Friday, April 29, 2016

Seventh Xul - Qliphothic Rites of Death EP (2010)

A defunct project by a pair of musicians who between them are responsible for probably half of Greece's underground black metal recordings, Seventh Xul's lone EP recording is getting a reissue through Iron Bonehead on 7". Featuring a new cover treatment that seems to convey its cryptic, nihilistic aesthetic mood rather well, but perhaps not the production level, which is quite good here. If you follow this scene, or these pages closely, then you might recognize Acherontas from his maintay of the same name, or other bands he's played with like Acrimonious, Nocternity and Stutthof. Necro/Necrotormentor you might recognize from Burial Hordes and Enshadowed. Together, with beats provided by Fotis Bernardo, another musician heavily involved in that scene with credits in Septic Flesh, Necromantia, etc, the duo concocts a formidable enough mesh of black and death metal to warrant a second look, even within its two-track lifespan.

"Sitra Ahra" immediately grabs the attention with its repeated, evil melodic phrase and the punchy precision and bulk of the rhythm guitar used to accent it like percussion. Once the song develops further, it's composed of largely predictable tremolo picked death metal patterns redolent of old Deicide, accented with bold octave chords ala Morbid Angel, but while they honor these old, overt Floridian influences, there is also a tiny hint of ritualistic Greek black metal that you'd associate more with Thou Art Lord or Rotting Christ, only a lot of the fetchier melodies have been supplanted by pure sepulchral aggression. Granted, this is more often captured in some of the break riffs, where the drums drop out, and the meat of the thing is far more conservative to its inspirations, but there are moments of departure, especially in the 2nd track, that bring this native spirit to the fore. Bernardo's blasting and double bass have a mechanical nature to them which seems better suited to a pure brutal death experience, not that it doesn't work within the context of this material, but it also doesn't leave much up to the imagination.

In all, while I didn't really enjoy the two tracks enough to spin them more than a handful of times, there were some decent ideas here which were clearly the foundation of great potential. As mentioned, the production is really good, better than what you'd find on a number of albums by its constituents. I do wish the drums were a little less clinical, and more atmospheric in volume, but he was more or less serving as a studio player and I'm not sure how much attention he was able to give the project. Also, the majority of the riffs are just not as compelling as the intro to the first tune, or the choppier atmospheric breaks nestled into the trenches of either of them, and one wishes they had fleshed that out more to make this stand out against a wider variety of old school death metal acts, because this is clearly more in that subgenre than the blackness, which manifests through only a handful of riffs and themes. Still, Seventh Xul was quite competent, and Qliphothic Rites of Death has its moments. With more space allotted for their ideas to gestate, they could very well have climbed 'the ranks' and become more radar-worthy across the underground.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Provenance - 25th Hour; Bleeding (2001)

I can only conjecture that The Provenance's lack of a breakthrough was due to a glut of Gothic metal acts being released during the crack of the new millennium, and that their material was simply too heady and dynamic for those simply seeking out lascivious fae metal thrills to accompany their guyliner, fishnet stockings and caramel lattes. An amalgamation of a heavier Anneke-led The Gathering, progressive rock and even folk elements, there was no narrow path of sound for the Swedes. Song structures were rather complex by this niche's standards, wandering without meandering over a goodly number of riffing patterns that covered a broader spectrum of emotion and heaviness, but it's also this arguable lack of specificity and focus that placed them in a border-zone between numerous subgenres, neatly defying categorization and thus the audiences of infinitely lamer bands abusing the 'beauty & beast' vocal juxtaposition.

As mentioned, Emma Hellström had a soothing, rich pitch reminiscent of Anneke van Giersbergen, but she also could hit an eerier, I.C.S. Vortex keening during the less comfortable moments. Yet she was not alone here, joined by a panoply of grunts, growls and Goth-speak by guitarist/vocalist Tobias Martinsson, to the point that they're fairly even distributed with their own lines, and also capable of some rather elegant harmonies as in "Frequencynic". The guitars ranged from lamentations of crisp Goth/doom to more biting patterns that recalled mid-paced progressive thrash, offset by some dingier, cleaner tones. Though 25th Hour; Bleeding is stylistically consistent, there was quite enough going on here that each composition eschewed predictability to create a jagged landscape of ideas that would both calm the listener and jerk him about within a small cluster of measures. The drums set a grooving pace with lots of great little fills and an almost jazzy angel of approach in spots, while the bass bounced back and forth between a smooth low end and its own cavorting grooves that lend the album an impression of murky, druggy 70s psychedelia.

