Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Wakedead Gathering - Fuscus: Strings of the Black Lyre (2016)

I did not entirely warm up to Fuscus: Strings of the Black Lyre at first, finding some of the songs like "Blood from the Earth" and "Amnioticysts" more immediately rewarding than their neighbors. But after several repeated listens, the chinks in its exoskeletal armor have begun to seal, and I'm left once again satisfied by an album which once again reaffirms that, like any other metal niche, the true appeal of death metal is in its aesthetic overtures just as much as the individual riff-craft used to compose its components. On a note for note basis, Lampe doesn't always concoct the most explosive or unique riffing passages to explore, but it's how he fashions them all together just so slightly left of center to what I normally find in my listening queue that I get all my enjoyment. So whilst I can't say this quite hit the strides he set with its predecessor The Gate and the Key, or his great Dark Circles EP, Fuscus is still something I would heartily recommend to anyone seeking sincerity in a field that has been unfortunately trampled by well-meaning devotees, whose idea of keeping the flame lit is by simply taking and handing off the torch.  

The Wakedead Gathering is instead mining the murk and gloom of its genres' creation to generate an alternate heat source, and the result is something easily identifiable, but the stuff of moldering corpses drenched in the oily damp of dense bog waters, like a death metal peat mummy which is ever so slowly rising to the surface. Suffocating, faster guitars grinding on the opacity and bloat of their death metal forebears from the early 90s, interspersed with dissonant, atmospheric passages, and subtle, super simple bass curves while Lampe introduces blends of rasps, gutturals and even some more ritualistic spoken whispers to create perhaps his most overtly 'horrific' experience to date. The standard Death and Incantation rhythm guitars cycles here are balanced against melodic textures which often espouse the melancholy of ancient Paradise Lost ("Lungwort"), and there are also spikes of antiquated, tasteful Scandinavian melodies ("The Harrowed Column") which come unexpectedly but not unwelcomed. To boot, Fuscus contains what is easily the best pure death/doom hybrid he's written yet, "An Ancient Tradition", with harmonies so funereal that I almost called up the florist, until I remembered that this was just an album I was listening to.

Right around par with much of his previously released material, this Fuscus is further evidence that The Wakedead Gathering remains one of our underappreciated, humble USDM treasures. Though the variation from record to record might not offer as much stylistic breadth and deviation as a band like Horrendous, the quality is entirely consistent, and the project's vision remains distinct beyond a lot of bands just trying to recycle Onward to Golgotha, Left Hand Path or Dawn of Possession. You might not recognize this upon first exposure, since the basis of a lot of riffs will feel familiar, but its how the songs are laid out, and the left turns they often take which weren't immediately telecast by the structure of the chords before them. The lyrics are evocative, mystical, horrific. Get this. Get everything Lampe has released under this name. He may not have published his peak, or his 'masterpiece' yet, but this is one of those cases where you're very sure it could happen at any moment, and even if such a thing were to never manifest, the journey was worth taking all along regardless.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (scent of moldy debris)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Wakedead Gathering - Tenements of Ephemera (2010)

Tenements of Ephemera was a small run release making its way to only a limited audience, so one might have been forgiven in to have missed out on it amidst the slew of old school death metal being revitalized and released this decade. That said, Andrew Lampe's material showed promise even as early on as this full-length, which resurrected the origins of the form and then immediately put his own, distinct stamp upon it; not by completely rewriting the math, but by tampering the equation to incorporate the small atmospheric touches his material has been associated with ever since on the great Dark Circles EP and subsequent albums. Whereas the same riffs here might feel less imaginative or evocative in the hands of some trendster cycling though the dustbins of the genre for inspiration, they bloom across Tenements of Ephemera like the creeping fear one might experience when reading a really great proxy for a classic horror author.

