Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Satan Worship - I'm the Devil (2017)

The debut from this German/Brazilian collaboration could hardly ever be accused of not wearing its heart on its sleeve...a black, pulsing, just torn from the chest of a preacher heart. Satan Worship is the product of a couple guys you may know...Marc Reign, skin beater of the mighty Morgoth, laying down the bedrock for a couple of dudes from Sodomizer, whose mainstay's style more aptly fits the sounds of what you'll hear on I'm the Devil. Baseline punk/speed metal with a lot of mandatory nods to Hellhammer,  Motörhead and Venom, performed with a consistent, light-hearted enthusiasm that relies a lot on the character of the vocals to give it a more robust, menacing atmosphere than you might here on a lot of comparable albums...and there are countless of those to choose from.

To that effect, of course, it does possess some charm, as Leatherface's enormous, growling tone leadens down the procession like a gluttonous, obese daemon who emerged from his cave to find that the morning newspaper had already been incinerated on his lawn. Big, dumb, barking, raunchy and lovable gutturals belched out over a riff set that can't have taken more than 3-5 minutes at any point to conceive, hyped up by Reign's bombastic drumming. The tones here sound good, and I actually like that the vox are delivered with such a voluminous swell that lets its ugly sustain carry over the slightly less muscular rhythm tone. Bass is fat as fuck, just listen to that breakdown in "Azrael's Hand", but generally it just tags along with its brother instrument, but the mix of the drums and guitars really hits a shuffling sweet spot that will warmly remind you of a lot of your fave old school punk and hardcore discs given a more ironclad vision. Not every riff pattern on the whole disc is terribly generic, they'll occasionally throw me for a loop, and they also layer on some flimsy but atmospheric leads to round things out.

I won't lie, I had a lot of fun listening here, especially to a handful of tracks like "The Girls of Manson Family", where the vocals and thrust of the instruments concoct a genuine, headbanging elixir I kept putting on repeat...but that is the SOLE reason I'm giving it the positive. When it comes to nuance or genuine nastiness, it falls behind a great many other acts in its niche, so I wouldn't want to mislead anyone into thinking it's glorious for anything beyond its own primal, bloated absurdity. The lyrical subjects are all painfully obvious, few tracks strive for anything beyond a few riffs, and certainly there are tracks which blend into one another on the memory. But when I turn off my expectations, dig the cool logo and cover art, and just want an acceptable hell-blast of leather and spike-endowed excess, then I'm the Devil evoked more than a couple smiles from me and so on some level it's both amusing and successful.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Schattenthron - Der alte Thron, sichend im Schatten (2014)

The members of Germany's Schattenthron ('Shadow Throne') exist at a nexus of various other bands including Seelenfrost, Dystertid,  Ulfsdalir, Dauþuz, and Idhafels; most of which are fairly good, unsung acts amidst a massive underground which I don't think gets enough credit, likely because the Teutonic black metal just never had a distinct cultural 'sound' developing like its European counterparts in Greece, France or the various Scandinavian territories. I've spent countless hours mining the German obscurities and more often than not come away impressed, not by the level of nuance or innovation so much as the scene's ability to produce so many genuine, atmospheric works that leave me wrung out emotionally or longing from the wake of the 90s when this second wave style was still in its larval stage.

On its surface, Der alte Thron, sichend im Schatten ('The old throne, in the shadows'?) doesn't seem particularly unique, being a more highly ambiance-focused work rather than one dependent on the strength of riffing patterns, but it benefits from sounding just like it looks, a grim woodland voyage against a sky whose moonlit shades vary between black and gray hues. The mix is very distant and windswept, with simplistic chord pattern and keyboard-enhanced motifs meant to be heard as if they were coming at you from the bleak hillside or rebounding off cold stone castle walls. The album consists of only three tracks, two of which are twice or more the length of the other, but thankfully this hugely atmospheric niche lends itself well to the swollen compositions, and it doesn't feel so barren or pretentious as it does a means to let its fell, glorious mood set in on the listener and thus manifest a more resonant effect. The drums are faint and weak in the mix, despite how the riffs will storm and surge, and bass guitar is practically a nonentity, I could only barely make the instrument out at all beneath the streaming tremolo picked riffs or the choir-like keys that carry the music.

