Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Job for a Cowboy - Sun Eater (2014)

Man, where to even start with this one? Sun Eater, the lesser of two death metal-related albums to bear that title in 2014, and Job for a Cowboy's fourth full-length, is an exercise in variation and ability which at the very least sounds like it required a lot of effort in both its conception and execution. The question is, whether or not that was all worth it? My answer is very, very nearly. This is not a band that I'd ever accuse of having a 'personality', despite the quirky name, which many have already ranted over but at least isn't just another -tion, -tory, for you to file away under redundant. Once they shifted away from their insipid meathead deathcore roots into a more decidedly West Coast approximation of modern, semi-tech death which traced its lineage to all the 'right' acts in the field (Suffocation, Morbid Angel, Deicide and Cannibal Corpse could all be heard in the controlled chaos), they seemed to translate into a more respectable, though still highly divisive act. I've enjoyed a few of their efforts (Demonocracy, Genesis, etc) to an extent, but greatness has ever eluded the Arizona quartet, and despite a very painstakingly wrought effort here, it still does...

Much like Fallujah transformed into a modern approximation of classic Cynic, with whirlwind technicality alternated against a more ambient/jazzy fusion, Job for a Cowboy have done the next best thing and decided to channel Atheist. Alright, not exactly, but a number of times I was sitting through this I kept getting Unquestionable Presence impressions, with some of the cleaner guitar patterns reminiscent also of Gorguts' Obscura. This is an acrobatic, eccentric slab of technical death and thrash metal which goes to great lengths to try and distinguish itself from its aesthetic ancestors, applying a modern studio context to their now antiquated, but once innovative ideas. But like so many other young death metal bands with athletic instrumental skill, it seems to rely a little too much on its own frenetic diversity and not on the strong songwriting chops that will make or break a death metal record throughout eternity. I'm not saying Sun Eater is void of a few gorgeous lead sequences, or riffs that perk my interest, but where The Flesh Prevails became this largely consistent pendulum of ethereal melodies and butchering brutality, this one just never develops much of an identity beyond the 'hey, wow, listen to that' mentality, where you're temporarily blown away by a band's proficiency set and not at any risk of remembering what they are actually setting down.

Oh, don't get me wrong, this one is an extent. Jonny Davy's gruesome snarls and growls are splattered all over the polished, punchy instrumentation like cattle organs in some spit-shined slaughterhouse whose death machines are fresh off the assembly line. But did I like them? Nah, they try really hard but accomplish little since he just can't contort them into interesting syllabic patterns. Danny Walker's guest drumming on this is technically brilliant but I found a few of the components like the snares and toms to feel a little too Tupperware at points. The bass is amazing in general, with lines highly similar to those used in prog thrash and prog death classics like Control and Resistance, Unquestionable Presence, Focus, etc, and there are parts of the album where I really felt like I could just listen to Nick Schendzielos isolated from the rest of the band and be happy. But at the same time, it's actually the Glassman/Sannicandro guitar duo which keeps the busiest, and offers us the most contrast and variation between the different levels of distorted excess. The album boasts a Jason Suecof production with Eyal Levi and several other engineers, so you know it's going to have that pristine, clinical 21st century death metal gloss that most of the 'forward thinking' acts strive towards, but then again that's just not anything new at this point.

Effort was extended towards the lyrics, also, but they end up the sort that feel like they're waxing all philosophical about the digital age, moral relativity; poetic and neatly scrawled imagery, sure, but for some reason it felt like a bunch of fancy words strung together which are ultimately as meaningless as taking a hearty poop. But I guess I could say that about almost any death metal band that dares transcend the serial killings, gore menageries and so forth. Job for a Cowboy tried, it's just such a fine line between an actual message of substance and mere pretentious twaddle. I felt like these were keeping one foot on either side of that line. And that's sort of symptomatic of Sun Eater in general: a Herculean attempt to progress and expand one further circumference beyond the burly BroStep brutality of the band's origins than even their last few albums dared. Nothing to scoff at, since tunes like "Buried Monuments" rank among their better compositions, but ultimately I just felt hollow after a few spins, like I was watching some flashy action movie which had a couple impressive stunts but no quotable one-liners like Commando or Terminator. This is more like the last four Jason Statham flicks you caught. Huge, kinetic, smarmy, lots of explosions and special effects, but more of a rental than a purchase.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (my relentless knocking is constantly ignored)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Yearner - The Second Howl (2013)

The second Yearner cassette is something quite different than its predecessor Winternight, comprised of three longer untitled pieces and not so much going for the 'chill factor' as it exhibits a more curious and bizarre collection of sounds over fuzzier rhythmic synthesizers. It's at once both noisier and more experimental, especially the second piece with its acid, head-melting tones and throbbing subtext, but I wouldn't go so far that it feels entirely unplanned and sporadic. It seems L.V. sat down with a bunch of sounds he hadn't explored in other ventures and then tried to formulate them into something more coherent...there are some stabs at melodies here, so it's not entirely unfriendly, but this is certainly 'on the edge', more left field than the stuff from Astral Order of Impurity, for example.

