Thursday, June 29, 2017

Damnation - Resist (2000)

By the later 90s, death metal had been inundated with so many more accessible traits via heavy and thrash metal that it might have made a lot of sense for an underground group like Damnation to boost their signal, but to their credit the only thing they really cleaned up here at all was arguably the production values. More than any of their albums prior, Resist feels like a gestalt of the Floridian extreme death that went into the band's older albums, primarily of the Morbid Angel or Malevolent Creation variety, with a few Deicide rhythms, but it also maintains that mild sense of atmosphere and experimentation they had used before with the admission of a few scant ambient/instrumental passages to flesh out the faster, harsher fundamentals employed.

The record is essentially a lot of jerky, tremolo picked rhythms with a lot of stop/start patterns that are capitalized on by the drumming, which is likely the most intense and audible across their career. The vocals follow the David Vincent style of intonation, harsh and guttural, nihilistic barks, but with the advantage of being a good decade later than our inauguration to that style, so they're a little more muscular in nature, though the patterns are often quite as sloppy, vaguely following the rhythmic patterns beneath them, giving their implementation a little more of an unhinged, asylum aesthetic which actually suits the music well. Never before have I heard the Damnation guitars this clearly, and while the wealth of the progressions they write are nothing terribly nuanced or special, they really dig into those strings here, with some of their most involved and rapid fire patterns, not to mention some of the best, wild lead lines they'd used to this point. The bass guitar also keeps a pretty solid presence in the mix, though it does get buried beneath the snare, fills, vocals and rhythm guitar whenever they are all firing off together into one of the more intense sequences.

Resist does lack some of the suffocating atmosphere of the sophomore Rebel Souls, and I also feel it comes up slightly short of that album in overall memorability, but note for note they are pretty close, with this, the band's swan song depicting their most intricate guitar work with a carnal clarity. The riffs do possess a variety I had not heard before, with a little bit of a clinical thrash element there in the intro to "Absence in Humanity", and some other tracks which reach slightly outside the comfort zone. Dark, ambient passages like "Voices of an Unknown Dimension" help lend a sense of evil and gravity to the track list, though the electronic and sounds used seem a little claptrap and cheesy, and most of them are embedded into the metal tracks without much of a strong purpose. The simple fact of the matter is that Damnation were a band reaching for something, and while they arguably got there in the 90s, they had more to their material than the already dulling proto brutal death and gore being pimped; a fusion of old school aesthetics with a slight regional spin. No, they weren't writing on the level of Vader or Behemoth or other countrymen, and it makes some sense that they got lost in the shuffle, but overall they had a good run as a solid second tier act which can still evoke a little darkness if you listen to them in the proper mindset. Rebel Souls and Resist were a pretty convincing one-two punch combo for such an unknown.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Spellbound - Nothing But the Truth (2015)

While their first two records could hardly be dubbed impressive, Germans Spellbound have consistently proven to be purveyors of a fairly rare, lost art among the thrash crowd. That is to say, the full-package, dynamic songwriting style that birthed some of the largest names in the genre, Metallica at the foremost, but this was a skill often mirrored by other West Coast acts like Testament and at the very least attempted by bands worldwide, from Australia's Mortal Sin to England's Xentrix, to several of the Germans' countrymen, even if the faster, nastier Trinity of Teutonic Thrash held sway in that particular court. To be more specific, the composition's goals consist of big hooks, verse/chorus interplay, meticulously crafted leads that could hold their own with the rhythm riffing, enough of a neck jerking energy to keep them well within the genre's parameters, and approachable standards which held more of a mass appeal than the dirtnap speed and thrash existing on the niche's edge.