Add to this the judicious use of flute, in a tasteful, Tull-like fashion, and a bevy of synthesizers, pianos and organ tones that enhance the rhythm guitars rather than compete with them for your attentions, and you had quite an engaging listen. In fact, I was quite sure the first time I spun 25th Hour; Bleeding that I was listening to the 'next big thing'. The lyrics were mildly more poetic and poignant than the droopy-eyed standards of the niche, and the music, while maintaining a slightly serrated edge, had this refreshing, hopeful quality to its aggression which stood out. Paired up with some really catchy vocal and guitar hooks, this is just one of those debut records that deserved more. The cover image was shite with its silhouette, and Scarlet Records was unable to effectively market a number of its more compelling bands, but otherwise this was a very good disc which I'd recommend to those seeking off-kilter Scandinavian mash-ups, somewhere between Theater of Tragedy and The Sins of Thy Beloved and the eclectics of Solefald and Ulver.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (suppressed by all mankind)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Blizaro - Cornucopia della morte (2016)

Cornucopia della morte is a record which has been waiting in the wings a few years, largely because of John Gallo's involvement in other projects like Elfspell and John Gallow. But we're all the richer for it finally seeing the light of day, because it's at the very least a bulking up of the quality Blizaro backlog, and ultimately yet another rewarding journey through a miasma of nostalgia which involves classic doom metal, progressive rock leanings, and even cinematic qualities reminiscent of acts like Goblin and Paul Chain. If your tastes collide with that bevy of genuinely creepy Italo horror films throughout the 60s-80s, or even towards an ultraviolet Black Sabbath filtered through a Hammer Horror lens, then I can't really think of another musical endeavor as worthy of your time as this one has turned out...

I should point out that I came away from Cornucopia with the notion that it's divided into two distinct semi-halves, the first comprised of the four parts of the "Nemesis" sequence, the other the five tracks which follow it. Certainly there is aesthetic feedback from one side to the other, but I almost felt as if it was an anthology of two EPs. That's not a big deal at all, and can probably just be attributed to the layout of the album, but it seems to transcend from a morose, gloomy doom metal atmosphere with some of Gallo's biggest pure 70s doom licks yet to something a little more free-form and jammy, as in the aptly titled "Giallo". There are still some heavy loads on the latter half, like "Frozen Awakening" which is about as pure as you're going to get, but just a slightly more whimsical willingness to tread off the beaten path, an idea which dominated a lot of their amazing Strange Doorways compilation which collected a whole of demo recordings into quite an experience. But I don't want to confuse the reader: the quality itself is pretty consistent throughout. If you're smoking what Blizaro is smoking as the curtains part for the mystical Egyptian intro to "Daughter of the Scarab", then you'll still be on board as that melodic jamming cards out closure to "Stygian Gate". If not, well...then it's going to be hard to roll when you're such a square.

Murky, leaden doom coming from the basement beneath your feet. It's no stranger to convention, but offers just enough structure and variation that it feels quite far away from the laziness of much of the stoner sect who barks up this very same tree, and really not terribly like anything else I own. Gallo is a riffing machine, incorporating loads of NWOBHM and even a handful of primal USPM traits into the hooks, and the thick, swarthy bass-lines and raw drums keep the head bobbing while the pupils dilate as you feel yourself launched into cult ritual happening somewhere south of Woodstock. And by south I meant under. the. fucking. ground. His vocals are like that haunted cousin of 70s Ozzy who is much less drunk off his own exhaust. Lead guitars will string you along, almost every song on the record continues to adapt and there's almost no way to accurately predict exactly what will happen, much like seeing an Italian horror flick for the first time. Sure, you know there's going to be some killer with a memorable quirk to his slashing behavior, but it's the color and the performances and the soundtrack which stands out to memory long after the plot secedes. Check, check, aaaand... checkmate.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Khanus - Rites of Fire EP (2016)

I believe one of the words I saw used to describe Finland's Khanus was 'shamanistic', and that is one I would certainly agree with after being hooked into its quirky, ritualistic spin on the death and black metal niches. The four tunes here, while not completely original, nonetheless create an organic, compelling atmosphere which hinges largely upon the earthy sway and dissonance of the rhythm guitars, but also on the frontman's unusual delivery, which is simply not commonplace among bands going for the deeper guttural cavern style, or the witching black rasp out in the winter woods. This is far more similar to Jiří Valter, 'Big Boss' of Czechs Root, especially when it hits that brooding, corpulent, lower end which feels like an incantation to summon up something very nasty indeed...

