Wednesday, April 29, 2015

At the Gates/Voivod - Split 7" (2015)

At the Gates and Voivod are not really two bands I'd associate with one another whatsoever beyond the fact that they are both successful, both longstanding (more so in the case of the latter, who never took the near decade hiatus), and both able to tour much of the waking world and inspire much fan obsession. Speaking of which, when it comes to the Canadian half of this equation, I am guilty as fucking charged. At the Gates is a band I enjoyed through much of the 90s, but not to the rabid level that a lot of local New England metalcore aspirants and devotees ended up making entire careers out of thanks to a single groove and an exclamation of "Go!". Their reunion record, At War With Reality, was one I found to deserve neither the heavy accolades it got amongst some of the slavish press, nor the incessant negativity it inspired among those who seem to hate just about any band that ever made a name for itself among that terrifying crowd of Others beyond their Inner Circles. Like clockwork, people, I can't even make this shit up. At any rate, that disc just sounded to me like a band who wanted to play it relatively close to the hip, while exploring a fraction of the polish and maturity that might have transpired had they gone major label after Slaughter of the Soul; and to that extent, it was fine, I listened to it a few times and shelved it right next to Surgical Steel.

Their contribution to this split is unfortunately not exclusive. "Language of the Dead" is available on the bonus disc to At War With Reality, and it serves as a fairly loyal representation of their classic melodic Swedeath sound, hints of Dark Tranquility's morose melodic sensibility embodied in some pure Slaughter of the Soul pickings, the harmonies strong enough in listening but not very resonant once the smoke clears. Lindberg's vocals still have some bite to them, but they seem a little more phoned in, too 'level', lacking the uncouth emotional punch he once possessed in the band's heyday and thus occasionally smothered in the guitars. Though this is a solid tune, I can see why it was not part of the final selection for the full-length. The drums sound fine, the acoustic segue seems almost inevitable and doesn't really add much to the song except to reinforce the contrast such parts always created on their older recordings. The main issue for me is that it is ENTIRELY OUTCLASSED by its companion here...

I can assume "We Are Connected" will not remain a staple of this 7" either, likely to be released as a part of Voivod's forthcoming new full-length, but it is a fucking fantastic, upbeat track, with intricate Piggy-esque licks proving once again that Daniel Mongrain was the 'right guy for this job', adjoined to pumping bass-lines. Seriously, I was shocked to shit when I realized this wasn't actually Blacky playing the bass, but the Canadians' latest acquisition, countryman Dominique 'Rocky' Laroche, who is as much a mirror for his predecessor as Mongrain. This guy was hiding in a blues band? Welcome, my friend, come and drink the nano-water and stay a part of this well-oiled machinery forever, or at least until Blacky's next nostalgia trip. Say what you will about the album's title being a callback to the robotic voice in "Killing Technology", but this tune truly captures the essence of classics like Dimension Hatross and Nothingface in the contemporary flesh of Target Earth, and if it's a true indicator for the coming material then I am beyond stoked...fell in love with it the first time I heard it, and the courtship is still thriving.

Now, as for the 'value' of this Century Media split on the whole...I can't really say. Once "We Are Connected" appears on a proper full-length, then this is almost entirely worthless spare the cool black & white artwork, which was done for both bands in the Voivod style. In fact, I almost wish At the Gates had written a new tune for this with a slightly more dissonant, outlandish Voivod influence, now that would have been something to make this special, especially if the Canadians had an exclusive original too. "Language of the Dead" just seems like a lazy choice, probably a label choice, and it just has nothing in common with apart from, you know, it being metal on the same label. So ultimately, I'm feeling really neutral on this, apart from the artwork, and can't really recommend that anyone do anything more than sample the songs online and acquire the respective full-length albums at your convenience if you enjoyed what you hear. But Side B > Side A, all night, and all day.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Monday, April 20, 2015

Gruesome - Savage Land (2015)