That said, it's equally evocative of a lot of obscure and strange imagery. The second track reminded me of late summers in my youth when I'd watch in fascination at moths fluttering around the bug zapper lights in my grandfather's back yard...but mashed up with spending an evening at S.E.T.I. listening to the radio signals from space. The third track has these distorted pads which almost create a form of percussion under the prime, buzzing melodies, and I found that this was easily the most glorious and memorable among the three, though once again it's more a mood piece despite it's more easily discerned 'riff'. There are also some points in that one where the haunted organs of the first tape return for a few seconds, almost like L.V. is switching radio channels and tuning in to his earlier visions. A weird self-awareness that emerges among all the roiling, fuzzy tones and experimentation.

While it was successful at reincarnating some old memories, and an intriguing listen, The Second Howl did not quite live up to its predecessor as something I'm going to want to break out time and time again, nor was it as strong as the rest of the Voldsom tapes I've been covering. But I wouldn't dub it a disappointment, because what I did like about it is how it almost seemed like L.V. was using this as a further launch pad for a project that involved 'grounded' technological feedback. Where Astral Order of Impurity was a veritable lunar lander or space station, this is more a soundtrack for a being lost in a labyrinthine landfill of ancient computer game cartridges, radar dishes, and other antiquated computer or arcade machinery, factory castoffs and all sorts of outdated paraphernalia. Strange, but sometimes soothing if you like a little challenge in your minimalistic ambiance.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, November 21, 2014

Yearner - Winternight (2013)

Winternight is all too apt a title for this tape, Yearner being another project in the Voldsom lineup, composed and recorded by musician L.V. But I might have gone even a bit further with that imagery, dubbing it Winter Nights in a Fell Church Buried Beneath the Snows, for this is hands down the most longing and isolated piece of work I've yet encountered from this musician, and my favorite release to date among the Voldsom catalog. Nostalgic, horrific, completely lonely and heavily repressed due to the subdued, submersed production sensibilities that will probably be exponentially more pronounced when you're actually listening to the cassette on an old tape deck (I am listening to this digitally). Proof yet again, that in a world of overdubs, heavily layered orchestration, pop melodies refined to a bleeding edge and/or Pro Tools guitar rock, it's a wonder what a guy can do with a few organ and synthesizer tones and a metric ton of sincerity...

Not all of the tracks on Winternight are uniform in mood, but there is enough linking them together that by the end you've felt like you just wandered through some German Black Forest Odyssey during the snowfalls and lowest temperatures of the year. The organ tones here, especially in a piece like "Silent Nocturnal Snowfall", resonated with me incredibly well, as if Captain Nemo had been forced out of his undersea vessel and made to perform among the evergreens at absolute zero. It's chilling and also evokes a hint of nostalgia for cult Gothic horror films, and to be truthful would not make a bad accompaniment for some silent black & white replete with imagery that someone might have felt was pretty creepy in the earlier 20th century, or even today if they actually have perspective. These passages are played in repetitive waves, joined by antiquated synth tones which would have belonged more to a Tangerine Dream and/or Vangelis, which bring a little more of a Technicolor palette to the atmosphere, like whorls of deep purple or crimson snow erupting over a monochromatic landscape. This is really where the record transforms and transcends beyond the reality of a guy and a keyboard.

But Yearner also disembarks from this motif, with more dissonant, jarring pieces like "Obscurity" which have a more immediate, brooding horror appeal with some electronic pipe-like sounds that really freaked me out, or "In Days of Yore" where the synths feel more saturated and distorted beneath a more glorious wouldn't be out of place in some dreamy 80s film like Legend. "Winternight" itself has a slightly more Medieval folk/castle feel to it, adding yet another facet to the album's ability to successfully manifest fragments and scenes of the imagination. Combined with the murky, raw mix, all five of its tracks function entirely as intended and were a perfect mood-setter for a few brisk New England nights here in mid-November, though I definitely have the feeling I'll be breaking this out in another month or two repeatedly as I become increasingly surrounded in frigid whites and darkness. At 20 or so minutes, it never wears out its welcome, and probably more than any of the other tapes I've heard from L.V's other projects (Astral Order of Impurity, Til Det Bergens Skygenne, etc), grants a haunted, seasonal escapism.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Astral Order of Impurity - Dimension (2014)

One risk that ambient artists face is that their recordings can often become so samey, so redundant that it feels like one or two ideas are being chopped up into a number of slices and then fed to the listener individually in lieu of offering a more fulfilled, variegated experience. One might immediately gaze upon the cover art to the tapes of Astral Order of Impurity, hear a few select moments of the pads and effects the creator has implemented, and decide that there isn't a whole lot of difference between them. One might not always be wrong in that assumption, not even when comparing and contrasting Dimension with its predecessor Portal. However, those differences DO exist, and not always in the most subtle of contexts.

Dimension is a more cathartic experience than the prior tape, with a greater intrusion of dissonant noises and effects that inhabits its depths and become immediately more alarming, while the usual background tones themselves become even more innately alien and frightening. This is not always the case, and there are indeed a few lighter points in the first half of the 41 minute track which were crucial in setting this one up as an almost more asymmetrical 'cinematic' recording. A few hints of weirdness abound, but it all takes a slightly darker, more chaotic turn as you reach past the 20-25 minute zone, after a more ominous, subdued middle section with some subtle electronic or radio signals rattling off against the swelling background...I thought I even heard something like a guitar distortion pop into one ear, but I often lose my mind when I become so embroiled in a record like this that it wouldn't surprise me if my own mind was casting shadows. But, lo and behold, just like the alien bursts out of the victim's chest, or the space heroes realize that planet they just landed on is not actually a planet, or that the void is just in general not a friendly place...this one grows a little more haunting and fucked up, and it really pays off in the listener's emotions.

