Friday, May 25, 2018

Amorphis - Queen of Time (2018)

Queen of Time might not ingratiate itself upon listeners who tuned out to Amorphis after their death and doom roots, but if you've been following the band ever since the mid-90s with enthusiasm, or had a later entry point into their catalog, then I can't imagine you'll be disappointed by how absolutely massive this thing sounds. Like it's damn fine predecessor, Under the Red Cloud, this is another album that calls upon various eras of the bands musical growth and fuses them all into a vessel worthy of sailing off into the future. The growling of their earliest years; the soaring, serious cleans of their prior vocalist Pasi Koskinen; the progressive rock influences that are cultivated through the keyboard tones; the spritely, atmospheric guitars patterns that dominated efforts like Am Universum or its predecessor Tuonela; and the sheer balancing act of grafting all those disparate ingredients into a seamless, unified structure, which they've been doing all throughout the Tomi Joutsen era to much success...

But Queen of Time offers even more than that, with lush passages of orchestration, grand pianos, church organs, dual-sex vocal choirs, saxophone, whistles, and male strippers. Perhaps these are not all entirely novel ideas for Amorphis, certainly not among the symphonic, folk or Gothic metal throngs at large; but there are clearly moments littered throughout this album when I feel like I've entered some slightly new territory, whether it's just the sound design and production values or the fact that they're testing out some new hooks here, or drugs there, or arrangements everywhere. In truth, this is possibly the most accessible of the band's albums...a truth that could likely turn out some longtime subscribers and turn in a broader audience, but that's not to say the Finns have stepped far outside of their normal comfort zone. No, most of the embellishments here, whether you'd equate them with some other big Euro symphonic Goth metal brand or not, are actually delivered with taste and elegance, molding themselves fluidly into the band's contrasts between emotional chorus swells and the divide between stomping and ethereal verse rhythms and lyrics. So the end result is really only to ADD to that formula they've been refining for the last 20+ years, and it's appreciated.

Every single song on this album is great, from the powered-up Tuonela flexing of "The Bee", through the funereal, chugging, growling drama of "Pyres on the Coast", and on into the bonus tracks, which as usual for Amorphis are just about as good as all the content on the album proper, to the point that they really seem like they're just fucking with us by even calling them 'bonus tracks'. It's hard to even choose favorites...."Golden Edge" and "Heart of the Giant" might get a slight edge, especially when Santeri and Esa trade off those synth and axe leads in the latter. Or that intro to "We Accursed", when it briefly feels like the Kalevala meets the Wild West. The lyrics rule. Tomi Joutsen is at the top of his game throughout, capable of delivering a sincere enough guttural or rasp that you can take it seriously alongside the much airier, brighter music, or those unanimously captivating cleaner lines...these guys have their 'Beauty & the Beast' down so pat that it's almost unthinkable to imagine that there are so many bands out their who make it all sound so goofy. The drums sound fantastic, even at their calmest they thunder off across the album's horizon with determination, and along with so many of the moody if traditional chord progressions, there is just never a moment on Queen of Time in which I feel that I haven't been carried off somewhere. And not dropped, thankfully. Because that would hurt.

Now, it might not attain perfection. It might not resonate with me over the next few decades like a Tales from the Thousand Lakes or an Elegy has. I might not incorporate its singles into my own pole-dancing routine (weekends in the city). But judging by the fact I've already spun this thing ten times this past week, when I've got so many life priorities in the way, or other records to check out, I have no problem hailing this as my favorite Amorphis release since that highly formative, evolutionary era. Color me absorbed.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (when moments became eternity)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Amorphis - Under the Red Cloud (2015)

A band that has granted me such listening pleasure over the past few decades can surely be forgiven the occasional dud, and thus it wasn't that big of a deal to me when Amorphis dropped 2013's Circle, one of the few such dips I felt in their entire, extensive discography. Not because it was utter shit, nor did it stray outside the envelope of the band's now-traditional sound, but it was simply insipid, uninspired when matched against such a wealth of quality recordings they've summoned forth across the eras of all vocalists. It's not that they knock it out of the park on every album, but the only other time I can remember being that disappointed was a decade prior on Far from the Sun, which remains to me the worst thing they've ever released, bare and boring and drained free of all the creativity that defined its predecessors across their fascinating transformations away from pure death/doom. Circle was kind of like that, but for that next generation of Amorphis content.

