Monday, October 30, 2017

Acid Witch - Evil Sound Screamers (2017)

The Midnight Movies EP was an interesting distraction, but not one I really got into much more than just its novelty, instead pining for the next of Acid Witch's original full-lengths, since they had been on an incline from Witchtanic Hellucinations through Stoned to the Spooky split they put out with Nunslaughter. With Evil Sound Screamers, Slasher Dave and company retain a chunk of their original doom style and then dress it up with a lot more silly horror/Halloween influences than ever before, to the point of utter absurdity. And you know what? If you're in the proper mindset, with a couple dripping candles, a pipe or bong, and a stack of the cheesy yet unforgettable horror VHS tapes, I don't know how you listen through this without at least smirking, if not just having an outright blast as it lurches along with goofy confidence.

The focus here is on a hybrid of Sabbathian stoner-doom with the slightly more refined, melodic strains of riffs that hail from European Gothic doom bands who were themselves inspired by those forebears, but took it to another level of atmosphere. Trad metal and rock influences abound, but these are woven into the measured, patient pace of the album's deep, raw grooves. But that's really just the bedrock of the recording, because they proceed to smother it with synths and organs and all manner of growls and higher pitched, witchy vocals to the point that it almost would seem as if it were cluttering up the mix if it weren't so damned, ironically alluring. I wouldn't say that any of the individual guitar lines were all that remarkable, and in fact a number of them are really predictable, but the sum of this album is just one that feels unique to Acid Witch, because it doesn't take itself so seriously and instead smears you with a face full of over-the-top atmosphere, and a riff set that at least tries to diversify itself so you can discern individual tracks from one another and not just have some overlong, samey slog which is not uncommon in the subgenre.

I really enjoyed the use of the samples here; when combined with some acoustic or keyboard they seem to manifest this strange meta-commentary on cult horror, while ceding the album completely to the heavy metal elements. The synths really are a dominant force, generally used to convey the mood of campy haunted houses, theme parks or the sorts of pads and pitches you'd expect from b-grade horror scores of decades past, like thick distorted runs that will often be matched up with Dave's growling (as in "Cheap Gore"). Or sometimes, they'll ramp up the fuzz on the guitars as they do in "Nain Rouge (The Red Dwarf)" to a super-desert-stoner-rock degree just to keep the listener from roiling over in any form of redundancy. Evil Sound Screams is far from complex, but the panoply of sounds it manages to sneak in there keep it fresh and compelling and in their strange way present a band on the precipice of some form of progression, no matter how crude its core.

That's not to say it's without its annoyances, since some of the harsher growls can fall a little flat, or some of the shrieked vocals just make it feel like the band is fooling around too much. "Enter At Your Own Risk" is almost a pure crone-like narrative piece, for example, where each word evoked might have you keel over laughing, but even here it's really flush with the theme of the album, the tongue-in-cheek sorcery the band as always clad itself in. It's not going to be for everyone, because it's a dense, sloppy mess at points, and some might not get its sense of humor. But by the time the album bursts into "Hardrock Halloween", which opens with the album's sleaziest upbeat metal number, drizzled in bluesy lead syrup, I couldn't stop the time it hit the titular closing track, its best and most epic, I just didn't want the damn thing to end. That proggy horror bridge is amazing, and it gets super doomed out at the end before ending in some cinematic ambiance and PSA funk. After which, I go on and spin the whole thing again, because it's an album that embodies so much of my generation's nostalgia for Halloween...the night before Halloween...and the most fun I've had with Acid Witch yet.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Van Helsing's Curse - Oculum Infernum: A Halloween Tale (2004)

Large-cast rock opera records have been quite the rage in metal for years now, popularized by acts like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Ayreon and Avantasia just to name a handful. For the considerable repertoire of its constituents, Van Helsing's Curse seems to be one that was highly overlooked, the brainchild of Twisted Sister and Widowmaker frontman and American icon Dee Snider, to pay tribute to his love for Halloween and horror classics. A so-called 'soundtrack' to the holiday, metalized and populated with a roster that I hesitate to call a 'supergroup' beyond Dee himself, Al Pitrelli, and a couple unsung veterans like bassist Greg Smith who has performed with everyone from Alice Cooper and Vinnie Moore to Hellion and the Plasmatics. Much of the lineup here is instead comprised of ensemble musicians, with trombones, trumpets, french horns, strings and a slew of backing vocalists to further its operatic nature and narrative.