The snarls are heavily sustained so that they feel like clouds grafted to the landscape rather than busier poetic pronouncements, and the entire album seems to feel like it's been channeled through a speaker or pipe so that it creates a faux-monotony. And that's really the charm here, the ability to craft material so simple that somehow leaves me with that majestic pit in my stomach that groups like Summoning have traditionally thrived at. Even where Schattenthron drops out the metal content at the end of the playtime, and just lets a few keyboard notes ring out as a mighty, melancholic mantra, I found myself transported to its universe, almost like a paean to the Dark Ages penned by exiles living in rustic retreats. An enjoyable time, despite the 33 minute length, and whilst I have no idea if this is just some one-off concoction in the brewery of bands/ideas that the band members are involved in, I hope for a little more in the future, though I can also heartily recommend the Idhafels debut.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dom Dracul - Cold Grave (2016)

I've been probing the underground lately for 'roots' black metal done right, that is to say bands I might never have heard before putting a fresh spin on a genre I still enjoy to this day, despite it's clear level of over saturation. The hunt has turned up some really amazing results so far, like Swedes Bränd Jord, and another act I had set my curiosity on is a one-man project called Dom Dracul, whose covers give off a vibe of primary and purism akin to maybe Craft, Darkthrone or Black Witchery. Therramon, the individual responsible for this project, certainly does not betray the aesthetic on Cold Grave, a record that was released simultaneously with another in his catalog called Devil Dedication.

A really solid setup here, with eerie and tinny sounding guitar melodies set to the sounds of wailing, screaming and a slow, beating drum, but then he doesn't really knock it out of the park with the riff that launches "Mighty Winter", a fairly predictable chord pattern that is only given some levity by the mechanistic cold created by the beat patterns. The song takes a turn later with a more glorious and less evil bridge riff that gives off a more folksy, pagan impression, and this sort of creates a blueprint for how most of the tunes on the album proceed. Bold if standard black rasping over a sequence of 2-3 riffs that, while catchy enough to thrive in the record's dim, airy atmosphere, don't exactly thrill, nor do they sound unusual or off the cuff enough to really demand a listener's attention when they've been schooled in so much of the genre prior.

That's not to say I didn't occasionally enjoy a bridge or a breakdown here like the melodies of "Sons of the North United", or that evil lick in "Blackened Sight", but most of the tracks just needed a fraction more tweaking and ambition to stick in the brain. I'd also state that Therramon does create enough variety in the riff choices so the album doesn't become a dullard. Some won't like the drum presence that much, which reverts to a mere phantom against the backdrop to support the obvious focuses of vocals and riffs, but I felt more of a lack in the bass department. Some groovier, morbid lines that deviated from the rhythm guitar could have put a murkier, psychedelic twist on even these guitar progressions that would have left more of a mark. All told, though, even if Cold Grave is not an album I'm like to reach for over many others in its field, I did think it was a competent stab at the sort of 'back to basics' vibe I was seeking, and I dug the production overall.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bifröst - Schlachtklänge (2006)

Once the Spring arrives, and New England receives its inordinate amount of random, record-setting, deep summer temperature days, I find myself playing a game of 'beat the heat' within my listening habits, and thus I search for the most wintry, Nordic stuff lying around in the various plastic piles or on the dusty, forgotten drives on the periphery of my music collection. Having an insane May afternoon at 94 degrees Fahrenheit, I settled my ears on the debut from this relative unknown Austrian commodity, Bifröst, who certainly sound like an antidote for the sweating inferno outside and the two energetic children I spend so much of my time with. Or at least, it should seem that way on paper, but what I wound up with was only a means to amplify my discomfort...