While Under the Red Cloud suffers very sparsely from a couple of the same issues, namely a scant handful of blander chugging patterns or a few melodies that at this point felt fully aimless and rehashed, it was easily a more interesting, varied, glorious effort which reversed any delusion of shark jumping. Rhythmically and emotionally this was a more dynamic, memorable effort which balanced off the escapist folk and prog tinged melodic death metal developed through their mid-90s escalation. Even when they're going for those steadier grooves to support the synthesizer melodies, as in the intro to "Bad Blood", it's all constructed with a more textured determination, more ear candy happening on all levels of instrumentation, and a very shift between the grows and Tomi's cleans, which are as distinct and catchy as they've ever been throughout his tenure with the band, spewing a damn fine set of lyrics. Santeri Kallio's keyboards are by far the centerpiece of this entire effort, shining everywhere with pads both atmospheric and retro, but the lead guitars definitely do their vivid best to manifest those amazing melodies from the brilliant Elegy era (my favorite).

In fact, every instrument shines throughout this, from the clean and simple but compelling bass lines to the shimmery acoustics, there is just enough going on that it feels like one of their best attempts at managing all these atmospheres under one awning of atavist lyrics. Moments of relative calm are contrasted against some of the heavier, intense, percussive builds, and the leads feel carefully and tastefully implemented against the roiling keys and vocals. Some of the individual tracks here are among the best they've released in the 21st century, like "Dark Path" and "Tree of Ages", and the two bonuses "Come the Spring" and "Winter's Sleep" were well worthy of inclusion, the former giving me flashbacks to the Tuonela/Am Universum era. In fact, Amorphis doesn't really leave any of its fanbase out in the cold with the exception of those who wrote them off after Karelian Isthmus, or possibly Tales from the Thousand won't find any drudging death metal here with only a faint hint of melody, but rather the inverse...a brick wall of melodies with none of the old riffing to be found anywhere...only Tomi's impassioned growls vaguely, call back to that era, and in the context they are used here, probably not even those. This has long become the norm for the Finns, and it could be a lot worse, because this is glorious stuff with only a few moments which fail to live up to those surrounding them.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (and I bared them my heart of hearts)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Headstone - Excalibur (1985)

Headstone might not have ended up winning the German metal lottery in the 80s, but credit must be given that their second album Excalibur crushed their debut in every conceivable way, addressing many of its predecessors shortcomings while offering an effort that still sounds somewhat captivating over 30 years later. Part of that will be the pure nostalgia I feel for this period, so important to me when I was developing my metal tastes, when the bands still had stars in their eyes and the wave was far from collapsing; but it's also just a natural timelessness which I doubt will disappear even 100 years from now. I'm not saying Headstone had a classic on their hands with this sophomore, far from it, and there are many better albums in its class, but had the group continued to strive towards a stronger sound, incrementally improving themselves as they did in just the one year between 1984 and 1985, we might have had a contender eventually...

It does not hurt that Excalibur opens with an epic synth piece in that cinematic, cheesy but reverent Tangerine Dream fashion which immediately tempers expectations towards full-on escapism. You are suddenly in a land where 'some moistened bint lobs a scimitar at you', ready to clash against foul witchery and steel-clad traitors. Now, I won't promise you that the metal content of the album lives up to this intro, but it definitely doesn't disappoint all that much in terms of power and volume. I will note that the rhythm section here is so dramatically improved over Burning Ambition...the bass lines are pumping and actually important to many of the tunes, especially when "Burnt in Ice" erupts from the synthesizer intro. The drums sound far more forceful, potent, and provide a bedrock of electric energy over which the rhythm guitars can charge alone. Granted, while the riffs themselves are more mighty than those of the debut...thicker and delivered with authority, they are still rather generic even by the standards of their day, and not often catchy or interesting unto themselves. But as a part of the 'whole package' deal of Excalibur, they are for sure functional and will get your head banging. The vocals also sound better because they are mixed at a better level against the guitars, where you can make out their pitch and strength but not some of their flaws.

