Monday, January 30, 2017

Bullcreek - Osschaert (2017)

Osschaert is a rather simpler sort of death metal record that you won't hear very often these days, being that it doesn't conform too strictly to the dominant trends of the genre nor does it attempt to blow you over with any level of impressive technicality. This is primitive, choppy death loaded with basic hooks that keep you engaged without offering much nuance. I think a lot of listeners will draw some parallels to Amon Amarth, in how some of the riffs convey just the proper balance of glory and force, but I was feeling a real Asphyx or Hail of Bullets vibe for the most part, only with a vocalist more guttural and less distinct than Martin van Drunen. I also felt a few nods to other low-tech death metal bands of the past like Crack Up, Six Feet Under or Hypocrisy, but even more massive sounding.

This is in no small part due to the crushing rhythm guitar tone here, the closest approximation to their Dutch peers that I mentioned earlier, which grants even the most basic chord structure or voluptuous chugging a level of potency and attention-wrestling. They like to thread these meaty riffs with a lot of solos, which sound rather tiny by comparison but help fill another level of atmosphere, whether they spurt out some bluesier bits or structured harmonies wailing off into the night. The riffs can vary from more straight-up flows of melodic chords to slightly more charging, involved palm mute patterns and this creates a nice variation and contrast across the album that kept me absorbed, especially when they also toss in some melancholic, cleaner guitars or storming grooves. Even though the entirety of this debut remains within the bands stylistic portfolio, I feel like they give you enough fulfillment and deviation from predictability that you won't quite guess everything that follows, and so it just paints the record with a fresh coat of excitement, rather than the dull, dry plodding of a Jungle Rot.

Drumming and the low end in general is really tight here, but apart from affecting the mood of the record it's not all that impressive nor does it really stand out from the production of those guitars. As I mentioned, the vocals weren't super unique sounding, but they do their job if you just want no-frills growling which thrives on a lot of sustained lines which hover over the warlike battery and the fat of the rhythm tracks. Songs get fairly catchy but not to the point that I was thinking much about them after a few spins of the whole thing, and there's just a seasoned restraint about Osschaert which feels like they could fly further off the handle if the band wanted to, but they keep it reined in, and I was not all that surprised to find that the lineup was partially from the cult classic Dutch death metal act Burial, whose Relinquished Souls was a record I used to listen to from time to time. Bullcreek is not quite at the level of a Hail of Bullets, my favorite act from this scene performing death metal at this pacing and level of intricacy, but this is a solid enough start.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, January 27, 2017

Kreator - Gods of Violence (2017)

Gods of Violence reminds me a whole lot of Sodom's latest record in how it tries pretty effectively to be everything for nearly every generation or tier of the band's audience, and it does so with a close approximation of success. Granted, if you're pining for a tip of the hat to Endorama, Outcast, Renewal or Cause for Conflict then you might be largely left out in the cold, but that would at best comprise only a literal handful of listeners on this entire planet, and Kreator would be wise to do so if they want to pump up their base. They also don't delve back into the primacy of their demos or debut. However, if you're interested in hearing an amalgam of their later 80s, involved riffing patterns with the melodic overtures of records like Phantom Antichrist and Violent Revolution, all wrapped up in the accessible thrashing echo chamber of an Enemy of God, then this should fit rather snugly to your interests. Hell, even the TITLE here is drawn from some of those...

Yes, there are a handful of riff progressions here which certainly reflect back upon records like Terrible Certainty, Extreme Aggression and Coma of Souls, but they're all trussed up in an elegant penchant for melody which alleviates some of the sinister evocations of Mille's raving, barking vocals, giving a more uplifting, anthemic feel to even the harshes thrashing. This is actually most prominent in the architecture of the leads, which are generally pretty feel-good to the point that even some of the rhythm guitars backing them shift to a more accessible direction than the verse riffing. There's no question a level of nerdy progressive metal has infiltrated the band's sense for extremity, much like it did on Phantom Antichrist, but one could make a strong case that the band has reached 'peak proficiency' here, since the sheer number of notes and leads flitting around the 11 tracks and 52 minutes seems to exceed anything that has come before it. Bound up in the elegant, slick production values which make it effortless to experience every individual breath or note, Gods of Violence might not live up to its title in terms of the expected brutality, but it's one frenetic record with plenty to take in across a good number of listens.

