Saturday, December 31, 2016

16s for '16.

My Top 16x2 Metal Albums of 2016

01. Deströyer 666 (Au) Wildfire
02. Voivod (Ca) Post-Society
03. Virus (No) Memento Collider
04. Ihsahn (No) Arktis.
05. Hail Spirit Noir (Gr) Mayhem in Blue
06. Mouth of the Architect (US) Path of Eight
07. Whipstriker (Br) Only Filth Will Prevail
08. High Spirits (US) Motivator
09. Opeth (Se) Sorceress
10. Lesbian (US) Hallucinogenesis
11. Howls of Ebb (US) Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows
12. Deathspell Omega (Fr) The Synarchy of Molten Bones
13. Hammers of Misfortune (US) Dead Revolution
14. Oranssi Pazuzu (Fi) Varahtelija
15. Sumerlands (US) Sumerlands
16. Paradox (De) Pangea
17. Vanhelgd (Se) Temple of Phobos
18. Morgue Supplier (US) Morgue Supplier
19. Borknagar (No) Winter Thrice
20. Khemmis (US) Hunted
21. Chthe'ilist (Ca) Le dernier crepuscule
22. Cadaveric Fumes (Fr) Dimensions Obscure
23. Spell (Ca) For None and All
24. Gravebreaker (Se) Sacrifice
25. Blood Incantation (US) Starspawn
26. Reptilian (No) Perennial Void Traverse
27. Zaum (Ca) Eidolon
28. Eternal Champion (US) The Armor of Ire
29. Witherscape (Se) The Northern Sanctuary
30. Stilla (Se) Skuggflock
31. The Levitation Hex (Au) Cohesion
32. Miasmal (Se) Tides of Omniscience

As usual, there's a much longer list over at RYM with brief descriptions of each, but not in any sort of hierarchical order. Sample size was 758 albums and EPs that I listened through in 2016, and for the first time, I'm actually combining both formats into one single list (the Voivod really was that good).

My Top 16 Non-Metal Albums of 2016

01. White Lung (Ca) Paradise
02. Perturbator (Fr) The Uncanny Valley
03. A Tribe Called Quest (US) We Got it From Here...
04. Weezer (US) The White Album
05. Wardruna (No) Runaljod - Ragnarok
06. Youth Code (US) Commitment to Complications
07. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizzard (Au) Nonagon Infinity
08. Radiohead (UK) A Moon Shaped Pool
09. The Neon Demon Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
10. David Bowie (UK) Blackstar
11. Street Sects (US) End Position
12. Strvngers (Ca) Sonic Erotica
13. Phantogram (US) THREE
14. Kanga (US) Kanga
15. Bat for Lashes (UK) The Bride
16. Death Grips (US) Bottomless Pit

My Top 16 New Movies of 2016

01. Kubo and the Two Strings
02. Midnight Special
03. The Handmaiden
04. The Revenant
05. Your Name
06. Zootopia
07. Captain Fantastic
08. Captain America: Civil War
09. Approaching the Unknown
10. The Lobster
11. Batman: The Killing Joke
12. 10 Cloverfield Lane
13. The Nice Guys
14. Hacksaw Ridge
15. Deadpool
16. Doctor Strange

My Top 16 New Games on a Screen in 2016

01. The Witness (PC, PS4, Xone, iOS)
02. Civilization VI (PC)
03. Dishonored 2 (PC, PS4, Xone)
04. Stardew Valley (PC, PS4, Xone)
05. Salt & Sanctuary (PC, PS4, Vita)
06. Total War: Warhammer (PC)
07. Hyper Light Drifter (PC, PS4, Xone, Ouya)
08. The Banner Saga 2 (PC, PS4, Xone, iOS, Android)
09. Firewatch (PC, PS4, Xone)
10. Ratchet & Clank (PS4)
11. Darkest Dungeon (PC, PS4, Vita)
12. Enter the Gungeon (PC, PS4)
13. Dark Souls III (PC, PS4, Xone)
14. World of Warcraft: Legion (PC)
15. Final Fantasy XV (PS4, Xone)
16. Starbound (PC, PS4, Vita, Xone)

My Top 16 New Games on a Tabletop in 2016

01. 7th Sea 2nd Edition (RPG)
02. Inis (board game)
03. Clank (board game)
04. Oceanos (board game)
05. Quadropolis (board game)
06. Aeon's End (board game)
07. Arkham Horror (card game)
08. Manhattan Project: Energy Empire (board game)
09. Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition (board game)
10. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (board game)
11. Oracle of Delphi (board game)
12. Imhotep (board game)
13. Star Trek Panic (board game)
14. Gods of the Fall (RPG)
15. Jorvik (board game)
16. Odin's Ravens 2nd Edition (card game)

My Top 16 New Novels for 2016

01. China Mieville The Last Days of New Paris
02. Guy Gavriel Kay Children of Earth and Sky
03. Steven Erikson Fall of Light (Khakanas #2)
04. John Langan The Fisherman
05. Dan Vyleta Smoke
06. R. Scott Bakker The Great Ordeal (Aspect-Emperor #3)
07. Aaron Dembski-Bowden The Master of Mankind (Horus Heresy #41)
08. Alan Moore Jerusalem
09. Yoon Ha Lee The Ninefox Gambit
10. Brian Staveley The Last Mortal Bond (Unhewn Bond #3)
11. Bradley P. Beaulieu Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (Shattered Sands #1)
12. John C. Wright The Vindication of Man (Countdown #4)
13. Adrian Tchaikovsky Spiderlight
14. Drew Magary The Hike
15. Mark Lawrence The Wheel of Osheim (Red Queen's War #3)
16. Lily Brooks-Dalton Good Morning, Midnight

My Top 16 New Comics for 2016
01. Weird Detective (Dark Horse)
02. Future Quest (DC)
03. Black Hammer (Dark Horse)
04. Black Road (Image)
05. Batman TMNT (DC/IDW)
06. Rough Riders (Aftershock)
07. Batman: Europa (DC)
08. Over the Garden Wall (kaboom!)
09. Lake of Fire (Image)
10. Midnighter and Apollo (DC)
11. Moon Knight (Marvel)
12. The Black Monday Murders (Image)
13. Doom Patrol (DC/Young Animal)
14. 4001 A.D. (Valiant)
15. The Dark Knight III: The Master Race (DC)
16 Star Wars: Doctor Aphra (Marvel)

This is a new category I'm trying out, for titles with 2 or more new issues this year.

Was also going to do a new TV shows list, but it'd be pretty short...

Stranger Things
Son of Zorn
Justice League Action

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Putrified - The Flesh. The Scythe. The Tomb. EP (2016)

It's always welcome to hear a Swedish death metal band that does not necessarily conform to the prevalent trends of that country, which is of course the endless recycling of ideas set forth by the luminaries Entombed and Dismember to the point that they've become tiresome when not written and performed exquisitely. Now, to be fair, that DOES still happen from time to time, but I've long been more interested in the groups like Repugnant, Necrovation, Corrosive Carcass or Bastard Priest who marry some of those predictable aesthetics to something other than the pure tone-driven schematics so many of the 4th and 5th generation impersonators live and die on. Putrified, a younger band with a couple demos and EPs under their belt, does at least fall into this camp, even if the material on The Flesh. The Scythe. The Tomb. isn't exactly super catchy or mind blowing.

They do rely on some familiar tropes like a couple thrusting D-beat rhythms, but even there they do so more from the hardcore/punk side than the death metal of their peers. Vocally I am reminded of the legendary Martin van Drunen, with a caustic and grotesque growl that feels like the singer's entrails are being unraveled while he is recording, albeit not quite so bloody or memorable. Guitars are dirty but they don't employ the same precise HM-2 tone you've become too overly accustomed to. That said, they're not beyond mixing things up, as they do with their B-side acoustic segues dubbed the "Maleficium" duo. The drums are tinny and intense, and the band also employs a little more of a forceful melodic bent that, when combined with the raving vocals and raw speed, verges on a more intense black or war metal aesthetic which also adds some much needed variation. It's all cast in the gloom of that ages old sort of primal production value which will inevitable render it timeless, not because all the songs are amazing but just because it feels so pure.