Spoiler: having traveled to the future beyond 2006, and survived, I can assure you that once this group signed to Germany's Einheit Produktionen for their sophomore, they gradually improved to the point that I would call their fourth (and potentially final) record Mana Ewah a solid and entertaining entry into the burgeoning field of European pagan/folk metal, checking off all the right boxes for my ale binges and pretending I am from an Era I am not. For Schlachtklänge ('battle sounds?) that was just not the case, as it suffers from a number of 'rookie' shortcomings that render it ultimately forgettable, if not a complete heap of oxen leavings. Before even listening through the album, you can tell it doesn't look like much, with its muted tree photography, bland logo, but just enough of the right symbology and font to clue you in on what style of music this might be...or at least to point you in the right direction. Really, the middling production and values and appearance hint that this is more or less a demo in album-length, one which sets the ground game from which the band could later sprout some more competent and memorable ideas.

Listen to any record from Turisas and their ilk and you'll hear that they go with the bombastic, sweeping sort of intro which synthesized horns, a clarion call to the goofy warfare that ensues, but strangely the Austrians place a three-minute guitar instrumental, which is surprisingly the best produced piece on the record, but has a kind of bluesy, incidental feel that doesn't quite match up the rest of the material. But then it's off to some mediocre, shuffling, middle placed power chords that are dressed up with folk melodies, all of which would prove passable if the mix were a little more even. The vocal growls feel too muffled, and not even mic'd properly, as if the guy might be blaring the backing tracks and then recording it onto tape. In fact, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if this whole thing was done simultaneously live, it has that sort of boxy, jam-room aesthetic which just doesn't capture for me the frolicking brazenness of what this niche should be all about.

This process is repeated through much of the remainder, with the band struggling to shift up its pacing enough to give the album the variety it deserves. Certainly some of the harmonies, which pitch far over the dingy rhythm guitars, stick more than others, and they show a lot of influence from both the Finnish and Swedish ethnic and melodic death metal scenes, but the production and lack of deviation or risk truly fucks everything over from having a positive impact. To me it sounds like this debut was the product of some well-meaning blokes who heard a couple records by Amorphis and In Flames, but were really into their Finntroll, Ensiferum and Eluveite and felt like bridging these two paradigms into a whole, which they might have done under better studio conditions. Don't get me wrong, there are a half-dozen sailing guitar melodies over the 41 minutes which do take you that glorious inner castle, but the weak, slathering vocal mix and the pedestrian crunch of the rhythm guitar, paired with the submissive drumming and lack of interesting bass-lines, detract severely from its potential.

Again, I don't want to come across too harsh on Bifröst, because they took the right strides to become a better band on their subsequent releases and I'd count myself a fan of at least their last two (in 2013 and 2016). If you're new to the band or just looking for more of that festival folk metal you might enjoy off the European territories, I'd head straight to Mana Ewah and then trace their trajectory backwards for as far as you can stand it. The debut is no diamond in the rough, nor particularly majestic or wintry, desolate or mighty, but a rough template from which the group could throw out the scraps and then run with the strengths. Not totally awful, if you think of it as a demo, but nearly tragic in how some of its melodic components really nailed its vision more than everything supporting them.

Verdict: Fail [4.75/10]


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Au-Dessus - End of Chapter (2017)

Au-Dessus is a Lithuanian band which is branded as post-black metal but only encapsulates such a sound in vaguely atmospheric terms, due to the bright, powerful emotions its chord patterns tend to evoke alongside the streaks of more conventional savagery that it often fires off into. The layout and packaging certainly seem to be left of center for the medium, with gorgeous imagery and 'class' in the vein of many recordings from the French label Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions; but they don't perform too heavily into either the shoegaze or post-rock styles, and keep the material routed very much in the parent genre, which might not feel hip or fresh enough to some listeners, but personally I found that they offered up just enough individuality and spin on the sound to really hit home.

It does take a couple tracks to really win me over, and with the songs labeled as Roman numerals, you can tell they were going for a sum experience rather than picking out individual highlights. But straight from the start of "VI" (the enumeration continues from a prior EP release), and its slower, biting rhythm and an ominous low choir tone rolling out in an almost meditative manner, you can tell that they're going for a little more of a fulfilling, dynamic range than your garden variety necrotic European black metal entity. This is really brought through in the production, which is huge and clear and bright without sacrificing the aggression the group is capable of ripping into when they explode into a blast beat sequence. The vocals, a familiar, enormous and often sustained rasp, might seem a little more traditional to the style than some of the riffing selections, but I loved how they anchored both the faster and slower progressions with this level of sickening angst that smoothly transitions the two. I think it's the rhythm guitar tone on End of Chapter, however, which exemplifies the record's balance of the jarring and fluid, with a slightly post-hardcore motif embedded in the dissonance of various chord selections.