Again, material like this is the Anti-Beat. It's not going to get you laid, and if it does, well you've found yourself a keeper...either that, or someone who is going to probably kill you in your sleep (one eye open, friend, one eye open). It eschews the conventional structure of rock or even classical music instrumentation to more directly mimic the sounds of open space, technological equipment or even just what a human brain might 'think' it is hearing. You're not straining for the next harmony here, you're just dreading what might be around the next corner of a derelict extraterrestrial space-craft. L.V., the sole craftsman on this recording, is channeling his own trepidations of the unknown onto cassette, for a few brave souls to witness themselves. But the funny thing, people, is that this is ALL around you, always has been, and always will be. Stop to listen for a few seconds, ignoring the wagging of tongues, the invasive ring-tones, the grinding of construction equipment on every urban corner, and you may just hear it. Or, better yet, just let Astral Order of the Impurity do the work for you. Dimension is the music of Infinity, filtered through one consciousness trying to translate it into pure aural emotion. It's the better of the two Astral Order tapes I've listened through, by a small margin, granted, but it's at once both more sublime and horrifying.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, November 17, 2014

Astral Order of Impurity - Portal (2014)

I've listened to hundreds of musical genres across my decades, but one that always strikes me as the most personal is ambient. And when I say 'personal', I'm not referring to the schmaltziness of romantic pop and rock lyrics, nor how most of the drones feel they can 'relate' towards their Taylor Swift records. No, the undiluted practice of raw musical expression in a niche that hasn't been cool ever, isn't cool now, and if the stars are right will never, EVER, become 'cool', tainted or passe. Labels like the German imprint Voldsom are so underground that the devil himself might give you a blank stare when you ask him where to find them, but we have the Internet now, and no need to rely on His bad direction sense any further, though his fashion sense will never go out of style.

Speaking of directions, Astral Order of Impurity depends on only one. Up, up, and away, unto the weightless distortion of space and time. Gravity be damned. Gravitas, on the other hand, paramount. One of the more recent projects of musician L.V., who you might recall from my coverage of Til Det Bergens Skyggene, a more rustic example of ambiance which some might brand ambient, others might dub 'dungeon synth', but struck through with tints of folk abandon and isolation among both the depths and surface world of the Known World. Portal is rather the opposite, a solitary, 43 minute, consistent excursion into what feels to me like an extraterrestrial plane. Perhaps resonating off the hull of some cyclopean World-ship cruising the void between galaxies. Or something your imagination might produce as a feedback loop during nostalgia for lunar landscapes, ancient science fiction concepts (pre-colorization). Free of the convention of percussion and other rock sacraments, the spacey synthesizer pads embark upon an oft empty, oft ebullient discourse. This is not a vacuum which entirely lacks in warmth; he is constantly supplanting the thicker, murky, fear-induced strains with cycles of more radiant non-melodic tones and effects that seem delightfully spontaneous.

I told you: deeply personal. One human being experimenting with sounds foreign to the herd-mind misconception of what music might encompass or become 'defined' as. That's not to say L.V. is the first cosmonaut out in this stretch of universe, but due to its general lack of rules and scripture, this stuff always feels fresh and unpredictable, even if that sporadic nature arrives in the form of subtler sounds than chaotic, blazing grindcore guitars or acid-trance crabcore keyboard harmonies. Mood music, absolutely. Not something you're going to appreciate much if you can't set yourself up to receive it. Park your posterior on a hill at night, stare off into the darkness, and come to terms with your smallness in the face of it all. Dream of satellite dishes signaling off into the interstellar range, where they most likely will reach nothing. The tape format only adds to that nostalgia, that horror, that antithesis to sentimentality which such cold and distant music revels in, but the real joy of Portal is how, upon the precipice of becoming lost and frozen forever, you'll experience this peel of light, a far-off sun erupting, and know that somewhere, someone is still breathing, dreaming. And goodnight.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, November 14, 2014

Whore of Bethlehem - Upon Judas' Throne (2014)

If the lurching, roiling pace of the intro riff in the title track of this album sounds a little similar to Domination or Blessed Are the Sick era Morbid Angel, I don't think that's such a coincidence, because the Floridian death metal gods are clearly the chief inspirations for Texans Whore of Bethlehem, and that's probably not such a bad thing if you crave a lot more of that sound and less of the New York subterranean gloom or Swedish soil churning, which individually or in unison represent the two primary camps of retro death metal that are so prominent in recent years. That's not to say this exact style hasn't been resurrected quite a number of times since the masters mastered it in the 90s, but in general I find that the inspiration of bands like Morbid Angel and Deicide seems to have translated largely to the more brutal and technical sect of bands who at one time were forcing at the boundaries of the genre.