Speaking of the 'narrative', it's dictated by Snider himself, and one of the components of the album I found the most cheesy and imbalanced with the more swollen seriousness of the orchestration. To be frank, this sounds about as basic as a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album in terms of how uninspired and straightforward the guitars are, and how obvious the rest of the instrumentation plays out, only its got that wannabe John Carpenter feel to it that is often nigh indistinguishable from a lot of films that would bite off the Halloween score long ago (I think there's even a bonus track for a later edition of this which covers that very piece). That's not to say it doesn't hit some original notes, in particular the vocal arrangements and a few Al's guitar fills that you might not expect going in, but they're all washed out by the terribly boring use of plodding guitar mutes or chord progressions that require literally no effort except plugging in a guitar. The production of the record is expansive, often giving it the feel as if its being bounced off the ceiling of some epic cathedral, but most of my issues came with the fact that it's an extremely consonant, uplifting, never appreciably dark or creepy, and just how many times do I need to hear re-interpretations of the Halloween tune or the opera staple "Carmin Burana"? Oculum Infernum just does not go far enough into the thematic territory it so wishes to capitulate towards, and settles for far too many generic thrills.

It gets a little more exciting when you get Al jamming in the bridges of pieces like "The Child", but even then it sounds awfully you've heard some other rock opera bands he plays with. Some of the horns blare out in an appreciably moody fashion, as in the swooning "Tortured Soul". The Van Helsing family theme throughout is flimsy at best, a kind of generic 'good vs' evil' scheme, pitting off the monster hunters with vampires and other beings reduced to 'darkness'. A whole lot of the lyrics are presented in Latin to adhere to the album's operatic nature and the ancient struggle it presumes to represent. And, sadly, the most evil sounding part of the whole affair is the "Black Sabbath" cover near the end, threaded with lots of little proggy and symphonic touches, and operatic vocals that don't exactly expand upon its inherent darkness, but still manage to transform the piece as most worthwhile cover do. Apart from the corny voices Dee is doing, in true horror-circus fashion, I actually think most of the instruments sound pretty clear and full, but apart from an occasional bass groove or pick-up in the drumming, some of them don't have much to do.

Now, I like Dee Snider, not only as a singer but as an outstanding human being. I still spin a lot of Twisted Sister stuff and I like a few tunes from his other projects. But this one was clearly a miss, not of gargantuan proportions, but the effort in putting it together just doesn't justify the results on the disc itself. You could take almost any random Therion record from the mid-90s or beyond and get a more effective experience in the same vein, and those can often feel genuinely gloomy and evil, where Oculum Infernum struggles. Heck, Music from 'The Elder' crushes this. I can't say it's a great soundtrack for Halloween when there are just so many others available, either quality horror scores, goofy dance songs, or King Diamond and Alice Cooper albums you could rock out to. So who is this for? I guess if you're a HUGE fan of Dead Winter De...I mean Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and you want a fractionally more 'dark' version of the same, or perhaps TSO to swap holidays, then this might scratch your itch. I just found the whole thing too obvious and uninteresting, and thus I'm not too shocked that the project had such a brief shelf life.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Monday, October 23, 2017

White Zombie - La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 (1992)

La Sexorcisto was a pretty interesting turn of events for the New York based White Zombie, trading in a lot of the grit and grime of their asphalt and trash-soaked Soul Crusher and Make Them Die Slowly for something more notably upbeat and accessible, which drew upon influences like groove metal, stoner rock and probably a lot of Slayer riffing of around that early 90s period which I hear a lot of tonal nods towards. Where the older material was more like a driving, dirty heavy/doom, and distinct in its own rite due to Rob's unmistakable, grating roadkill vocal style, it didn't have a lot of potential in terms of giving the band its breakthrough, which this record did in spades. While Devil Music Vol. 1 wasn't my own first rodeo with the band (I had picked up Make Them Die Slowly since Rob Cummings grew up in the town next to mine), but I can imagine for a lot of folks this was the initial exposure to their sound, specifically "Thunder Kiss '65" and its video which were popular and fairly well-rotated on the radio and MTV.