Nothing But the Truth accomplishes all of these to an extent, while rarely cocking up the formula that structures its more successful songs, a trait that sadly eluded the older efforts, which had only a scant handful of memorable cuts at best. The riffing is powerful, albeit familiar enough that a lot of the individual progressions will remind you of this or that and then twist it slightly away from the pure predictability a lot of us dread when listening to today's latest wave of pizza-thrashers. The leads here are very well balanced to offer an emotional payoff without completely outdistancing the blue collar, 'mellow' or melodic, mid-paced thrash rhythms that make up the bulk of the play length. When they pick up the thrust, you're remind purely of the picking patterns made famous by bands like Exodus, Testament or Metallica, but the overall mood here is 'steady wins the race', and that can often give this a laid back feel, sort of similar to New England's own Meliah Rage, only I feel like the writing here is a little more optimistic and immediately sticky on the ear. Reinforcing that comparison are the vocals of David Maier, melodic and edgy in the Hetfield vein which front men like Mike Munro, Chuck Billy and Mat Maurer ran off with.

The guitars sound great on this album, clear for the various leads, melodies and excess rock hero squeals while potent and punchy enough for a pit of intoxicated 40-somethings reliving their glory days, which I'd imagine might be the primary audience for this band, or those younglings who are trying to emulate that demographic. I happen to be among that first crowd, only somewhat less intoxicated on an average day, so I felt the pangs of nostalgia. Bass isn't a strong point here, but enough else is going on that you'll be distracted away from noticing, especially when the dozen or so really strong guitar riffs set off, forcing more replay value than I would have expected from my experience with either Nemesis 2665 or Incoming Destiny. There are a few slight misfires here, like the obligatory power-thrash ballad "Dying in the Dirt" which doesn't quite hit the payoff it wants to, however they aren't quite awful, and easily forgiven by the wealth of improvements they've made elsewhere. If you're into the more accessible spectrum of trad metal-tinted thrash I've mentioned above, or younger bands like Evile and After All, then this one is worth a listen.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Damnation - Coronation EP (1997)

Keeping themselves busy through the latter half of the 90s, Poland's Damnation capitalized on their very solid sophomore Rebel Souls with a four-track EP that sounds a lot like it looks, which is to say that it's blasphemous, savage occult death metal with a Baphomet cover image nearly indistinguishable from many others in its class. That's not to pass judgement too heavily on the music, but it does not seem that the band was aesthetically interested at the moment on building up further momentum from the prior album, which had shown a good degree of growth from their 1995 debut. I suppose I can give it a pass here, but only because they saw fit to record a tune called "Spell Master", and because the material itself does exhibit the ferocity and fortitude of Rebel Souls.

The mix is set at about the same level of epic murk as its predecessor, with the roiling guitars that just seethe along beneath the broader, guttural growls that crown the experience. The drums are tinny and on the lower side of the audibility range here, but it comes together like decent underground Euro death from its day and age, and one can't expect so much more. As for the riff structures, they are generally fast-paced and give off a similar Morbid Angel vibe that they'd done on the full-lengths, only some of the chord progressions used on these tunes most remind me of the Altars of Madness era, which happens to be my favorite from Trey and company. Atmospherics are still used with some sparse use of organ-like synth tones ("Spell Master") or a turbulent ambiance (intro to the title cut), so in that way they keep in line with their vision on the earlier records, and I also found that the lead work and melodic accompaniment here was kept at just the right ratio to keep the material from growing dull, because honestly not a lot of these riffs are that amazing to begin with.

The compositions do feel a fraction cluttered, especially (and sadly) on "Spell Master", but I feel that there's enough going on through the tracks, enough of a vibrant, hellish energy that it doesn't mar the quality terribly. Also, there's a big contrast between the business of the guitars and the vocals, which are almost all delivered with those broader phrasings. The bass tone has a good distortion on it but still seems to bury itself once the writhing guitars are on full thrust, and ultimately I think this EP exhibits the consistency of Rebel Souls, while slightly suffering from the clamor of Reborn... I also can't say I'd listen to it over either of those albums, but like the debut it does a moderate job of putting you into that 90s headspace, before production values were heavily polished and when death metal still maintained a natural, evil vibe to it that wasn't nostalgia-borne, but carried the genuine, black pulse of that formative age. Damnation is no Vader, but they'll do in a pinch if you want to dance on tombstones while you're sloshing your brain with vodka.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bereft - Lands (2017)