Imitation is the sincerest form of...splattery? For going on decades now, one wouldn't accuse Gruesome of being Matt Harvey's first rodeo for wearing his influences on his sleeve. Exhumed is very often (and justly) compared to the formative, important years of England's Carcass as they emerged from their vegan grinding roots to the hybrid of melodic thrash, death and heavy metal that they originally left us off, and later reformed on. Dekapitator sounds like a literal who's who of the Big Three German thrash influences. So, not a surprise that Savage Land was touted openly as a paean to the first couple of Death albums, in particular Leprosy, which just happens to be the favorite of yours truly. In fact, this debut album goes so far as to bring Ed Repka's artwork into the fold, in what I can only assume is a measure to further the effort's authenticity towards its source material. Had Chuck and Combat requested a cannibal savage theme in place of a grisly leper, this might have damn well been an iconic image we clung to for 25 years, and there are small cues in the band logo, the title font, and more prominently in the fact that this was openly dedicated to the late Schuldiner himself.

I don't have much of a personal issue with such hero worship, provided that it is manufactured with the transparency that Harvey and his partners in gore have created this. Savage Land is, of course, quite incapable of scoring accolades based on its nuance or originality. The furthest away it roams is to embellish itself with a few licks more directly redolent of late 80s Pestilence and Obituary than Death itself, but for the majority of the 35-36 minute playtime, it's more or less an emulation of the fabled Floridian's sophomore album, with a few liberties taken in the vocals and drums, as well as the obvious difference in production values that the gulf of a quarter century will provide. Now, if you were to ask me, I would tell you that my adoration of Leprosy itself is such that I would not rightly mind a few aesthetic doppelgangers, provided that they could infuse the inspiration with a few hints of their own personality, or at least write riffing progressions that captured my imagination in much the same way Chuck was, back when he was crafting those evil, menacing rhythm guitars and sinister vocals, not yet concerned with the 'brainier', less interesting polish of his later 90s output which I found to be hit or miss, often processed and pandered to near impotence. It's a pretty huge leap, after all, from 'this is the sound of corpses-rising-from-the-crypt awesome' to 'my nerdy Dream Theater friends in Music Theory 101 really appreciate this in between whiffs of their own bodily emissions'.

Naturally, then, I appreciate that Matt Harvey, Gus Rios, Robin Mazen and Daniel Gonzalez are on the same page with me. A formidable lineup, all of whom have flirted with American death metal in its numerous strains and forms, attempting the Herculean task of slobbing the knob of one of the very greatest death metal albums in human history. But sometimes, when faced with a sword swinging assassin, you find yourself unequipped with a pistol, and that the target is well out of range or your bullwhip, and Savage Land ends up a pseudo-sequel of divisive proportions; an admittedly fleshy production which doesn't seem to exhibit anything deeper than the skin of its precursor. No, this is not as shitty as Curse of the Crystal Skull, not by a long shot. On the surface, the tremolo picked riffs represent the clever crudeness of the original, and they're nothing quite lazy about them, but the way the notes are splayed out into patterns here is simply not evocative of anything more than the mere structural characteristics they are supposed to represent. It's not incompetent, nor is it really 'weak', but apart from a few of the lead patterns in cuts like "Trapped in Hell", I too rarely experienced any measure of genuine excitement seems like a series of motions, a checklist of traits, like an Elvis impersonator who has the dress down, and the voice, but not the moves, or the ability to make his crowd get up and shake, rattle or roll.

I could see an argument for the more organic, responsive, flexible drums here to be labeled an improvement over Bill Andrews' performance on Leprosy, but I'd also point out that they are both products of their times. Which is fine, they work well by contemporary context and standards. But then, not all proponents for extremity in 1988 were Hoglan or Lombardo. I, for one, appreciated the straightforward approach to the beats back then, since I was just so absorbed with the true star of the show: Chuck's rhythm guitars and pestilent, boiling growls. The latter are handled well enough, but somewhat inconsequentially for the year 2015. Harvey does a deeper, more guttural  rendition of his forebear, but the most it ever does is 'justice' to the original, with no further aspiration. We won't be chomping over the bit about Matt's growls in conversations, simply missing how we felt the first time we heard Scream Bloody Gore. The bass lines are fairly low-key and nondescript, which is pretty much a reflection of the old 80s Death, but I feel as if some good grooves and unique lines here would have actually helped embolden the experience, made it more compelling on the whole.

