Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Pestilence - Hadeon (2018)

If it weren't painfully obvious from the cover artwork, Hadeon is a clear homage to Pestilence's early 90s output, namely Testimony of the Ancients and its jazzier, stranger successor Spheres. In this it draws some comparisons also to their divisive 2009 reunion effort Resurrection Macabre, on which there were clearly some stylistic parallels to Testimony, albeit handled in a more methodical, brutal and explosive way that I happened to really enjoy. Unlike that album, however, Mameli and company have done away with the idiosyncratic barkings of the song titles within the fore and aft of each track. Unlike its true 1991 precursor, you also won't a whole roster of experimental vignettes to distract you from the meat of the metal, and that actually ramps up the album's effectiveness.

That's not to say that some experimentation doesn't exist...like the intro, or the instrumental interlude "Sudivisions", upon which bassist Tilen Hudrap flies all over his frets until we become dizzied by his absolute mastery of that instrument. The first moment of "Astral Projection" is a strange robotic sort of proggy narrative which wouldn't have been out of place on Spheres, without the production gaffes that many complained about on that album. For most of its playtime, however, Hadeon is a relatively straightforward affair that plays it safe for fans of the aforementioned albums, but occasionally rips out a riffing progression, melody or technique that hasn't been beaten to death already. To those who abhorred their previous, mechanical groove-laden records Doctrine and Obsideo, I think this might prove a welcome relief, for while it does often feel like its paraphrased from songs they've already written, that dark, overall jazzy vibe to the sliding chords combined with the brute vocals and leads that hearken back to the fusion elements the band was so beholden in the 90s still feels fresh and unique enough to stand out against a wide landscape of bands that never quite took the carrot.

The production is punchy and polished, akin to its direct predecessors, which pairs up well with the busy but clean bass-lines which are a joy to hear throughout. Mameli still might not have the same bloodsoaked charisma as van Drunen during the band's fantastic, formative phase, but he is more than adequate to the task, adding a nice little grueling sustain to many of the lines that provides a cool counterbalance to the much tidier tension of the riffs. Septimiu Hărşan's drums are likewise up to par, an intense but controlled performance that loads in just enough fills for propulsion to what are a generally mid-paced set of rhythms, yet he could fly off the handle at will, and the double kick is sounding as effortless as you could want it on any modern death metal recording. But most important for me, is that Hadeon grew on me across successive listens, easing me out of the whole 'well this just sounds derivative' category and into genuine enjoyment. There hasn't been a Pestilence studio album that I've actually disliked, but this is far more in the direction of where I think they 'need to be' than the last two, with more fluid and intricate musicianship that they had eschewed to attempt that more pounding, grooving, hypnotic effect. The songs aren't unanimously memorable, but I think if they use this as the groundwork to launch this particular style onto an even more insane, intense plain, then I'm looking forward to the flight.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


Friday, January 26, 2018

Accu§er - The Mastery (2018)

Accu§er's second full-length for Metal Blade records dials back a little of that groove/thrash influence which had survived by a thread since their 90s era, and instead seems like a block of structured, pure Bay Area thrash tempered with a few fragments of the staple Germanic go-to's. In particular it's the vocals which continue to remind me of a less grating, charming Tom Angelripper which cause me to make that comparison, but I think some of the more clinical mute picked harmonies here also possess some faint similarities to late 80s Destruction, Vendetta and Deathrow, and they use these as points of interest in a number of the tracks here which might seem blander without them, although the overall impression of The Mastery is that it's not truth in advertising.

It's a solid effort, unquestionable, and belongs in a career cluster with the three preceding it, but while this isn't technically a samey, unanimous record in terms of riff construction, a lot of the tunes seemed to bleed together for me, and it grow a little dull despite the energy on exhibit. The vocals rarely spit out anything of interest, lack a real sense of grit and anger even compared to The Forlorn Divide, and sometimes they even seem an afterthought to the riffing rather than a complement to it. The mix of the instruments is admittedly more level than on the last album, but I feel that it lacks the dynamic range, especially the bass and the depth of the palm muted parts. The bridges and leads here are still quite competent, but they seem a little less emotionally resonant, or drier than those from 2016. A couple epic moments, in tunes like "My Skin" and "Time for Silence", keep this one far above the slag heap that represented their career from Double Talk to Agitation, but it's not as formidable as Diabolic or The Forlorn Divide and grinds the band's upward momentum to a halt, without spilling them off the side of the highway overpass. Not the best of their resurgence era, but competent, and void of any truly jarring flaws. Folks into later Testament, Defiance, Warbringer, or Exodus could find enough meat to gnaw on here.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Accu§er - The Forlorn Divide (2016)