Still getting a higher pitched Klaus Meine impression, but also they reminded me a lot of the Dave King performance on the Trick of Treat soundtrack by Fastway, which is a good thing because I rather enjoy much of that album. He also pulls off some really shrill screams in parts that give you the impression he could achieve a Halford-ish range if he put some work in...although his voice is not quite that unique or impressive in general. What's even better is that the songs here are fluid and consistent, mostly paced at the same fist-bumping and stadium bench-stomping speed, and dowsed in that same washed-out atmosphere which I thought was one of the strong points of the debut. But this is just such a mightier representation of Headstone that one should simply ignore Burning Ambition and head straight for this if you're able to find one of the reissues and have an interest in this scene and period of trad metal. Even the ballad here, "Well of Love", with its slightly medieval feel, is a boost over its counterpart on the debut. It's not without a few flaws and a lot of predictable riffs, and doesn't quite place with German's top tier metal acts of its day, but if you're into the archaeological quest for atmospheric obscurities that can transport you back to that nostalgia beating at the strings of your heart, or you're younger and pine for that feel you get from the 80s records and films, this one is a satisfactory swan song for an act that nobody ever seems to have been listening to.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Headstone - Burning Ambition (1984)

Headstone is a band I automatically want to root for because they possessed all those 80s heavy meal aesthetics I so adored and still find myself turning back towards. Skulls and fire on the cover, a cool logo and album title, and, well, being, German, which was a seal of quality for roughly 25% of the metal I grew up with. That said, they made almost no waves whatsoever when they originally dropped their two albums, and a few listens through their debut Burning Ambition gives you a good idea why. Not because it's a poor showing by any means, but because they never really seem to stick to a tone or mood quite enough to come across coherent, and thus it doesn't give itself much of a chance to generate the catchy tracks or 'hit power' so important during those formative times.

The better cuts here are where they develop a drearier, atmospheric, plodding brand of metal falling somewhere between your garden variety NWOBHM band and the Scorpions. Straightforward, safe chord patterns augmented by sparse, more atmospheric little licks and groovy little fills during the chorus. The vocals are really the highlight though, a higher pitched, dramatic style with a lot of vibration to the more sustained notes, like a hybrid of Klaus Meine, Dio and Biff Byford, but he's unique enough that had Headstone garnered a following he might have gained traction as a pretty distinct B-list classic metal vocalist. He'll eventually burst into wicked laughter to sound like an Ozzy maniac impression, but I do like the emphasis put on the harmonies in the chorus to a tune like "Nightmare" which make it feel larger than life, there's definitely a theatrical bent to parts like that which reveals an influence from a band like Queen. On the flip side, the instruments are just not generated enough energy to really support the vocal style, so by comparison they often feel laconic or too laid back to really flatten you with the emotional impact a tune could have used.

Also, there are a lot of riffs here which feel like bland punk progressions, or bluesier hard rock that feels so mediocre it wouldn't have even been considered at a Van Halen jam session in the decade before this. "Still on the Race" sounds like an attempt to create a "Cold Gin" or something for the band, there's a nice atmosphere created by how the vocal mix cascades over the rest, but the riffs and structure are just so clunky and bland. There are some acoustic parts, which are fine, but the original tracks list (before the lukewarm bonus songs on the CD) is capped off by a piano-driven ballad called "Queen of Dreams" which is entirely too vapid and forgettable. There's not a lot of finesse on any of the instruments, which could have helped fill in a lot of the more threadbare, uninspired riffs, and the production is sort of boxy and uneven, to manage even these super simplistic patterns. In short, wherever Headstone focuses on sounding more mean, or mystical, they really start to earn some momentum, and certainly the handful of tunes that cling to this angle are ones I would happily include with a listening playlist of Teutonic obscurities from the mid-80s...but there just aren't enough of these moments to give Burning Ambition any staying power, and the title ends up seeming like a bad case of irony.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Exhorder - The Law (1992)