I had enjoyed the sophomore to an extent, despite its flaws, but for me the real attraction to Devil Music Vol. 1 was how it created this entire universe of horror, exploitation, smut and schlock and then seamlessly fused it to the riffing and vocal styles. It was like Zombie and crew created their own dialect out of Hollywood sleaze, creature features, pornographic kitsch, slasher flicks, Halloween parties, acid trips, and well-placed cussing, which was then offered up as an hour long language lesson you could bang your dreads to...or for the sellouts like myself, your freshly-cut High School graduation hair. There really was very little like this at the can hear some clear inferences to the aforementioned Slayer, Texas' Pantera, who were also blowing up at this time, and perhaps a metal counterpart to My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult's seedy dance club aesthetics. There are samples and atmospherics splattered all over the record, expertly placed to give maximum impact to the themes imparted through the lyrics, and also a foreshadowing of the more industrial direction they'd take with their fourth and final album Astro-Creep 2000 in 1995.

More importantly, it all works so well together here that this quickly became a shoe-in for one of the most entertaining metal records of 1992, a rather barren year in many scenes, as thrash was on its way out to be replaced by grunge, rap-rock, and the ever increasing brutality of death metal. In fact it's STILL fun, a quarter century later. White Zombie were one of the band's that managed to ride out that transition, by honing in on simplistic, catchy rhythms, chugs that were often laden with bluesy wailing, Southern rock personality circa Clutch, and an image that looked like apocalyptic voodoo hippies had gone on a shoplifting spree through Vegas and the Sunset Strip. The music might seem a little basic these days, but it's also timeless, hitting climaxes like the wah-wah smothered lead bridge of "Thunder Kiss '65" over that unforgettable, evil groove. Sean Yseult's bass lines were nothing too special, but they have a good flow to them, and their audible presence in the recording helps to fatten up Jay Yuenger's rhythms which aren't all that leaden or heavy by themselves, ranging between slow to mid-paced heavy/thrashing to a semi-sludge sensibility with a slightly neutered production.

Ivan de Prume's also play an enormous role, steady rock beats pepped up with lots of cymbals and a feel like he's smacking his kit on the back of a pickup truck rolling down a highway, but if there's any real star here it has to be Zombie, truly establishing the syllabic and thematic blueprints he would stick to all through his successive solo career, a voice that feels like a posse of enraged bayou hunters on the trail of a runaway drug addicts. Harsh and goofy in equal measures, howling with sustain where a verse or chorus calls for it, but delivered with an almost funky pace and inflection, as if he were a reincarnation of James Brown that had watched too many John Carpenter flicks as a child and abused every substance available. His range is admittedly limited to a few notes and verse patterns that he uses over, and over, and over, but there are so few front men I can think of who leave who could leave such an immediate impression (for better or worse). Maybe Jet from Boston thrash hardcore locals SamBlackChurch, who was even more schizo in delivery, but on the world stage?

This really felt like something new had shown up. Even the way the lyrics channel these old racing films and horror concepts (like Richard Matheson's I Am Legend which is paid tribute by a tune of the same name), it seems so stream-of-conscious and lovably absurd, barked out beat poetry, heavily threaded with Zombie's timely uses of 'fucker' and 'motherfucker' and 'YEAH!' The lyrics in tunes like "Cosmic Monsters, Inc." and "Starface" are just incredible. The tough part is deciding whether I like this album or Astro-Creep 2000 better. That feels like a heavier and more existential experience, with some really surprising moments, where this is the more low-down, cheesy and amusing, the real catalyst for Rob's career in both music and as a film director. I can't be the only person who was getting psychic flashbacks to the songs on this record the first time I watched The Devil's Rejects, and even when screening the more recent, mixed-bag that is 31, I was mentally referencing this shit. I don't listen to this in full as much anymore, but it was a good time then, it's a good time now. La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 is just one of those metal anomalies whose shadow I am fortunate to get to stand in from time to time, especially around Halloween.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (you shook the devil's dig deep hand today)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Temple of Void - Of Terror and the Supernatural (2014)

Death/doom of the variety played by Temple of Void always seems to be a highly lauded niche in the wider metal medium, but I'd be lying to say that I'd heard many bands coming along over this last decade who do anything truly unique or interesting with the style. As cool as it looks, Of Terror and the Supernatural is not quite an exception to that cycle of aesthetic repetition, but that's really one of the only complaints I could launch against it, because this is a confident, consistent debut with enormous production that should resonate off the walls and vaulted ceilings of whatever ancient ruined structure it transports you to. What might have turned out to be another dreary, dull and redundant collection of growls and vapid chord progressions is instead something measurably more.