Personal favorites here included "Army of Storms" and "Lion With Eagle Wings", just for striking that perfect balance of aggression and melody, and in the latter case even providing me with something that felt fresh and new in the Kreator lexicon. And Gods does that quite a lot...for every callback riff there's another here which simply has never existed before in their catalog, and while it's not going to prove very welcome for folks who feel like the band died off or sold out after Pleasure to Kill, I'm not ready to give up on the notion that these veterans have something left to give us as they continue to forge on through another decade. For a band over 30 years into its existence, this material doesn't entirely rest entirely on its laurels, lazily subsisting on nostalgia alone. Rather, it's inspired. Mille still sounds great, and the clarity with which his vocals can adhere to the more melodic guitars behind them is a real stunner. Drumming is efficient, and the bass is fine, but really this is ALL about those intricate, harried guitar lines, and how you feel about that will make or break your experience. So far, the songs don't rank among the most memorable in their canon, and no amount of busyness or proficiency can really make up for that, but Gods of Violence is enjoyable from fore to aft while I wait for whatever they summon up next.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (these battles can be won)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Warpath - Bullets for a Desert Session (2017)

Several years ago I did a sweeping review project covering all the German thrash I could find, partly to track it across the decades as one of my favorite scenes in the subgenre's history. Warpath is a band I was not particularly kind towards, an average at best analog to the 90s wave of American groove metal pundits who contributed greatly to the depreciation of the style, but which managed not to succumb entirely to the lure of nu-metal. They still left on a sour note, even by their standards, with 1996's Kill Your Enemy, but when I saw that they had reformed after 20 years of inactivity and gotten a new deal through Massacre, with several new members, I was curious whether they would be barking up the same tree, or perhaps benefit from all that added experience and listening that the decades might bring to their core style, and while I can't say that they've improved a great deal from their initial run, Bullets for a Desert Session is without question a near equal to their 'better' works.

That's not saying much. Sure. This is still the meaty, straightforward thrash metal you might have remembered them for in the 90s, but perhaps the gulf of time makes it a little more tolerable, or that they've just written material which is slightly more appealing to the ear. When I hear the gruff vocals and creatively deficient riff-set here, I'm reminded a lot of those years when Sacred Reich dropped the ball on their later albums, or perhaps a little Machine Head or Exhorder (bands I'm not terribly fond of). Nuance and variation takes a backseat to chugging and muscle, with a limited array of chords to balance it out, so the only elevation real here comes from a chorus like "I Don't Care", where the guitars slide up a little higher from the palm mutes to provide an almost punk flavor to contrast against the mad dog vocals. If you're just out for a stroll through the mosh pit and jonesing for records like the legendary Speak English or Die from S.O.D., then you're probably the target for a record like this, only it's even slower and more simple in some aspects than you might even expect for baseline testosterone thrash from those Golden Ages.

The mix here is really dense and potent, that I have no issue with. The bass tone is nice and fat, and vocalist Dirk Weiss definitely sounds like he can put back a few pints, with a grating, angry sustain, but beyond production values there was just too little to appeal to me. The formulas employed in the songwriting seem a little too safe, bouncy and dated, with even the gang shouts forecast from a mile away. Within those parameters, though, Warpath still has an ability to come off as slightly catchy and charismatic for such crude, pummeling music. But it's just too easy to pinpoint where a band like this couldn't break through where countrymen like Kreator, Tankard and Destruction excelled...the level of musicianship here is simply child's play by comparison, a couple of chords that don't sound like they took much effort in creating. And, look, that's probably the modus operandi here. These guys wanted to put together some bulldozer metal and bang some heads with a crowd while pitching back some's just unfortunate that so many others do it so much better. Bullets for a Desert Session is a textbook 'loyal to a fault' comeback album. If you were into their older stuff, then it is probably not a terrible listen, but not only has thrash moved on from this dingy period, it was already significantly better even 7-8 years before the band originally dropped their debut.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Monday, January 23, 2017

Saqra's Cult - Forgotten Rites (2017)

I was interested in Saqra's Cult for two reasons. Firstly, both of its cultists were also present in a blackened thrash act Maleficence which release an EP last year that I covered. Secondly, and perhaps the more important, this was purportedly a band themed around the Inca Empire. While that might not be a completely novel theme, at least a few Central American bands closer to home having delved into it, I'm not sure I've really heard it implemented in a way that satisfied me as some sort of ethnic, atavistic manifestation of the subject matter into the metal medium. Granted, these guys are from Belgium, but hell, Nile are from the USA and they have well developed their Egyptology into extremity by this point, so I don't really think your entire band has to hail from a particular region or culture to experiment with its history as a musical outlet.