Second half of the EP, minus those mentioned instrumentals, is devoted to a pair of covers, and while I can give or take the abusive version of the Misfits' "Devil's Whorehouse", which has been ramped up in intensity, the rendition of Celtic Frost's "Morbid Tales" is a real treat, supplanting some of the more leaden groove dimensions of the original with pure black/death metal bursts that make the breakdown just as sick as ever, and the echoed vocals and edge-of-perception organ ambiance do a lot to help transform this into something which feels more in line with the Putrified originals. Not to put down their own tunes earlier on the recording, but this was actually my favorite part of the recording. That said, while this collection of tracks overall didn't completely sate me, I definitely did enjoy the style and the production they used here, so when time comes for a full-length I'm likely to check it out and hope that it persists with this sort of blasphemous, energetic, but cavernous atmosphere.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Master of Cruelty - Archaic Visions of the Underworld (2016)

If any continent could be said to be the 'hotbed' for blackened thrash and death metal, South America would certainly be at the top of the qualifiers; not because I count many such acts from the area to be positively top flight, but because they have such a long and storied history with this mishmash of genres dating back to bands like Sarcofago or the earlier Sepultura recordings. It's a chain that has never really been broken, with all manner of filth-mongering over the 90s and beyond, and today there is arguably the greatest level of saturation for this hybridization we have ever seen, bands almost locked in competition for who can provide the most excessive and dirty DNA-tampering of both their local forebears and the 'first wave' champions from Europe like Venom, Bathory, Sodom, Kreator, Hellhammer, Destruction and Mayhem; liberal doses of Slayer perfunctory.

Master of Cruelty is a fairly well comported virus among this outbreak, because it could be heavily characterized more for its songwriting than extremity, and that's precisely the reason I enjoy this sophomore album. Don't get me wrong, they do 'ugly' very well, both in the layer of grime caked onto the rhythm guitars and the truly abominable growls and rasps being by A.G.V. which are soaked in just the right amount of effects to create an otherworldly, hellish presence that contrasts well with the more straightforward tone of the riffing. In terms of structure, they pen hideous lo-fi death metal rhythms which are then interspersed with thrashing breaks and even a few slower, morbid doom chord progressions. The thrash parts in particular remind you of the seedy and disgusting underbelly of wicked Satanic thrash of the 80s, especially the South American style, but then you've got those evil tremolo picked components and some dissonant, brighter black metal chords as a relish. Drums are raw, bass is pumped loud enough that it matters much more than comparable bands where it gets lost beyond its distortion.

Where it all works best, as in "The Execution", you're getting this devilish and delicious mesh of early Floridian death, South American/Teutonic thrash and proto-black/war metal which is both frenzied and chilling, and they pace it all out over an estimable array of tempo shifts that prevent any sort of repetitious boredom from setting in. There's a cool, haunting intro with clean guitars and creepy chants, and beyond that the riffs are distributed pretty evenly between the different sub-genres which have inspired them. At times the transitions can be fairly clashing and sloppy, but at others that does actually work in the band's favor. I'm not going to promise that many of the riff patterns are themselves memorable, but when plugged into the primacy of the whole they work well enough that you feel like you've just uncovered some gem in a dingy basement record store back in like 1993, oblique and vicious and forever, ever underground.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Sodom - Decision Day (2016)

Every year, it seems like some old band I've been listening to for decades gets a chance to shine again, and a case could really be made in 2016 that it was Sodom's turn at bat. I can't act like I'm too surprised, since I'd already been teased a few of these tracks for some time now, but this must easily be my favorite of their albums since 1990. That's not to say I've despised all their intervening material; records like Tapping the Vein, Code Red and the 2006 self-titled effort all have their share of moments. But the last couple studio full-lengths leading up to this one, while polished and well rounded, were both a little underwhelming on impact. Decision Day strives for a similar appeal, in which the band draws upon various epochs of their career to blend together a mighty thrashing epic, but it does so through a nastier discourse that at many points feels genuinely fiery and malicious, not to mention memorable and destructive.

Nothing new, just really well-done Sodom. Having already extolled the virtues of the tunes "Sacred Warpath" and "In Retribution" from reviews of their respective EPs, I'm satisfied that all the other material here feels flush and fluid with them. Decision Day inhabits a realm of variation that doesn't neglect the black, raspy vocals of Angelripper's youth, the heavily structured thrashing rhythms of their classics Agent Orange and Persecution Mania, or even the more arguably accessible and/or melodic anthems they've been churning forth on 21st century recordings. No idea is really off the table if it plugs into a track, so the bombastic, roiling rhythm guitars of "Rolling Thunder" can be measured against the acoustics and Tom's whispers, or the lethal speed which is fundamental to so much of the material here can be laced with slightly more tech/thrash riffs or mid-paced neck breakers while spurious leads spit out across the vitriol of a "Caligula". That same track shows the band's willingness to impose manly backing chants to contrast with Tom's acidic inflection, and they also use a lot of morose sounding moody note progressions that aren't unlike their German kin in Kreator.

The drums and bass on this thing thunder all the way, the former given one of the fattest and most distorted powerhouse tones in all their discography, yet it's extremely well balanced against the far more elaborate and intricate guitar patterns. The latter is almost overbearing at points, but will give Sodom the satisfying extremity that can not only flex off against other thrash pundits of today but also the harder hitting genres which were partly birthed from their very own sound. The album also runs pretty deep. It occasionally suffers from some predictable riffing patterns, but then will almost always come back at you with something catchier that you don't expect, and the excitement doesn't really let up, with scorchers like "Vaginal Born Evil" and "Blood Lions" keeping your attention well in check. It might not achieve the perfection of The Antichrist in terms of how every song just sticks with you, but the chops here are substantial, each track pretty much packed. Vicious, predatory and cautionary lyrics top it all off, and it's really one of the best records released by a veteran metal act this year and regenerates a little of the faith and excitement that has so long languished between me and this once and again mighty band. Better than the last records from their 'Big Four of Teutonic Thrash' neighbors, and overall a lot of punishing fun without lacking in musicality.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (I earned the seed of retaliation)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Gravebreaker - Sacrifice (2016)

Nobody's going to accuse any of these retro 80s heavy metal acts of originality, but in all fairness it's not like that's a virtue for most of the more 'modern' strains of the genre either. We listen to a lot of these bands to hear how they've spliced the DNA of precursors into a mildly distinguishable format, and after a time writing and putting the material to disc, a sense of self-identity tends to emerge which is the classic coming of age tale. That Sweden's Gravebreaker have instantly, upon their debut album, managed to capture both my imagination and nostalgia, through a very strict adherence to early metal aesthetics in both composition and production, speaks well of where they're at and where they're going, even if it's become even more commonplace to experience throwback sounds like this.

One of the obvious comparisons is going to be made to Running Wild, specifically the gravelly and grating mid-range vocal of Nightmare, who sounds a lot like Rolf Kasparek in his earlier years, albeit a bit more nasally. Some of the riffing also summons up Gates to Purgatory or Branded and Exiled, that simple, fuzzy bite to the rhythm guitar which instantly gives Sacrifice a dated appeal, especially in stuff like the title track. But in terms of how the riffs are actually structured, I heard a lot of other paeans to classic obscure German and Swedish heavy and speed metal circa Stormwitch, Warrant, Samain, Proud, and Heavy Load, not to mention a few threads of USPM like the early Omen material, not to mention the more prominent influence of bands like Judas Priest and Saxon in the chord array. Leads are efficiently constructed but don't take too much of the attention away from the meat of the songs, and the bass here has a slightly more throbbing and active role than a lot of alike bands who simply bob along the root notes and never stick their neck out for fear of getting them cut.

What's more, Gravebreaker make an excellent use of synthesizers throughout the album to give it a hazy, late night horror mystique that really rounded out the workmanlike riffs and attitude. Whether it's the creepy closure of "Sacrifice" itself, with a melody that plays alongside the mute picking of the rhythm guitar not unlike something you'd have heard on King Diamond's Fatal Portrait, or the moody keys that inaugurate "At the Gates of Hell" as if it were some spiritual successor to Ozzy's legendary "Mr. Crowley", their implementation is pretty much perfectly fit to offer some contrast and atmosphere to the raw delivery of the metal itself, as are the minimal samples used like the subtle sirens in "Violent City", or the great dialogue from the 1981 martial arts cheese-fest Kill and Kill Again which is used to christen the song of the same name. Add to this a popping drum mix and you've got an excellent vehicle for the nostalgia I always experience for a lot of records of my youth, but the Swedes don't rely solely on that factor, because they're actually writing tunes that are catchy and fun regardless of the decade in which you're exposed to them...