You'll pick up a whiff of the early British forebears of this style, particular a Paradise Lost or My Dying Bride circa the earlier 90s, especially in how the use of simple melodies serves as bleak lamentations over the rhythms beneath, but at the same time I felt like this band was traveling in a more purely old school, slower paced death metal direction akin to Bolt Thrower or Asphyx. The popular band Hooded Menace would be a more direct comparison, but Temple of Void seems a lot more solemn and serious than those Finns were, at least on their first few albums. They also seem to sidestep the more cavernous equations of so many of their peers today; you can draw a few lines to an Incantation, but these guys aren't quite so churning and dynamic. You could play the shit out of this in some underground warren, but it's far more about patience and developing each track to sound so huge, and it needs to be played out to some dark, brooding sky.

Simple, open chord or chugging sequences are accented by glazes of dour melodies, and a guttural vocal perfection that is mixed to perfection. Sure, the delivery can grow a little monotonous, but the levels of reverb against the other instruments are simply amazing, and once it cedes into a pair of gloomy harmonies you really get nailed with the full, doomed potency of the performance. That Temple of Void are so unafraid to use leads, or other melodic details like the organs and synths, is a huge part of why I was engaged throughout the entire 50 minutes of the experience, and in some instances, like the instrumental "To Carry This Corpse Evermore", they'll go even further, with an acoustic folk piece that feels, in its own way, just as massive as the heavier chunks of the material. Bass is kept at a solid level, and while the drums mete out the simpler beats you usually come to associate with the death/doom or funeral doom styles, they're another well produced component that adds a good level of power, splash and gravity to the procession.

Musically, it doesn't feel quite as creepy as the excellent Bruce Pennington cover art or the album title would suggest, but certainly morbid and sorrow-spun in the wake of its growl-doom ancestors. By giving the riffs and melodies space to breathe, and not stocking up too highly on dissonance, they help crack open the imagination to those dank, shadowy corners it might have not visited since those formative 90s. Most of the chills will come through the lyrics, which are well penned to cover their classic scare subjects, like lycanthropy, undeath, and hopeless isolation, with maybe a little cosmic horror lurking through the eaves. Of Terror and the Supernatural took me a few listens to really digest and appreciate, not because it isn't immediately accessible, but just because it's not the easiest mood for me to attain in my increasingly hectic family and social life. Once I did, it was like a cold win blew out the sun like a candle, and I felt like I were experiencing it from the vantage point of a stone coffin. A strong, if not highly original debut here, and I'm eager to check out the follow-up.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (you too have died)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Exhumed - Death Revenge (2017)

Innovation is an unlikely event at this point in the trajectory of California's Carcass-inspired death-grinders Exhumed, but I'm not sure if it's even needed. If they can consistently deliver the goods like they have with their 6th full-length (discounting the comps and re-recording of Gore Metal), and sound like they're having a whole lot of fucking fun doing so, then I just don't see myself growing the least bit bored listening to it. This is not a band which has ever let me down, not to say that all their records have been equivalent with one another in quality, but there isn't one among them that I'd put on and not enjoy to some extent. Having said that, Death Revenge is the most entertainment I've had since Anatomy is Destiny in 2003, and it wisely carries forward a lot of the little permutations they first made on that album to glorious results...