Now, after listening to Forgotten Rites a few time, I'm still not too sure that I've gotten the 'Incan Fix' that I seek. Certainly this album looks beautiful with its gold and dark contrasted artwork, but apart from a few tribal ambient pulses like the intro to opener "Solemn Sacrifice", it's a rather straightforward mid-to-fast paced black metal effort with some tangible death metal elements as well. That's not to say it's not a solid metal album on its own right, but it functions more along the usual tropes. Rhythmic batteries steeped in double bass drumming and speeds that are often quite tame for the genre. A hybrid of growls and snarls which is not uncommon these days in a lot of French and Belgian. A thick and viscous tone to the rhythm guitars which reminds me of bands like Aosoth or Saligia, rather than the airy and tinny aesthetics present in a lot of pure necro black metal. There's also a fat, ruddy bass tone here which works well to anchor the production and keep the record nasty and beating on you; this is most deliberate in "Mesak" but you can feel it throughout

The riffs have just enough of a tear to them in general to remain engaging, though they only rarely bust out a hook or an individual pattern of notes that really makes me want to go for a double take. A lot of the chord progressions are fairly commonplace and predictable, and while executed effortlessly they don't conjure up enough of the cultural mystique or ancient fear that I would have hoped for. It just seems like it needs a few more unique sequences to break up the bulk of its riffing, especially in a longer (10+ minute) track like "Solemn Sacrifice" which just doesn't have enough interesting content to fill itself. To be fair, the rest of the tracks are considerable shorter, but even then there were parts that I didn't feel terribly inspired with. The limit here is that the themes are delivered to you too much through the lyrics and your own imagination, rather than what you actually hear on the disc. That said, it still feels suitably ritualistic and dingy enough to transport you somewhere, to some fallen, shadowy space, and there is firm groundwork here which could be engineered into a more fulfilling escape into the annals of myth and history. One to watch.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, January 20, 2017

Mosaic - Old Man's Wyntar (2017)

With their first proper full-length in a decade-plus career, Germans Mosaic hit a pretty interesting, atmospheric stride early on and then maintain it through almost the entirety. You've got some almost laid back, lo fi black metal fundamentals here, with a decidedly raw take on production that places it within the margin of what you might expect from a lot of depressive BM. Super tinny sounding drums and lush, cascading walls of tremolo picks chords that rely heavily on melody and melancholy. Yet there's far more tangibly enchanted and naturalistic about how they compose their contrast of swollen metallic sojourns that capture a more naturalist environment which, safe to say, definitely feels a lot like it looks. If you're a bearded old scruff like me who wants to trigger some atavistic tendencies within yourself for the idyllic North European winter that's constantly hovering in your imagination, then this is without question something you might want to check out at least once...

Make no mistake about it, Mosaic can come across as mighty pompous due to the manly ravings and barks that boomerang around the middle and upper atmospheres of the album, with the traditional black metal rasp only erupting over some of the more conventional and purely folksy, atmospheric bits (of which there are many). But the practice gets a pass here, because like I hinted, if you think in terms of that mythic, imaginary, endless season of frosts and moons and winter skies, it is effective in feeling like the vocalist is a pack of wolves panting into the frigid air, or wounded men crying out their last before frostbite claims their extremities or they bleed out into the snow. Add to this the very tribal brand of percussion which dominates a lot of the playtime, where traditional rock beats are dropped for a small set of steadily beaten percussion, and the airy, jangling and icy tones of a lot of the cleaner guitars that ring out above the dying campfires, and you've got an experience which is appreciably transcendental at how it slowly transplants you into that headspace before beating it into you permanently with the blasted, aggressive progressions during the longer tunes.

It's not a very bass-heavy record, but it's there, and the other instrumentation here, like the swells of scintillating synth ambience, ancient percussive clamor, chants and cleaner strings all accumulate in pieces like "Black Glimmer" that wouldn't feel out of place on the more rustic half of the Bindrune Recordings roster. Tunes like "Silent World, Holy Awe", have an almost droning folk structure, with maybe a little Current 93 DNA in there only the less prominent, rougher vocals that you'll hear on the rest of the record. Even though the pure black metal itself seems dwarfed by the other goings on across Old Man's Wyntar, there is still a pretty fair variety of sounds and rhythms to keep the mind engaged, including the vocals which drift between solemnity and biting anger as the riffs transition from a tranquil tribalism to mid-paced, cold floes of chords that envelop you in glacier-space. If your idea of escapism involves building a campfire to ward off the deep evening chills in a snow-heavy, coniferous woodland, and you like taking long, solitary hikes when others around you would rather be cuddled up snug on their futons with the radiators near, then this is one hibernal trip worth taking, even if the band's titular spelling of the season seems like an intentional goof.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Condenados - The Tree of Death (2017)