I've already mentioned that the guitars here were pretty close in build to the originals, just not as catchy. There are a few more clinical patterns in tunes like "Demonized" that do successfully resurrect the nostalgia they're after, but these are few and far between, and the majority of the meatier riffs are just straight into one ear and out the other, like human flesh entering and exiting the intestinal tracts of the brutes on the album cover. Sadly, no Wendigo mythology here, nothing is really absorbed into me, I do not gain the record's abilities. Its powers. I can't recount a single riff after 10-15 minutes of listening to the disc, whereas the album's inspiration still reigns in my conscience as it did when I was 14 years old, drooling over the Leprosy cassette my little sister picked up for me at the mall. 'Ew! Gross!' She said, not risking exposure to the thing without its shrink wrap. That's a long time ago, folks, and a lot to live up to, and perhaps it was absurd of me to think it ever could, but I at least maintained a little hope that there would be handful of tunes that lasted me a few months. Apart from some of the bridge/lead sequences, though, the album seems like somewhat of a letdown, if not a total dud. Where Exhumed really captures that hellish, slaughterhouse exhibition of its grinding influences, and earns a life of its own, the Gruesome debut just seems like a secondhand museum lecture. Not a bad one, mind you, but not one I'm likely to pay to experience again.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Awe/Vacantfield/End - Moerae (2015)

After decades of split recording exposures, I'd be lying if I said that the medium hadn't grown a little stagnant for me, largely because the lion's share of these things simply possess no semblance of studio consistency or creative coherence. In so many cases, it's just product pushing with buddies or complete strangers, in a limited format. But of course, when even a fraction of the imagination is applied to this process, you can come up with gold, with two or more artists functioning on the same page, producing a recording that has an intrinsic value beyond just a flag-waving collaboration for some label, scene, genre. As for the three Greek acts responsible for the Moerae LP, they have gone well beyond such a 'fraction', and put together something visionary and thematic which is far more than the mere sum of its parts...

Three tunes, each over 16 minutes in length, and each devoted to one of the Three Fates of Greek mythology (or moirai, or Moerae). You could say that it was in the blood, because what the bands have produced is not just some simple gimmicky idea which falters in its execution, but a lethal dose of progressive gonzo annihilation which takes great liberties from the standard black metal troops to incorporate anything from thrash riffing to pure ambiance (especially in "Atropos") to just about anything they fucking want to include. You're still getting plenty of air-time for the more technical black metal attack, which is the primary impetus of several of the bands, but the fact is they have not padded out such swollen tracks with loads of redundant nonsense. Each "Clotho", "Lachesis" and "Atropos" serve as smorgasbords of the unexpected, without devolving into sheer, matchless chaos. Production is competent all around, and while the mixes of the three tracks do vary incrementally, the common length of the playgrounds they inhabit and stylistic variation are so consistent that it does feel like the bands were at least communicating telepathically throughout the process.

I've reviewed all of the full-length records by End to date, but "Atropos" is by far the most interesting thing they've ever created and I do hope it marks a glimpse into what they might create in the future. Vacantfield has a notably more progressive/thrash component to its composition, but they never fail to entice me with all the jarring effects, decrepit vocals and subtle touches like the keys. As for Awe, well this is a band involving members of at least one other superb Hellas black metal band, which I am not presently at liberty to say, but tonally their contribution "Clotho" is the best at forcing the black metal motif with a lot of dissonance and some really evil breakdown riffs which are among the most fucking tremendous across the entire experience. Instruments on the whole are mixed to an infectious level of clarity which does not entirely eschew the rawness of the parent genre, but allows the listener to more easily ingest the psychotic musical spasms. Not all the riffs are gold, and there are some moments through each of the cuts which end up less engaging than their surroundings, but
all told, it's a really cool recording. Probably the most intriguing split since Dis Pater's Converge, Rivers of Hell from 2013, in which the Australian musician explore a similar mythic concept through three of his own projects. Track this down, whether you're a fan of the more eccentric Greek black metal wizards or just compelling extreme music in general. Fucking great.