Accu§er was never a band I cared to follow too closely until I had gone into my extensive German thrash review cycle some years ago, largely because in the 80s they were vaguely decent at best, never really appealing to me as much as their peers. Like a lot of other thrash acts, they struggled a little to redefine themselves in the muddled 90s, when grunge and groove were taking over and the more traditional strains of metal were temporarily sunk alongside emergent black and death underground. It wasn't until 2013's Diabolic that I came away really impressed; they had managed to draft forward all of their strengths from the first decade into the modern production standards, ramp up the technicality a fraction and come away with a damn solid 21st century thrash album that shunned neither its roots nor its contemporaries. I can't be the only one who noticed, since they inked a deal with Metal Blade soon after.

I'm happy to report that The Forlorn Divide continues this path, with what is arguably the band's most thorough and involved record to date, a bruising nowadays thrash album which manages to even up its groove game...you'll hear some comparisons to the 'busier' bands of this ilk, maybe a Devildriver, but they are fully fused into Accu§er's longstanding thrash backbone and don't seem to be grabbing for any low-hanging fruit. I mean if you're truly averse to chugging and moderate speed breakdowns, this album is not likely to draw you in, but I think they handle it without lowering themselves to any pedestrian meathead standards, and so much of the album is fixed in that Bay Area thrash circa a Testament or Defiance, which was almost always the case here; Accu§er never had that much in common with the Teutonic 'Big Three' in terms of how they structured their music, beyond just the thrash tag itself. A more bricklaying, blue collar, brute style was applied and then splashed with the frenzied leads and other flair that represented the traditional, non-punk dimension of thrash...

I mention that, because this is an area in which I feel The Forlorn Divide excels. The leads and bridge rhythms in tracks like "Lust for Vengeance" are catchy, interesting, and satisfying, the product of great care when composing. This does create a little imbalance with the verse riffing, which is a little more of that simplicity, heard-before, groove thrash style, although to their credit it's more complex than what you'd expect of a band that makes it their entire medium. They do have some faster pieces, like "Unreal Perception", which actually does sound like a fusion of late 80s Sepultura or Slayer with their countrymen Sodom, especially in the vocal department. Frank Thoms uses a blunt and bloody vocal tone, which admittedly isn't my favorite among the German veterans, but he's also multi tasking with the rhythm guitars, so I can be a little more forgiving, especially because he sounds sincere, angry and effective. The bass sounds fat, pummeling and excellent on this disc, not only where it's allowed to breathe on its own (intro to "Tribulation") but even along the rhythms.

Plenty of variation between faster and mid-paced tracks. A little bit of filler, like the dull but brief intro of clean guitars, and maybe about 25% of the riffs don't really land anywhere interesting, but I don't have any doubts that Accu§er put a lot of effort into coming up with something that sounded true to itself, but was able to lock horns with whatever ephemeral concept of 'contemporary' thrash is present in the 'teens. Note for note, track for track I did not enjoy this as much as its predecessor Diabolic, but I think Frank Thoms and company are putting out the strongest material of their careers, and I'm happy to acknowledge it after so many middling or negative reactions I had to so many items in their discography.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (determined to persist)


Friday, January 19, 2018

Revolting - Monolith of Madness (2018)

I wish I could numerate Rogga's death metal records so that when reviewing them I could mumble about how this was the *****th iteration of his career, but let's just settle with the fact that whether or not you dig his projects, this Swede is an utter institution unto himself and shows no signs of slowing down. Revolting is one of his bands, similar to a Paganizer or Ribspreader, which represents the 'core' of his sound, that is to say traditional Swedish death of the early to mid 90s laden with melodies and then slight variations from project to project...one might be more brutal, another a little more thrashing, another doomy, and so forth. It's also one of his myriad bands that I've found most successful at delivering a consistent quality, even if that comes at the expense of originality, innovation, etc. I'm not implying that Revolting is exceptional or unique in any way, nor have they produced any death metal masterworks, but if you're seeking another album to remind you of those glorious years when Entombed and Dismember were first breaking out into international audiences, you could do a lot worse than randomly shuffle through this particular discography.