The Gothic doom aesthetic summoned forth by The Tree of Death is not one I commonly come across, so it's usually one I do appreciate to some extent upon exposure. At least, I appreciate that it still does exist and that not every genre adherent has fled to the more funereal death/doom scene, or to all out stoner classification, not that there's anything wrong with those niches, but they just don't really speak to my sense of desolation and helplessness quite as much as the more traditional end of the spectrum. Condenados of Chile clearly trace their aural DNA back to the older Sabbath records, but what ultimately manifests throughout this sophomore effort is something akin got a Solitude Aeternus, or to take it a little further, they're like a South American strain of the style that Candlemass made popular throughout the mid to later 80s and beyond. In fact, there are moments on this record which created a real sense of déjà vu for records like Epicus Doomicus Metallicus or Ancient Dreams.

Not because they copy the Swedens note for note, mind you, but the combination of such assured, mournful and monolithic riffs with the clear attempt at a resonant, operatic vocal style by Fernando Vidal drew me straight back to how impressive that was when I first heard that material from overseas and how well it translated Sabbath's blueprints into a staggering new architecture. Now, I'm not saying Vidal has that power, range or perfect control over such a voice that Messiah Marcolin did, and he's ultimately got a more worklike inflection not unlike Robert Lowe, or John Gallo of Blizaro, but he certainly knows his range and gets as ambitious as possible within it. For the most part, it works rather well, and a few harmonized lines help enrich it, but there are admittedly a few points where it falls a bit flat and uneven. That said, some of the riffing here really compensates, simple and plodding but well thought out to create an atmosphere of weeping statues and old cemeteries during autumn. Just the right balance of melody and crushing weight to the rhythm guitars, and the bass tone throughout the album is also thick, fat, and highly effective, whether rounding out the opening of a tune on it's own or supporting the hunchbacked guitar chord patterns.

It's not always the saddest approach to the style, and they do occasionally sway into some more solid, uppity grooves, even going so far as to burst out into a fast almost doom-core part in the waning minutes of one track, which they then convert back into a slower crawl with bluesy Paradise Lost memories sealing its fate. It's great to have a surprise like that once in awhile, and whatever other atmospheric effects or nuances Condenados employ, as in the intro with its church organs and solemn escalation into metal, they do so pretty well. Do I wish there were more than that? Yeah, and a lot of the time the Chileans are just really straightforward...not all riffs here are created equal, and while performed powerfully they'll lapse form the memory ere long. The first track does also feel over-sized without much of interest to fill it out, but this is the exception to the rule Altogether, The Tree of Death is successful at what it sets out to paint...a melancholic mosaic of sinking spirits, an order of monks cowering from the weight of the Divine, and a tombstone lying on a hill beneath the shifting seasons, your name slowly being etched across its surface.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, January 16, 2017

Draugsól - Volaða land (2017)

To think I can remember a time when Icelandic black metal was unanimous with Sólstafir and Sólstafir alone, but in recent years the country is literally exploding with harsh, cold, and compelling sounds that transmute their parent genre into something not quite so readily predictable, but still recognizing the fundamentals of their other Scandinavian forebears. Draugsól has only been around for a year or so, but with their debut full-length the trio is easily able to make a name for itself among fellow countrymen like Svartidauði, Sinmara, Zhrine, and Misþyrming, although I think it's obvious that they have a marginally more conventional feel to how they put together their material, drawing on a lot of propulsive blast beats, grinding black/death rhythmic undercurrent and spikes of dissonant chords that puncture through the roiling, earthen tones of the rhythm guitars like high speed tectonic shifting.

But Volaða land brings quite a lot to the table, from its more agonizing, spastic rhythmic elements to moments of architectural glory where the melodies spew forth and reign supreme. Vocally they use a more low-end, death growl rather than the raspy norm, and it's ugly and nihilistic and only vaguely seems to care about adhering to the riffing structure. But this functions fairly seamlessly whether they're sputtering out low-end tremolo picked riffing or the various breaks and changes coursing through their often 7-9 minute compositions, which also benefit a lot from a willingness not to lay into endless cycles of mundane repetition, instead becoming these explosive, cracked landscapes that are worth crossing even though your feet are likely to be burned and stabbed numerous times. I catch a little Marduk and Immortal here, in the utter relentlessness when they're firing at a full clip, and manifestation of a lot of angular, edgy bursts of rhythm that channel the same Morbid Angelic death metal roots that those other bands helped script into the black metal lexicon.