Or a swaggering, drunk cultist who just stumbled out of a drinking hole with his hood down, realizing that he's still got to pay the electric bill the next day. But, damn, when they were dancing around that bonfire, the guitars churning out that rich, antiquated evil in "Orgone", his barks and shouts grating beneath them, they were damned near to touching the infernal and singing their fingers off! Khanus is served entirely by how its riffing structures don't exactly queue up with any one sub-genre, but run the gamut of black, death, thrash, and perhaps even a little doom metal. Like Root, we can only shoehorn them into one category based upon the organizational preferences of our own minds, but they scratch a number of itches, with riffs that aren't extremely memorable in the long term, yet are captivating enough while one is in the midst of their roiling, jarring presence, especially when this singer is delivering those sustained, atmospheric, nihilistic growls. The drums here are groovy, shuffling and semi-tribal but also well fit to the band's tempo shifting; the bass lines wander just enough out of the subtext to matter, and really round out the ritual.

Additional flourishes like the haunting backing choirs are also mighty effective, and as I hinted before the riffs themselves offer enough variation that I felt they were constantly exploring and carving new angles to this sound, creating a richer perspective that instantly helps the band stand out among a wasteland of garden variety peers. You can tell that that raw, Finnish black metal lineage has rubbed off on Khanus, but they take it all to a new space, tracing their DNA not from Horna or Behexen or their own Norse precursors, but from a lot of less obvious bands that always thrived on the borders where various extremities met...Root, Acheron, Master's Hammer, groups such as these came to mind throughout Rites of Fire, but visually I kept conjuring up images of primitive pagans slinging fire and traipsing through a woodland wearing animal skulls. I suppose that means that this is a pretty goddamn good introduction, so I'll be definitely be anticipating a full-length, and hoping they ramp up the variation and oddness that they very clearly can.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (rise and fill the lands)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Voivod - Post Society EP (2016)

I hadn't needed any further reminders that Voivod was one of the greatest bands of all time, but they were going to give me one anyway, 35 years into a career that is virtually spotless. The Post Society EP provides more evidence that in some scant cases, when the passion is there, and the willingness, that one can survive even the most traumatic of losses and come out swinging from the stars. That's not to say that post-Piggy Voivod is ever going to rival the band's flawless 1987-1989 evolutionary triptych, but the tunes here are very likely the best time I've had with the band since that era, even though almost every other studio effort they've released since then has been a great source of enjoyment (barring Negatron).

To be clear, Post Society is not an entirely 'fresh' or innovative landmark in their legacy, it's more or less a love letter to the Dimension Hatröss sound, elevated in its own way by Chewy's penchant for elegant, precision licks that honor his predecessor with almost every note selection. At its fastest and most frenzied, as in the title track or "We Are Connected", it might seem a fraction more technical than some of their 80s material, but clearly there are several dissonant patterns here that definitely 'check the boxes' and seem to have an almost direct lineage to that warped, groovy, alien history. But it's also cleaner cut, much like Target Earth, with a punchy but smooth mix to the guitars that seems nonthreatening but still very much otherworldly...I often struggle to believe that these gentlemen were musically developed on my own planet, and I can think of no greater compliment. Post Society might be an attractive package, but even if it can't hope to be as abrasive, raw or furious as Killing Technology, it still reflects that you've just stepped into that same unique space in the metalsphere.

I can sing praises to Mongrain's performance all day long, but the MVP here might have to go to new bassist Rocky, aka Dominique Laroche, who's distorted grooves and tone also recall his own forebear (Blacky) with pride. Having that supremely entertaining post-punk undercurrent to the music really fattens up its efficacy, drawing out the band's atavism for their its earlier years, and boundless with its extraterrestrial energies. Snake's vocals also sound just as effective as ever, not in the raw, repulsive sense of the first two albums, but he's still got the melody and punkiness of their 90s era, and the guy has always been a little underrated at how well he makes use of a fairly limited range. Away is as tight as you might expect behind his kit, but where the guy really earns his merit badge here is in how he's created the greatest, most evocative artwork they've used since Dimension Hatröss and the older albums. It might seem simple with its black and silver finish, but I could stare at that image all day, wowed and terrified in equal measures, and the newish logo looks great with it.

If I'm docking Post Society a few points for anything at all, it's that a few seconds worth of licks are dangerously close to others they've used in the past, but also because the band's cover of Hawkwind's "Silver Machine", which rounds out the EP, just cannot hope to live up to the band's own material. It's a fitting piece for Voivod, and the timing couldn't be better with the passing of one of its creators, who also happened to be God. But even though I love the original, it's simply too to 'basic' to sit behind the 25 minutes of varied, imaginative songwriting that precedes it. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a stain on the disc, since it's a solid cover, but they'd have had to take a lot more liberties with how they presented it to keep it consistent with the rest. Still, I think a lot of folks will find it adequate and respectable, certainly suited to the Canadians' lyrical themes and sci-fi aural aesthetics, and it's easily forgiven considering just how goddamn great everything else turned out.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]
(stay in your lane)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Entombed A.D. - Dead Dawn (2016)

It doesn't seem like a lot of folks have warmed up to this post Entombed mutation, perhaps because of the hard feelings about the dissolution of the original, or perhaps because there is just a level of general exhaustion now for the death & roll path they've continued to travel since arguably Clandestine. Either way, they remain one of my favorite bands to this day, with only one rough patch that I'd rather forget (that dreadful 1997-98 period), and Dead Dawn is yet another muddy jewel in their crown of filth and crud. Because at the end of the day, these guys, whether they're 'all original' or not, they are able to compose simple and effective songs which get the blood flowing, that I feel like spinning over and over. This album hasn't hit me quite as hard as its predecessor Back to the Front, my appreciation for which has only grown over time, but it's a damn sight within firing distance.