Assuming, of course, that you like the filthy underground underbelly of the genre, a blend of the rugged and anthemic, and the dingy evil cover photography which seems to imply some satanic ritual is used for nuclear purposes. Sacrifice hits a sweet spot between Gates of Purgatory, Executioner's Song, Fatal Portrait, and other records of that '84-86 era, cult film worship, leather and spikes and all things that weren't nice. In a year paving memory lane with the likes of excellent output from Spell, Cauldron, Eternal Champion, Angel Sword and Lethal Steel, this is well worth chasing down.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Friday, November 25, 2016

Carn Dûm - Carn Dûm (2015)

As much as I love Summoning, and as much as I expect a lot of atmospheric black metal bands to take up their mantle when paying tribute to Tolkien's Middle Earth through the medium, I'm happy that there only a precious few who attempt to copy them so closely.
Carn Dûm, a German band which takes its name from the capital city of Angmar, with members of better known groups like Narvik and Crimson Moon, employs a more traditional brand of black metal to explore the subject matter, rather than the sweeping horns and keys, and bombastic, ritualistic percussion driven style of the Austrian masters. Judging by the cover artwork, which I really enjoy for its stark simplicity, you'd expect a mix of threatening trad BM with perhaps a thread of forlorn majesty coursing through its veins, and that is pretty much exactly what they've nailed down here for their eponymous debut.

This is a rather dry sounding, conventional framework which relies heavily on tremolo picked melodic passages which often layer in fluid harmonies against the harsh bark of the vocalist, and the subdued but mechanical precision of the drumming that sounds like an army constantly on the march off in the background. So many queues here that recall the 90s, when bands were really starting to round out the rougher edges of Bathory, Mayhem, Burzum and Darkthrone to create a more accessible strain which would prove soothing to a metal listener's ears, but still incorporate the trademark rasping and rawness. This record isn't terribly dirty sounding, and that's often to its detriment, but the emphasis is focused almost entirely on the guitars and vocals, the latter of which don't really have a distinct edge to them when up against so many other snarlers and screamers. Bass is present with some root notes and really simple lines, but rarely more than that and it often makes the presentation feel a little too straightforward, reliant on those melodies...

Which are, to be fair, hit or miss. There were times I was listening through tracks like "Morgul - Metamorphose des Seins" and felt the pangs of nostalgia stirring the emotional glands for times when things were simpler and you were just so pleased to even hear someone pull off a harmony in this niche. But the issue I take is that so much of the 
Carn Dûm riffing is predictable. Repeat a few lines, then transform them to a brief blasted sequence, and then back again. There are some somber and poignant components throughout the record, and the deeper into it I fell I thought that the material was growing stronger, like "Wandelnd im Dammerlich" with its clean guitar plucking, or the more martial and mournful "Marsch auf Fornost" which at times felt like it was brute, martial black/punk metal until the fell melodies started cascading about the track, airing it all out. This is not a band without some variation, employing soaring clean vocals or sparse atmospherics, and there is potential if they can enrich the quality of the rhythm guitars further and maybe improve the rhythm section. But where I wanted to face off against a Nazgul rider here, I got maybe a goblin warband at best, nothing to scoff at but nothing too imposing either.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Church of Disgust - Veneration of Filth (2016)

Veneration of Filth is an album that deserves credit for sounding just like it looks. The Putrid Matt black and white artwork promises a morass of abominations, a death metal Swamp Thing, and musically these Texans have arranged their sophomore to provide exactly that; a punishing exhibition of old school ugliness which eschews complexity for balanced, barbaric nostalgia. Much as you'd pore over the pages of antiquated horror comics to connect to those morbid fascinations you'd recall from your youth, you'd ride this tunnel of rot to reflect upon those great records of yesteryear which might have initially frightened or repulsed you if you were even open to their gruesome potential in the later 80s or early 90s: Slowly We Rot, Scream Bloody Gore, Consuming Impulse, Mental Funeral, Realm of Chaos, The Dying Truth.

Church of Disgust celebrates this legacy, and wears its influences on its tattered sleeve, but doesn't do so through sheer laziness or lack of inspiration. While it's true that a lot of the tunes here are centered on slower, predictable grooves that we've all heard before, they excel at adorning them with disheveled melodies or eerie harmonies that elevate the experience beyond something you can just easily delegate to that cardboard box of CDs you'll never listen through again. The band is also quite good at picking out samples or using feedback and ambient noise to inaugurate a track and thrust you directly into the cinematic atmosphere which influenced it. When they pick up their pace, they move at an intestine churning clip redolent of old Bolt Thrower, just a hint of the grinding that informed that old, unpleasant British death metal. When they neuter it, they perform pretty well in a lurching death/doom territory where you can envision their cover creature tramping through the muck and devouring some unwitting victim...not a sad sort of doom, just evil beyond ken.

The nihilistic barking growl of Dustin James hardly stands out in such a crowded cemetery of guttural icons, not particularly vicious or memorable; but it's appealingly raw, blunt and to the point, a cousin to the styles of Chris Reifert and Chuck Schuldiner, but not quite so dripping with guts or oozing with viscera. The bass sounds pretty cool through the album, especially when they fatten it with some effects as in "Sunken Altar of Dagon" which is joined with roiling feedback for one of the record's creepiest moments. As I was listening, I felt like the drums, while raw and potent, were a bit overboard in some places where the double bass was battering and drowning out the remainder, but some won't view this so much as a flaw since it encapsulates the very primal DIY approach this group is taking. The themes here are ripe with cosmic or earthly horror, a clear streak of Lovecraft influence, especially the corruption of Mythos beings upon the flesh of mortals, and musically they do a pretty decent job of incorporating that into the music itself. Some of the more cookie cutter chord patterns are a little too obvious, but overall Veneration of Filth promotes some of that fear it celebrates, which is more than you can say for many records of its ilk.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, November 11, 2016

Zaum - Eidolon (2016)

The Great White North's premiere meditation metal gurus have returned with another swollen foray into the depths of space and time. Two men, two songs, over 20 minutes a piece, which puts them at an even more substantial length than their forebears on the duo's 2014 debut Oracles. Normally I don't go out for this sort of thing, because it's often a lazy excuse for filling time with what I am supposed to believe is 'heavy' or 'crushing' or 'desolate' but in actuality is just tremendously boring...and yet Zaum are one of those bands fully capable of pulling it all off and transporting their audience to the myth-historical sojourns rambling around in their own gray matter. That they do so with such consistency shows a foresight into the direction they want to end up, rather than just sloppily biting off more they can chew and eschewing compositional skill for the sake of reckless wanderlust, and as a result, there is more genuine wanderlust here than you'd expect.

The two tracks are not entirely different, but do focus slightly harder on disparate elements to their overall aesthetic. "Influence of the Magi" transforms from a landscape of open, brooding tone-space to a marriage of deep chanting and funereal stoner doom, driven by a distorted bass and resilient synth pads like organs. The bass-line notes drudge along with the confidence of the Hyborian Age, the vocal lines arching with majesty behind the grimier, lead vocal style which feels like a doped up, harmonized North American answer to Tom G. Warrior's earlier 'cleans' from Into the Pandemonium. Percussion takes a dingy back-seat to the amazing richness of the bass tone, but it all plays into the panoply of the atmosphere like the named Magi wandering across broad expanses of sand and dust on their pilgrimage to a holy site. Like the best of the drawn-out, psychedelic doomsters, Zaum offers just enough nuance and variation that I never get quite bored, and even at their most repetitive there is simply a transcendental quality which can hook me for minutes on end. I always feel like I am going where they are showing a path, a trail of breadcrumbs to an ancient world the History books revealed to me, or I might have paid a lot more attention and gotten a few better grades...

While "The Enlightenment" does share the formula of opening with an almost cinematic, natural backdrop, it's central riffing has an even more Eastern feel to it, like monks of doom tramping through the streets of some exotic bazaar with an Elephant demi-god riding on their palanquin, a harsh gaze of judgement sweeping the immoral street-dwellers. This is Zaum's most triumphant tune to date. The percussion drops in and out for the other instrumentation, synths and strings and atmospheric feedback that could probably charm a snake out of its basket from a boombox speaker. The ritualistic lyrics kill it, and the vocals here get pretty tortured beneath the volume of that...just AWESOME bass...some of the best bas...