The caveat for Whore of Bethlehem is how they also fuse traces of archaic Scandinavian black metal into that matrix of morbidity, in particular through the desperate, dissonant chord patterns that erupt during blast sections, slightly less through the rasped vocal which is used to contrast against pissed off Dave Vincent/Steve Tucker growls. So, while Upon Judas' Throne might sound derivative to a fault, there are at least a few riffing patterns that come out of left field, and in general they are just really damned good at what they do. Guitar progressions are pretty catchy, especially when you break them down to their individual components. The rich, bulkier rhythm tone carries well into the chugs, but is constantly being offset by a lot of more intricately evil, airier ballast which really resonates over the pounding, frenzied undercurrent. Leads are sporadic but elegant, and while the Texans are playing in a fairly mapped-out niche of the death metal genre, I definitely experienced dozens of instances in which the precise direction the tunes and riffs were taking did not play out quite as I predicted. And in this day and age, where jaded veterans have heard the same shit a billion times and then some, the value of that cannot be underestimated. I'm not trying to imply that they consistently throw you for a loop, only some refreshingly solid ideas which implement with confidence.

The drums are great, the bass a fraction understated but functional, the vocals abusive and the guitars almost always on point. I really can't imagine anyone who counts Morbid Angel, Marduk, 1349, Hate Eternal and Dark Funeral among his/her collection not finding something admirable in the obvious effort, and love for the craft on parade here. Plenty enough variation between the outright stormers like "Castle of Meth" and the more brooding pieces like "Leviathan's Crown", and the band sounds eternally pissed off rather than phoned in, a positive quality that goes a long way towards compensating for any real lack of innovation and ingenuity. For an unsigned debut, it's astounding just how professional this sounds, and how well they play, even if the guys have been involved with other Texan acts like Scattered Remains or Disfigured which operate in a more bluntly brutal, contemporary arena. I frankly haven't heard a wealth of albums in this vein that I've enjoyed since Trey and crew dropped Gateways to Annihilation, so this definitely helped fill that void, plus the seamless integration of the black metal stuff gave it the benefit of the marginally unexpected. As the band develops I hope they'll branch out even further, but this is a sinister, rock solid start.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Decapitated - Blood Mantra (2014)

Though Blood Mantra is far from the return to form I had hoped it could be, it at least sounds like the band assessed their second-rate 2011 effort Carnival is Forever, and then gave themselves a series of kicks in their own asses to provoke a little more genuine anger and energy into the inevitable followup. That's not to imply that this is in any way a 'good' record. It has proven even more forgettable with each successive listen, but if all hope had been lost through its predecessor, at least there is a spark now...maybe. Of course, when I see band members claiming "Blood Mantra is the most heavy and mature album we ever did in our career" amidst the usual shitstorm of metal press hyperbole, I have to wonder if the Poles are listening to the same record I'm hearing...because these guys were writing far more intricately sculpted, mature death metal when they were in their teens...Blood Mantra is the sort of disc that could honestly just turn up from any band with its feet soaked in death, grind and groove metal, and then straight to the bargain bins in the late 90s. Competent in its performance and production, but soulless in its pursuit of that timeless quality we attribute to top flight death metal.

It's a concussive affair which alternates between bland, robotic blasting passages, chugging queues beyond which the bass guitar is allowed to roil around in its distorted flatulence, and then various post-industrial atmospheres are strewn about, marking a return to the Organic Hallucinosis period. Frankly, it's not such a bad idea, and that was the last Decapitated disc I actually enjoyed, but alas, they don't do much with it beyond pay it some lip a whole, this album never steps beyond the bounds that they've ever set before, and if you're expecting anything by way of compelling guitar progressions that characterized their first few albums, you are almost shit out of luck here. There are a few which achieve the syncopated, precision punch sophistication you'll recall from Nihility and "Spheres of Madness", and those are surely highlights here, but sadly the banal groove/nu-thrash metal elements arrive in the form of "Veins", etc which might as well just be textbook Soulfly or any of a number of other mediocre bands who tried to capitalize on that whole thing. I won't fault these guys for lacking variation or versatility...Blood Mantra is pretty carefully balanced to provide its audience with a number of mood shifts, but the issue for me is that none of these moods are capable to provoke memorable atmosphere beyond the LCD neck-strain and pit-flexing requisite of popular metal bands.

Based on raw musical proficiency alone, this stuff does deliver. Michał Łysejko is flawless on his debut, but perhaps a little too flawless, since his aptitude is so resoundingly mechanical that you wonder why they even needed to hire a human. But let's not write the guy off completely, because he's also capable of showing some restraint where needed during the more progressive side of the record where the guitars take on far more importance. The guitars are somewhat technical, and do often go into some minute detailing, but the issue is that the notes are just not that interesting in succession and I felt that, even with all the considering meandering between tempos, I was still staring at some level, unbroken, not-too-creative plateau. The bass tone sounds great, but there are never any lines that catch the ear, and the leads just feel like runs through scales or structures rather than efforts to explode with either orgasmic emotions or frightening industrial dissonance. Man, it just got matter how skilled these guys seem, how many endorsements they receive, how many tours they embark upon, there's something to be said when single songs off Winds of Creation are more interesting and memorable than all of the content combined on an album 14 years younger...