If nothing else, Exhorder's sophomore effort The Law is a study in how an album can be both simultaneously more interesting and less interesting than its predecessor. Wrought of the same thrashing cloth as Slaughter in the Vatican, there are nonetheless several components to this that mark an evolutionary process towards a thrash band that might have eventually resonated with me. The basic ingredients are much the same, but there's a slightly more clinical cut to the riffing. They were always fairly taut and semi technical in the guitar patterns, but here they seem to be going for a slightly more technical 'sound', if that makes any sense. Many of the progressions had parallels to West Coast thrash bands like the great Testament, Forbidden, Dark Angel or even the Heathen sophomore, but placed within the tougher context of their very grounded, constant barrage of aggression. The Law is a more 'musical' effort, with greater contrasts and dynamics and maybe about 2% more risk...'s not enough, unfortunately. While they've gotten away from the Scott Burns production I wasn't too fond of on the debut, the guitars here sound even more processed and tingy. This was not an unusual practice for this side of thrash, but the real issue is that as a whole the album feels so dry and boxy and completely lacks an atmosphere. Take something like Believer's Sanity Obscure, and place it next to this, and you see just how much better that album is due to the dark mood conjured up by its musical choices. Here it fees like Exhorder came into the studio with another set of decent riffs and got the bare minimum out of them. More reverb, more layers, more textures, I don't know what combination of these it would take to make this sound like more than an unfinished demo reel in places. When the whole band is firing on all cylinders and hitting some momentum, as in the earlier stages of "Unborn Again", it's a little easier to ignore, but even then I'm a little bothered. There are other issues, like the fact that the clean guitar intros and other segues on the album just don't really match up to the aggressive material, and some of the little experiments like the funky bass parts (also in "Unborn Again") seem like cheesy, ill-fitting ideas. Granted, the bass gets a little more distinct there than on the debut, but not in the way I would have liked...

This is an album which doesn't seem all too confident of what it wants. The traditional, woozy dark blues of the Black Sabbath cover seem incongruent with the faster thrashing, although hearing Kyle sing this one definitely sounds like a prequel to Phil Anselmo's band Down. A lot of the chuggier thrash parts throughout are terribly boring, where the more rabid neck-jerkers like "The Truth" seemed half-way to decent if they could only have stuck a few more memorable riffs amid the very surgical mute picking parts. There is plenty to please the mosh fanatic, but they simply had no capacity to churn out thrash 'hits' like a lot of their comparable West Coast brethren like Exodus and Testament were doing years earlier. Kyle's style still fits the mold of the music, but for some reason the mix makes him seem a little more isolated, separate from the instruments. Half the lyrics on this are pedestrian straight talking rubbish, the other half are better, but I guess I should just be happy there is no anthem to anally raping an individual until she's dead, which would have been as awkward and out of place here as on Slaughter.

In the end, there really just isn't all that much to recommend about The Law. We're not exactly dealing with some bumbling abomination of a sophomore. I've heard far worse...but I feel like the more consistent Slaughter in the Vatican will rightly retain the higher cult status as the years roll on. Not that I'm fond of that one, but this is a slight step down and sideways. It's just not one for the memorybooks, and the competition was simply too large, especially in terms of the songwriting on something like A Vulgar Display of Power. Love or hate Pantera, I often find myself doing both, but I'd rather listen to "A New Level" or "Regular People (Conceit)" individually than this entire album. Some proper thug jams, bro.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10] (I hear an ego bleeding)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Exhorder - Slaughter in the Vatican (1990)