As with its predecessor, you've definitely got a heaping helping of Wolverine Blues meets Serpent Saints - The Ten Amendments, the Swedes' patented rock & roll injection alternating and altercating with small fits of Morning Star thrash and groove metal, and even scarcer reflections of the pure death metal of their adolescence (which, I'm in agreement, is STILL their best work). Mid-paced bruisers are balanced out with slower, creeping grooves that cultivate a dank, bluesy aesthetic, but where the band really strikes me is how they integrate these fairly basic riffing progressions with leads and restrained atmospheric melodies that make all the difference in the delivery. "Silent Assassin" manages to morph what is essentially a minimal, barbaric momentum into something altogether cooler with its tremolo-picked chorus, while "The Winner Has Lost" is a meaty speed/thrash tune with several of those mildly atmospheric licks to escalate it. "Hubris Fall" is a slothful, impressive epic. The grooves throughout the record seem swarthy, dour and eternally pessimistic, given an assist by the dense lower end spectrum of the production, and by Olle Dahlstedt's fills.

Leading the troops through this slum of emotional fallout, L-G Petrov's intonations here carry just as much of that nihilistic encumbrance as ever, a grainy and grumbling performance which seems like so much soil that has gathered in a back alley, buried in garbage and inevitably, rage. Dead Dawn is at times pretty peppy in structure, but it's also very, very fucking bleak, moreso than the last half a dozen caverncore discs I've received, at the very least. But this is the bleak that would be manifest through drunkenness or depression, anger and confinement, being sick of being in one's skin, and not some flight of the fantastic or cosmic summoning of an unnameable horror. This is stuff that makes you want to drive a truck into something important, while choking back as much whiskey as possible, seeing nothing but entropy as far as you look. Bone-rattling. Any 12-step program would flee in terror from this case. And to that extent, it rocks its balls off, and as long as they keep putting out material like this, I will give two fucks about any 'legitimacy' of this new brand of Entombed, because when the style is treated with this much respect, and just the right fraction of innovation and nuance, as it is throughout Dead Dawn, then it is quite not-dead.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Blacksoul Seraphim - The Persecution Hymns EP (2016)

Blacksoul Seraphim's material provides a callback to a niche of Gothic doom metal which is not only increasingly obscure in general, but even more rare from the New England region. The duo of Joshua Carrig and Rick Lowell has been chipping away at this stone effigy for the past four years, already producing two quality full-length efforts, and The Persecution Hymns seems to continue that streak with minor progressions which capitulate to their prior aesthetics, yet round out the sound to an even more professional and mature level. Though this EP is a mere two songs clocking in at under 20 minutes, there is quite a variety of content within, and each of the tracks creates a narrative contrast which flows with that of the titular characters it portrays.

"Sunsworn Knight" is the opener, a somber and emotional piece of beautiful doom which shifts through a palette of tempos, rather than settle on nearly nine minutes of repetition and redundancy. Brighter chords selections, and the restrained use of pianos accent Carrig's vocal performance, which hits a nice angry stride at the climax of the verses, a potent spin on the stylings of Yearning's late Juhani Palomäki or Moonspell's Fernando Ribeiro. Female vocals are incorporated tastefully behind the lead vocal line, while there is a major improvement with the bass-lines, which offer something slightly different in the choice of grooves and fills that strengthen the composition. Lowell's own beats and fills are confident and consistent, a drummer who is just as comfortable blasting along as he would be grooving, never content to just play metronome, so there is always this sense that the song is about to go nova, and while that never completely manifests, there are definitely segments where some of that energy transforms into a payoff.

On the other hand, "Pureblood Demon" is a more contemplative lamentation, with a guest narrator giving the listener some background through an elegy worthy of Bal-Sagoth only a little more serious in tone. Then the deep intonations of Carrig's clean take over, eventually leading up to some of Lowell's crumbling gutturals which strike at just the right time, ascending back into a glorious apogee where the male/female duet returns like a lullaby set to cathedral doom and a faint trace of organ. Blacksoul is simply not the predictable, garden variety of Gothic doom which rests on its laurels for endless cycles of nothingness, but a vibrant and tragic take on its constituent genres. In fact, there are numerous flourishes of progressive, black and melodic death metal here, so I hesitate to even narrow it down. This pair doesn't care to restrict themselves to any one in particular, so why should the rest of us?