In fact, I think Death Revenge serves as a sort of retrospective of all their output, perhaps never going quite as visceral or heavy as Gore Metal or Slaughtercult, but certainly putting the pedal to the deathgrind and keeping pace with some of their faster canon when it needs to. Much of the writing here is of a mid paced, clinical death/thrashing variety, consistent with Necrocacy and All Guts, No Glory before it, very heavily focused on eking out memorable riff patterns and then splattering them with all manner of wailing, amusing heavy metal leads. Exhumed started to take on a more melodic quality on that third album which they've maintained, and it simply adds so much more variety then had they just kept channeling Symphonies of Sickness or Necroticism. They never quite go full on heavy metal or rock & roll like their inspirations did as the 90s wore on, but keep the progressions punchy and intricate, with lots of flash and flair, as in cuts like "Defenders of the Grave" and "Dead End", busy and kinetic enough to mask the fact that you've probably heard most of these riffs before, and not afraid to splay you out with the meatsaw blasting when it fits.

The mix is clean and balanced, maybe a little too dry or polished in places, but to make up for that it delivers clarity between the rhythms, leads, percussion, snarls and gutturals, even the bass as it pops and plunks and thunders along, often using a lot of simpler, sustained notes under the kinetic guitars to give the sound a nice roundedness. The leads here are every bit as precise and competent as on a Surgical Steel or At the Gates' At War With Reality; a component of the band that has become so important in that it precludes them just endlessly aping their first two albums, which were much more unhinged in that department. The blasting is furious enough to balance off against the headbanging mid-speeds and breakdowns. What's more, there are lots of subtle little nods here to thrash and death metal icons of past and present, specifically a few evil Slayer-like progressions or moments where you feel like you've been submerged in some long lost Death track from the late 80s. Lots of details for something that is essentially as straightforward as past outings.

Furthermore, this is just aesthetically satisfying, with an orchestrated, cinematic piano/synth/string intro well worthy of horror classics in the 70s and 80s, reaching a huge crescendo before the bands kicks up the grave dirt and twists your head off in its zombified arms. The artwork choice is really fucking awesome, a folded up poster look from some cult US or Italian cinema which is more than likely gonna involve mobile corpses or some psycho you're not going to want (or get) a second date with. The lyrics are genuinely excellent, with a lot of effort put into them and a lot more elaborate prose than your typical gore mavens, a really cool grave robbing theme and narrative set in early 19th century Scotland! All the pieces are in place here, perhaps not for a true classic of the decade, or even a year's end contender, but just an extremely competent, seasoned record that seems rather timeless in its appeal despite the fact that it doesn't have all the best riffs and vocals exactly where you'd want to shove them. I even kind dug the cover of Exodus "A Lesson in Violence", if only because it was cool to hear them try some blasting and Schuldiner-like growls in it, instead of copying it straight up.

Just a great album for applying your Halloween prosthetics, or kicking back some drinks while you wait for your buds to show up for a slasher marathon. Easily recommended to fans of Impaled, early 90s Carcass, Ghoul, Ex Dementia or the last three records by this very band, Death Revenge proves yet again that Exhumed is one of our very best, dependable American death metal acts, where so many of its peers and precursors flicker, falter and occasionally fuck right off.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (Child of the grave in name and fact)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Force of Evil - Black Empire (2005)

Force of Evil was a project I had pretty high hopes for back when it was active, largely because I hadn't been truly satisfied with a lot of the later Mercyful Fate and King Diamond material, save for 9 and the Abigail sequel, so hearing a 'supergroup' that would bark up that same, twisted tree was promising. That the project was almost entirely comprised of alumni from those two Danish greats was an even greater reason to be excited...Denner. Shermann. Patino, and Holm. Three of those names I'd follow off a cliff, even with the possibility of impending disaster. Well, Black Empire is not quite a disaster, and superior to the eponymous record from 2003, but it does have one obstacle in vocalist Martin Steene that it can never seem to shake...

I'm not saying Martin Steene performs poorly here, this is a guy with more than capable lungs who simply seems to lack focus. When he's on point, as he is occasionally in his mainstay Iron Fire, he delivers a kinetic, frilly, unique pitch that might have distinguished him among the crowded Euro power field. I just think he goofs off too much, or he goes overboard, attempt to ape a lot of different vocal styles and exhibit his range, and some times the screams get a little try-hard when he's going full King Diamond or Ripper Owens mode, which is unnecessary over a lot of this music. I get that he's got the Mercyful Fate guys in the band, and maybe there was a particular set of expectations that this was some sort of proxy for them, but Black Empire only really comes together when he's just absorbing the music and complementing it with his mid-range and pacing, whereas on tunes like the titular opening he's just all over the place trying to develop a more orchestrated, schizophrenic performance that just loses me entirely. This happens on roughly 50% of the album.