The debut also knows when to concede the aggression to a more atmospheric touch, as in "Spáfarir og Útisetur" which opens with cleaner guitars and then erupts into a powering Viking-like mid pace momentum with grooving drums that reminded me of some of the earlier Enslaved discs. But for the most part it can get rapid-fire to a fault, where the band seems almost ready to stumble over itself once it hits a certain crescendo. There is also a noticeable dearth of really interesting progressions in the guitars themselves. Enough variation and intensity that they avoid tedium, but there weren't a lot of moments at which I felt like I instantly wanted to replay a particular riffing section. In the end, though, Volaða land is an estimable, if not entirely formidable statement of arrival, one not lacking in potential for evolving further. If you're a fan of both fast-paced 90s, synth-less black metal out of Norway or Sweden, as well as some of the current crop of Icelandic upstarts, then Draugsól is at least worth checking out, even if this didn't quite leave me with as strong an impression as an Aphotic Womb, Unortheta or Söngvar elds og óreiðu.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, January 13, 2017

Sepultura - Machine Messiah (2017)

I can't sit here and tell you that Machine Messiah has rid itself of all the vapid, bouncing, predictable hardcore grooves that the band more or less mastered and subsequently exhausted with the albums Chaos A.D. and Roots back in the mid 90s. I also can't promise you that I've suddenly become a fan of Derrick Green's vocals; granted, the guy's been with the Brazilians now for almost 20 years, and his style has never deviated too far from the original, roughshod and grunting and barking aesthetics of his predecessor. No, despite the fact he has always been technically sound on the many releases he has fronted, his harsher vocals have always felt played out to me, lacking individual distinction against the hundreds or thousands of other groove metal or nu-metal growlers you'd have found at the corner bars during the Ozzfest era and forward. His sound has not changed much here, and it simply lacks the viciousness or raw, murderous quality that I associate with and love from early Sepultura.

But here's what I CAN tell you...

This is the most engaged I've been with a Sepultura record since 1993. That's not to say that albums like Dante XXI, Kairos and The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart lacked any semblance of highlights. Sure, I could string together a solid album's worth of content between 1994 and 2013. Maybe even a double disc set. But Machine Messiah manages to strike an eclectic range between the band's tribal instincts, their LCD grooves and then a slightly tighter and more technical Sepultura which offers a lot more candy for the ears. A lot of this comes directly through Andreas Kisser's writing and performance...when he leaves behind the stolid attempts to ape the success they had with such simple mosh components in the 90s post-Arise, he explores some more compelling and busy picking sequences that really tipped the balance for my desire to listen repeatedly. It makes me wish this were the norm for this band in the 21st century, that they had expressed a desire to become increasingly more progressive like a lot of their international peers had already achieved by the late 80s. I realize that would seem anathema to a core of their audience that just wants to reel around violently and crush each other, but it's a damn shame...

It even carries forward to the leads, which are very well executed, never extended beyond their welcome and almost unanimously catchy whether they just be frenetic and spontaneous, atonal, Eastern inspired and exotic, or all of the above. Having these licks riding atop even the most banal of rhythm guitar breakdowns instantly adds some levity and depth which I feel a lot of albums they've put out have largely lacked. Eloy Casagrande also turns in a spotless performance here, effortlessly putting up a level of energy that would be fit for most modern thrash or death metal records, but constantly applying that primal, ethnic, 'jungle' spread of fills and rumbling grooves that will remind many of the more (and only) interesting moments of Roots; only here, I like the riffs better, and that goes a long way. Bass-lines are perfectly mixed, just fat enough to register against the clean but punchy rhythm guitar tone and often a little busier than you've come to expect from that area. In truth the album sounds really great overall...polished but not lacking some force where required, and also leaving some room for the more elegant lead tone, cleaner guitars and so forth.

So with so much going for it, the few flaws here are quite easy to forgive. The vocals are acceptable, even when he's doing his lower range Layne Stayley-meets-Nick Cave crooning like in the titular intro or "Cyber God". Would I like it better with Max? I'm sure a lot of folks would, but that's not to discredit a reasonable effort from Green. The grooves in tunes like "Iceberg Dances" are straight from the Chaos A.D. playbook, or reminiscent of other bands from Machine Head to 90s Ministry, and even if a lot of them weren't so interesting, they do at least tap into that same, sweltering testosterone center in the brain that makes you want to riot a little. The lyrics are honestly pretty bland, the usual self-help sociopolitical stuff which is supposed to make you feel good but just doesn't possess enough grasp of imagination, metaphor or catchy phrasing to make that difference. Also it has a song called "Cyber God" and I really wish we were through with everyone having a song dubbed "Cyber" something. That feels 1998 at best.