Granted, this is not an admixture of genres for everyone in 2016. It's not for pizza thrashers or closet Vikings who came into metal through rhythm-based video gaming. It's pretty Euro, and I think that's where you'd find the lion's share of its potential audience. But if you do find yourself reminiscing for those late 90s or early '00s recordings which populated the rosters of labels like Napalm and Holy Records, or if you enjoy Isole, mid-era Anathema or the less crushing My Dying Bride material, then this could certainly prove worth your time. It doesn't just completely settle for the dusts of nostalgia, but offers a slim ray of hope that such styles can continue to be etched away at, continue to evolve towards the future. That's not to say it's blindingly original or ambitious, but it's also very, very far from lazy. It's flexible. Fecund with possibility. The value of just these two songs rivals that which I derived from the entire debut album Alms & Avarice, which was no slouch. A great access point, and an even better launchpad for future efforts.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Artillery - Penalty by Perception (2016)

I was such a massive fan of Denmark's Artillery in their late 80s streak, leading up to the almost unparalleled By Inheritance, that it is impossible for me NOT to compare any of this 21st century reunion period to those first three seminal works. That's not to say I'm opposed to all the newer material; in fact I thought When Death Comes was an excellent comeback, despite the new vocals. But since that point, their material seems to have begun a downward spiral, which at best provides a tired doppelganger of the glory days, and at worst sounds like an entirely different band who just weren't on that same level as they once were. The last two records, while competent and well-produced, evoked a diminishing level of interest from me, and while Penalty by Perception doesn't exactly set a new low, I fear that it also doesn't offer much of a redeeming value if you're seeking either their technical power/thrash mastery, or their earlier, rough around the edges charm circa Terror Squad.

To be clear, Penalty by Perception is very much identifiable as an Artillery album. The brothers Stützer's distinct, uplifting riff style is present through the majority of the playtime. But since that has long been one of the two highlights of the band, it's also one of my disappointments. At its fastest and most frenetic, the guitar progressions here just feel like they're retreading By Inheritance or the prior post-reunion material, only with a lot less zest, and certainly less creativity. They can still sling an axe, of that there is no question, and yet the absolute over-the-top sense of melody and drive is lacking. The palm mutes are polished and chunky, especially in slower to mid-paced pieces like "Mercy of Ignorance", but the riffing level is at best a few steps below their prime, and lacks the raw and rugged appeal of a Fear of Tomorrow or Terror Squad. Tunes like "Rites of War" and "Live by the Scythe" sound like I've heard them before, only they've been paraphrased for less excitement, and at almost no point did a sequence of notes here stick out in my brain for more than a song's duration.

I'm also just not into Michael Bastholm Dahl's vocals in this band. He's a seasoned singer with a solid voice, largely mid-to-high range with a few flights north of that, but he just sounds too clean and tidy, even over these guitars here, which themselves lack some charm. What made the early albums work was their sense of aggression helmed by Fleming Ronsdorf's angry bark, and once By Inheritance arrived it was the contrast of frenetic melodic elegance with those same crude vocals. Here he just sounds like he could be singing over any other power/prog metal hybrid. That's not to say he entirely lacks an edge when he needs one, or that they don't complement him with some backing shouts and so forth to flesh out the variation ("Deity Machine"), but most of the time the performance just fell flat with me, too studied and restrained for the music to ever reach viral. Otherwise, the drums and bass are fine, the production is like a meatier modern take on the first couple albums, my disconnect really just comes down to the songwriting.

Penalty by Perception is still not a 'bad' album, per se, and they remain distinct among many of their younger, pizza thrashing peers, simply by virtue of them writing in this power/speed/thrash hybrid. I'd probably place this on the same level of its predecessor, Legions, a solid but unremarkable disc, one that I just didn't derive much enjoyment from due to the sterility compared to past brilliance.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Friday, April 8, 2016

Howls of Ebb - Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows (2016)

After the staggering madness of The Marrow Veil EP, I was almost taken aback at how deceptively straightforward this new record felt in its opening moments, as if Howls of Ebb was honing in on the more recognizably 'death metal' moments of that recording and ramping up their volume and savagery. Yet as early as the bridge of "The 6th Octopul'th Grin", it becomes obvious that this is all just an illusion, and for all the added 'structure' Cursus Impasse might project, it's just as unique beneath the surface as it twists and molds its progenitor genre into a sickening new form. Granted, those who might have foolishly written the group off due to just how bizarre the geometry of their approach might find this sophomore album a better starting point, but if you were reveling in the offbeat sounds of its predecessors, then this will reward you in spades. Spades plunging into the dank earth below as your body faces interment.