Verdict: Win [8.5] (how fool a god can be)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Salvation - Winter Wrath [demo] (2014)

Were I to deify the 'good old boys' of the black metal medium, then Salvation's Winter Wrath demo would likely be the sort of libation paid to them on the various solstices and equinoxes. The DNA of a recording like this is quite plainly linked back to those important,  formative works of a Darkthrone, Hellhammer, Bathory or even a Deathcrush-era Mayhem and there is little of anything across the span of six tracks that proves otherwise. But this Australian one man act pays tribute through more than mere chord choices or 'sounds', but in the very aesthetic choices of its DIY, no-fucks-given mentality which is reflective of about 15 years worth of deep underground demos and records from bands that shun any sense of studio wizardry, refined craftsmanship, or progressive tendencies in an unending quest to capture the primacy of its inspirations like a fly in amber...only Salvation goes so far as to render a lot of its savage spiritual precursors 'polished' by comparison to the raunch and ruin found on this CD-R.

This is essentially a rehearsal-level demo recording comprised of six tracks, half of which are intros and interludes and the other full-on bursts of full-on spite which shift between melodic/melancholic chord patterns ("Winter Wrath" itself) redolent of the Scandinavian second wave, and a nastier set of  Hellhammer/Bathory barrages ("Strife") which date back to an even more primordial origin in the 80s. The music is unfailingly simple and merciless, and that's rather the point. Stylistic parameters here are indeed pretty narrow, but that's not to say that Noctarth, the sole musician responsible lacks the wherewithal to incorporate a little variation, to make the song structures more entertaining than they might otherwise prove if he beat on the instruments for redundant 7-9 minute epics. On some fundamental level, while we've heard these chord progressions many times in the past, and the rasped nihilism of the vocals is nothing new, and the style lacks any semblance of nuance, there's still a soft spot there for the lightless, raw fury these recordings espouse, and Winter Wrath, for any of its faults, does function solely on that level. It looks like it sounds, there are no gimmicks and its author, who is not visiting his first rodeo here, has absolutely no delusion about what it represents.

That said, there are a few components to this which felt a little lacking. For one, of the three shorter instrumental pieces on the demo, I felt like only the first was a proper set-up and companion to the majority of the music. The doomed, drifting harmonies of "Forgotten Fields" and wall of saddened feedback and noises which make up the "Outro" are not unpleasant listens, but I didn't feel like they really contributed to the feel of the CD-R overall. The other issue here is the drumming, which is as raucous and cluttered as you'd expect on a lot of these styles of tapes and demos. There were points where I felt like the timing was a little messy, but really it's just that disparate production of the snares, crashing cymbals and bass drums during the more intense batteries which gave me the impression I was rolling down a rocky hill while trapped in a crate. Fortunately the beats don't really drown out the simple, clobbering bombast of the riffs or vocals, but they were certainly distractions on a few of the tunes when I had the volume cranked. Last, while I have no aversion to really basic riffs like the black-punk used to fuel the namesake "Salvation" track, these were just a little too mundane to really carry that track.

But bear in mind: this is a very limited release, not intended for mass consumption or to be writ large across the black metal universe, and while I can fault it for its ground-level approach to songwriting and production, what it doesn't lack is sincerity. It's not as solitude-stricken or atmospheric as some of its once-prolific Australian kin like Striborg or Drowning in the Light. But no concessions are made, no filtering of purpose; this is the product of the dingy, murky basement from which it was spawned, and for a lot of embedded underworld souls, that is really quite enough. Winter Wrath is not going to win Noctarth a medal, and it's preemptively drowned out by so very many of its peers, but there's something satisfying to me that no matter how far the genre's elder statesmen have evolved their musical goals, there are guys out there putting together stuff like this.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Devathorn - Vritra (2015)