The 6th album, Monolith of Madness, while not the best of this project, is entirely competent death metal driven by d-beats and Floridian tremolo picking runs sodden with the downcast melodies that his forebears first manifest in the later 80s when they were spitting out demo material. It's never quite as evil as it looks like on the cover with its Cthulhu kraken and accompanying...witches on brooms...but you get a fair balance of forward propulsion, churning grooves and proficient leads that favor mood and atmosphere over flash and flair. I do feel like the bulk of the songs here can lapse into samey passages, almost all of which involve the same damn beat at some point, so more work could be done on intros, bridges and so forth to really round them out and distinguish them better from their neighbors, but I think at this point you know exactly what you're getting on a Rogga album, and if you've come this far listening to the guy then you might not even be interested in him varying up the formula much, at least not internally to one band, since he does this form project to project to mirror varying influences or 'eras' in death metal that he wishes to pay tribute.

You know what to expect. That's both the strength and weakness, because while this is written and performed at no less a level as a couple dozen other Swedish throwback bands that populate the F.D.A. Records imprint and its peers, there is probably not a single riff on the entire album that had me thinking 'cool', and wanting to spin it again immediately. The overall effect of Monolith of Madness in the background, while I'm reading through or playing my many Lovecraftian board games or role playing games, is not terribly worthy of its subject matter, because it's just never creepy or haunting, atmospheric or lingering, but Rogga has long directed this brand at a very straight shooting, 'fun' take on the horror genre which does effectively breed some nostalgia. Taken as it is, I think it's yet another solid effort in a long string of solid efforts that perhaps focus too much on being 'solid' and nothing more than that, and I wouldn't mind a higher ratio of ambition > frequency of musical output, but that doesn't completely detract from the moderate level of abusive darkness you're getting from this. Admittedly, my enjoyment of Revolting peaked with the first two albums, Dreadful Pleasures and The Terror Threshold, but this one won't disappoint much if you're looking for another In Grisly Rapture or Visages of the Unspeakable.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Anvil - Pounding the Pavement (2018)

Anvil has honestly put together a pretty decent run since the release of their documentary, with This is Thirteen and Juggernaut of Justice being arguably their best albums since the 80s, and Anvil is Anvil a few years ago also ably delivering the goods. However, I can't say that it's been a consistent effort, with the sagging Hope in Hell in 2013 and now, unfortunately, their 17th full-length, which as its cover implies, is hammering away at the pavement, but not dredging up much of any interest. That's not to say Pounding is a total wash, but it takes far too long to start getting anywhere, relies a little more on goofy and highly diverse lyrical subjects, and musically plays it too bloody safe, with a smattering of been there, done that riffs which catalog not only their own past but hard rock/metal in general.

Between the lumbering, mastodon metal attempts to produce a new "Metal on Metal" or "Forged in Fire", the more bluesy, party-rock anthems, or the energetically sincere but barebacked poundings that actually reach some level of engagement, this material just doesn't inspire. I'll admit, I laughed my arse off that the opener "Bitch in the Box" was a tribute to a GPS, but even there the music left so much to be desired; run of the mill, predictable riffing patterns, functional melodies or leads that are simply clones of so many you've heard before. They do shoot for a number of those slower, grooving and mighty heavy metal epics and almost always come up short of anything compelling, and often when tackling the more interesting subjects here ("Nanook of the North") the narrative structure of the vocals can come off a little tackier than intended. Sure, I actually do admire Anvil's dedication to taking on uncommon themes, whether silly or serious, but so often the execution just isn't there to match the inspiration. While they've always been a very traditional band in terms of construction of their rhythm guitars, there was usually some darker mood or twist, some epic chorus, or some cool lead to lend a little nuance or distinction.

Not so much here, as tracks like "Doing What I Want" feature such by-the-numbers structure, bland verse and chorus lines that are not worthy of one of Canada's most unique metal frontmen. The last chunk of album, starting with the relentless "Black Smoke", measured "World of Tomorrow" and frantic, bluesy "Warming Up", was actually passable stuff, I found my neck starting to twitch, but that's all about 30 minutes into the album, and even that material is fairly generic, it just seems a little more natural and the product of sharper decisions. The production of Pounding the Pavement is clearly not a flaw, not that I'd mind if the band recorded dirtier, but the rhythm guitars have a nice cut to them, the bass lines sound perfect in the mix, Robb's drumming is fired up as usual, and the vocals and leads are also very well balanced. But this is just not a selection of tunes I think you'll hear much in their live rotation, or at least not for very long since they just don't live up to the classics this band has penned in the past, even the recent past. Juggernaut of Justice is, for instance, a far better album and there's just no point at which I'd ever listen to this over that. A little more solid than Hope in Hell, but pretty unflattering overall.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]