Couple of details I noticed up front: the bass performance here is quite a lot better than on either of the earlier releases, with lots of frenetic grooves and lines that hold their own against the dissonance of the guitar rhythms and the nihilistic guttural vocal. Also, the whole record just feels brighter and more welcome upon the ears, not for lack of trying to grind your mind, but simply by virtue of the production. Far more rhythms and tempos are also present across these tunes than these seven tunes, but they retain Howls' careful balance of overwhelming darkness with just a slight semblance of humor; the bridge of "Cabals of Molder" is a prime example of this, with its lurching, burlesque chugs adorned in all manner of guitar wailing and growls. Excellent music all around, and truly fucking atmospheric and unusual; but it's also self-aware enough to provide 'fun' amidst all the torture and gloom, of which there is a considerable amount. The tracks are also kept a lot shorter than the figurehead for the prior EP, but still manage high levels of internal variety and unpredictability.

No experiment really goes awry. Even the closer, "The Apocryphalic Wick", which begins as this gradual ambient ascent into a spastic nightmare, and features some excellent vocal echo rhythms near the close, feels like a crowning, deliberate achievement. The disheveled riffing is always satisfying, never too 'out there' for its own good, and to contrast this, the lead guitars (also an improvement), despite their elasticity, feel as if they're the most traditional and grounded part of the songwriting. The lyrics are beyond excellent. At the risk of annoying half my friends and having the Man Himself awaken from his grave and slap me upside the head with a tentacle, Howls of Ebb also feels more positively 'Lovecraftian' than almost any other extreme metal act to wear that banner. For the obscure mythology it invokes in its use of language, titles, characters, antiquities. For the nervousness which pervades the songwriting. It does seem like you've come across some priceless, rare tome of invocations of stories that were meant to be hidden from prying eyes, lest all of Man's sanity come undone at a touch of prose. Bury this deep in the stacks at Miskatonic when you finish listening.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (fetid foul upon sullied jowls)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Howls of Ebb - The Marrow Veil EP (2015)

If Vigils of the 3rd Eye had zEleFthaNd's neighbors nervously contemplating a call to emergency services, then The Marrow Veil EP is downright certifiable, already long slipped past the veils of sanity to a place where I'm not too sure experimental death metal has ever ventured. Truly uncouth, alien and yet sophisticated in its madness, Howls of Ebbs looks to have torn the fabric of reality, and peeped its head into some place we were not meant to travel as a species, and I can only hope the fallout is confined to the greater Bay Area of California, and spares the rest of us. Hey, it's going to sink into the sea anyway...right? Haight-Atlantis? Mission District R'lyeh?

Describing this is a task, and yet it's basically, at its core, a continued unraveling or deconstruction of death metal tropes into a swatch of cinematic and atmospheric 'scenes', few of which are quite alike but all of which are scary as hell. Ambient discord, grating guttural narratives spun alongside spectral whispers through an atonal haunted asylum. And when the dissonant death metal progressions rumble out of their cells like inmates in chains, it sounds infinitely more effective than your latest cavern core 101 act trying to lovingly proxy its 1990s precursors. Percussion is cluttered but rich, adding a lot to the chaotic undercurrent of the compositions, and the core riffs are integrated with all manner of unusual, mid-ranged patterns which accent the roiling, ugly undertow of rhythm guitars that are delivered with the perfect level of organic, grimy grain. Definitely a significant horror influence to how sounds are structured, from the eerier graveyard mood to segments that feel like clouds of insects swarming their prey, burrowing into their blood and laying eggs in the viscera (in the bowels of "Iron Laurels, Woven in Rust".)

It might seem like a random comparison to some, but the longer track here ("Standing on Bedlam, Burning in Bliss"), clocking in at over 20 minutes, almost felt like a Mr. Bungle-level jaunt into sonic augmentation across a wide variety of moods, and yet its myriad contrasts all felt flush in its scene-setting. Creepy, but not without a degree of humor in its lack of constraint. It's the real front and center-piece of the EP and not just some bloated behemoth tucked into the folds. The other tunes are considerable shorter, but they actually do it justice, and thus The Marrow Veil is as consistent as it could be, considering its circumstances as bat-shit insane. I felt like I was captive audience to some short film by an unknown avant-savant, a Luis Buñuel of death metal who is really only at the beginning of his journey. Remember experiencing Un Chien Andalou for the first time, how you were revolted but couldn't turn away? Translate that into the aural realm, and experience a brilliant murk of obscurity that is more effective than the last thirteen fright flicks you saw.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (pensively melting deep)

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Temple - Forevermourn (2016)

Greeks The Temple are part of a new wave of European acts who pay either conscious or unconscious homage to the crushing, dreary, Gothic doom foretold by bands like Candlemass and Scald over the decades past. Slower paced, mournful rhythms driven by a straight rock beat, with distinct vocals. Never devolving into a morass of riffless sludge or boredom, or dragging their songs out to the point of insidious repetition. Sabbath is certainly a reference, as they are with all bands in this tradition, but The Temple layers on a lot of humble melodies that give the Forevermourn's compositions a slightly more uplifting edge to the melancholy on exhibit, and many of them feel as if they were forged in the fires of traditional British heavy metal, like a more creeping echo of classic Maiden harmonies adapted for a funeral.