Look, the band is just fucking great. I want twenty more albums minimum, each honing in on different elements, or mythologies, or beasts, or Ages. Aeons. Hallucinogens. Get their stuff.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (face now in the wall)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

In Cauda Venenum/Heir/Spectrale split (2016)

Here's a pretty interesting split released through the Emanations imprint of Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions, featuring a number of French bands, one of which (In Cauda Venenum) has already released their debut through the label last year. The stylistic representation here is a mix of black metal, post-black and sludge aesthetics, but the way the track list has been splayed out is to have the bands alternate between tracks, rather than simply take up 'sides' or 'chunks' of the play length all to themselves. Ultimately, one would hope that this means the materials will all flow together into one conceptual whole, but I actually found that while the genres really don't stray too distant from the three I had mentioned, that the differences in production values between the tracks can be rather disjointed, and where the riffing of the songs dives too deep into one particular area it also can create a little bit of an imbalance to the recording as a whole.

That said, I did not find much of the material here particularly unpleasant. In fact, the more ambient sequences, like Spectrale's "Sagittarius A" or the acoustic "Al Ashfar" and "Crepuscule" are quite nice, even if offset by the cruder bowels of sludgy, doomy, driving black metal, which peaks on the nearly 10-minute affront "Upon the Masses", a tune which at times seems like Altar of Plagues channeling Black Sabbath, streams of tremolo bleeding erupting from drudging, downtrodden chord swells. Their closer "Sectarism" is another highlight, with a more dissonant post-metal structure that also summons up a lot of those tremolo picked sequences. In Cauda Venenum, on the other hand, only contribute one piece, a 14+ minute remake of "Laura Palmer's Theme" from Badalamenti's Twin Peaks soundtrack, patched together from samples, long and sparse passages featuring a lot of sparse and dramatic instrumentation, driven by tinny beats and contrasted to sludgy distortion and a couple melodic black metal ruptures which compare closely enough to some of Heir's writing. The vocals used across the album are generally a rasp which can be repressed by the volume and tone of the other instruments, but consistent enough with a lot of what you'll hear from the post-black scene.

Heir really brings up the heavy end, especially during those double bass batteries in "Upon the Masses", while Spectrale serves as a sort of polar opposite, and In Cauda's Venenum's 'cover' interpretation bridges between the two poles. There are some intense, emotional moments strewn throughout its landscape, although conceptually it seems a little scattered...if the bands had just been produced/mixed a little closer to one another in tone, it could have been more effective as a solitary listening experience. But surely I've heard split recordings which are much more awkward and random than the pairing here, and there's a raunchy elegance here which kept me elevated past the potential boredom the longer tracks might have evoked. Not terribly resonant or catchy, but it was not absent of those passionate rushes of notes and atmosphere that put groups like Agalloch, Alcest and their peers on the radar of an audience looking for something graceful and gazy; these qualities are simply sandwiched between the acoustics of one of the participants and a tendency from Heir to delve further into pure black metal when it serves them.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, November 7, 2016

Testament - Brotherhood of the Snake (2016)

I've been scratching my head trying to think of why an album with such obvious effort attached to it as Brotherhood of the Snake does so little for me. I'm afraid it all boils down to the fact that without Chuck's vocal presence, and a few uniquely Alex Skolnick guitar passages, this could be just about any 80s-borne band putting out material that they suspect as 'modern' and 'relevant' but is in fact direly predictable and indistinct. That's not to say Testament have themselves a disaster here, but I'm experiencing a lot of the same problems I've had with 21st century efforts by bands like Onslaught or Exodus, which seem so marred by a bland, post-Pantera groove metal influence incorporated into the riffing patterns that any real nostalgia the newer material might evoke and launch renewed into the present is quickly sifted away.

Production here is loud, vivid, pounding, and polished, and the songwriting itself is certainly sprung from the DNA of past records like The New Order, Practice What You Preach and their last disc Dark Roots of Earth, but there's just too little of interest in how the riffing sequences manifest themselves other than as mediocre anchors for Chuck's performance, which is, admittedly one of the few aspects of the album I'd consider a highlight. It's one thing to dabble in familiarity, a technique that worked well for me with 2008's The Formation of Damnation, but throughout most of the track list here you are treated to a few callbacks to their great 80s works that do nothing to elevate or extend their legacy (sorry, ha) to anything even rivaling what has come before. Breakneck headbanging, brickwork Gene Hoglan drumming and overall high proficiency paychecks earned all around the lineup do nothing to alleviate the disappointment that there is nothing here I'm really going to keep repeating in my brain for any length of time beyond when I'm actually hearing it through a speaker.

Certain tunes like "The Pale King" and "Stronghold" have rhythm guitars in there which are just about cut and from past songs and then pasted into compositions that are far less interesting beyond just the sheer level of energy the band is willing to commit to them. And the aggression level is not in question here. If you're a new thrash fan picking up your first few CDs, with little info or experience with this Bay Area quintet's discography, you might be bowled over that these veterans still hit the boards this hard. But it's not the first time I've felt so underwhelmed...there was the album Demonic which had a brutal, groovy title track and then little else to offer it became so mundane, or The Gathering, which had a fairly strong reaction, but ultimately felt to me like they were doing the rounds, only more heavy for the death metal audience contemporary to its release. This one suffers a lot of the same symptoms, and while they were certainly present on Dark Roots of Earth, that album benefited from a few fresher ideas and more impressive foundations for the songs.

This is not all a bust, and the latter half of the album has tracks like "Neptune's Spear" which are still engaging and have some picking patterns we haven't heard within the Peterson/Skolnick realm, but for every spark like that, you get a dull counterweight like the insipid opening of "Centuries of Suffering" which has one of the most boring note progressions I've heard in their career. Those are the moments where Hoglan's powering beats and fills, and Chuck's hoarse growls carry everything. The last four tracks are clearly superior to everything that came before them, but even then there is just not enough charisma there to really save it. The leads, while solid, don't really offer any sort of emotional elevation to the pieces as they should. Superficially, Brotherhood of the Snake has the volume, forcefulness and finesse to satisfy some army of Jango Fett-like assembly line thrash fanatics, and maybe some of the old school crowd will just be thrilled that they can dish out such a beating so deep into their years, but I was left wanting less of a checklist of technical qualities, and more of an affirmation of why Testament helped vanguard that second tier of 80s thrash so hard.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (the thrashing and bashing and blistering burns)

Friday, November 4, 2016

Pénitence Onirique - V.I.T.R.I.O.L (2016)

V.I.T.R.I.O.L is a beautiful looking CD package, a trait I'm starting to associate with Les Acteurs de 'Ombre recordings on the whole, this one through its sub-label Emanations. Upon reading this French duo's genre, I was expecting some black metal of an atmospheric inclination, and that is precisely what is showcased throughout five substantial tracks of about 8-11 minutes in length each. However, Pénitence Onirique does not achieves its goal through techniques one might expect...this is not a work of endless ambient passages ceding and receding from the predicted grimness of its medium, but rather a straightforward barrage of black metal given a gleam by the very resonance of its guitar chords and melodies.

Yes, with the exception of the slogging bass line and open picking that christen the title track, and an occasional atmospheric cutaway (like the one in the midst of "Le Sel"), this is roughly 50 minutes of pure black metal force channeled through the shining imagery it evokes upon its external appearance. Floods of chords and and tremolo picked melodies cascade and crescendo about the ceaseless thundering of the beats, and the album relies heavily on repetitious sequences to transport its listener off to the landscapes within the band's own inner vision. The pacing will occasionally subside to a wall of simple, heavy chords above which some airy, almost folksy notes are painted like clouds (also in the belly of "Le Sel"), but this is not necessarily a band out to oust convention from their creative process, rather than hone it onto a particular element of stay consistent to that for vast gulfs of time. The vocals are a standard, often sustained black rasp in French, that gets lost in the streams of notes but also helps to give it a grimier, more fulfilling effect as the shadows of corruption seek to crumble the listener from his/her exposure to higher-pitched, light-touched tones.