Prosthetic Records is a label I generally equate with the popular or trendy strains of metal, having championed a lot of metalcore or melodic death or technical death thrash, often to some great results, and often to some forgettable ones. But in truth, they do cultivate a pretty wide variety of artists, so when I saw that they'd picked up an act going for a more atmospheric sound, I thought it'd be cool to check out for myself what had piqued their interest. Add to that the really awesome cover here, with a skull split by an axe and a rune against what seems to be a half-felled forest, and I figured I might be in for a treat here. I know I had heard another Bereft record in passing, and forgotten about it, but I think that might have been from another band out of the L.A. area.

I've seen Lands described as a mix of doom and melodic post-metal, and I think that's a somewhat accurate brand, though the 'black metal' aesthetics I've also heard seem restricted solely to a vocal style that is no longer exclusively found in that category, and an occasional blast sequence which reminded me a little of something Goatwhore might throw into a tune. They use broad, gnarly snarls, but with a lot of sustain to them, and often doubling up the voice with one that's deeper and louder in the mix. The rhythm guitars are enormous and crushing, but with a seat of groove to them that helps them set up the more dynamic melodies which earn all the credit for making this sophomore album catchier than it might otherwise feel. The fundamental riffs here are all extremely simple, panning out over a wide span of influences including both their sludge contemporaries and the grandiose Gothic doom style pioneered out of England, rarely anything more than predictable, but how the band builds upon them or doesn't rely on them exclusively is what makes this ultimately listenable, with a lot of cascading, higher pitched guitars, often with some effects to give them a more lamentable or bluesy vibe.

Now, when I say it's listenable, I'm not saying it's great, just that it doesn't become too boring, a danger when you've got only four tracks in 45 minutes. There's nothing here that really sticks or stands out on the mind, but I was able to process through the entire record numerous times just because of how it manages its valleys and summits. The production on the thing is just so huge that it feels like you're listening through it in some canyon space, and I like the fattened subtext of the bass guitars and the pairing of the rhythmic drudgery with the ascending, sorrowful melodies. Vocals do work better then they form their own grisly fusion, or rare harmony. The percussion on the whole disc is like balanced thunder, with fills that feel like a tribal war is about to break out, yet a lot of more subtle, crashing symbols and thudding, effortlessly shifts into blasts for the scarcer fast material. I'd say that this was a very well put-together record which just lacks nuance in its riffing schematics, if these Wisconsiners can dial that quality up then they'll be a bonafide beast. As it stands, they already sound like one is forming in some abominable sonic womb, but hasn't fully gestated into a distinct form.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Hädanfärd - Evil-Minded (2012)

Sir N. is a rather prolific figure buried in the Swedish black metal underground, who might be recognized by some for other projects like Grav, Svartrit and Grifteskymfning, but in general seems to be settled into an interesting niche in which a traditional old school songwriting style is affixed with a fraction more atmosphere than you might be accustomed to by all your garden variety Mayhem, Hellhammer and Darkthrone adherents. This manifests quite prominently even on this earlier compilation, Evil-Minded, which collects materials from the first few years of Hädanfärd's activity, well before he would release the debut Smutsiga sinnen and its several subsequent EP recordings.