It has long been the case that the Greek black metal scene seems to be divided into two disparate camps: those that were always and continuing to bring something new to the table, and those that are more content to fashion their compositional style after the more prevalent, popular European black metal scenes in countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland. Devathorn proved torchbearers for that latter camp on their 2007 debut Diadema, and with Vritra the pendulum does not seem to have swung far in the other direction, though I would say with certainty I had a better time listening to this than I did its predecessor. In an age when veterans like Zemial and Varathron are producing some of their very best material, and more unique bands like Hail Spirit Noir, Thy Darkened Shade and Katavasia are making the rounds with albums that resonate long past the initial spins, Vritra is not one likely to stick out, but at the very least it conjures up a more tangible sense of evil and purpose than the debut.

Their aim is to more or less blend together an elixir of their Northern forebears from both the crispy, blackened thrash and pure second wave black metal cauldrons, so it's no surprise here that when hearing this, one would reflect upon anything from Bathory and Marduk to Darkthrone, Mayhem, and Gorgoroth; loads of blasting endowed with minor, dissonant chords or glints of malignant, atmospheric higher pitched guitars that provide the nightscape. This is a band which hearkens back to that guitar-driven almost exclusively, without embedding synthesizers into the metal compositions directly. There are ambient, ritualistic ports of the album which are largely instrumental sections, and also some acoustics in the intro to "Cathedral of Set" which help set up its Egyptian thematics, or the close of "Verba Inermis", but by and large these guys go with a sinister, distorted saturation delivered through a solid array of chord patterns and tempo shifts which offer me just enough variation that I perk up and pay attention...individual note processions might be fairly traditional, but how they pack each of the tunes together is where it gets a little less easy to predict, and the ambient pieces seem to be strategically set in the proper places to give the listener a little space to breathe in his/her cave.

Another album where the low end seems more of a subtext than an important plot point, and it does cause the album to lack a little in dimension. The vocals are wild though, from the expected rasps to arcane gang shouts, wavering mid-range wails, Nocturno Culto-like growls and other weirdness to showcase that Devathorn are at least interested in imbuing a little bit of personality into the performance than bog standard black metal bands will. On some level the guitar patterns can get a little technical, almost to a spastic level like Thy Darkened Shade, but the production and atmosphere are far more lo-fi and raw. The drums did not sound great, too tinny and crashy and not enough low-end power to feel them pounding in my ribcage, and the recording in its entirety feels really dry, where I think a little more voluminous depth and shadow would have transformed the same set of songs into something more memorable. Overall, though, I thought it captured the essence of the old Scandinavian underground quite faithfully, it's not likely to become a classic for this or any other era, but it was a more venomous, sulfuric, commanding experience than the first disc, and the lyrics were a fine precursor to some human sacrifice.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Legion of Doom - The Tyrant with the Seven Heads EP (2015)

Had you asked me 15 or more years ago, I might have told you that Greece's Legion of Doom was a competent proponent of traditional European black metal that, while secondary to their more sonically unique, better known countrymen, were capable of holding their own. Sadly, while the ensuing decade produced one album of worth (The Horned Made Flesh in 2008), it was simply not a benchmark of evolution within the band's sound or songwriting to the degree that it would make many waves in a scene whose flagships had already set sail or were still in the process of treading sea. Their surrounded efforts, including 2012's The Summoning of Shadows were perhaps the most mundane in their substantial 25 year history, but the Legion presses on with a new, limited run 7" featuring two tracks.

Though they've undergone more savage transitions in the past, The Tyrant with the Seven Heads is a fairly seasoned array of melodic black metal, with heavy emphasis placed on the melancholic majesty of its tremolo picked guitar lines and the ungodly rasp of bassist/vocalist Daimon. Rhythmically the focus is on blast beat patterns interspersed with fills, pretty standard sounding fare that many would find indistinguishable from countless other bands throughout the 90s and beyond. That's not to say they execute this style poorly, because the instrumental mix here is quite nice, the guitars are very often level and harmonized and they thankfully don't rely on endless repetition of the same riffs, but at the same time there are very few guitar progressions throughout the choices here that will resonate for long since they are primarily just alterations upon others the veteran black metal listener has heard hundreds if not thousands of times before. Bass lines are buried between the rhythm guitars though it wasn't a loss I really felt much listening through.