Rafal's vocals are just as bog standard here as on the last album, a pastiche of Cavalera, Anselmo and Greenway cliches which basically just fill in the spreadsheet of what needs to be grunted and barked and utterly indistinguishable from a thousand other front men. Your friendly neighborhood corner groove metal guy. Not all the lyrics here are bad, but it's particularly funny when he's grunting out the 'fuck for money/fuck for name!' lines in the song "Instinct", during a groove over which I kept finding myself reciting Flava Flav's chorus in the old Public Enemy track "911 is a Joke", for whatever reason. Parts like this simply feel like they involve more pandering and rabble rousing to those whom only the exclamation of profanity can inspire from their shoddy lives, which is a little frustrating because half of what the band has to say here about the disenchantment of the Millennial internet generation (which has been the subject matter for about 3 albums straight) carries some weight. If only Blood Mantra wasn't, itself, contributing to that very same sense of futility, anxiety and impotence. Everything in the world at your fingertips...all that history, all that information, and no cause or purpose with which to approach, nothing whatsoever to do with it all...just like the musical chops on exhibition here. An inoffensive, competent musical battery? Sure. Superior to the band's career nadir to date? Why not? The once-bright future of death metal? Extinguished.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (find me a faith)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Vomitory - Rawhead (1996)

I was able to cover Hour of Truth and Baschlasophobic a few years ago as I was doing my massive examination of the Teutonic thrash scene through the decades, but the German Vomitory's third full length outing Rawhead was unavailable to me at that time for listening purposes. As it turns out, leaving this one in the dust would not have made for much of a difference, because while the album does have a share of appreciably brutal moments as far as thrash goes, the whole affair reeks of another of those countless attempts to 'adjust' thrash into the nu-mosh, groove mentality so dominant throughout the 90s that it rendered the careers of so many hopefuls inert. Vomitory's 1991 debut had been an acceptable if far too late to the game example of thrash will little to no distinctive characteristic with which I could separate it from hordes of other hopeless bands attempting to fill in the gaps left behind by infinitely more unique and inspired predecessors. The sophomore dropped off considerably in quality from even that, and Rawhead doesn't do a lot to improve matters...

Once again, a real shitty cover artwork which doesn't gel well with the forgettable script they used for a logo, which coincidentally never fit at all with the music on their releases. Once you get past that, you are presented with an acceptable, ambient intro which might have proven the spark for a more interesting, progressive sort of album, only it doesn't, because you're in for 50 minutes of banal, meaty thrashing which honestly sounds like a more bouncy late 80s Sepultura; not only in the structuring of how they put together riffs, or the more grueling, growling, grimier and bulkier spin on Cavalera-like vocal barks, but also the brash rawness in the guitars which gave me a distinctly Beneath the Remains impression. The real down side to Rawhead is not that the group isn't occasionally capable of throwing down a genuinely mean rhythm for putting on camouflage pants, bouncing around the steakhead moshpit, but but that so many of them can be seen coming, redundant patterns rooted in nu-metal jump da fuc up and that strain of NYHC brand throwdown redolent of Biohazard. The riffs do seem to subsist often on an uninteresting chugging base which functions strictly off the grooves of the drummer, but then will shift off into some more hardcore-inflected chord choices.

That's not to say they don't have a few songs on this which manifest into a more traditional thrash anthem, with some frivolous but not unengaged leads for good measure. They even pattern some of their selections with a hint of more interesting post-industrial dissonance, but in general the stuff is just so predictable that the only excitement ever comes when they shift tempos, but then that is soon joined by the disappointment that what happened next was equally as boring. To top it off, you've got vocal patterns as in "Downfall" where wiggy repetition is used to low yields, almost as if they had gotten a guest spot with some poor man's Jonathan Davis impersonator and thought it was a good idea to enhance the brand with a little Korn, since that was all the rage at the time. So you are definitely hearing some Life is Peachy, some Roots here, and it kind of dilutes what traces remain of true, clinical German thrash...they exist on this album, but not enough to turn back the 'cult of the new' vibes that Vomitory was obviously surfing on. The album is also way too long...52 minutes, even if three of the cuts are under a minute; with nothing reward awaiting in its depths. Is it worse than Baschlasophobic? That I can't say, since it at least feels meaner and they very rarely latch onto a better riff than was found on the 1993 album. It's just the very definition of mediocrity, and had absolutely no prayer of making an impact even by '96 standards.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Friday, November 7, 2014

Thy Darkened Shade - Liber Lvcifer I: Khem Sedjet (2014)

There are precious few bands towing the lines of technicality and progression within the bounds of black metal, traits that make a record like Liber Lvcifer I: Khem Sedjet valuable far beyond the fact that it's just a superbly written, kick-ass exposition into the more clinical side of the medium. But I don't mean to get across that this is simply some soulless exercise in musical proficiency. This is not some wank-fest or shred exposition. No, the key to Thy Darkened Shade's sophomore is that it is just as heavily focused on the band's occult lyrical paradigms, not to mention the delirious level of variation and contrast between the bristling, hyper picked black metal assaults and the layered, atmospheric moments in which the monk-like chant of the clean vocals announces its presence...the album is so good that it throws the band's already-great debut Eternvs Mos, Nex Ritvs off the nearest rooftop to be trampled by the traffic below.

