Friday, September 30, 2016

Holosade - Hell House (1988)

Another casualty of the saturation of thrash metal throughout the later 80s, England's Holosade managed to slip past the radars of many listeners without doing anything particularly wrong. Hell House is an attractive package with its creepy cover manor that hints at a brand of horror metal that I always appreciated during those times, and even if I haven't got a whiff of a fucking clue what the band's name meant, it was actually pretty cool. The UK was hardly a hotbed for thrash like it had been for the genres that were influential to that medium, only a few stronger bands like Xentrix and Onslaught, and the once-godly Sabbat were in regular rotation for me. Yet there was always some faint hope of a further savior that might waltz in and do Megadeth, Anthrax or Slayer numbers, blowing up that scene, which never manifest, certainly not in Holosade or other unknowns like Arbitrarer and Deathwish.

Now I had hinted that this outfit hadn't made any major missteps with this debut, and I think the real issues were just its presence on a nearly invisible record label, and the fact that it comes across like an also-ran when compared to a lot of bands that used its formula to craft more exciting, memorable songs. At it's most thrashing and biting, the guitar tone reminds me a lot of a brasher alternate to what Anthrax were putting out around this time, and a similar comparison can be made to the inflection on some of the vocals, which aren't a far cry from Joey Belladonna even though the range sounds more like a punkish crossover and not so melodic and reedy. There were a few individual lyric lines and riffs which also recalled old Death Angel, and a substrate of crude speed metal which reminds me of the rougher production on some of the early Exciter albums. The vocals do have a bit of an unevenness to them, even from track to track. That's not to say they lack personality...only it's just not a sort of charisma that resonates long after the record is over, even when there are shouts to back it up and drive it home harder. At worst they feel slightly sloppy, but not unintentionally.

I do like the rhythm tone, something not a lot of bands would try getting away with today unless they were striving for the low-fi retro aesthetic, but bright and nasty all the same and wouldn't be out of place on a punk record from the same time period. Bass lines are exceedingly simple and do little else but climb around the primary riffs, and not very far, but at least you can make it out and it keeps a steady headbanging pace circa classic Priest. The drums are vibrant and fit just right against the rawness of the guitars, and there's a lot of double bass energy driving the snares and the blunt force of the songs as a whole, with fills flying off everywhere that are occasionally even a too loud and cluttered for the mix. Leads and melodies are spurious and scattered appropriately throughout the play length, but this was probably one of the record's biggest failings since none of them even border on evoking anything emotional or catchy, so they feel like an obligation more than a carefully constructed component to the songwriting, a mediocre pizza topping with just enough added savory flavor to feel as if it belongs.

Though the lyrics in cuts like "Welcome to the Hell House" and "Madame Guillotine" are solid enough to convey the band's appreciation for horror and dark history, another downside to Hell House is that it just never feels scary or evil. It's more like a mixture of enthusiastic Bay Area and New York thrash reduced to a series of unambitious riffing passages and chord progressions that hardly even come off cruel or vicious by 1988 standards, and since they lack a lot of the inherent musicality of their betters. If you just took "Alison Hell" alone off the Annihilator debut, it has more quality guitar work and faux-creepy vibes to it than this entire album. The only atmosphere provided is just through the production alone, and so it's one of those records that really only comes up when you're digging into the deep, dark corners of the niche and want something tonally genuine to that period. It's not a bad album at all if you just want to crank some raucous 80s testosterone through your speakers, and a few tunes like "Nightmare Reality" storm harder than the rest, but you were simply not short of options in those days, and you definitely aren't it kind of just wanders through its own hellish gates and disappears before you know it.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (it's not an illusion)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Siebenbürgen - Loreia (1997)

Thanks to Vampire the Masquerade, an evergrowing legion of Anne Rice fans and the propagation of the Paranormal Romance section at your local brick & mortar booksellers, the 90s were a fertile era for the wampyric subcultures. Because of the shared precepts, there was little doubt this would also carry over to the metal arena due to the obvious parallels you'd find among the Goths and heshers who fraternized and possibly even bumped their uglies behind seedy Barnes & Nobles franchises and on their parents' sofas during reruns of The Craft. Cradle of Filth was the most obvious musical outfit to cultivate the imagery, sexual fetishes and lyrical aesthetics pertaining to this theme, but among the Norse scene there were also bands as ranged as Darkthrone and Ancient who also tried to put their own stamp on the vampire myths, with mixed commitment and even more mixed results.