I struggled a little with my overall reaction to V.I.T.R.I.O.L because it's an album I find successful at finding and sticking to its chosen soundscape, just one I didn't really enjoy. The devil is in the details, and for me there just weren't enough enduring, memorable riffs fueling the experience. There are certainly a handful of highlights, but even with repeated listens there wasn't a lot of aural subtext which emerged from the constant momentum it thrives upon. It occasionally bordered on those mesmeric patterns it seems to promise, but I almost feel that a little more dynamic range and variety would have done the record a world of good...because when that occurs, it does. However, when you're in the right head space for an album that feels like you're staring at sunlight reflected off an icy, glacial mass that extends as far as one can see...OR, if you're in the market for that strain of repetitive, melodic black metal that a lot of French-Canadian acts like Forteresse seem to have mastered, then Pénitence Onirique is a solid starter with potential.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Darkness - The Gasoline Solution (2016)

Further narrowing the thin band of signed 80s thrash bands that have yet to put together a reunion, Germans Darkness gathered themselves up from the dust several years ago to get in touch with their inner, disheveled youths and put together an EP with some old and new material. The Gasoline Solution is a natural followup and affirmation of this renewed vigor, a surprisingly solid slab of speed and Teutonic thrash, tempered with the appropriate riff references to legends from Destruction and Tankard to US legends Slayer. The cover definitely makes this look like any old pizza thrashing, only they've got a right to do so, since the Molotov-wielding undead hesher mascot is a throwback to the one on their minor cult classic debut Death Squad and its lackluster successor Defenders of Justice.

This is all about the rich, riffing rhythm tone which is a direct callback to those German records of antiquity, slightly cleaner for the current generation but lacking none of the punch you'd require. In fact, I'd say it was the singular best sounding record of their career, even if Death Squad might be the go-to for nostalgia's sake. Lethal speed which draws comparisons to records like Terrible Certainty, Extreme Aggression, Chemical Invasion, Eternal Devastation, and even a little "Black Magic" in several of the songs. They can bust into a slower, neck-beating passage here or there, where the thundering toms perform a coup on the snapping, steady thrash beats, but there is no neutering of the momentum anywhere to be found, and the guitars are really exciting with the caveat that on about 50% of the riffs you know where the riff is headed before it even hits a second measure. But the other half of the time, I felt like I was 14 again and salivating over the latest cassette from this scene I could plant into my Walkman. Leads are fast and do not waste your time, though they do sound a little wimpier in the mix than the rhythms supporting them.

The band has a new vocalist named Lee, but I don't think he'll take much getting used to since his splattering tone is a great fit for the material, recalling Atrophy's Brian Zimmerman, only with some hoarser growls thrown in there. They also 'harmonize' some of his lines with an impish backing vocal or shouts that really add another level of street violence, like you're being pursued through the dank alleys of some 80s dystopia by dudes that look like the mascot. Lyrically, they cover the usual social or political subject matter which is more or less relevant to this date, while having a little fun in a tune like "Tinkerbell Must Die". Okay, that was apt to evoke more belly laughs 30 years ago, but it's just another little detail on how Darkness are committed to sticking with the schematics that first launched them during that period, and while The Gasoline Solution is by no means an ambitious or forward thinking effort, the two long-time members of this band can avert whatever midlife crisis might have been haunting them, since this is just as fun as Death Squad.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Pestilence - Reflections of the Mind (2016)

I have little idea if there will be life post-Obsideo for Pestilence; one day it seems to be one story, and then a few months later there 'that's all she wrote'. But for Vic Records, this posthumous state continues with a slew of fan-targeted releases. First, The Dysentery Penance which gave you a chance to own the band's earlier demos where they were transitioning from their thrash metal foundation into. And now, Reflections of the Mind, a record that consists of demos and rehearsals from the second half of their Roadrunner signing, Testimony of the Ancients and Spheres. I'm not quite sure who it was that demanded the release of such a thing...perhaps it was Mameli, perhaps there really is some fan outcry for it that I'm blissfully unaware of, but the fact that it's re-mastered by Dan Swanö piqued my interest enough to dive into it and see what's become of these tunes...

And it's not awful, merely unnecessary. What you're getting here is a mash-up of a rawer form of Testimony of the Ancients and a Spheres that sounds somewhat more brash but coherent, mainly in how the death/thrashing riffs offset the experimental guitar effects that were the selling point for that underrated anomaly. Here, the tones and textures in tracks like "Searching the Soul" take on a more purely ambient hue, whether it's because they weren't finalized or 'plugged in' I cannot say. In a few cases, like "Changing Perspectives", it makes the finished product seem like more of a jumbled mess as the rhythm guitars are brought to the fore against the dryer melodies. A few tunes like "Level of Perception" and "Multiple Being" sounds really washed out with all the reverb, and others like "Land of Tears" are very obvious raw rehearsals and sound pretty crappy compared to the final products you heard on the full-length album. A few of the selections are surprises, like a rough take of "Echoes of Death" from Consuming Impulse or a clamorous cut called "Omens of Revelation" which seems to have been sliced up into other songs later.

There is probably a portion of Pestilence's audience, specifically those who scour the internet for or swap death metal demos through the mail, that would be thrilled by this or even develop a preference, not necessarily for the rehearsals which dominate a lot of the play length, but the raw/alternate takes on songs they might not have fully appreciated. I am just not one of them. Had this been a pure alt recording for Spheres, an album with some clear production issues, tweaked by Swanö, then it could have actually been worthwhile for me. But as it stands, the best I can say for it is that Reflections of the Mind might have a few takers, and it's at least better than some faceless Greatest Hits collection which just lifts the songs from the studio albums. This is something slightly different. That said, I do hope this and the Presence of the Pest live recording are the last of this glut of fan packages, and if there's to be more Pestilence it's new. Doctrine and Obsideo were hugely divisive albums, but at least that more mechanical, groove evolution of the band was slightly forward thinking.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Pestilence - Presence of the Pest (2016)

As the 'second winds' of classic 80s and 90s era death metal bands begin to blow out, or even if they don't, or they transform into 'third winds', I think it's only inevitable that we're going to see a lot more posthumous, throwback live LPs, demo or rehearsal collections that sell largely upon the nostalgia of their long time fans, or the historical cravings of newer listeners with a lot of disposable income or hard drive space. Presence of the Pest is one such example, releasing nearly a quarter century after the height of the band's powers, recorded in their home territory at the Dynamo Open Air, after what many would regard as their best or at least most popular album, Testimony of the Ancients.

Now, I do not count myself among that crowd, since their first two albums are a one-two punch combo that has not been surpassed for me over decades of death metal, but it stands to reason that this is the material most of their fan base most strongly identify with and thus it's a solid choice if you wanna reap a little scratch. The set here is, thankfully, second and third records pretty evenly, packed with gems, many of which are among my favorites, and sound quite energized back in this time when the band had some obvious enthusiasm. Granted, a live album from the years Martin van Drunen was fronting the band would have been the ideal for me to drain the wallet, but the infamous Patrick Mameli's vocals here are brute and ugly as on the recordings, and he doesn't really take a torch to the older cuts. Having seen them live Stateside on the tour for Testimony, I can recall that this was about the level at which they were performing, only here you get a lot more material since they weren't opening up for a larger act in a compact set, but given some actual time.

As for the live mix, it sounds pretty good in the mid-range, and conveys a lot of the grisliness of the songwriting, especially the Consuming Impulse material; but the riffing can occasionally come across as confusing when compared to the original studio versions. Guitars carve out the foremost point of production, while the bass is audible enough to make out through them, the vocals ride just outside and to the top at critical moments, and the drums also pop through. Leads sound just as spurious and infected as you'd want, and they play across all the albums with consistency. This is ESPECIALLY great to hear on "Chemo Therapy" which sticks out as a sore thumb as the sole representative of Mallevs Maleficarvm. And that's a bit of a downer, but it makes some sense that they mostly included Testimony of the Ancients due to its freshness, and Mameli's comfort growling and performing it. I might not hold that album in such high esteem as its predecessors, but I do enjoy it quite a lot and can't scoff at hearing "Presence of the Dead", "Twisted Truth" and so forth.

Admittedly, I'm not the hugest proponent for live albums. There are several in my collection that I have found timeless and alluring to keep around, but I'm always more apt to listen to the material in its studio context, and Presence of the Pest is no exception. It's a solid offering that wont' let you down if you pine for the Dutchmen at the pinnacle of their penetration into the 90s death metal market, before stuttering with the experimental (if still cool) Spheres. But as much as I love the band's early full-lengths, an admiration I will take to my own grave, I feel that I could very much live without this. And so I will.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, October 31, 2016

Hackneyed - Inhabitants of Carcosa (2015)

I feel that if you're going to invoke Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft or Robert Chambers in your lyrics, album and song titles, there comes with that a certain level of accountability and responsibility to those concepts and qualities which have permitted the source material to survive for so many years in the vivid imaginations of their readers. Within the realm of metal, or 'extreme' metal, this so often proves a disappointment, not because it's a bad thing to share the inspiration, and not because the records christened with these references are even musically bankrupt, but because so few acts actually manage to match the imagery of the original prose, the ideas of measured and immeasurable dread and atmosphere which lent such works immortality in the first place, to this musical medium.