Exhorder is one of those bands which has benefited greatly from both the internet and the wayback machine of a modern thrash audience craving for genuine sounds from the genre's Golden Age of explosion and expansion, circa about 1985-1991. I remember picking up this tape at the local mall when it came out, largely because of its logo, artwork, and R/C records association, and giving it a few spins before setting it aside and not bothering with it except for the occasional relisten to figure out what it was that did not quite grab me in the first place. The name was mentioned in passing by a few friends, articles, radio shows, but 1990 was right on the threshold of thrash metal's popularity waning; not that it would go down without a few masterpieces that year, or ever truly vanish, but even the better records coming out were often ignored by a mainstream hesher populace that seemed satisfied with 1-4 of their 'Big Four', and at most a handful of others, before tuning over to their glam metal, or Ozzy and Dio and Sabbath, Maiden and Priest. But fast forward 15-25 years, and groups like Exhorder, Demolition and Morbid Saint find themselves with an entire new fan base mixed in with a lot of those 'oh yeah, I remember them' sorts and remaining diehards.

I am not among these, because frankly, try as I might, I don't feel any stronger about this album now than I did back when it initially dropped. There are certainly some technical aspects to Slaughter in the Vatican that I admire. This was forceful, energetic thrash, much heavier than what the more popular bands were pulling off, very much in league with a Dark Angel or Sadus. There are loads of riffs, and enough variety to pad out substantial 5-6 minute tracks without resort to banal repetition. And then of course there's the 'charismatic' and unique vocal style which Kyle Thomas brought to the table, known as a massive influence upon Pantera's Phil Anselmo who, when shifting away from his 80s power metal screaming, really popularized this style of Southern swagger and tough guy oomph. And while I've seen this debated often, I think it's rather obvious...listen to Pantera while Exhorder were releasing their demos. Listen to Pantera once they made the shift to Cowboys from Hell, and got the drop on this debut. He's absolutely been 'touched' by what he heard from his Nola friends. Not to the point where it's a complete copy, and in fact I thought Anselmo did a better job wrenching some attitude and emotion from the style, as the band's success would attest, but there it is. I'd also say that some of the thicker grooves used by the Texans were inspired by particular Exhorder riffs, but ultimately Dimebag was a more dynamic and distinct player than Labella or Ceravolo here.

And about those riffs...well, they're one of the primary reasons I've never been feeling this. All the guitar parts in general, as hammering and proficient as they are played, sounded like a rather generic hodgepodge of material that bands like Exodus, Dark Angel, Sacred Reich, Sepultura and Devastation had already unleashed upon the populace. Don't get me wrong, they are dextrous and intricate enough to exhibit that more thought had been placed into them than your garden variety Metallica clones gigging at high school talent shows, but I'll be damned if not a single one of the considerably huge array of guitar riffs on Slaughter in the Vatican stick with me for even five minutes. Whether bursting out into faster material or the denser, groove/thrash in verses to tunes like "Desecrator" (a song Pantera was clearly fond of), I just get bored hearing it again. Even when some small pattern of notes begins to align with the aural pleasure centers of my being, they'll switch it off into something else less interesting. Add to that the relative lack of good bass lines, since the very notion of that instrument seemed like an afterthought that the guitarists just played themselves, and not an independent voice that might add a little swerve and meat to the propulsive palm muting. It's frustrating, because these gentlemen could. fucking. play. Just nothing that memorable, and all the leads also feel pretty skimpy or throwaway.

The drums anchor down the belligerent pacing and muscle of the rhythm guitars rather well, but they lead me to another of my issues here...even as a teen, I could tell this was a Scott Burns mix without needing to read it in the booklet. And Burns is a guy I found very inconsistent. He's done some albums I truly love, and others which almost feel muffled and neutered by his presence (Sepultura's Arise and the first couple Deicide discs come to mind). I get that he was sort of the 'house engineer' for a lot of the Roadrunner/RC classics, and he absolutely knocked a few of them out of the park, but I just don't like some of the mix or the guitar tones he gets on albums like this one. They feel too subdued and compressed. Slaughter is not an egregiously bad example of this, but it's enough of a factor that my old cassette gathered a lot of dust until. Lastly, as much as I can appreciate Kyle's style and influence, I just wan't too into the inflection of the vocals here. Their delivery was not unfamiliar to me (I owned Cowboys from Hell already), and there's a charisma to them that a lot of run of the mill thrashers lacked, but they're about 50/50 in effectiveness for me, whereas his protegee was superior at making them seem enormous and angry, like a school bully about to pop you one on the nose. Some of the lyrics are passable, like "The Tragic Period" about Edgar Allen Poe... EXCEPT for the stupid "Anal Slut", which is beyond awful, and it creates a bit of an obnoxious aesthetic disparity to be leaping back and forth between the two on the same album.

