this strange aesthetic of a post-industrial nature to the album which occasionally reminds me of band's like Treponem Pal or experimental thrash records like Kreator's Renewal or Coroner's Grin, only if they were wrapped tightly in the opaque cloak of black & roll circa Satyricon's 21st century output and crowned by Tehôm's gnarled, significant roar.

Grape of the Vine is not an immediate album with racy riff patterns and glossy textures scrapping over cheap melodic hooks, but neither is it dissonant to the level of unapproachable. It settles on the listener's shoulders like a fine, black dust of disease, steadily suffocating and offering no real avenue of escape once you've felt its lightless lure. Bass lines could be a little more adventurous, and in truth the rhythm guitar riffs don't stick 100% of the time, since a lot carry the burden of familiarity across 25 years of the genre, but on the other hand, if you're approaching the Mortuus sophomore with the right frame of mind, it WILL absorb you. Snuff out the candles, swaddle you in sulfur-tinted robes and then guide you on a sojourn through some dark places for 50 minutes, well beyond and below the warmth of the hearth-fire, the sputters and exhalations of civilization, in the cold crypts of the unliving. A very well made record.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]