Siebenbürgen, named for the German of Transylvania itself, was another Scandinavian group whose earlier buzz seemed to revolve specifically around this niche, and like their far more popular British counterparts, a weaving of Gothic rock elements and melodic black metal that offer some measured of 'refinement' over that genre's crude roots. Reviled by some purists, but approachable for those who might have arrived at black metal directly through Cradle or the Romantic elegance that stood in stark opposition to the barbaric hordes who populated its underground. Granted, these Swedes skewed much further towards the 'black' than the Gothic in how they structured the material for their Napalm Records debut. Melodic tremolo picked guitar lines dominate Loreia, both against the slower rock beats and the moderately blasted, thundering drums, and these are rarely interrupted save for the more majestic chord patterns that are occasionally left to stand on their own. The band wasn't as savage as a Marduk, or as meticulous as an Emperor, but had more in common with middle run bands like Finland's Catamenia whose riffing patterns were quite similar via the reliance on overt melodic composition rather than intensity or, I dare say it, evil.

In fact, the only areas in which this debut might distinguish itself from the throngs of its corpse-painted peers is in the use of Lovisa Hallstedt's wailing, over the top vocals and violin sequences, neither of which were completely unique within this genre, but are mixed in so professionally well for this album that it seemed to stand head and...fangs...over a lot of the competition. As cheesy as Loreia can often feel with its constant attempts at emotionally wrenching the listener through its simple, predictable guitar lines, there's also something charming and appreciable about just how consistently it was assembled, without any particular region of the 51 minute play length feeling weaker than any other, even though there's an undercurrent of sameness running through it that betrays any notion of a pleasant, pleasurable surprise. There is no sudden, shadowy figure staring at you from your windowsill at night, entrancing you with its eyes before succumbing you to its horrible, you're pretty much in Vampire Land from the very start, a fantasyscape of ivy strung Gothic castles, and lavish glades through which pale nymphs dance and bathe in the moonlight.

The mix is really well balanced, with the writhing, catchy tendrils of rhythm guitar given space to breathe over the tight-woven beatsand fat but obvious bass-lines. Marcus Ehlin's black metal rasp was hardly exemplary, assuming the position almost lethargically over the verse measures, but it does strike the right nerve once its being contrasted against Lovisa's shrill, almost ethereal presence, and by no means a bad performance on its own. The violin is sparse but sounds great where it appears, to the point that I wish they had included more of it, but where a lot of bands would dowse this sort of sound in loads of organs or other keyboard pads, Siebenbürgen keep it clean and powerful so you can ride the crisp propulsion of each rhythm like a bat carried along the prevailing wind pattern. I'd have liked to hear more varied songwriting, but I feel like a lot of bands of this ilk were trying to play it safe enough that they could establish themselves firmly within the genre's listener base and then execute their most insidious designs later on.

Whether or not this band ever accomplishes such an evolution is up for debate, but if you've got a soft spot (of neck flesh) for this mid-90s era of friendlier black metal, Loreia is an album which still holds a degree of nostalgic value, just not a lot of memorable songs. I myself would greatly prefer a record that can channel some of the dread, mystery and pathos of this theme which have always been my primary attractions to it, and Siebenbürgen came up a little short there. You won't shiver from any chill, in fact you'll feel almost like your sitting by a hearth with some red wine and a Gothic playmate while any storm or pitchfork-waving mob rages at a safe distance, appreciating but probably not understanding the lyrics; but that doesn't mean that this band eschewed an obvious effort to get this arranged and recorded, and so it remains a minor curiosity to sate fishnet-garbed connoisseurs of Laurel K. Hamilton, Sheridan le Fanu, and a long-locked Brad Pitt.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, September 26, 2016

Dracula - Black Wings Over Translyvania 7" (2014)

I don't think it's any big secret that Australians Dracula are a group openly paying tribute to the earlier works of King Diamond and Mercyful Fate, so let's get kick the elephant out of the room right up front: Dracula sounds a lot like King Diamond and Mercyful Fate. Foremost, the vocalist uses the same falsetto style as the man himself, although you might pick up on marginal differences due to the Count's underlying accent and natural timbre. There's also the intentional implementation of dingy, throwback production values that strap the two tracks here into an 80s time machine, for better or worse. They're not just about aping the actual musical style, but relying heavily on their audience to share in the nostalgia. Do you remember the first time you heard Fatal Portrait? Melissa? Don't Break the Oath? Where you were? What you were doing? Who you were with? What shoddy cassette deck or record player you were using? I'm not at all trying to exclude younger fans who first encountered the Danish gods on CD or in digital format, but Black Wings Over Transylvania is certainly a 7" which seeks to dredge up the flaws, imperfections and by extension the personality of those old recordings and the environment in which they were initially experienced.