Now, where a lot of demo or rehearsal or 'early days' style collections get by on little more than the novelty of hearing a band's roughshod roots, Evil-Minded is actually quite consistent and possibly even worthy of being considered a debut album in of itself, at least in terms of the material. The production values seem to bounce around between the metal cuts and the more ambient pieces, on both ends of the album, but I think despite this tonal disparity the tracks work in lockstep and present an appropriately mournful, dismal sound which lives up to the translation of the band name, which would be either 'departed' or 'passing from life'. Sir N. excels in crafting very simplistic peaks and valleys of driving, primal, grooving black metal via some of the bands I mentioned above, and these ominous or melancholic instrumental segues which focus a lot on haunted synth tones plus a little bit of percussion and guitar (listen to the close of "Vanhelga ljustes gestalt" to hear a good example).

Rather than an impish rasp, he uses a broader, more tortured growl which adds a weight of suffering to some lighter, more melodic elements in the chords ("Ohelighetens helgonbild"). In addition, while the percussion here is very tinny, it's satisfying, and his bass lines are just thick enough to matter rather than get drowned out by the rawness of the mix. There's also a tendency towards these hazy, shimmering guitar passages which fit snugly into the mold of blackgaze, or post-black metal, as if Hädanfärd was dipping its toes into that style but grounding it in the Scandinavian conventions of the black metal medium. It makes for a listening experience that holds its value through 35 minutes, with almost all the tracks held down to 3-4 minute experiences which don't overstay their welcome. The one issue I had is that some of them seem to cut out or end too abruptly, not necessarily by mistake, but also not in a very satisfying way. Ultimately, though, like a number of Sir N.'s works over various bands, this is a relatively immersive and underappreciated album which will appeal to those who use the genre for introspection and soul-searching more than emotional church-burning.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kâhld - No Fertile Ground for Seeds (2017)

Kâhld might have a slightly difficult time standing out against the swollen hordes of European black metal, which are ever increasing and rarely culled. I say that because I feel like it's somewhat of a crime, for while this German outfit is hardly bringing much to the table by way of novelty, they do a fairly thorough job of crafting a varied and interesting debut album with a lot of the strengths we associate with the genre's fundamentals. To be fair, the chord set carved out over the course of No Fertile Ground for Seeds is one that the ardent listener of the medium will find mildly redundant, but it's how they incorporate these floods of dissonant, feverish aggression into the strong bedrock of percussion, slower, sure footed tempos interspersed with the blasting, that lends this album a sense of well-rounded, well-honed songwriting, which the first time through was hardly the most predictable thing I've heard lately in this or any other genre.

The sound here is best compared to Swedish and Norse acts ala Dark Funeral, Marduk and 1349, but where Kâhld deviates is in their unwillingness to commit too seriously to convention alone. For instance, the track "Existence - Environment - Experience" segues into a strange bridge of organ tones, percussion exploding everywhere, feedback and sparser broken riffs and bass lines that are quite unusual given the rest of the song's context. You'll find this happens often, as in the intro to "The Step Outside" which also grafts those shimmering, evil, dissonant chords to some rumbling and potent fills before escalating into a real black/thrashing head jerker. While the Germans can easily just launch into a blast beat where it serves them, the way they put tracks like this together gives the material a more curious, urban, post-industrial feel to it, especially when they incorporate those deeper clean vocals to create an atonal chanting effect, another component they have in common with a lot of what the Scandinavian bands evolved into for the 21st century. This isn't all wolves, moons and serene, cold woodlands, but staring at cracks in the pavement of civilization, gaps that if left too open swallow cultures whole.

No Fertile Ground for Seeds also sounds pretty damn clear, perhaps not the most neutered or polished production in its field, but extremely fulfilling, with both the bass guitars and the incredible drums making their mark against the rhythm guitar and rasped, angry barking. It's an album just unique enough to create a particular mood beyond the necro newspaper-print baseline of its genre, and I think for that reason that it lives up pretty well to the recent, more outward branching records by bands like Enthroned, Merrimack or Marduk who have attempted to evolve their sounds, if ever so minimally, into something studied, semi-intellectual and borderline esoteric rather than just endlessly recycle their roots. As such, this was a fairly compulsive introduction to a band with some degree of potential, perhaps not the strangest or catchiest in their niche, but certainly one that can go the considerable distance of an hour of black metal and keep my interest level in the black. Another promising entry into that newish German wave of darkness which also features Entartung, Sarkrista, Dysangelium, etc.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hats Barn - N.A.H.A.S.H. (2017)