But it's the strong variation in pacing between thrashers and slower bruisers, and the willingness to toss out a few new ideas like the colorful orchestration synthesized into "Phantom Self" that kept me paying attention through the entirety of the disc, and that give me some further hope that all sparks of inspiration and creativity have not fled the band across the decades, and maybe they're on the verge of producing something great again. That said, I'll gladly take stuff like this in the meantime.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (facing the blind of collective delusion)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Shaarimoth - Temple of the Adversial Fire (2017)

Norway remains slightly underrepresented in the death metal scene, but there have certainly been a number of excellent contributions through the years, from the Darkthrone debut Soulside Journey, through the turbulent stylings of Molested's Blod-draum,  towards the constant shifting and compelling morbid landscapes that make up Obliteration. As with a number of their peers, the members of Shaarimoth hail from the better known of their nation's metal exports genres, comprised of former or current members of Disiplin and Gehenna, and thus their background of experimentation and extremity is crucial to rounding out what is, for the most part, a pretty unique angle of approach to how they tackle the deathening.

Temple of the Adversial Fire is structured more like a narrative sequence of dramatic, roiling peaks and valleys than a more consistent or mathematical, riff-based death metal formula. While there are clearly some trace elements of bands like Morbid Angel, especially in the guttural vocals and the oft alien vectors of composition, it seems as if the trio of F, R, and J seem focused more purely on the ritual experience of the record on the whole than on drafting individual riffs to have an audience throwing horns at the ceiling. Clamorous, noisy bursts of double bass drums and eerier, upper range open string pickings are contrasted with layers of chanted and growled vocals, while there is no shortage of the use of ambient effects from bells and other percussion to more horror-like synths and voices. They play a lot with structure on the whole, to the degree that I never felt I could predict what was going to happen at any given moment, and this unbridled level of creativity cultivates from both their black metal backgrounds and the death metal tropes that inspired them.

The record is saturated with strange anthems like "Lord of Putrefaction" which bounces between both death and thrashing sequences, where some of their most memorable and foreign sounding riffs are scrawled upon a Cyclopean, atmospheric canvas, and "Fires of Molok" which is a really interesting piece with great, fat bass lines and fills, and a shuddering, lurching mid-paced tempo that is threaded through with faster guitar sequences that constantly keep the ear engaged. Dissonant explosions of aggression run aground against consonant, glorious melodies for a really interesting balance that maintains a refreshing flavor throughout the entire track list. That's not to say they can't lay on the more purely Morbid Angel or Behemoth-like maneuvers ("Beast of Lawlessness") and inject them with fits of proficient wizardry for the shred-crowd, but no single side of this album overwhelms the other, and that's clearly a veteran touch.

It's all captured in a mix that is both shadowy and punishing, but never excessively polished to the point that it exits its earthen, organic core (which even the cover hints at). The drums are good and loud, perhaps a little more on my speakers than the guitars which are often lighter, but once they tear out into a heavier sequence all the low and high end balance out to put puncture holes in your spirit and I just loved following the various echoed vocal lines as they ricochet off the cavernous upper ranges of the record. In short, this is a pretty excellent sophomore album from a band which does trace some identity to its legendary forebears, but also broadens its own horizons by taking some similar risks to what those influences were often known for. I've been through it about six times already, and I'm still picking up new details, so it's an easy recommend for people into the more atmospheric but energetic old-school fueled sounds that other bands like Heaving Earth and Nader Sadek have tapped into, or perhaps even Behemoth on The Satanist. Awesome stuff.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bestial Raids - Master Satan's Witchery (2016)

Both the band's name and the album title are pretty apt to tell you what this going to sound like: raw and warlike blackened death metal which is the perfect fit for the Nuclear War Now! imprint upon which it's been released. Master Satan's Witchery sounds like someone took a number of primal extreme metal merchants like Hellhammer, Sarcofago, (old) Sodom and Blasphemy, melted down their essences, stirred them into a cauldron until they had been reduced to an essential, evil oil or ichor, and then corpse painted themselves with the resulting Satan-stuff before taking up rusted axes, spiked gauntlets and armbands, and squeezing themselves into leather and combat boots, with the open exposure of chest hair optional. Now, that sounds pretty goddamn awesome, I will admit...