Tinny, dramatic rhythm guitar hooks draw a mix of comparisons to Denner, Shermann and LaRocque, at times swerving a little more closely to the playing of one or the other sides of the KD legacy but ultimately finding a happy medium, with both the meanness of Fate and the gloss and glamer of the solo band. Fed from the same trick or treat basket of NWOBHM, speed and proto power metal as their influences. Leads are even airier, tinny and piercing, and they use a lot of briefer flights of melody to glitz up the verses in the title track. Bass lines here are a bit primitive and tend largely towards just pumping along with a few notes misplaced from the rhythm patterns, par for the course of their times, but not terribly significant. The drums are solid in the first track but felt a bit more cluttered in "The Baroness", largely because that has a looser structure through part of its run where the guitars are drawing atmosphere unto themselves. Count Hawlok's falsetto doesn't deviate much, it's tonally appropriate to the brightness of the guitars below it, but he doesn't intersperse a lot of lower-range, grimy character here like Diamond does on some of his classic recordings, nor does he shriek out much by the way of the memorable lines that built a 35+ year career for their forebear.

As drifting back ground music, Black Wings Over Transylvania is a passable paean to the masters which doesn't really suffer from any delusions of purpose, but where so many such loving Xeroxes of classic records fail is that they don't write music that can really stand on its own beyond just that niche crowd which is looking to catch up with its childhood through a source other than the one that guessed it, actually there during that childhood. Kingdom Come might have borrowed the aesthetics of Led Zeppelin to an unhealthy extent, but at least for a few years there they were writing absolutely fantastic songs in that style. Primal Fear has more Priest in its DNA than some might wish to admit, but they put such power into it that it occasionally felt like you were hearing the original at a new, contemporary level. Put quite bluntly, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to listen to these two songs when you've got a copy of anything Kim Peter Bendix released in the 80s on hand, because even the least impressive songs of that hot streak eviscerate anything in these two. That's not to say that I think Dracula are bad, or that the material has any major issue beyond its obvious derivative nature, but when you've already got groups like In Solitude, Portrait, Attic and Trial which managed to start with such a strong KD/Fate influence and then spin off into fresher strains, a project like this faces a steep uphill battle, one it hasn't yet even begun to scale.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Haunted Garage - Possession Park (1991)

Possession Park is a record I remember more for the place in which I didn't initially purchase it than for any of its musical ingredients, a small shop in a neighboring town which only hung about for a few years but had a wonderful owner who maintained a small specialty metal sections. Largely cassettes, since CDs hadn't fully exploded by that point in my neck of the woods, they were all over the racks, but for whatever idiotic reason I stuck up my nose at them, defiant of their inevitability in replacing the medium I had already blown so much of my paper route money and allowance on. But there was the Haunted Garage full-length debut, possibly one of the few tapes I didn't actually liberate from those shelves, constantly staring at me week in, week out. This was a time in which I had honestly started to lose some faith in Metal Blade, not only for the swing of metal trends at large but because they had begun to populate their roster with utter mediocrity like Skrew and Junk Monkeys and simply couldn't be relied upon as often as Slagel and company had been throughout the 80s.

Listening back on this lost and forgotten record now, I feel like my decision was the right one, but not because Possession Park is an utter shitshow. This was essentially a crossover thrashing punk vehicle which was helmed by Dukey Flyswatter (aka Michael Sonye), an actor for some low budget horror and exploitation flicks like Nazi Surf Punks Must Die whose own infamy has long outlived this musical project. The cover promises EXPLICIT LYRICS and some Satanic Amusement Park fun, possibly with zombies and clowns and all manner of colorful 80s horror kitsch, and staring at the artwork kind of arouses nostalgia for Halloween parties with stuff like green punch, bobbing for apples, ghost decorations made out of bunched up tissues and really bad Dracula costumes. So at the very best I figured I'd be in for a metallic "Monster Mash" with some more controversial fare, and yet it doesn't really deliver on any of the promises that its outward aesthetics might hint at. The lyrics do delve into campy horror flicks and possesses a little inappropriate edge to the lyrics, but it's hardly like they're just uttering 'fuck' and 'shit' in endless succession throughout every single track, at least not where I can make out the lyrics. It's actually a little more of a timid experience than you think you're getting into, but not one crafted without a modicum of competence.