These Frenchmen are one of those unfortunate bands who have chosen a name that, within the proper cultural context, actually sounds pretty cool, but OUTSIDE of that, for us ignorant English speakers, actually sounds quite funny, like a discount clothing outfitter. Having said that, there is nothing quite so comical about what Hats Barn are playing on this fifth full-length album, a strain of straightforward, orthodox black metal which hearkens directly back to the genre's emergence in the 90s and doesn't even border or attempting to broaden or refine those parameters whatsoever. This is both a positive and negative, because while these guys do attain a sense of cult hostility through the production and rasped vocals, the riff set is just not that interesting...

We've heard these streams of chords, with only slight gradations, tens of thousands of times at this point and the material on N.A.H.A.S.H. does little but entertain the most predictable patterns, even if they are delivered with a genuine frenzy and ferocity that might still please some diehards who have just mentally never left that space for fear of abandoning its purism. I don't personally have an issue with the most primal and conventional black metal, provided its simpler note progressions clench on to a sense of timeless cruelty, a harsh catchiness which betrays the ages, but here I just felt like the selections were so lacking, affixed to the clamorous, often clumsy beatings of the drums which felt like a soulless charge for 50% of the record. Don't mistake me, this is one unrelenting duo and they don't perform at a level far below most of their peers, and once in awhile the chords become a flood of jarring aggression that makes its point despite its crudeness, but apart from the occasional segue into something more atmospheric and vague, like the cleaner guitar in "Fallen Angels from the Sky", it's altogether too obsessed with setting and sticking to its Satanic status quo.

I'm not in love with the production here, either, which sounds fine for the rhythm guitar and the vocal but doesn't score many points elsewhere. The drums have a very forward, crashy, thudding jam room feel to them which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but betrays the potential atmosphere they might lend the rhythm guitars if they had been more distant and echoing. Bass guitar is buried somewhere in this, but it's just never creating any interesting lines, and is suborning to the guitars and adding little other than ballast. Most will find the mix here more up front and approachable than on prior albums like Primitive Humans Desecration or A Necessary Dehumanization, and surely this has a more robust, less dry feel to it, but I think I rather preferred the more level, cold and sinister feel on their 2012 effort Voices of the Ultimate Possession. Ultimately, where my tastes in French black metal tend more towards the esoteric and outside thinking bands like Peste Noire, DSO, Blut Aus Nord and Merrimack, I didn't get much from this, but it's not a bad record if you're seeking a stock, savage 1992-1996 black metal sound with little nuance or nonsense.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Tankard - One Foot in the Grave (2017)

Tankard has long since hit a benchmark where they could fairly effortlessly equip the nasty brand of alcoholic thrash (which put them on the map) with more epic songwriting endeavors and a lot more of a traditional metal feel, resulting in some of their better 'modern' efforts like The Beauty and the Beer or A Girl Called Cerveza. I think a lot of that strategy of taking their roots and rendering them into a more glorious form is quite dominant here on their 17th full-length as well. And yes, I'm fucking grinning ear to ear that a band like the mighty Tankard is on it's SEVENTEENTH album, and has never really taken much of a break!!! Good things CAN still happen in this divisive and confused world, and the fact I can still look forward to new records by Gerre and crew is one of those, even if they don't always ultimately end up in the eternal hard-on I've got for classics like Zombie Attack or The Morning After.