Friday, January 12, 2018

Panphage - Jord (2018)

Sweden has had a glut of rustic, pagan black metal bands over the last few years, a lot of which approach the aesthetic from varying musical perspectives. Nordvis has been a label representing many of the notable entries into this particular field, and Panphage is no exception to that, having generated a good deal of buzz among the crowd that favors the themes he explores. Despite a long history of demo recordings, Fjällbrandt only started producing 'official' full length albums a couple years back, with the debut Storm and its successor Drengskapr only recently put in circulation; and Jord arrives as a someone bittersweet swan song, since I've already seen mention that this project has been put to rest. But if rest it must, at least it's creator has left it on a high note, because this disc soars above its predecessors, perhaps not attaining the next level of the Earth's atmosphere, but providing a broad and convincing introduction and/or retrospective to the sounds Panphage was gleaned on.

Jord shifts between two climes; the first being a highly melodic, majestic brand of black metal driven by programmed blasting, which can be traced to a lot of the band's Swedish peers of the past, only with less cooks in the kitchen. Another comparison I'd draw is Quebec's Forteresse, only with less organic percussion, less repetition and monotony, and a lot more breadth to its glorious guitar lines. The second shines through in the more simplified, churning lower chord-driven cuts like "Som man sår får man skörda" which have a more overt, late 80s Bathory vibe to them, and even a bit of a primal punk nature. I'd say these two halves are evenly balanced throughout this track list, and thankfully blend together well due to the omnipresence of the harsh, barked vocals which hit a great level of resonance and reverb as they rave over the chord constructions. These aren't isolated here, because there is also a droning clean or chanted vocal provided in places, or even some angelic, higher pitched cleans in one of the best tracks ("Skadinawjo"), but Fjällbrandt always sounds engaging and genuine no matter what timbre he's taking, and it helps balance out the more methodic impression left by the drumming and allows Jord to hurdle its own flaws nicely...

Perhaps the largest of which is the abrupt way some of the tunes seem to fade out. Not exactly some jarring dealbreaker for the album as a whole, but it had me wondering if there were some flaw with the promo version I was listening to. Otherwise, there's not a lot bad I can say about this album... perhaps it's not stuffed with the most unique riffing, but the patterns are almost always good enough to create a symbiosis with the listener, and escape over shining pastures towards a waning dawn. I like how the beautiful guitars are still coated with a layer of rawness and grime, and how the overall atmosphere of this disc truly feels like you're experiencing it outdoors where only the sky can contain its magnificence. The riff progressions also create emotions of melancholy and desperation, the folksy segues tearing atavistic portals in the atmosphere with the best of 'em. Even if at first Jord seems samey with a lot of other albums of its ilk, I can without hesitation guarantee that there are particular moments where the listener will be moved by its convictions, especially if you're a heavy advocate for the earlier 90s black metal attempts to blend these similar aesthetics of harshness and centuries-old majesty. There are some GREAT riffs throughout. Not a flawless sendoff for Panphage, if indeed that is its fate, but unquestionably a formidable one.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Vhorthax - Nether Darkness EP (2018)

I haven't run across a ton of Russian atmospheric blackened death (or 'deathened black') through the years, but considering just how much that scene is expanding in all directions metallic, I imagine I'll be encountering more acts akin to Vhorthax in the future. And that's something I'll consider a net positive, because this is a fairly cool EP which strips its influences straight down to their roots and then adds some personality through the vocal embellishments laid out all over the guitars. I guess a general way to describe the sound here is a primitive, roots, thundering black metal akin to Finland's Barathrum interspersed with pure OSDM tremolo picked passages and then bursts of acceleration that move into a Canadian war metal terrain, with the added nuance of some memorable dissonant breaks in what would generally prove a familiar series of chord patterns, that don't exactly grow tired here, but also don't really thrill on an individual level.