Liber Lvcifer I: Khem Sedjet might not exactly be setting a precedent, since there's an entire history of Scandinavian black metal bands like 1349 and later Emperor with an emphasis for taxing the raw technical levels of the field, but it does the deed just as well if not better than most of those that have come before it. Agile rhythm guitars spitting out spikes of dissonant, eerie melody amidst impressive picking sequences that almost never let up when the pedal is to the metal, accompanied by effortless blasting that keeps the slower to mid-paced passages of the album just as busy with involved double kick patterns and powerful fills that transition seamlessly into the next rush of aggression. Most of the guitars are played with that perfectly lean tone which allows all the notes a presence, and this album more than any other in 2014 has the highest ratio of quality tremolo patterns that force innumerable replays just to confirm what you thought you heard. But that's not the limit of the technique here...the ever prolific Semjaza has his fingers all over that fucking fretboard, like an insane architect who is attempting to disprove the notion that all practical structures have already been built. Even when the brickwork being laid out here isn't all that novel, it's still mindbendingly great...

But the songwriting and guitars are not the only area in which the guy is excelling, he also populates the tunes with a bevy of curving, climactic proggy bass lines that are the equal to almost anyone else in the black metal genre. It's difficult to rationalize how the guy could come up with such intricate and well honed craft within two years of the debut album, so I'm just going to pretend Semjaza has six arms and two or three extra brain chambers. I'm not saying that this is the greatest work of music known to mankind, or that it exhibits such a level of complexity and depth that mere human wisdom cannot interpret it, but you must understand that I receive so much extreme metal in a year's span, and an overwhelming percentage of the stuff doesn't even show a quarter this much effort in its execution, never mind its composition. And the thing is, I kept waiting for it to get boring...for it to become so cluttered with its own ambitions that it stopped engaging anyone other than itself...but it doesn't. Fuck, some of the later tracks like "Deus Absconditus" are among its best and most intense.

78 minutes, and there is ALWAYS something happening that fetches the ear. 10 minutes songs surge past the listener like a rush of sheer revelation. Bored yet? Not a chance. Few blanks are fired, ever, on this album. The polished production levels are never sterile nor superfluous, but rather mandatory to make out everything happening in the mix. Vocalist 'The A' has his work cut out for him, and to be truthful, his guttural ravings, which somewhat supplant the traditional rasp of the style, can't even hope to compare with every other component of the recording. But with all those chants and cleaner vocals throw in for balance, I still really enjoyed the album as a whole. It's not perfect, there might be a few moments inferior to the rest, and it's not the sort of 'catchy' kind of's more like an experience you have to find the specific mood for. The frenzy of these ideas, old and new, whirring past like papal hornets into an abyss of their suppressed sins. Unfuckingbelievably good.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Aenaon - Extance (2014)

Having not had the most favorable reaction to the first Aenaon record Cendres et Sang (2011), I was hesitant to check out its followup. But thanks to at least three individuals who prodded and poked me in the right direction, that has changed, and I'm glad it has, because Extance reduces its predecessor to a mere stain within the first three tracks, and its another robust example of how Greece has developed this worthy, dynamic black metal scene in which bands seem to foster and excel in individual sounds without having to invade each others' wheelhouses for anything more than a few fleeting aesthetics. That's not to insist that Extance consists of a wealth of novel ideas we haven't heard, but how the band fashions it all together and plays to its strengths results in an inspired, professional, memorable experience which immediately inverted my sense of indifference from the prior outing.

The piano intro to this was so outstanding that I wouldn't have been put off if the entire album had been just that...but for the most part the material sort of reminded me of Moonspell's louder and more black metal-oriented material...not just from the similarities in that loud, fulsome rasp, but also the pacing, desperation and melodic structures they're writing. All of the sweeping Romantic abandon, with none of the Goth cheese that other band embraces. I suppose you could also name drop Rotting Christ here for the general tempos, but the vocals are slightly different and Aenaon cultivates a more progressive, modern edge. They're also a lot more eclectic, Solefald-eclectic; using saxophones, harmonica, cellos and other instruments to great success, since they sort of weave them into the black metal terrain as if they always belonged, rather than just writing these boisterous 'look at how different we are' pieces where you feel like you're witnessing two entirely different bands grappling over album space. The entire flow of Extance is fluid, the dynamics shift from soaring moments of cleaner vocals used like wind over the strident riffs and hammering double bass, to outright blasts to the face which eschew none of the richness elsewhere. The band even incorporates a few passages of djent-like chugging progressions ("Closer to Scaffold"), but the guitar tone and how it fits into the remainder of the song make all the difference in it coming off lame or contrived.