Vocals aside, the music here is generally consistent, varied and interesting enough that the listener's attention won't lapse too long. There is a good deal of straight-ahead, mid-paced Germanic power metal rocking, mixed with a lot of the dingier, haunted grooves of the Shermann/Denner team that one would have come to expect from 90s Mercyful Fate fare like In the Shadows or Time. A lot of cool, cleaner guitars and audible bass hooks (like in "Days of Damien") help to round off the metal edge, and you can tell the band put a lot of thought into their choices, attempting to find a common ground between that reunion Fate era, and Steene's own band. However, while the music is well enough written, I often found that the grooves lacked the atmosphere and memorable chords that were so important on much of In the Shadows, replacing those traits with a more modern polish that doesn't do much for me. When they pick up the pacing towards power metal, the riffs also just seem to fly by without sticking to me.

The production sounds great, even when Steene is performing his theatrics, the tone of the rhythm guitars has a nice, clear cut to it that beautifully sets up the leads, and allows the drumming and the bass to hover through. The songs are all paeans to various horror stories or films, and they don't just stick with the safer choices either...Damien and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are paid tribute, but there are also tracks here devoted to movies like Candyman or In the Mouth of Madness, to name a few. "Disciples of the King" is just dedicated to Stephen King in general. Heavy metal and horror movies have had a relationship for all the decades they've existed together, but I often find that the music just feels too bright and glorious to truly convey the themes expressed in the lyrics. Like those other Danish legends which supplied the band's lineup, Force of Evil does focus a little on getting this right, with mixed results...the moodier sequences with the cleaner guitars are quite well done, but often erupt into lackluster melodies and riffs.

The cover art also looks pretty hot, but I'm not sure that it has much to do with the music. A pretty package, all told, but not really living up to its potential. With all the great Fate albums between Denner and Shermann, this one doesn't hold a lot of appeal, not even against the middling Dead Again. Or if you'd like to see more hard hitting material from the duo, their latest collaboration for the album Masters of Evil has better riffing than what you'll find on the two Force full-lengths. This is far more than a trainwreck, committed to its subject matter, and competently executed, it just doesn't add up to something I've ever wanted to listen to repeatedly.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (it's a long walk in the dark)

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mystic Circle - Damien (2002)

Mystic Circle had a fairly substantial career, starting in 1992, as one of Germany's earlier black metal acts, and dropping a number of albums on fairly visible labels like Last Episode, Massacre and eventually Dockyard 1 for their swan song. Through this period, their progress ran parallel to the rise of black metal to its mid-90s popularity, but they were often critiqued of having a lot of vapid and unmemorable records that were lost in the shuffle of the genre's explosion and subsequent over-saturation during that era. That said, as you'll hear on this or a number of their other albums, it was not for lack of trying, because these guys hit fairly hard and maintain a level of consistency that suffers only through its lack of any real distinction; nothing that really stood out against their peers from the Scandinavian countries; nothing unique like what you'd hear from the Greeks, Czechs, French, etc.

Damien, it should be said, is one of their stronger, more intense efforts, and like on a number of their other albums, they're quite capable of grabbing a concept from either horror or the occult and then committing to painting it into a tempestuous landscape. This record features a lot of traits which you would expect from any album celebrating our favorite Satanic love-child, from the organs and synths that lend it a sacrilegious shade, to some evil, thundering black metal which makes you feel as if you're being torn apart by demon-driven attack dogs. Mystic Circle were a band often heralded as a Teutonic alternative to a Cradle of Filth or Dimmu Borgir, and this comparison does hold for this particular album, which threads a lot of leads and keys in with its rhythm guitar riffing, and a heavily symphonic structure and bombast, though they don't layer that on too thick, and permit the intensity of the blasting, chugging and chord patterns control the tempo, which ultimately gives this disc a slightly different feel than those more popular acts.