Frontman/bassist Father Alex has a clean, mid-to-upper range which falls between a higher pitched Peter Steele and the Finnish Goth metal stylings of a band like To/Die/For or Yearning. A chant, a crooning effect. Consistent above the slough of sadness created by the guitars, but never really throwing anything from left field, so his process does feel rather predictable as you sojourn across the seven cuts. This is also due largely to the fact that they very often play with the same structure and tempo, occasionally added some bombast with double bass drums, or slowing to an even more sluggish crawl in sequences that feel like more funereal doom without the gutturals. Some of these passages, like in "Death the Only Mourner" really shine, the vocals and sparse chords coming together with some real emotional impact. The bass is also really fat and juicy, compensating a little for the rhythm guitar tone, which is pretty subdued since they implement so many melodies.

On the downside, while it's by no means a deal breaker, it wouldn't kill The Temple to invest in a little more variation, even if that means bringing in other instruments for greater, somber depths. Acoustic pianos and strings would go brilliantly into and out of some of these progressions. I liked the album, but I did feel that many of the riffs were a little too similar, and a bit further guidance from legends like Sabbath or Candlemass in how to diversify the offerings would go a long way to creating a better rounded album. The level of evenness here does show that the Greeks can start off and finish a record fairly strong, and the album overall cultivates a moody, organic production which helps avoid the sterilization that often comes with over-wrought, over-polished Gothic doom metal which is too clean to crush your sunshine. Majestic doom, for sure, but just needs a few more shades of color to stand out even further from the legion lamentations already set to record.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Endarker - Among the Shadows (2016)

After the collected demos of Amenophis a short while back, I Hate Records has wrested yet another obscurity from the ether of the Swedish underground circa the 80s and 90s. This time an anthology of works by Endarker, a gnarly blackened thrash act which is likely best known as the haven of Magnus Devo Andersson, who most would best recognize as having played bass with Marduk on numerous occasions, including their recent, well-received opuses Serpent Sermon and Frontschwein. Among the Shadows is a mix of studio and rehearsal material, and as far as I know it's the complete work of the group all in one place, targeted primarily towards the collector and diehard of the particular scene, but not too shabby for the rest of us a point.

The style here is certainly a prototype of barbaric, ugly thrash metal which derives its riff structures from both the 80s titans of the field, and a lot of dirty punk thriving in some of the chords. But it's the nihilistic vocal bark which will place it on the radar of fans who enjoy such timeless recordings as Mayhem's indomitable Deathcrush. Among the Shadows is not quite so memorable, filthy or vile as that beast, but the point stands that those who care not to have the conventions of primitive darkness are likely going to get a kick out of what Devo and his mates produced here. The riffs are not exactly inventive by any standards, and the tunes are pretty damn simple, often to their detriment, but the character of the howling, effected vocals more than compensates for its prehistoric construction. The studio tracks were recorded over 20 years ago, but mastered in 2013, so this definitely sounds a lot brighter and 'put together' than I might have expected, with great guitar grooves and climactic dynamics that spare much of the material from the critical fire, if not the underworld's own.

Once I got to the latter section of the compilation, a series of raw as fuck rehearsals from the years 1986-1992, I expected that I might be instantly turned off after the crude charms of the more pro sounding stuff, but I have to say that these aren't a bust either. It's almost like an uglier rendition of Hellhammer, or War and Pain-era Voivod, with a more steel-like thrashing edge, but plenty of gruesome vocals, in no small part due to the robotic or garbled effects used to twist them. I also dug that almost all the material is unique, with the exception of "Darkness"; it's all presented as it was and not in myriad version so the same songs repeatedly, which often pollutes a lot of these old demo and rehearsal collections. I won't promise you the world here, but fans of such pedestrian, ugly thrash when it was on the precipice of the new subgenres that would supplant it might get a kick out of this if they haven't heard it. Production guffaws between the recordings aside, this is a well suited score for splitting someone's head open with a rusted axe. It will sound as fun to you as it must have to Devo and company when they put it to reel.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, April 4, 2016

Vietah - Smalisty žah (2010)

I'm as enamored of the winter landscape photo as many of the musicians who use them as album covers, but certainly the novelty of the practice is long since diminished from the 90s when it had started to become commonplace is in the fields of black and folk metal. This, coupled with the lukewarm reaction I had to the debut record, didn't exactly set expectations high for Vietah's sophomore outing, and yet I enjoyed this considerably more than Zorny maroz. Invigorated, better produced, better capable of fleshing out its more bulky song structures with solid riff choices that build anticipation for what will follow them. Coincidentally, this is a more varied record, and it's moments of instrumental beauty were quite nice touches to the raging but straightforward storm around them.