Sure, it's cool to namedrop something deep, dark and evil for your death and black metal band, so a poster or tee shirt or album cover can be drafted up by someone who 'gets it' more than your songwriters, but so often the practice is used to obfuscate the fact that you're listening to something treacherously conventional which bears no semblance to its inspiration. So I have to give the band Hackneyed a little credit on their fourth album Inhabitants of might not entirely succeed at conjuring forth the gloomy mythic city that was the subject of Bierce's short story, but there was clearly an effort to round off any banalities of the death metal component with swells of atmosphere, eerie or spacey guitars to offset the bludgeoning, and a good degree of variation throughout that make for a compelling listen. They're not reinventing the wheel, and there's nothing here by way of nuance and riffing that hasn't already inhabited the death metal genre in some capacity, but this is at the least a well-rounded album which delivers on most fronts without submitting to trends of the style.

That's right, this is not a cavern core album, a brutal/tech death exhibition or an HM2 Swede-o-clone, but a panoply of meaty, chugging and churning rhythm guitars, blunt edged gutturals and just enough effects and atmospherics to keep even its most predictable or average note and chord progressions seeming more dramatic and tumescent with the Cyclopean grandeur of such a fictional space. There's a use of warmth and melody to balance out the aggression, which reminds me of their countrymen Sulphur Aeon, only far less reliant on the faster tempos and R'lyeh polish. In fact, the band I would draw most comparisons to would be Hypocrisy, especially the mix of leaden chug sequences (like the end of "God's Own Creation") with the roiling, blasting force of brutal-by-90s-standards death metal as you'll hear in the beginning of that same cut. Although Cadavre's voice isn't quite the same as Peter's, it has that same anthemic structure to its syllabic meter that I so enjoyed on efforts like Abducted and The Final Chapter.

But where those Swedes used their synths and lyrics to mimic their favorite X-Files subjects ('I'm not saying it was aliens...but yeah it was'), this is an homage to Lovecraftian horror, and often really direct (i.e. "Re-animator" or "In Carcosa (The Yellow King)"). Lyrically, the lines here are a mixed bag, with laughably generic murder fare like "The Flaw of Flesh" running up against slightly more thoughtful, literary imagery. Another arguable weak point of the album is that while the grooves lend themselves pretty swell to all the dressings the Germans place on top of them, they're based on riff patterns that we've heard elsewhere in formats like metalcore, Gojira-groove, perhaps even some djent. In that way, like the band's buzzworthy young age when they first debuted, they recall a little of how Decapitated evolved on the record Organic Hallucinosis. Weave that together with the mid 90s Hypocrisy output and you'll get a fairly close approximation of Inhabitants of Carcosa. A steady, assured clobbering which occasionally breaks out into fits of insane blasting.

And for me? It worked. It's certainly a little brickwalled and 'modern' in nature, so almost guaranteed to drive off the nostalgiacs and the 'pure'. With the exception of the Nuclear Blast debut, I think this is another solid, relatively unsung band who still haven't discovered a real distinction, but nevertheless put their share of effort into writing and recording these songs so that the overall product is a death metal record I can sit through a number of spins and appreciate. It lacks the true mystifying horror or complex non-Euclidean composition to really embody its thematic aspirations, but it's the best of the four Hackeneyed albums and shows some promise going forward. The cover artwork by former Night in Gales growler Björn Gooßes is also pretty good.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (a monster at the end of it)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mercyful Fate - 9 (1999)

Dead Again did not leave me with any huge expectations for its potential successors. It wasn't a terrible record, but the next rung down on a ladder of compulsion that started off high through the magnificent comeback In the Shadows, and then slowly scaled downwards with each subsequent effort over the 90s. But when the buzz about and artwork to 9 seemed to point to a revival of their sound on the legendary Don't Break the Oath, I admit to a degree of giddiness, since that remains my absolute favorite of the Fate canon in both songwriting and the mood that its sharp, gleaming studio production evokes in me every time I hear it.

Sadly, this was just nowhere near as good as the Danes were in their prime, opening with a dryer, if stylistically loyal track, before admittedly starting to hit closer to the mark further into its playtime. I had a much stronger reaction to it when it was initially released, but have felt any fire for it cooling off in the intervening years, despite it looking pretty snazzy. Roughly 4/5ths of the lineup had the collective ability to knock this one out of the furnace, with the exception of drummer Bjarne T. Holm, and even he had been around for the two records before this (which is not exactly cause for praise, I know). Ultimately, though, this is about an EP's worth of reasonably strong material diluted by an equal amount of tunes that don't work nearly as well, and approximately nothing anywhere that can even approach 1994's Time in terms of raw catchiness and construction.

The production is not exceptional, but it's solid...a bulked up Don't Break the Oath with a deeper end, which sounds good on paper but can't overcome the redundant feel to a number of the songs. The band shifts between faster paced heavy/power metal numbers like the opener "Last Rites", and the huge Wead and Shermann just about perfected on In the Shadows, as in "The Grave". These latter are coincidentally my favorite moments on the record, anchored by D'Angelo's lines and really driving home the dynamics as they erupt into faster paced segments, leads and King's falsetto shrieks. Drums are workmanlike, and the rhythm guitar tones are perfectly adequate and clear with enough chug to the lower end mutes that they feel fulfilling. Diamond's voice is a xerox of his finer years, capable of effortlessly harmonizing and capitalizing on that disparity between the soothing mids, the screams and the narrative, lower range...the only issue is that most of the individual lines here just don't feel as memorable as they were on the first five solo discs or the first three Mercyful Fate full-lengths.

Far be it from me to claim that the formula was 'tired', here, it's more likely that these particular assemblies of beats and notes didn't glue themselves to my ears like their predecessors. There is no sign throughout 9 that they've lost any of their competence or drive, though it would be difficult to claim anything here was really that ambitious either, especially not the lyrics to songs like "Sold My Soul" and "9" itself, which seem like no effort was spent. It might seem like I'm coming down hard on an album that I essentially find 'good' when I sum up all its parts. There's not seriously wrong anywhere. This is a step above Dead Again in most departments, and has some quality leads and a couple tunes I crave from time to time, but it's not even qualified for consideration when I want the 'full experience' and have records like Don't Break the Oath, Melissa, Fatal Portrait and The Eye lying about my flat.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (time has disappeared into an unknown evil)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Deceased - As the Weird Travel On (2005)

This wouldn't be the first time a Deceased record has grown on me. While 1997's Fearless Undead Machines elicited positive thoughts on its first spin, that's an effort that I have continued to appreciate in increased capacity for almost two decades now. And lo, sandwiched between my two favorite albums to involve King Fowley, Surreal Overdose and Supernatural Addiction, lies another underrated gem of which I am also responsible for some degree of neglect, As the Weird Travel On, which faithfully carries forward the band's great legacy of entwining speed, heavy, and death metal aesthetics into a confident and consistent exhibition of cult horror worship that is as true to its musical sources as its literary and cinematic inspirations, while remaining completely underground with a 'cool factor' temperature that makes the flesh of the undead seem balmy by comparison. I brought up Fearless Undead Machines, because looking back retroactively at the Virginians' ouvre since that particular evolution is to behold one of the best streaks by an American metal band since the 80s...

Not to fault the first two Deceased full-lengths, which are both good as developmental milestones, but this is a style I can NEVER grow sick of, a seamless integration of the legit sounds I explored as a teenager, where the riffing and structure of various metal strains had become more complicated in terms of both aggression and melody. Not to say that they're 'technical' by any means. Their tracks tend to dwell around the 6-8 minute range, with substantial amounts of riffs and tempo shifts that are persistently catchy. Marginally predictable in some cases, but always leading to something that pops with your ears, like a great, shifting rhythm hook galloping away beneath a lead, or a very tasteful and sparse use of a keyboard to accent some gloomy moonlit vista that erupts from the frothing, shambling speed metal mob converging upon it. Mark Adams and Mike Smith are 'classically' trained axemen in that they have an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s A-, B- and C- tier heavy, power and speed metal, with a healthy dosing of the youthful fits of energy that thrash and crossover brought; but they play a lot of this stuff even faster, to a level of extremity that even some jaded Morbid Angel fan might appreciate.