And on SOME level, Bestial Raids is pretty awesome. They are raw as the fucks they do not give, and this attitude saturates their pounding, grinding, wrenching compositions as if they were rags soaked with blood and vomit. Liberal with the feedback, slathering the rhythm guitars in a tone that will literally churn your stomach, and powered by a percussion section that sounds like a bunch of hard objects being shoved through a lot of mouths full of teeth. They almost sound like a more uppity version of a band like Teitanblood, though a little more punkish in nature and not so absolute in the level of caustic emptiness that their music manifests. But yes, somewhere between those Spaniards' sense of nihilistic tone and the normal goat- or war-metal fixtures you'll find on the rest of the Nuclear War Now! roster or Hell's Headbangers, Masters Satan's Witchery delivers a firebrand of ugliness and punishment which is undoubtedly going to find some audience which deliberately seeks out that sense of infernal truth, blasting and broiling clamor and chaos.

Now, occasionally I would count myself among that audience, but not so much here, because for all its vile aesthetic primacy, this record just falls short for me when it comes to creating memorable riffs of any sort. They feel like half-formed things writhing in the murk of the distortion, and while that is indeed the modus operandi behind records like this, it just didn't last beyond the mandatory spins I take through a review title. The snarls and barked out vocals are fitting, the energy on all out assaults like "Angel of the Abyss" is one that I can appreciate, and Bestial Raids do live up to the task of creating a propulsive paean to the first wave abominations that influenced them, but I just feel at this point like I've heard too many of these sorts of records, that I can't normally be inspired by the raunchy atmosphere and instinctual savagery alone, that they require something a little extra, and Master Satan's Witchery didn't quite have it. But, there are certainly folks out there who are going to get a lot more from this than I did, so if you're into bands like Black Witchery, Proclamation or the unholy Canadian trio of Blasphemy, Conqueror and Revenge, have at it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Friday, January 6, 2017

Substratum - Substratum (2016)

Another album emblematic that heavy metal can feel both 'retro' and like it's covering a patch of new ground simultaneously, the eponymous Substratum debut came a little late in the year for me to court it as much as other 2016 greats by Sumerlands, Spell, and Eternal Champion. But not TOO late, of course, never too late because this Washington state act's music has a timeless quality to it which functions without friction alongside those 80s bands and sounds from which it is partly indebted, which alone should stoke the nostalgia of those who were around at that time listening deep to the rosters of labels like Metal Blade, Roadracer/Roadrunner and New Renaissance, back when 'pure' heavy, speed and proto power metal composed a large percentage of their rosters.

Substratum might not come across as science fiction as its cover artwork implies, but the band has a number of weapons at its disposal which bear mentioning. First, there's a real strength to the rhythm guitar riffing which isn't founded on aggression or technicality, but on nuance and detail and just enough of an adventurous bent that each tune feels like it's bringing something newer than the last. From the raw chugging mid-paced neckbrace riffs to the more melodic maneuvers, each feels fairly fleshed out, while leaving space for some busy and interesting, nimble Harris-like bass lines that don't simply clone the rhythm guitars 100%. Leads erupt with precision, but again we're not dealing with a band that tries to be too cocky or flashy, so they never bite off more than they can chew, and the solos are memorable enough on their own to stand up against the excellent, choppy riffing dispersed over the nine tracks. Add to this a solid, bright, crashing drum mix and the rather organic, not overly processed tone used for the guitars and you've got an album that feels like it could be played right in front of you in a studio session or on a stage.

But for many listeners, it's vocalist Amy Lee Carlson who will steal the show, possessed of a rich and bewitching timbre that is both varied and just edgy enough to sound like she means it. It's hard to pin it down exactly, because I can hear elements of everyone from James Rivera and Eric A.K. to Ann Boleyn and Debbie Gunn, and she's not afraid to mix up the bite or sustain with which she delivers each verse or chorus. I won't say they're all equally perfect lines, but that's another thing...she's just getting started here, like the quintet as a whole. There still seems plenty of room to grow, but this debut is already a formidable springboard from which to launch future ideas. A great balance of tempo and technique, Substratum is a debut disc which feels 'lived in', like a lot of care was placed into creating something genuine and not just a soulless doppelganger for the sounds that inspired it. That's not to say it's strikingly original or immortally catchy, but it's more than just checking off its necessary boxes, and more than enough to subscribe me to whatever they'll pursue next.