I'm not entirely in love with the vocals, they definitely seem a little overbearing and lack the eerie and evil traits I enjoy most in the genre...but technically they are well executed and there are plenty of points at which other tones, backing barks, etc are used to layer and vary them so they don't feel one track. Some of the higher pitched female howls (as in "Funeral Blues") seem a little forced, strange but not necessarily in a good way. Pianos and keys are consistently great, beyond just that intro or the later instrumental ("Algernon's Decadence"), but it's the drumming and constantly mutating patterns of rhythm guitars and melodies that achieve the strongest presence here, rendering a potential 65 minute overlong nightmare into something pretty easily digested in full. The riffs do not have a perfect ratio of catchiness or inventiveness, and I'd hesitate to dub this the band's 'masterpiece', but to me it seemed like all the components they had meddled with on their debut have been reconfigured into something which is a far more coherent and compelling listen, especially the enormous closer "Palindrome" which is an engaging 13 minutes. You'll find no reluctance here to dive straight in to whatever they come up with next.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Varathron - Untrodden Corridors of Hades (2014)

Some part of me was clinging to the assumption that the Untrodden portion of the album title would pan out in the actual composition of the latest Varathron full-length. While I can't say that to be true of the sound here as a whole, since classicist elements like chants have been utilized pretty often in the medium, including efforts from their better recognized countrymen Rotting Christ, this disc does such a superb job of fusing them into the grimier black metal roots of the first few Varathron efforts that I feel the adjective applies, at least to their own legacy. Untrodden Corridors is in fact quite the triumph. Whether it errs on the side of traditional caution, or storms fully into the embrace of its lavish, incendiary production values, this is definitely a work of maturation which becomes greater than the sum of its individual components, and creates an overall satisfying experience I'll be repeating time and time again.

Apart from Crowsreign, I've never been disappointed with a Varathron album, and that remains the truth here. Considering the general length of the tracks, which is around 7-9 minutes, they truly flesh out the songwriting so that there are always pleasant surprised waiting around each corner, whether that's a more melodic, thrashier picking progression or a creepy atmospheric passage with cleaner guitars and grisly, background snarls ("Arcane Conjuring"), you feel like you're being transported through the various chasms of the mythic Greek underworld, Stefan Necroabyssious your demented tour guide, with a voice that lends just as much charisma to a black metal recording as Martin Walkiyier once did to the infernal thrash/speed of the British Sabbat. The guy oozes both menace and a narrative nature which resurrects the many tragic figures of his kingdom's folklore, and it's nearly as much a pleasure to listen to anything he does as to pick and choose among the guitar riffs. There is a definitely a portion of this disc which seems to play it safe, particularly some of the more blasted rhythm guitar accompaniments, but otherwise they are always general, the slower the guitar and mid-paced guitars or breakdowns being the most curious.

Bass lines sound fantastic, meaty with just the perfect amount of distortion so they don't spin out of control, as you'll hear on the tune "Leprocious Lord" in which they carry Necroabyssious's carnal presence into those wonderful, popping melodies during the chorus. Easily one of the best tunes in Varathron's entire catalog, and it is not alone here in that regard. Love the percussive technicality of the guitars, constantly shifting up the setting and story of "Death Chant", or some of the pure double bass batteries accompanied by these forced, unusual melodies ("Delve Into the Past"). Kokkinos' drums are absolutely incredible here, throwing interesting and energetic fills everywhere in time with the many significant twists and turns the songs take; a performance on par with many of his peers in the more popular touring European black metal juggernauts. Both electrified and cleaner, expressive guitars on the album also sound amazing, scintillating, and highly responsible for the eclectic yet universally dark mood of the record as a whole.

Kind of like what Behemoth has done with The Satanist, Varathron has also done with Untrodden Corridors of Hades. A veteran band, that some might long have written off as passing their prime, suddenly and unexpectedly arriving at The Top Of Their Game. Production is extremely professional sounding but not glossed over or sterilized...this is a rich, shadowy, voluminous, evil, threatening  Underworld populated with ideas...not all of them unique to Varathron, but enough engagement in these depths to provide a long listening cycle, and as much as I liked its predecessor Stygian Forces of Scorn or their classic debut His Majesty at the Swamp, I have to be honest in that this new record has given me an entirely new appreciation for the Greeks. Not perfectly memorable throughout, but the best I've heard from them yet. Absolutely worth owning. Well done.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Diabolical Principles - Manifesto of Death (2014)

Diabolical Principles went largely unnoticed on their first album, Beyond the Horizon, which was a solid slab of semi-symphonic black metal that possessed at least some hints at greatness, but at the same time did not distinguish itself as much or as often as a number of the band's Hellenic forebears and contemporaries, so it wound up in the slush pile of so many European bands chasing the dream that was already captured and flogged nearly to death in the 1990s. However, it deserved better, and the group remained semi active in the intervening years it took to present their sophomore, Manifesto of Death, which is out through Kristallblut Records of Germany, a relatively new imprint with a couple years behind it.

Unfortunately, Manifesto of Death just doesn't come across as if a half-decade of inspiration was dispensed in its creation, and suffers from a series of fairly banal chord progressions and tremolo picked melodies that wind around on themselves without ever escaping into an exciting, memorable string of notes. The style hasn't exactly changed...they specialize in mid-paced black metal which feels like a mash up of the 90s tradition of Northern Europe with a few of the grandiose harmonic elements attributed to countrymen like Rotting Christ (especially Thy Mighty Contract-era), but the problem here is that the songs rarely seem to proceed in a compelling direction. They'll cut out most of the percussion and insert some more contemplative passage, but then when the full band picks back up it just doesn't capitalize on any inertia that it might have benefited from. Performances are all around solid, and I liked the fluid, audible bass playing which gave a richness to the mix of the disc, and yet it's just not enough to cultivate a 'second rate at best' vibe even at its most prized moments.