This album really has a pummeling, forceful low end to it created by the grimy tone of the rhythm guitar, which seems to hone in on the bottom strings rather than the cold, razor-tinted chords that thrive among the many traditional black metal acts. It's almost like a death metal battery at points, but glazed over with the snarled vocals, thickly embedded synthesizers and slightly audible spurts of shredding guitars that give it a nice, frantic effect. A great example of this is "God is Dead, Satan Arise" which beat me to a pulp, even if it doesn't escalate into anything truly unforgettable. There is a slight monotony to the album in that so much of it seems to consist of the same, tirelessly thundering pace with only small variations in the note pickings, synth lines and vocal patterns, but when it gels together it really is something you can feel in your gut. A more visceral and brutal aesthetic than you might expect from the climbing, almost operatic evil of The Omen itself, but lyrically this album is more of a direct invocation to some Satanic apocalypse, and uses the film as an inspiration towards that end rather than a strict narrative outline.

The intro and interlude pieces are brooding, and lovingly cheesy, with deeper string sounds and then flurries of chiming dissonance. They merge pretty well with the bulkier disposition of the guitars. I doubt there are even a half dozen riffs throughout the album that stick to my memory, and some are painfully generic and predictable, but many others are at least smooth and sinister enough that they are engaging for the ears to follow. It's a textbook 'solid' sort of album, which I can still listen through 15 years later and enjoy to an extent, but would rarely choose it over those examples of its genre which I find preferably inspired or original. If anything, it's evidence enough that these Germans could perform, and in better times might have spread greater ripples were there just not so much competition overshadowing them. A moot point, now that they've been broken up for nearly a decade, but in some alternate universe I wouldn't be surprised to see Mystic Circle clinging on to some esteemed veteran status, having survived the backlash against the more mainstream side of the black metal spectrum and garnered respect from even the lowliest heckling cellar trolls.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (even now he's in the world)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ex Dementia - Crack the Coffin (2017)

Crack the Coffin is a record that honestly surprised me, not that I had any doubt as to Ex Dementia's musical ability, but because it's just so well written, accessible and fun for its style that I'm shocked it isn't being spoken about more, or at least being released officially through a label. Whether or not you're into its style is a matter of personal taste, but this is an album that can easily insert itself into a cross-section of metal audiences who will appreciate it for the level of clarity, catchy riffs and leads, and adherence to the themes offered through its colorful comic book artwork that will instantly draw your attention if you're into classic horror graphics ranging from the Marvel and DC magazines of decades gone, Rob Zombie animations or even the Mignola-verse of Hellboy and company.

Yet the music is even better. Some will brand this melodic death metal, and that's not an invalid label at all, but unlike a lot of music of that medium its components are more clearly extricable from the typical morass of genre-smash ups. The rhythm guitars are almost entirely thrash metal based, and smothered in tasteful, rock star lead work that constantly ramps up the excitement level while not leeching away from any perceived punch of heaviness. The exceptions are tremolo picked passages or chord selections more reminiscent of thrash's evolution into the formative, Floridian style of death metal, in particular the first few Death records, only the production here isn't quite so abrasive or raw. You'll get a pretty wide variety of riffs, from straight up Exodus neck-bangers, to faster palm muted thrusts and eerie melodies that were highly redolent of the pair-up of Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick over the classic Testament discography. Where it gets grimier and more intense it can verge of the Carcass-fed death metal style that bands like Ghoul, Impaled and Exhumed worship, but the mix is just so clean that it doesn't aesthetically feel too much like any of those.

The majority of its death metal element centers on the vocals, an entertaining guttural which is often slathered in snarled or growled 'harmonizing', again in that age-old grind-borne Carcass camp, or akin to Deicide in places. However, while sustained in spots, the vocal patterns are more punctuated, coming off like a mix of David Vincent, Max Cavalera and the front men to the thrash acts I had previously mentioned. At any rate, they never feel lazy or sloppy, but precisely plotted to give the riffs a maximum of amusing impact and to balance off against the slew of leads. Speaking of which, these are almost to the point of transforming Crack the Coffin into a 'guitar hero' sort of record, not because they're glaringly original or innovative, but because they clearly show an influence from bands like Megadeth, or again, Testament, who always emphasized the importance of this to their own classic compositions. At no point do they feel wanky and excessive, but they're obviously a huge part of this record, even more so than when bands like Carcass or Impaled would use them.