First couple tunes are solid, no doubt, but once you get into that opening groove of "IX" you're starting to encounter the album's finer moments, where the riffs just cling to your memory with a bit more rock & roll charm. "XI" is also a favorite for its modest but driving, creepy potency. The production and moving nature of their songwriting also has the power to overcome track lengths that I might otherwise find too swollen, especially on the songs near the middle of the order. As with their labelmates Deluge, these guys are extremely consistent, but I find this record a lot catchier and more emotionally resonant. If you're looking for the next Deafheaven or Ghost Bath, you'd be better to seek them elsewhere; likewise, Au-Dessus doesn't get as spastic or grating as modern NYBM like Krallice, but if you'd be interested in what Blut Aus Nord's post-industrial material might have sounded like if it were more vocal-driven and packed a harder punch, track this down.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Rebel Souls - The Forces of Darkness (2017)

Rebel Souls is a project related to another little known German act called Dead Entities' Realm, whose sole 2009 disc To Reconciled Solitude was one I covered some years ago here at the site, a competent approach to progressive and melodic death metal which sort of angled off from the early 90s Death era with some other inspirations that made it better rounded and more robust. This new album, The Forces of Darkness heads off into a far more abrupt and aggressive terrain altogether, a vicious smattering of Polish and brutal death metal over a dependable framework of traditional death metal, with heavy emphasis on riff composition as well as a balance of flailing solos, relentless beats and churning chords patterns that explore a little more of the fret board than you might expect.

I bring up the 'Polish' angle again, because similar to bands like Vader, MasachistHate or Trauma, Rebel Souls are quite adept at giving you that balanced strain of death metal which doesn't veer off into the too wanky or showy area despite the obvious level of confidence and competence here. Loads of frenetic, pinpoint rhythmic chops delivered through the mute picking sequences, prominent and audible bass tones that move with an agility to rival the guitar, and beats that stick effortlessly to the furious level of energy the band generates across almost the entire 28 minutes of playtime. They do not entirely eschew the melody of their other project, but here it's used more like a subtext to just balance out the dizzying levels of punishment, and I'd point out that a number of the riffs here have a clear lineage to thrashing, neck jerking material from several decades ago, only clad in the brutality that the guttural growls and more intense drum patterns offer them. The only place this really lets up is in the album's intro, and the intro to "Doomsday", which are moody, glinting acoustic vignettes set to haunting storms or ambiance, setting up the ensuing onslaughts accordingly.

I don't know if The Forces of Darkness wins a lot of marks for originality, and the riffing choices aren't always going to resonate within your memory forever, but the level of proficiency here in both the performance and the production of the material easily rivals that of bands with decades more professional experience and exposure. For veterans who appreciate this sort of gestalt style which draws on several aspects or categories of its parent sub-genre, this record is the business, and I doubt you can spin it without reveling in its tight execution, never once threatening to overstay its welcome or stray from its clobbering course even when it gives you those few precious breaths of air. Discs like this are almost like the natural evolution of the whole Reign in Blood shtick; just a fast and furious exercise in violent aural art that understands itself all to well, and rather than trying to rock the boat, it sinks it with as much ordnance as the two band members can muster. Did I mention it was just two guys? Yeah, and many groups twice that size don't play this hard. Extra credit for name dropping the German counterpart to Thor.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (shorn of every virtue and passion)


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Damnation - Rebel Souls (1996)

While not an enormous shift in style, Rebel Souls was a clear step forward for this Polish underground act, a more atmospheric and savage application of their Floridian-bred sound to a level that hinges on the brutality of more technical acts of the 90s but does not shake that utterly old-school appeal that the debut generated. They still weren't on a level which could gain them the fame that countrymen Vader had begun to achieve around this same period, but this sophomore was a dependable second stringer on that scene and a record I'll still break out to this day when I'm picking through various obscura from that time period which probably could've garnered a greater cult following if it had the exposure.