That's not to say it's entirely void of variation, since the band wisely switches up the tempo from mid-paced romps bristling with more dissonant chords, to majestic river-flow tempos and then the requisite blasting passages. The down side is that the uninspired feeling to the record seems to be equally distributed among all three. The rasping voice of the vocalist is really average, with no syllabic patterns of note and not a lot of menace by the obvious atonality of its nature in this genre. Lyrics are adequate for the style, but half a string of cliched lines you've read elsewhere. Some of the weird synth tones used in tunes like "The Passage" carry a retro-futurist sensibility that, while not uncommon in cheesy earlier black metal/ambient, don't do much of a service to the narrative of fell glory that the guitar progressions strive towards. But on the other hand, when the Principles are aligned strictly with creating a haunting soundscape, as in "Cosmic Void", I think they're pretty successful at conjuring a dark ambient immersion, to the point that I wished for more of that and less of the predictable rhythm guitars.

On the whole, not a terrible record, but what might have been a chance at taking the promising foundations of their debut into a new realm of possibility, has instead sputtered out like a dead engine churning recycled fumes and tropes that simply cannot survive against the wealth of better execution or more innovative ideas found in the genre as a whole. I didn't feel as if the Greeks had rewritten the script of Beyond the Horizon, but that album was just superior in its execution. If you're just looking to fill the background space with any old slightly atmospheric black metal, then Manifesto of Death should suffice, and again, I liked their synth-ambient future-scape stuff when it goes on a solitaire sojourn, but the album does suffer from an obligatory feeling, as if the musicians were not incredibly inspired themselves when putting it together. Not lazy, but not sufficiently passionate either.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Monday, November 3, 2014

Aasgard - Morbid Celestial Desecration (2012)

Aasgard has sat silently in the background of the Hellenic black metal scene since their inception, and it's not hard to reason why: the aesthetics they choose to render on their releases are born more of a devotion to the raw, baseline 90s Scandinavian 2nd wave ethos than the more distinguished, glorious, melodic/occult metal woven into the Greek masters Rotting Christ, Varathron, Spectral Lore, and more recently something even further out like Hail Spirit Noir. Theirs is a musical choice which runs not so much off ideas as it does an adherence to a code of sound, a stereotype, and due to that fact, their debut and EPs just never ranked all that highly with me. Competent, yes, and there is certainly an unshaking audience for that old school appeal, borne on wings of nostalgia and loyalty, one I don't actually exempt myself from. But that comes with the condition that the riffs are played with such menace or atmosphere or just raw memorable note construction that I can't resist it, and Aasgard just hasn't foot that bill...

Unfortunately, for a large fraction of Morbid Celestial Desecration, that remains the case. Raw and searing patterns of chords strung out against a melancholic, warlike backdrop where the repetition of the rhythm guitar alone is chiefly responsible for cultivating the atmosphere, all traced back to the obvious sources like Bathory, Mayhem, Gorgoroth, Burzum, Carpathian Forest, Hellhammer or other European legends, without the novelty or charisma. There is marginal crossover appeal for fans of other epic Greek black metal outfits like Nocternity or Macabre Omen, only this duo just doesn't seem to establish that same level of mood...the harsh chord progressions too often feel predictable and rarely go anywhere adventurous, to the point that once they throw in a left hook like the clean guitars sequence in "Beliefs of Native Gods" it automatically shines by default. On the other hand, Aasgard at least varies up the material so that a largely surging, blast-supported piece is followed up by a slower, tortured, depressive black metal number ("Supplication to the Immortals" an example) where there is more emphasis on making the vocal rasp sound like its being pitched at you through a drainage system. But even there, I just kept waiting for something musically compelling to stand forth and it was ever more of the same.

Morbid Celestial Desecration occasionally feels like a record patched together across a number of recording sessions, with the tones slightly altered between guitars and vocal timbres, but while that usually works against such material, here it did provide a distraction and prevent the tunes from growing overly monotonous in succession. I enjoyed the intonation of the chants in the title cut, and other small nuances spread over the 38 minute like the chilling, noisy instrumental "Infernal Virtues". The vocals are generally nasty and well fit to the songcraft. Truthfully, I even felt like the production was stronger and clearer than some of their efforts I've covered in the past, a sign of some maturation. But then the drums feel rather stock, bass lines out to pasture (if they were ever there to begin with, I definitely can't discern them), and so much of the actual riffing uninspired to the point that it sometimes feels like the band itself doesn't really care for them. It's clearly not beyond Aasgard's ken to perform early 90s black metal with the purest intentions, but there is simply not enough weaponry here to compete with hundreds of similar bands who just have a knack for putting riffs together in a way that you'll care what follows them.

That aside, I didn't mind a few spins through this. It's not exactly lazy per se, it does strive for more mood, and its stronger than what I can remember on their last output, but even with this vivacious, hellish-cold contrast mix it seems rather complacently magnetized to the past...static and unable to move forward. That might prove a boon for some black metal listeners who live as anathema to any sort of progression or consistently 'likeable' quality in their music, but even then, that sort of aesthetic antagonism has been better mastered elsewhere.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]