The drums sound great, mixed for adept heaviness, and the bass guitar is fat and audible plodding alongside the neck straining guitars on tunes like "Splattervision Channel 3". The introduction to the album, "Trials and Exhumations", opens with a great horror-style intro that's obviously a play on the classic like Carpenter's Halloween theme, only enriched once it transforms into melodic guitars, not unlike something the Swedish band Raise Hell would do. The cover of the Misfits' "Skulls" is a bit bland, but only because it's much the same as the original, with the vocals changed to growls, but little other metalization, something I'm always fond of hearing on these sorts of tributes. Thankfully that's just the end of the record, and the 22 short and sweet moments leading up to it are incredibly consistent, engaging and well worth your time if you're into the sort of stuff I've compared it to, or you just want a fun Halloween thrashing with death metal tendencies. Prior albums were far from slouches, but this kicks The Red Mass in the pants, indicative that the eight years since that time were put to great use as these Jersey boys honed their chops.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cardiac Arrest - Cadaverous Presence (2008)

Cardiac Arrest is another of those hard working Midwestern acts which never seems to quite catch a break or generate a ton of buzz despite being capable at its craft. While they've never really put out anything that blew me away, records like Haven for the Insane and Vortex of Violence have been serviceable, competent and entertaining old school death metal platters that stand out to me mostly because they pursue a style that is simply not heard too often in the realm of brutastic boor-wankers, Dismember addicts, cavern core drillers and Floridian acolytes. Instead, they've got a sound strikingly reminiscent of English death and grind circa early Carcass and Bolt Thrower, perhaps with a little Repulsion in there and a whole lot of horror influence rather than songs about medical processes or Warhammer.

When I say 'reminiscent', I don't mean that they completely ape those bands' tones, but rather feel like a parallel, North American development to them, with some similarities in riff construction, chord choices, and pacing. For example, the instrumental intro, "The Inevitable" sounds a hell of a lot like something you'd hear Karl Willetts growling over, a slow and churning piece with groovier drums that almost can't support the fuzzed out rhythm guitar tone. The title track definitely has a couple of roiling riffs, as in the bridge breakdown, which would have fit right in on Symphonies of Sickness, though they also break out into a lot less distinct grinding and blasting, faster patterns that are in the Morbid Angel camp, and then some leads whipping their tendrils about that feel a bit aimless but not out of place. You can hear traces of a few other influences in here, like old Pestilence or maybe even the first Entombed record, but that constant grinding to grooving ratio evokes a whole lot of the Earache camp circa the late 80s or early 90s, which is surely a nostalgia trigger.

As for production standards, this is naturally a little weaker than the records to come after it, with the drums a little weak in the mix to support that excessively fuzzy guitar tone. Combined with the distortion levels on the bass, this is where part of the Repulsion comparison comes in, and you could make an argument that Cadaverous Presence is a more dynamic alternative to Horrified, those dynamics taking the form of the riffs and progressions which sound like the other bands I've brought up. This is ugly, hostile and ultimately punishing, with just barely enough polish to place it beyond the live or rehearsal category of recording. But, at the same time, that actually lends it some character and forces the listener into a more terrifying, grotesque dimension in which they've got to earn their appreciation a little more. The range of riffs, which aren't terribly catchy on an individual basis, is another strong point, since it's interesting and varied enough to prevent this from being some slog saved only by its disgusting tones.

Alas, that's not to say I think this is an album as good as those to follow it. The gutturals are rather monotonous and sound more like your average brutal death frontman, both in tone and the patterns of syllables being belched out. Half the riffs are exciting, the others are entirely forgettable, while the balance of the guitars and drums doesn't exactly allow them to properly complement one another. Apart from the sheer visceral nature of the music, the titles and artwork, there is very little here that rises above the horror level of your average slasher. That said, its truly fuzzy and abusive nature will certainly appeal to some that miss when death and grind bands reveled in raw production, and there are least the inklings and intentions of cool songwriting ideas buried across its twisted, fleshy canvas.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]