The drums are perfect on this album, a cavalcade of firm, fiery hard rock rhythms that can easily burst into any intensified technique the hypertension of "A Witness to Suspiria" requires. As the Weird Travel On bears distinction because it's an album where King Fowley himself stepped away from that duty, bringing over Dave Castillo who was also working with his other project October 31, and the man simply doesn't cock it up. Les Snyder's bass lines don't always seem to strike out much terrain on their own, but they really round out the record with a great, audible tone which anchors the lightning that Adams and Smith have let off the leash in both the speed/thrash metal undercurrents and the spastic Maiden-esque leads and harmonies, which are yet another selling point of this album because, while conventional in approach, they are without exception memorable or at the very least perfectly fit to the tracks surrounding them. Deceased even manage to incorporate a bit of dissonant Voivod riffing on a track or two to help round out the record from sounding too straightforward, a trait they used on some of the earlier releases but hadn't reared its head so much on the two albums preceding this.

In sum, As the Weird Travel On is wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder metal bliss which doesn't age any more than the psychological and corporeal late-night horror cinema that inspires it. Narrative lyrics that describe their ghastly scenes and situations with perspectives both external and internal, melded to the polished but salacious melodic speed death which plays like no other band I can name. Sure, there is DNA planted here by anyone from Rigor Mortis to Iron Maiden, but Fowley and company retain so much of the medium's genuine pulse and translate into such a coherent picture without ever coming off as excessively studio-driven or as trendy as their Swedish counterparts had become by the early 00s. Asked a decade ago, I would have probably ranked this behind its two predecessors, but I have no choice now but say that this is every bit as good as Fearless Undead Machines, and nearly on the plane of its followup. It's also a little more energetic and high speed than either of those, another great salve for those souls needing soothing for their kitsch horror addictions or reminiscences of Halloweens lost, willing to take that injection in both the fight and flight of heavy fucking metal.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (prepare for the abbatoir)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Morgul - The Horror Grandeur (2000)

While both of its predecessors were solid, competent entries into Napalm Records' catalog of oft-forgotten black metal recordings, it was The Horror Grandeur which tipped Jack D. Ripper ever so slightly further into the limelight. A new deal with Century Media Records, an 'upgrade' to the sort of grotesque morbid photo art which was all the rage at the turn of the century, what many would consider vastly superior production values, and further acclimation to the symphonic ingredients that were increasingly incorporated into the form by more popular Gothic and black metal acts were all reasons that this might prove many listeners' first exposure to Morgul, even if it still failed to carve large swaths in its field.

While I personally acknowledge its limitations, in particular the rather predictable form many of the riffs take, I hold a soft spot for this record due to its unflinching horror noir aesthetics, the Grand Guignol nature of its presentation. The prior albums were good, but had a slightly harder time in snaring my attention, where this one caught it immediately upon the record crackling and doomed, melodic onset of the title cut. The entire record is staged like a carousel of corny theatrics, whimsical organs and even a couple King Diamond ringmaster laughs, meshed with spurts of atmospheric black metal circa Emperor, Limbonic Art or Hecate Enthroned, but it just sounds so great due to the clarity of the mix. The strings and keys sound vivid and bright, and Jack's occasional use of clean vocals soars off into the album's near-threatening nightscape akin to a lot of his Norse countrymen like I.C.S. Vortex.

There is a sliver of experimentation here, like the industrial beats used to fuel segments of "The Murdering Mind" or "Elegantly Decayed", which would also be explored on the subsequent Morgul offerings, all tastefully entwined within the morbid modus operandi, rather than creating a heavily eclectic or scattered style like on Arcturus' The Sham Mirrors a couple years later. I had mentioned Jack's clean vocals, but that's only one of numerous styles he incorporates. Roaring black metal rasps, wavering and eerie chants, breathy whispers, or whatever fits his mental asylum narrative. The bass is not an enormous presence throughout much of The Horror Grandeur, but it does keep its end of the bargain so that the album has depth across a number of frequencies. The drums successfully shift from the more traditional rock and metal patterns into the electronic areas and back seamlessly, with a bright snare sound that offsets Ripper's harsher vocals fairly well.

I had mentioned that the riffs lag behind creatively, and that's mostly the case, whether they're the traditional black metal explosions with tremolo picking, the blackened thrash parts, some of which even seem to mimic the presence of Ministry circa their Psalm 69 album. They're all functional and well-suited to anchor the delirious atmosphere Jack is creating here, but often too predictable and not intricately woven with catchy melodies or truly diabolic chord patterns that a lot of other Norse bands were bringing to the medium years before this. That said, the slower, graceful melodic doom passages which sparsely populate the album are among its most magnificent and memorable, and the rest are at least percussive enough not to disrupt the flow of the album or its haunted house aesthetics.

I feel like fans of Arcturus and Dimmu Borgir at the time would probably have dug this despite the fact that it's not as unique as the former nor as massive as the latter. It's actually the Morgul record I break out most often, whether that's around the autumn time of year or just when I'm in the need for an interpretation of classic horror themes through this style. Lyrics cover subjects like evil dolls and Poe-like death obsessions, eloquently penned to stick to the narrative structure of the music, and it's just one of those underappreciated gems which tread slightly left of the beaten path without setting any new trends, while mutant and elevating the one-man band into a form that could in some alternative timeline hold its own against its kin.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (rattle your puppet limbs)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Vision Bleak - The Unknown (2016)

The Vision Bleak have been faithfully preaching the gospel of Gothic metal for 16 years now, long after the arguable summit of the style's popularity (i.e the H.I.M. and Type O Negative days) has eroded in the wake of other niches. And they've done it with hardly a single mar on their body of consistency. Full-length after full-length of equal parts atmospherics and rocking references to traditional horror literature (up to around the early 20th century) and classic film (a few decades later), dour vocal poetry and a public image that is in turn vaudevillian and endearing. This new record, The Unknown struck a chord with me for abandoning the band's kitsch cover motifs of the past for the transformed, alien vista of nightmares that it promises, and the questions that evokes...have the Germans changed up their style? Are they aiming for some sort of grand Lovecraftian concept?

For the most part, this is business as usual. The somber Sisters of Mercy inspired Gothic rock clad in more meaty, metallic guitars, sent back in time a century or two, with synthesizers and acoustics used tastefully to complement a set of dependable if not always entirely unique chugging and driving rhythms. The Unknown is mildly heavier in terms of drumming, speed and thundering riff structure, at least on a handful of tracks like "From Wolf to Peacock". If the band had changed its name to The Vision Bleak With a Vengeance, it wouldn't have been without merit. But despite its marginal sense of urgency, this disc has a fair degree of variation between it's murkier, Gothic doom swells "The Whine of the Cemetery Hound") redolent of Paradise Lost and the more urgent, aggressive material. Thick palm muted patterns perform a percussion unto themselves while the vocals and guitars drift above them, as if afloat between dark valleys of jagged rock and wolf-prowled pine groves, elevating tracks like "How Deep Lies Tartaros?" to seismic, sodden glories that I wouldn't have expected in their opening moments.

The true calms here are relegated to shorter pieces like the intro or the instrumental "Who May Oppose Me?", but these are all perfectly placed to allow the listeners a chance to breathe after what ever Transylvanian (or Victorian) terror has stalked them through the woods or streets. The vocals of both Schwadorf and Konstanz provide elegant, brooding mantras which assist even the most base of the guitar progressions to hypnotize beyond their due. Instruments are mixed very well. Production is polished, and complexity minimal, but the oblique nature of the lyrics (EXCELLENT lyrics) and note selections keep it from broader accessibility. That is not a negative. This is definitely not an album which has many sugary spikes of catchiness, even by comparison to some of their own past material. The songs all work rather well, both on their own and in unison, but it's the overall mood and imagination of this album that had me absorbed more so than its ability to compose some nuanced riff. You've heard a lot of it before, just not put together quite the way this duo accomplishes it, and The Unknown, while not the standout of their career, is another reminder of how a project's convictions can persevere well beyond the trendiness that might have provided them some grand entrance eons ago. Try and grab the version with the bonus disc, both of the tracks are also worthwhile.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (drag yourself along the twine)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Putrevore - Tentacles of Horror (2015)

The roiling, ominous, Putrevore has been my favorite of the many Rogga Johansson collaborations since its inception, but as with the rest, there has always been the risk of retreading the same ground too damn often, a criticism I've often seen leveled at his more long enduring bands like Paganizer or Ribspreader. With Tentacles of Horror, the duo of Rogga and guttural guru Dave Rotten attempt to channel the nihilistic punishment of Morphed from Deadbreath and the amazing Macabre Kingdom into a more varied, dynamic and I daresay 'accessible' direction with largely successful results, though I came away from it with some degree of disappointment since it lacked the suffocating and crushing capacity of its forebears.