Genuine death metal, setup with a dark ambient/synthesizer and then punching through into fleshy walls of roiling, Incantation-like tremolo patterns with Lampe's ominous guttural, but before long... you're treated to your first taste of what makes this 'different', a series of varied, lurching, segments which imply both dissonant and eerie melodies to the cemetery soil beneath. Vocals are often layered between several growls to create a grotesque chorus. Individual tracks exhibit plenty of internal variation and never wear out their welcome with swollen durations replete with exhausting repetition. The Wakedead Gathering doesn't exactly tread on 'experimental', but Lampe is fully willing to flip his own script, as in "The Black Foundry", "Permutation" and other points where the progressions take on a very doom death blend, whether imbuing that into a faster paced series of riffs or cut off into an instrumental all its own like the guitar-warped "In the Offing". The beats are laid out with a lot of double bass patterns and tinny cymbal sounds, and would probably prove the least compelling element of the composition apart from the fact that they just fit the riffs perfectly.

To be clear, Tenements of Ephemera is not going to blow your roof off, or your speakers out, but it's a more subliminal, reined-in brand of pure death metal which uses its lack of complexity to create a morbid, intimate atmosphere with an almost claustrophobic cinema feel. And I admire the approach, not so much a deconstruction of the genre's foundations but a slightly alien vibe to it that is purely the purview of its author and not some prevailing trend everyone is doing, even if Wakedead can easily cross over to fans of all the Asphyx, Death and Incantation throwbacks we've been inundated with for years (and some to our great benefit, to be sure). As someone who used to originally imagine that this style of music had been envisioned by the minds of aberrations, who in turn transmitted it through the limited lens of squishy human brains, it feels otherworldly even though it's half-rooted firmly in death metal conventions. Dark Circles and The Gate and the Key were both improvements in that the songwriting became more distinct, the atmospheric licks more memorable, but this was already a great project going forward, and the gap in quality is minimal.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, March 11, 2016

Anvil - Anvil is Anvil (2016)

If Anvil! The Story of Anvil and its two neighboring studio efforts This is Thirteen and Juggernaut of Justice marked a resurgence or Renaissance for the beloved Canadian thugs, possessing their strongest material in many years, and affording them all manner of touring opportunities and a perpetual underdog spotlight...Hope is Hell sort of dashed that streak against the rocks, a mundane and forgettable effort redolent of many of such works they released tirelessly through the 90s as they leaped around labels and tried to stay afloat in a decade or so in which real heavy metal sunk into the background of other prevalent sub-genres and trends. Working up to Anvil Is Anvil,  their 16th album, I did not hold out much hope, hellish or otherwise, that this would be anything more than lazy redundancy, as the cover image and banal title would themselves seem to suggest...but thankfully, this is a measure more entertaining and catchy than its predecessor, with most of their strengths and all their flaws on exhibition.

Big, dumb, choppy heavy metal. Anvil has long relied on the joy and innocence they bring to their riff set more than any sense of nuance or technicality, which arguably fled the band's trajectory well back into the 80s after Pound for Pound (my favorite of their records). And here they are, chugging along like an 18-wheeler on the Trans-Canada Highway while the driver dreams of big haired 80s blondes, lumberjack attire, bleacher brawls at hockey rinks, ganja, brewskies and maple fucking syrup. Coincidentally, those are exactly the same stereotypes, I imagine as I'm listening through the sometimes thundering, sometimes lurching compositions which have been meted out evenly over most of their albums since Metal on Metal. Here you've got clear cases of both, charging along with "Up, Down, Sideways" or one of this disc's "Metal on Metals", "Gun Control". Riff construction is constant, concrete heavy blues worship which occasionally sputters into the Judas Priest or Accept lanes, while Robb's drums are as loud, appropriate and invigorating as ever. New bassist Chris Robertson grooves along accordingly, a solid bar band-style contributor which is nothing less than what Anvil requires, and Mattes Pfeiffer's production on this thing is bright, bludgeoning and beyond functional, especially on those mid-paced rhythms.