In some ways this can come off as a more dense and confusing effort, as if you're being stuck within the flumes of magma on its cover and are being suffocated and immolated simultaneously. The riffs hit harder, a barrage of claustrophobic, almost grinding distortion that channel as much Napalm Death in spots as they do the Morbid Angel and Deicide influences that populated the first record. Bass tone is fatter, the tempos shift on the drop of the time but manage to pull off some stronger transitions even though the rhythm guitar tone can get a little clunky in the recording. The focus here is on more blasted material permeated with atmospheric/ambient passages; a contrast which works well as they set up "Son of Fire", for instance. Overall more intense and musically proficient than prior material, but most importantly I felt like the growling was mixed off better against the lava flows of dextrous percussion and carnal, writhing guitar chords.

They vary the pacing up just enough so that it doesn't become monotonous, and often accent the harder rhythm sequences with cleaner, ringing guitars that give it a more arching, massive feel to it, almost an early experimenter in spots with a style that bands like Ulcerate and Gorguts would take to a far broader, dissonant extreme. The atmosphere is constant without ever choking out the meat of the metallic undergrowth, and the drums are fast and mean and prominently featured. Occasionally they've got some riffs here which are stronger than the rest, redolent of old Death and Obituary and Malevolent Creation, but I'd warn that this is still not the catchiest material of its era...the rushes of leadwork and overwhelming aggression help create an 'overall package' sort of record which doesn't really age all that poorly, seeming just as sinister as it did in its day, especially on cuts like "From the Abyssland" where those eerie low piano keys and choir-like cheesy ambiance inaugurate the serious, punishing turbulence of the band's limbs. Arguably the peak of Damnation, and an album easy to recommend if you're chasing down unsung Polish gems or simply bands in the same wheelhouse as a Sinister, Vader, Morbid Angel, etc.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (let's soar to the sky in red)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Desperadoz - Call of the Wild (2017)

One of the issues I've taken with most of the Desperadoz records beyond the debut is that I'm a pretty big fan of both the Western and Weird Western genres of film, comics, and so forth, and thus would really like to see bands deliver it unto heaviness...Western Death Metal, Doom Metal, Black Metal, Power Metal, whatever the niche it can burrow itself into, like rounds from a Colt. So I secretly root for bands like this one to take it to the next level and achieve that rare integration of lyrical and musical aesthetics. Yet, a lot of what I hear on their records seems more like worship of big arena hard rock and metal lite from those glorious 80s, as if the idea was inspired more by Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive" than sticking spurs into something far more potent and aggressive.

Now, to be fair, I think these Germans at least touch upon that Western appeal superficially, as much of their discography feels like you're about to pop in your Silverado or Young Guns DVD, a clear lineage from the sort of big, bright, burly 80s entertainment some of us grew up on, along with Alex Kraft and company. Plenty of bluesy acoustic guitar sequences. Cliche-ridden lyrics that speak to you of the hard life on horseback. The rather obvious saloon fonts used for the rather effortless cover artwork. A solid, atmospheric intro piece that feels exactly like you're strolling into a town alongside some tumbleweeds... whistling, guns being cocked, and a natural swagger to it that simply belongs to this thematic genre. They even manage to draft a couple semi-heavy power/speed licks circa their German heritage mixed with a little late 80s Zakk Wylde-driven Ozzy ("Hell & Back"). Sadly, this level of energy is the exception rather than the rule, and most of the writing is cemented in safe, run of the mill hard rock rhythms that generate little more vitriol than Skid Row; both the riffs and the vocals, with some grooves, some slide guitars layered in there, and not a lot of surprises.

That doesn't make it bad, per se, and 80s MTV purists might revel in how it takes that throwback sound and mixes in a heavier dose of Western, but this and most of its predecessors just don't seem to have a lot of ambition, and I come away feeling as if it was just too snug and comfortable. It's not because Desperadoz bite off any particular band too much...no, even Alex's vocals mirror a little bit of Sebastian Bach attitude, only with a lower range edge akin to Peavy Wagner of Rage, a higher melodic sustain reminiscent of The Cult's Ian Astbury, and some harmonies that remind me of the mid or slow paced hits from the Alice in Chains lexicon. The drums and bass sound bright and clear, and the riffs do possess a degree of variation to round out the album from sounding too samey. The country ballad material ("All the Long Way Home") is a bit tacky, but fits the concept, and the instrumental pieces here actually spin a competent cinematic narrative which I'm sure several directors of 80s and 90s flicks would have loved in their soundtracks.