While they do at least one breakdown of note in the B-side title cut, and a few guitar-only passages, there is just so little of note when it comes to variations in tempo or ideas, so the two tunes really feel like one-trick ponies and that's only going to appeal to a portion of the genre's loyalists who fell in love with that style through albums like De Mysteriis dom Sathanas or Transilvanian Hunger and found themselves unable to disengage in any further exploration. This is by no means a categorically  bad recording, and in fact I'd say the songs are the equal or better of most on their last full-length, but it doesn't hold out much hope that these long time under-groundskeepers will knock a record out of the park any time soon. Sure, there is an argument to be made for the fact that they stick to their guns, but the attention span of much of the black metal audience has become bulletproof in the ensuing decades, pursuing either grisly, archaic retro sounds, total headcleaning blasting blitzkriegs, or nuanced folk, prog, speed and heavy metal influences. Legion of Doom will forever have my respect, but without better and/or more interesting songs, that won't translate into a share of my ever- diminished listening time. This EP is a serviceable intro to their style, but interested parties would be better off tracking down For Those of the Blood or The Horned Made Flesh.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Tome of the Unreplenished - Innerstanding (2015)

I, Voidhanger Records was already home to at least three ambient or partially ambient black metal hybrids I enjoy (Midnight Odyssey, Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore), and now it appears I've got another to add to that list, even though there might be a little more overlap here than with others that have inhabited this niche in the past. Tome of the Unreplenished, certainly a name that pops out at you if you've grown jaded with the redundant band monikers, is the work of a solitary Cypriot known as Hermes. But unlike the Greek deity of the same name, Innerstanding is in no particular rush to make its point...there are faster, blasted moments, to be sure, but the music here is fairly immersive across all tempos; an engrossing downpour of synth and chord-driven escapism over mechanized drum rhythms.

It takes risks more often than not...for example, the closer, "The Precessional March" is a nearly 10 minute, measured instrumental monolith of tremolo picked guitars over an incremental beat and swells of eerie keyboards which fluctuate between nearness and distance. There is no question a track like that is going to feel exceedingly repetitious to some, even though the actual note selection shifts across the surface. There are also pure, scintillating ambient pieces like the intro "Anima Mundi" or the"Planetary Transmission" which feel more innately cosmic in scope. That nearly half of the album is devoted to such departures may feel like the balance is off, but I felt like the mood set by these is at least coherent with the metallic tracks. Vocals here don't have a lot of structure on this record, and it's debatable whether that's a flaw or a 'feature', but they generally just manifest as a series of roaring rasps that hover alongside the guitar lines, or somber spoken words, or through ghostlike, layered choirs that come through in the selection of key tones. And like the vocals, the bass is also not'll hear some low end grooving lines in the depths, but the point on albums like this is generally just to flood the listener with the emotion of the guitar melodies with a dense, celestial atmosphere, and Innerstanding is quite loyal to that ideal.

The guitar progressions are not quite so catchy as you'd find on a disc like Firmament, which for me is still a banner-wielder of this style. Despite the implications of the album title, I found this more like a grand Outerstanding. The songs don't convey a high level of sheer isolation and sadness, but instead they've got this unearthly sense of warmth and fulfillment which coincides with a perpetual sense of motion. Astral masses and bodies consistently colliding and revolving and rotating through a great vacuum, with flashes of an interstellar light show where various elements collide. The drums feel really low-key, generally crashing and soulless like ships or satellites taking measurements of the lush audio-visuals of the cosmos they drift through. I might be overselling the spacey quality a little, since other bands (including those I listed above) feel more like I'm exiting the Solar System, but this is certainly a record which is going to appeal to fans of that singular style. I think there could be some improvement with the programming and individual riff strength, but I found myself adrift with the majority of this album's glinting guitar passages and strange electro/ambient distractions.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]