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]