Verdict; Win [8/10]

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Haxxan - Loch Ness Rising (2016)

Killjoy's raucous, overbearing, expressive snarl almost gives him an unfair advantage when it comes to fronting extreme metal, and I'd have to say that pays off rather well on Haxxan's debut Loch Ness Rising, an effort which has come out of seemingly nowhere to debut on the suitably sinister Hells Headbangers imprint. He is not the only member of Necrophagia to feature on this project, however, because it is basically that entire band in its current incarnation trying out a marginally different style than on their mainstay. And I have to say, those differences are what gives this one a rather intriguing polish, to the point that I found this record superior to a lot of what its better known counterpart has been producing for the last decade and change.

It definitely cultivates some comparisons to Necrophagia, not only in the vocals themselves but also the use of slower, thrashier riff sections which hearken back to a classic Hellhammer/Celtic Frost aesthetic, but also remind me of that band's other Midwest US protegees like Usurper. Samples are incorporated sparingly when they can create a morbid or martial atmosphere over the simpler riffs, and they'll also sprinkle on organ-like synths or other effects that bind together well under Killjoy's verbal splattering, and create a little bit of a cult/Hammer horror vibe encased in an occult black metal flesh. Often you'll pull away this black & roll feel, as if they were channeling Satyricon off their last 3-4 albums, which is no big surprise since there are the obvious off-project ties to that band. But where I was actually taken aback were a few of the harmonies and melodies they'll lace through the more commonplace rhythms, giving it a nice, majestic icing to its evil heart...several times across the track list, for example in "Arcanum Arcanorum".

Some of the rhythms themselves will rock your face off, like those of "Babalon" or "Disciples of the Silent", just simple and oblique and Satanic-as-fuck grooves which instantly brought be back about 30 years to when that was a profound practice against the backdrop of metal bands getting increasingly more tech and extreme. Haxxan know with surety what they are setting out to do here, and every one of those bold riffs is balanced out with some higher pitched, evil notes and Killjoy's unmistakable multi-beast growls. The more experimental stuff like the Eastern-flavored instrumental "Aiwass" offers a decent break in the action, and seems to be paying further homage to the record's theme (Aleister Crowley), but ultimately it's just those Inferno-rocking patterns of chords and snarls that really won me over with this. A strong, steady, evil debut for those moments when you don't feel like you need much speed, just a surefire vehicle towards damnation.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, January 2, 2017

Mordskog - XIII (2017)

Mordskog sets up its debut full-length XIII quite well, with a haunting, writhing acoustic piece that instantly manifests a dark, unhinged mood through both its vocal narration and accompanying whispers you can hear right at the edge of perception, while a deeper drum beats up a clamor in the background. This isn't the only ritualistic piece on the entire album, and similar aesthetics pervade even some of the more straightforward tracks, but as so often happens with bookend intros and outros, it created an aura of mysticism and the occult which can't quite be captured in the pure black metal that dominates the rest of the disc. To that extent, I suppose I could only have emerged a little disappointed with the rest of the material...

But not because the Mexican trio is incompetent by any means at summoning up vile tremolo picked patterns that straddle the border between black and death metal, or the steady lava floes of hellish chords that seem drawn directly from the roots of the genre, when simpler patterns slathered in rasping vocals were what reigned, and not attempts at orchestration or complexity. At its heart, XIII is a paean to when the style felt  at underground, with a few slivers of novelty in how they'll carve out the cleaner or chant-like vocal lines and aforementioned atmospherics against the grating rhythm guitars. There is a bit of variation in the picking style, for instance in "Aequo Pulsat Pede" a couple of their winding melodic patterns were redolent of old Rotting Christ, and other parts reminiscent of the mood and primacy of vintage Samael. But if were straight down to the riffs, they don't really have a ton to offer that feel fresh or memorable, so you really have to focus in on those little bass grooves, or the wealth of different vocals, or just the overall evil shadow they collectively cast, to find yourself truly absorbed.

Mordskog are no rank amateurs, and several of them have played live or in studio with other bands from Hacavitz to Endstille to Vital Remains, and so there's definitely a level of confidence and maturity in how they put these tracks together which serves to overcome the predictability I felt for some of the playing. The production is clear but moody, with some real solid drumming and a good balance between all the instruments, which in turn doesn't manage to obfuscate the varied vocal tricks and chants they employ throughout the album. They also fill out their songs with just enough of a shift in tempo and riff construction so that they never fall into the trap of dull repetition; and just as they begun the effort with an intriguing opener, they end with a clanging industrial/noise piece which also kind of takes you by surprise. Definitely not a bad listen here, but I'd like to hear them go a little further outside the norm with the riffs themselves.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]