The thing is, I don't really want Silverado or Three Amigos! in hard rock form. I want The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, or Once Upon a Time in the West, set to some tunes that can thunder across the plains like a desperate gunman and his steed on the run from some pissed off outlaws. Not prim, proper, stadium anthems, but a gritty and grimy orchestra of bullets and knives. Not just 'one shot for the road', but stinking drunk and pissing itself with fear and tension. Call of the Wild has a modicum of spit and fire by hard rock standards, but it just doesn't take enough chances, and ends up with their last couple efforts as an example of good production standards and professionalism without the extra oomph that surpasses an average listen. Plenty of qualities, and thematic qualifications, but every time it spits a little tobacco, it feels like a janitor rushes in to clean it up all too conveniently. Far from a complete bust, but I feel like I'd enjoy these Desperadoz better if they were more pissed and trigger happy.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Damnation - Reborn... (1995)

It's easy to pore over the Polish death metal scene of the last decade and admit it's one of the very best in the world, with acts like Vader or Behemoth or upstarts Decapitated having vaulted well beyond any barriers to underground legend status, even to penetrate into the mainstream in some instances and territories. But I find it even more curious to dial back the years and observe how such a 'scene' developed, and for the region that birthed the aforementioned there seemed a pretty solid expansion in the 90s when the influential Floridian, Dutch, British, Finnish and Swedish sounds were being intensified or outright upstaged by the emergence of more technical, extreme or brutal strains of death. Damnation seems a band long overlooked, along with peers like Devilyn, Dead Infection, and Atrophia Red Sun; a band who gradually evolved into a potential contender but just never broke the surface membrane of that scene to grow a large audience throughout the rest of Europe and beyond.

Reborn... was the first of the three full-lengths they'd produce, and for my ears, the shabbiest, but not for a lack of trying. The clear inspiration here was early Florida, with a guitar tone and riffing style not unlike veterans Deicide, slightly muffled in the mix on the tremolo mutes, but not enough to hide it's frantic pacing. They branched out a little further than that, though, with a more atmospheric use of the strings in tracks like "Maldoror is Dead", and also possessed an explosive edge on some of the faster tracks which will no doubt bring to mind Morbid Angel or Malevolent Creation. Leads and transitions are often rough spots on this recording, with the former occasionally nailing a degree of evil resonance, but more often a little awkward and undeveloped. The latter sometimes just coming off more sloppy than intended as the drummer throws out some brutal fills, or perhaps it's just the production casting some untoward attention in the wrong places, creating a bit too broad a gulf between the percussion and the guitars. That isn't a complete detriment, however, since I'll grant that Reborn... does gain a boost to its atmosphere thanks to the combination of clarity and crudeness.

Vocals are a voluminous guttural, punctured only by a few sparse snarls, and they too help to round out the mean and murky feel they're going for, spitting forth lyrics about darkness, sorrow, and the occult which were all fairly comparable to other early European death metal acts, with a little of the overt Deicide/Slayer sacrilege for good measure. Some samples and ambient sections are used to decorate the record's playtime, and these feel a little uncouth and undercooked much like their metallic counterparts...cool for the cheesy, ominous horror they allude to, but could have been better implemented to rocket off into the metal segments. All told, for its production flaws and lack of really interesting or memorable riffs, I have to hand it to Reborn... for at least sounding like one of those 'genuine' retro death metal experiences that you can place to the year of its own conception. If you're only seeking to thrust yourself back into that earlier 90s mindset, to submerse yourself in the morbid humours of that decade, then you could probably do much worse...however, I would note that the busier sophomore Rebel Souls is a superior album in most every way, the real hidden gem of their catalog.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (I trample the cross of hypocrisy)