But yes, it's those vocals...from the broad guttural that drives most of the songs to the selection of splattered snarls, howls or even cleaner, monk-like chants that are dispersed throughout the tunes, never overused but occasionally doubled up with the growls or layered together to create a beastly, gruesome clamor or voices. Extremely well done, and almost always lending personality to a musical construct which wouldn't be terribly distinct otherwise. The riffs in excellently titled tracks like "The Levitating Tomb" sound good due to the resonant, potent production of the guitars, and the drums throughout the entire experience are leaden and effective, but on their own these elements wouldn't fulfill without those enormous growls that create a cavernous environment in which the guitars can wind their evil more efficiently. Bookended by a great pair of dark, ritualistic ambient pieces ("Altar II" being the more intense of the two), Nether Darkness is a work that sounds PRECISELY as it is titled, and is worth tracking down if you're a devotee of the past decade's return to the lowest, ugliest and most sublime of evils, seamlessly integrate its death and black halves into the aural effluvium of its murky conception.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Shining - X - Varg utan flock (2018)

Despite the band's cloying reputation as harbingers of depression, or as a vehicle for one of the most peculiar personalities in all the black metal jurisdiction, I've always found that what Shining translates to disc is often far more compelling than a lot of their peers who were stuck in the lo-fi rut of rawness and rasping. Rich and fulsome production values have long been their standard, and the material that manifests throughout the last decade of releases has appeared varied and interesting, if not ultimately memorable across the boards. Varg utan flock, the band's 10th 'proper' full length, or at least the tenth in their numerated series, upholds this pattern with a blend of traditional black and thrash metal, woozy suicide acoustics and drifting, dreamy aesthetics that create an evocative contrast between furor and stillness, desperation and violation.

Often reminiscent of Root, in how Kvarforth slathers a charismatic, almost comically serious intonation over the clean sequences, a lot of the songs here are nevertheless dominated by fist-balling brute black metal passages that harness the most basal riff patterns into pure force. When he emits that lower, grimier guttural roar over the more brick-thrash patterns, or the lead guitar spits off into an emotionally appealing or even shredding element, I was also drawn back to those Czech miscreants during their classic years, where the 'black metal' tag didn't feel entirely streamlined with the Norse standards. That said, there are plenty of meatier rhythm guitars here which cast the same dissonant, driving shades as their Scandinavian peers, and again the production is just so thick and satisfactory, with all instruments represented perfectly, the clashing and clanging of the kit (which often erupts into a jazzy cadence), the moping swerve of the bass-lines, and the oozing imperfections that continue to define Kvarforth as one of the most instantly recognizable frontmen in his field. Varg utan flock sounds absolutely fantastic blasted out from my speakers.

So why won't I rate it more highly than I'm going to? For all its variation, from the piano interlude "Tovtusenfyrtioett" to the barnstorming blackened pugilism that occupies about 50% of the playtime, the riffs really just don't stick with me for long. Having a standout like Niklas helps a great deal, and the weirder the album gets, like the glistening and ominous clean guitar-driven "Mot Aokigahara", or the deep, morose cover of Placebo's "In the Cold Light of Morning", the more it attaches itself to my conscience, but it just seems like its lacking a half-dozen killer riffs during the heavier segments that would have gone a long way towards its listening value. Don't get me wrong, the astonishingly fluid balance of instruments, the worthy production, and the sheer versatility all contribute to a good album well worth hearing, but I just needed a little further convincing to rank it among their best. A lot of folks will disagree, though, since what Shining conjures up here is so frontal and real that it's bound to land its hooks in withered hearts aplenty.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Har - Visitation EP (2017)

Some of the most vile and troubling extremity I've heard out of Israel since a Sonne Adam, Kever or Tsorer, it doesn't surprise me that Har's members have some shared history with those projects, channeling a morass of black, death, and even a fraction of doom metal fundamentals into an admixture of frightening magnificence. Roiling tremolo riffs bleed forth from a turbulent background which is as much created via sustained, airy growls and rasps as it is by the belligerent and heavily resonant runs across the percussion kit. Often the chord patterns lapse into familiar configurations, but quickly enough shift gears before they can garner enough of a redundant feel to score marks against the material as a whole.

I find the group is actually best when its on full frenzy, vocals elevated into a panoply of nihilistic specters that cruise over the guitars, especially as it contrasts into a doomier element like the waning moments of "From the Blood of a Whirling Dagger", which itself cedes into sparse strikes of atonal droning against the necromantic chill of nothing. The ambient components are in general very well done, like the ethereal crescendo of Cyclopean harmonies that heralds "A Shadow Henosis", but they balance this off with an addicting enough blackened barrage that even on such a short-player they scale and descend through a number of aural valleys that are consistently oblique and threatening. Visitation succeeds in fomenting unrest, although not every riffing progression is interesting, they are all flush with its aesthetic darkness and should please underbelly dwellers of the filthier, atmospheric climes that inhabit the rosters of labels like Dark Descent, Iron Bonehead and Har's native Blood Harvest.

Verdict: Win [8/10]