The comparison to Burzum retains a tenuous grip, but it's been supplanted by a more epic-tinged Bathory style, specifically from the Blood, Fire, Death and Hammerheart era, which is manifest through the synths and guitars when used in tandem, and the more corpulent beats used below them. Antarctis has also improved vocally, shifting from the suicidal, loud rasps of the debut to a deeper, harsh drawl which falls in comfortably between the black and death metal genres. It might not sound as unnerving, nor is it super unique, but it's mixed in with the music much better and never stands out too much for its own good. Otherwise, a lot of structural points here are similar to his earlier material...the wayward, repetitious guitar lines that are often given space to breathe where the percussion falls out, and the riffing is exceedingly simple, though he definitely rips out some more traditional mid-90s patterns that smack of the Scandinavian scene of the time (with the title track here in particular). Some early Enslaved, Immortal. But those spacious, drift-scapes of the first album still thrive on several pieces here, and come across as more poignant.

The guitar tone is bold with an underbelly of raw, especially on the slower grooves which trace their lineage back to Darkthrone and Hellhammer, but will also remind some of Satyricon's mid 00s black & roll style. The contrast of the substantial piano/keyboard interludes to the harder hitting cuts might be too jarring for some, but I had no problem with it, even though I could listen to the former by themselves in many situations without requiring the rest. Translations for the lyrics are once again included with this I Hate Records vinyl reissue, and they maintain the sturdy introspection of the debut, only this time they've got better music to accompany. Whereas I stretched out my listens of Zorny maroz over several days, not particularly inclined to marathon it repeatedly, Smalisty žah definitely had some moments that I immediately wanted to revisit. Vietah was still some distance from establishing a truly distinct or exceptional style here, but this is more than worthy of its predecessor and a clear sign of growth and maturity.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Vietah - Zorny maroz (2008)

Zorny maroz is a first time exposure for me to Belarusian one-man act Vietah, thanks to a series of slick new vinyl reissues through I Hate records of Sweden. Black metal solo outlets these days tend to run a wide gamut of particular sounds, from the most raunchy and undercooked to feats of instrumentation and craft that would leave most full line-ups bewildered, but Antarctis tends to live up to his name as a purveyor of isolation and cold majesty. This is achieved through fairly minimalist sound structures that involve raw but brazenly produced rhythm guitars, wistful synthesizer lines, bare beats and the sort of harrowing, over the top style of rasped vocal most find commonly inhabiting the sphere of suicidal and/or depressive black metal, from which torment is wrought at the expense of most other elements in the mix.

Fortunately, Vietah is clearly enough produced that this isn't so much the case, although the listener will take some warming up to Antarctis' style unless he or she is quite used to the stuff. Others might find it a hangup that the guy creates such simplistic song patterns, in which even the barest of synth melodies sheds all notion of challenge or complexity to create a spacious, lulling effect. Added to the aforementioned vocals and guitars, I was most reminded of Burzum here, in Vikernes' 'prime', the Filosofem era. One man carving his sorrows into the flesh of the universe, with no pretense towards musical proficiency beyond his limitations, and no concern for user friendliness when it comes to that bloodcurdling, native tongue, wrenching delivery. Lyrics are ponderous of spiritualism and nature, par for the course of many similar acts, translations including in the packaging, and well enough written if you're a fan of such drifting, nebulous queries into both the lighter and darker halves of being.

The first couple of tracks run on a little long, which is also a staple of this niche, but that doesn't hold true for the remainder of the material, in which Antarctis flexes the creativity a bit with a folksy, pure electric guitar instrumental, and then another pair of tunes which didn't drag on whatsoever, and were coincidentally catchier than their predecessors. I actually really dig it when he's using the cleaner, more conversational vocal, it's like sitting around the fire with some cautionary storyteller, face reflected in flames and moonlight. He also picks up the intensity there a little with more hammering double bass patterns and a heavier feel to offset the atmospherics, and superior synth work. And that is really where appreciation for Zorny maroz is going to fall: in the atmospheric mood sought out by its potential audience. Do you like your black metal to rove across misted moors, eschewing things like progression and originality for bleakness with a few rays of sunlight? Then this might be for you. I didn't feel too strongly one way or the other with this debut, but it's hardly ineffective.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]