Musically this is a mash-up of party punk rock and the sort of harder crossover that West Coast bands like Cryptic Slaughter and Suicidal Tendencies popularized. A closer comparison could be drawn to the GWAR debut Hell-O, before they adopted a more thrashing edge to most of their material on the sophomore. Airy, distorted riffs involving just a few chords here or there, no more than you're like to hear on your average Offspring joint, but brought down to street level by the plunking bass lines and the urban edge to what patterns those chords are fashioning. There are a lot of lead guitars which were very similar to Rocky George's approach, bluesy and wailing and elevating the songwriting from the graffiti-smeared ghettos into a more fanciful 'metal' territory, but rarely memorable and in some cases just plain excessive and unnecessary to the detriment of the tracks in which they were placed. As a general rule with this record, the more filthy, shorter and 'punk' the tunes get, the more respectable they seem, with stuff like "She-Freak" even coming across like a bastard stepchild of the Misfits and antique Voivod. But even though there is some coherence to the style throughout, there is a sense here that Haunted Garage wasn't 100% sure what they really wanted to accomplish, a flaw that is forgivable on a debut album but doesn't exactly endear it to me either.

Bands like this often lived or died on the distinction of their front men, but while Mike Muir and Glen Danzig and even Excel's Dan Clemets put their own individual stamps on their bands that happened to be supported by great music, Dukey Flyswatter often gets lost in it. Personally I find that he sounds like a raucous blend of GWAR's Oderus Urungus and Blaine Cook of The Accüsed, with a lot of Rob Zombie's splattered rock & roll waaahs and yeaahhhs thrown in there, but the lines he spits out just feel sloppy and goofy and not to the music's benefit. Probably more entertaining in a live setting where he's got other antics to sate the crowd, but on the disc here it just never feels nasty or catchy enough to care, especially when the material he's shouting over is just paint-by-numbers boring rock with a slightly punk frill to it. Tunes like "Torture Dungeon" are all right because of the mean turns taken by the guitars, and his tone is effective, but even then there's just nothing special on Possession Park that will keep you engaged beyond just a handful of spins through some of the better numbers, and the rest are vaguely tolerable for just a single play.

The production does tend to hold this together. Drums are lively and tight enough to flirt with both the standard rock momentum and hints at a faster, hardcore lethality, while the bass lines are fat enough to support themselves even if they're just following the guitar. Leads are always apparent and take charge, but the gain on the rhythm guitar can feel a little too grainy next to the vocals and rhythm section. Still, it's often bright enough to forgive this, and the album sounds more professional than I would have expected, and probably more than it even needs to be, since fans of this niche often value the smattered, violent and lower fidelity mixes which enhance the vitriol and aggression of the bands. If you like how Scumdogs of the Universe or America Must Be Destroyed sound, though, then you're not going to have much of a problem here, and when the band stretches itself a little with acoustic guitars or weirdo guitar sci-fi effects ("Little Green Men"), it's handled pretty well.

Haunted Garage trends a little weakly for me, and doesn't manage to attain the levels of fun and engagement that many of its peers achieved years before it arrived. It also commits the crime of naming a subpar song "Welcome to Hell" when there's already a perfect song called "Welcome to Hell".'s not completely awful, and the band themselves must have felt some spark of nostalgia since they've recently reformed. If you're a huge splatter rock/crossover fan or you really enjoy all those GWAR-related gimmick bands like Green Jelly and the X-Cops, then this is a curiosity you might wish to at least sample, but Possession Park is not some absolute failure that I can entirely write off without acknowledging some of the corny care that was obviously put into it. But man, I miss that little record shop. I'd have gladly blown the $7.99 on this tape if it could have helped keep the place in business.

Verdict: Fail [4.75/10] (my horns grow, they swell)