This is largely the same neo-Incantation style, with the grungy rhythm guitars and pure wall of growl that the prior albums mastered, only a lot of the riffing structures and drums are focused more around a basic groove that occasionally treads into blasting territory. The bass has a nice distorted tone to it which sounds cool where it appears on its own, but also adds some reinforcement to the tremolo picked patterns, some of which retain that morbid appeal of predecessors. Once this album lays it all out with hammering drum tracks and Rotten's murky ravings moving simultaneously with a pure 1990-93 guitar progression, it definitely reiterates the character of Macabre Kingdom, but where that record just felt so over the top and hostile and cataclysmic, this one just seems more of a laid back affair. Some tunes like "Through the Vortex to Aeons Past" and their ilk have a slightly more overt nod to the Swedish aesthetics of bands like Dismember and Entombed, which Rogga has already beaten to death in other projects, but the majority of the material hearkens back to the first few Incantation discs, maybe some Rottrevore, or Finns like Purtenance in their earlier years.

Didn't love this one, since it seemed slightly neutered from its older siblings, despite its obvious attempts to branch out and flow into a broader songwriting realm than the duo had achieved prior. The Juanjo Castellano cover art is great, and the lyrics are on par with the first two records, glimpses at vistas of Cyclopean horror, but the music just doesn't leave me the same squashed up mass of entrails and ground bone as I was after Macabre Kingdom. That's not to say I didn't enjoy this, because at least half the songs hooked me, and overall it doesn't have many other weaknesses beyond few too familiar chord patterns that lack the atmosphere or thrill of their betters. I think listeners will find the production to this most approachable; the second album was quite caustic, especially with the mix of the beats, and yet that ended up lending it an otherworldly character strangely suited to the archaic fictional beings it summoned. Here you've got a cleaner effort which thankfully doesn't dispense that great guitar tone or Rotten's subterranean vocal effects.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (to lunge itself into times spectrals)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Raise Hell - Written in Blood (2015)

I was a little dismayed and concerned when I found out that there had been a Raise Hell record I completely missed last year; the former because nobody had really been talking up Written in Blood, and the latter because...I missed a Raise Hell record, and felt the cold, cobwebbed fingers of senility probing between my ears. Well, it turns out that there's a pretty good reason for both, because while this record returns a degree of the Swedish firebrands' furious Holy Target energy and velocity, it does seem to abandon a little of that ghoulish, haunted house charisma and face rocking hilarity that dominated Not Dead Yet and then resonated onto the two discs after that one, even if they weren't quite as excellent.

On its surface, this album is a stylistic doppelganger to what they've produced before. Harsh vocal driven murder thrash with convulsions of the death and black metal traditions that the band had mutated from early on. Largely in those same vocals and some of the drumming, or in the rhythm guitars that seem occasionally indistinguishable from other Scandinavian death/thrash or melodeath. The issue here is that while the note counts and the structure of these songs is comparable to prior efforts, so many of these tunes head right in one ear and out the other, largely due to exhaustion with so many well-rounded thrash acts possessing this level of competence and execution but not the capacity for memorable songwriting. Written in Blood is an able record if you just want to bang your head and possess audio evidence that the Swedes are still firing away, but the highlights are few and far between, and nothing like a "Babes" or "Nightcrawler" or "Dance With the Devil" really turns up.

It's not a total wasteland. Raise Hell have always understood how to induce some variation and balance to their LPs, and that exists here between pure ragers like "Dr. Death" or the Exodus paced "Six Feet Under" and more dramatic, melodic pieces like "A Blackened Resurrection" which are a little more successful as reincarnating the charm of older songs. Some tunes are little more than meaty, brickhouse thrash boredom like "We Arise", while others like "The Bell of the Reaper" are nearly worthy to be mixed in with better tracks from City of the Damned and Wicked is My Game. Clean guitars are used effectively in a few intros, acoustics glimmering before the distortion elevates the threat level. The rhythm guitars are constantly chopping and hacking like professional butchers, the drums circa the band's one new member to this recording are perfect, and Jimmy Fjällendahl's vocals remain consistently hellish throughout, though he lacks that raving, zany charm Jonas Nilsson brought out for Not Dead Yet.

Leads are proficient and timed right here, and there's no shortage of melody in general, but half of them are merely elegant rather than catchy. A lot of the riffing framework is structurally sound but inescapably predictable, and while that might have been par for the course with prior releases, they had those extra pieces of personality there to seal the deal, where this just seems a more soulless and obligatory exercise that impersonates its predecessors. Granted, it's been almost a decade since the band were releasing albums, and their scalpels might take a little dusting off. Written in Blood is by no means a bad record, and it has the same fixation on both slasher and classic horror themes that they've had since the earlier albums, but beyond a serviceable EP's worth of stronger content it just lacks the resonant engagement I had really hoped for a post-hiatus Raise Hell. Not a large misstep, but unlikely to be something I'd choose over the four older discs.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(crawls out from the dark)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Svartby - Swamp, My Neighbour (2015)

Svartby is a Russian band highly fond of Slavic and Swedish folklore, especially those aspects that go bump in the night, steal your children or are otherwise likely to hex and curse you. The colorful artwork they employ drowns the viewer in childhood nostalgia, storybooks, cautionary tales by the fireside, the kind of stuff that seems superficially attractive in this Autumn time of year, so despite my usual hangups with a good deal of what we dub 'folk metal', and some tepid former encounters with earlier albums, I decided to give their latest record a spin and see if I had been missing out on anything after all. I'm not averse to some fun foot stomping, Pumpkin Ale swigging entertainment if the riffs, lyrics and themes can support more than the skin-deep aesthetics they strive for, and I've yet to really meet the band that can effectively convey folkloric 'goblin' or 'nocker' metal without coming off like a bunch of confused, ironic weirdos, and not in the good sense.

So I'm pretty bummed out when I spin the Russians' latest record Swamp, My Neighbour and the first things that blow out of the speakers sound exactly like EVERY other European, charging folk metal band with the driving drums, predictable and majestic melodies, keyboards presenting atmosphere in the most overt, expected ways and a lineage that clearly owes more to Finntroll and Ensiferum than anything hinging on originality. This stuff should sound like demonic fauns dancing nimbly around a glade, or the cobwebbed laughter of an old crone, but it's just the usual glory-hounding cheese with the same Wagnerian swells and indistinct barking, hoarse black metal vocals deliver about as many chills as a warm bath. The riffs are largely just gallivanting chugs and melodies meant to imbue into the keyboards, never haunting or particularly catchy or even interesting. It literally sounds like they just let the synthesizer come up with the melody and then whatever the first palm-mutes they could produce were then set in stone as the bedrock from which the band would achieve its metalness.

I'm not trying to say that Svartby are terrible at this, because they possess the base level of competence to pull it off in time and a couple quirky uses of keys and female vocals that round out the sound to make it listenable. But this really just feels like someone obsessed with Finntroll, yet not willing to go the full distance and include less of the humppa music parts, though some tunes like "Bog Bar" definitely flirt in that territory. I mean, this is no Midnattens widunder, more of a mediocre descendant of Jaktens tid; so in that regard, they're more alike an Equilibrium or Ensiferum writing passable LARP music. The creepy creatures, elixirs and witching ways that the cover artwork hints at are relegated to the lyrics alone (which are decent), and never manifest with any spooky progressions of chords, notes, not even the vocals which are as banal and blunt as their harsh inflection can get. A few later tracks like "Clock Tower" are catchy enough that I wouldn't want to skip through them, but not in the way that the outward aesthetics of the band would hint at, and that's really the biggest disappoint I feel here, another folk metal band that thinks everything needs to be a dance party in Medieval shoes. File 'em away with Trollfest and just stick to the original.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]