Ultimately, going back to Slaughter in the Vatican for another round didn't yield to me the sort of cult classic that I've seen so much fawning over. It's just nothing I'd queue up when I've got so many other options I prefer. That said, it's also not an album I can find a lot to mock or complain about...apart from lyrics like "Fuck your brains out/squeeze your tits/blood on your thighs/virginity dies" which seem like a budding bucktoothed parallel to Cannibal Corpse, but unwilling to go the brutal distance. "Lust/anal lust/up the butt/lousy slut". Oh, the BUTT. I thought yous guys was referring to that other kind of anal. Sodomy overture aside, this is a competent debut, with no effort spared, that simply doesn't click with me. Accomplished, practiced mediocrity which doesn't yield even a single song I need to hear again.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (consumed by overconfident assumptions)

Friday, May 4, 2018

W.A.I.L. - Wisdom Through Agony Into Illumination and Lunacy Vol. II (2018)

It's been for quite some time that Finland's W.A.I.L. have been putting together the follow-up to their impressive 2009 debut Wisdom Through Agony into Illumination and Lunacy, their acronym writ to its fullest, but the band has not gone forgotten as another example from this scene of a quality act just below the surface of the scene's thriving roster. For Volume II of their legacy, they've honed in on just two extensive tracks clocking in at around 24 and 34 minutes respectively, even longer than those populating their debut. Normally this could prove the kiss of death for an album, breeding repetitious monotony, but rather than pen a few tracks with scant ideas, these are both epic pieces that transcend through a good number of riffing shifts and atmospherics that absolutely string the listener along on a journey into shadowed rituals and vile philosophies.

As with the earlier material, W.A.I.L. spin a web of black and death metal which on occasion breaks into a slower, doom-laden groove, and they actually balance out these styles rather evenly. The vox, while not intensely guttural, are clearly representative of the death metal genre, while a lot of the mesmeric, faster riffing is tremolo picked black metal crested by dissonant, glinting notes which offer just enough variety to keep things interesting. The slower sequences are choppy and seismic, almost like a bridge between traditional doom/death and atonal black metal atmosphere, and the material spans a satisfactory range of tempos so the attention is never being dulled. Near the end of "Through Will to Exaltation Whence Descent Into a Bottomless Black Abyss", they cede into some cleaner strings that are joined by lower, steadily plodding percussion and other instruments which create a compelling and calming transition. This nicely sets up the following track, "Reawakening Through Anguish Into Gestalt of Absolute", in which the calm continues, some chanted, droning cleaner vocals accompanying the plucked, folksy strings and substrate of ambiance until they again erupt into the more aggressive craft, another segue with rolling, dire classical pianos, and back once more.

Again, I have to reiterate that while this is technically two tracks, there are enough riffs here to populate a normal black or death metal album, and for that reason the swollen lengths and conceptual riffing arcs are more easily digested. There is a consistent flow to this sophomore which shows careful plotting, and the idea to wrench the listener back and forth between searing savagery and meditation casts an emotional spell. I also liked the inquisitive, personal nature to some of the lyrics balanced against the poetic cascading imagery of others; especially for how many there are, they make the album feel like even more of a journey that the listener is putting himself or herself through. Production is just raw enough to satisfy the cellar ghouls, but clear enough to distinguish all the instrumentation, important when you're incorporating items like a kentele or didgeridoo, which W.A.I.L. does smoothly along with the gorgeous pianos and cleaner string progressions. Certainly this is on par with the band's debut, and while theirs isn't a name instantly recognized among their more prolific countrymen, they are certainly another example of a Finnish act which understands the wedding of darkness to instruments, and well worth checking out if you enjoy hybrids of traditional black and death metal into a memorable union.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (it's all starting to creep to my awareness)