Then, of course, you've got Lips' belting out those obvious, everyman lyrics which are often pretty dumb, but again appropriate for an old metal band that has no desire whatsoever become anything else, and that's not exactly a weakness. His voice still has all the character it's carried for the past 30 years...wavering eerily at its higher range, but most comfortable with a hard bite that carries over well into an anthemic chorus line. This has always been the Canadians' #1 distinction, and I'm happy that it's been a constant, even if about half the choruses on this record are unmemorable and bland. Plus the album opens with a pirate song. Lead guitars wail along with abandon, just as alive as the rhythm section during those parts ("Die for a Lie", etc), and they never feel overly prepared to leech away attention from the rest of the components surrounding them. In the end, a longstanding Anvil fan is likely to have as good a time here as he's had with any of their other 21st century output. Expectations have never been set very high, the band lacks any ability to transition into any other plane of craftsmanship, so it's going to come down to whether the songs stick or miss, and with this thing cranked in the vehicle, I'd say that the former occurs more often than the latter, even if these are just endless reiterations of prototype tunes that they've been rehashing for decades. Loud, proud, pumped full of Cialis, this is textbook Anvil. Lips is pushing 60 now, and his music sounds like it tears asphalt at about that same speed, but with an armor plated grill that can plow poseurs right off into the breakdown ditch.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Amenophis - Demos 1991-1992 (2016)

I'm occasionally chided over the dim view I take on some of the high profile, soulless contract-padder compilation albums released through labels with a budget, which do little more than republish material which is better experienced in the context of its original album. But in reality, I have no such animosity towards the format when it is used for appropriate purposes, which are not to loot the pockets of a band's loyal listeners by selling them back the fat off their own asses, but to provide an opportunity to acquire material that is collected from obscure sources. I Hate records have done exactly this with the Demos 1991-1992 comp covering the only two recordings by an obscure Swedish death metal band, Amenophis.

Now, this might seem like a trending, redundant process, since by now that country's scene has been nigh exhausted, bands worthy of being heard, and others not so much, but the fact remains that this was not something you were able to pick up without some tape trading 25 years ago, or perhaps by fishing around on the internet. That the CD features the entire body of the band's recorded output is a boon, too often will something like this come along and be lacking a couple songs or demos due to either neglect or 'natural' circumstances where the tapes are all missing, destroyed, etc. So I rather do like the humble setup here, with eight tracks laid out chronologically in the order they would have been originally experienced by someone local that picked them up. As for the music itself, it's fairly average in structure and quality, sonically attuned to what Entombed and Dismember, structurally more along the lines of Grave and Seance; a clear antique Floridian death aesthetic beefed up by the fat, ripping rhythm guitar tone that would forever etch that Scandinavian style onto our radars.

A few drawbacks to the mix, in particular on the first, eponymous demo, where the guitars are much more prominent over the tinnier, distanced drums and the gruesome bark. After hearing so much of this stuff, not only in the early 90s, but for decades of waves of retro-bands later, it's hard to say that any of the riffing patterns truly impressed me, but it's genuine enough and passable for its day, and with a little more prompting and sculpting, Amenophis could have easily been snatched up for a full-length alongside other lower tier bands like Sorcery, Epitaph, etc. The instrumental acoustic interlude is quite nice, and then the harsher material of the second demo The Twelfth Hour (1992) at once seems more dynamic, almost as if they'd gone into a death/thrash mode with riffing more akin to Slayer and less of an obvious Swedish fact this is more in line with bands like Master or Messiah. The vocals more raw and abusive, a lot more melody inherent to the guitar. The bass stands out better. The drums also have a stronger presence, and though the riffs are often as predictable as the earlier content, they definitely felt better developed, in particular the lead sequences in cuts like "Eyes of Fire".

At that rate of progression, who knows if a possible third demo the following year would have stirred a lot more heads or provided something really inspired or unique? We might never know that, but at the very least we can discern a projection towards that goal and a ramping up of the maturity in the songwriting, even with such a small sampling size. And that's really one of the thrills of listening to such 'doomed' bands decades beyond the point, hashing out all those little details. Amenophis were not performing on the level of the Swedish front runners at the time, and I don't think that's a surprise to anyone, including the band, but had different opportunities or vacancies opened up, it's not a stretch to imagine that this band might have risen through the ranks and potentially written us a cult classic that we celebrate to this day. It didn't turn out that way, but purists for the Swedish death metal sound who drool over everything to do with it would proudly count this among their collections, and that's really the point of the thing. Because now they can.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]