Perhaps not so surprising that One Foot in the Grave functions best when it IS trying to define a little more of a melodic sound, as in the intros to "Pay to Pray" or the title track, which seem like really excellent setups for some great, memorable tracks. Alas, once we get to the actual pounding and thrashing of the tunes, they become a little more indistinct, and suffer from a sameness to the band's prior material which I've honestly been feeling on and off since this 'modern era' of Tankard had started with Kings of Beer when Andy Gutjahr joined on guitar. Now, don't get me wrong, I think Andy's a fucking ace riffer and a hero, and I credit his tenacity for a lot of the long-term relevance of survival of this band against the trendier nu-thrash landscape. But it might just be the band's very consistency itself that causes its own problem, because very rarely do I get super excited about the riffset being used through the verses or even into the chorus parts. Leads are well done, and there are some points where I feel that intensity and excitement, but it just doesn't completely scorch me.

Not a deal breaker, of course, because elsewhere, Tankard still sounds so amazing. Gerre's venomous voice works equally well with its more sustained phrasings over the more melodic, almost power metal feel of a lot of the riffs. The bass can't compete with the rich rhythm guitars, but it does sound fat and formidable where it can pop its presence out into the mix. The drums also sound extremely potent and, really, the production of One Foot in the Grave in general is just so excellent and well-balanced that it sounds perfect coming out of my speakers at any level. Lyrically this one doesn't focus too much on the pub crawling, but more on current events, which again is nothing new for this band, since they've always been about 25% getting smashed, 25% utter goofiness and another 50% singing to the choir about things that actually might matter in the world. To sum it up, this is yet another 'good' record from the Germans, just not necessarily great. Nearly on par with its predecessor R.I.B., but no cigar. A lot of the core riffing could benefit from a little more risk and unpredictability, but the stuff just sounds so pure and professional that it compensates a little for not having the most ear-sticking verses or choruses.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Time Lurker - Time Lurker (2017)

A lot of the albums I've listened through and covered from Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions excel within the atmospheric fold. That's not to say that I've enjoyed them all equally, but this is an area which the label clearly has good ears for, and consistently signs and releases acts which adhered to that virtue perhaps more than serving as riff machines alone. Time Lurker, a one-man French act, is perhaps the best representative of that trait which I have yet heard from this particular stable, and the eponymous full-length debut is an effort likely to satiate a large cross-space of extreme metal listeners who fancy both the sludgier side of the black metal spectrum or its blackgaze constituents.

This is a spacious, assured album swollen with memorable moments that are created merely by the shifting of note progressions, and just slams you with walls of emotional, dramatic atmosphere that aren't the product of too many gimmicks within the instrumentation...only its presentation. The vast, painful rasped vocals serve as just another icing atop the cosmic, drifting currents manifest through the guitars alone, often just tremolo picked with a natural ebullience, or plotted out in simpler chord structures that carry the lower end, nigh-on-droning weight. It's another of those albums in which the objective might seem strictly darkness, but those lighter, pervasive, 'warmer' elements of the songwriting narrative are what provide its most catchy components. This contrast works even where the album takes an instrumental turn, as on "Reborn", which is naught but shimmering guitars hitting a crescendo that takes them straight into the evening stratosphere. Sonic override, and you can even hear little hints of New Age guru Vangelis in the backing synthesized tones near its climax!

8+ minute tracks justify their duration by having just enough of these little tectonic, riveting shifts that you never grow too tired of them...even the staggering 11+ opening piece "Rupture", which sets the stage for a lot of what occurs afterwards tonally. Note phrasings don't always themselves seem so interesting or catchy, but it's how the musician (Mick) fashions them into the greater picture which makes it so impactful, and it even seems that the deeper into the track list you go, the better the album the cathartic and twisting "No Way Out from Mankind" which cultivates a more frenetic and black metallic presence but still segues into these tremolo picked, careening passages that help accent the thundering percussion beneath. Time Lurker might be a disc that requires a few spins to appreciate, since it's not gunning with genius riffs nor is it distinctly original, but once you mold yourself to its peaks, valleys, contours, it's a trip that becomes well worth taking repeatedly.

Verdict: Win [8/10]