Saturday, July 21, 2018

Summer Break 2018

I'm off on my Summer escapades, but will return September 22nd to kick off the annual Horror Metal Marathon leading up to Halloween. Got some strange, obscure stuff to cover this year so stay tuned, and as always, thanks so much for stopping by and checking out the reviews!

Best to you and yours,

Friday, July 20, 2018

Harlot's Grip - Harlot's Grip EP (2018)

Harlot's Grip is a new project involving Wayne Richards and Chris Dora of Ohio's perpetually underrated death/thrashing beast Soulless, as well as bassist Ed Stephens who has played in an eclectic range of groups, from metal/hardcore legends Ringworm to 80s heavy metal hopefuls Shok Paris. In fact, between the three musicians here, you've probably got at least 30 bands worth of experience, from numerous sub-genres, in and around Ohio, and it really shows in the finished project. Unlike Soulless, or Stephens' Shed the Skin, this material is leaning far more in a traditional heavy metal direction. It's not Wayne's first rodeo in that realm either, having put out the solid Mach II record back in 2009, but the content of this EP is far more intricate and defined than that, and ultimately more impressive.

I'd place the sound conjured up here between the ballsier NWOBHM bands of the mid 80s, such as Saxon and their ilk, and the more finesse-driven USPM to follow that era like Jag Panzer. The riffs are just as often to break out into conventional, mid-paced, blue collar fist-pumping chords patterns are to explore more gleaning, textured surges of melody, but the two are equally mitigated so that you're getting your fill of the former, with just as much of the latter as you'd need to prevent the tunes from becoming predictable. A small fraction of the aggression and melody also draws upon their Soulless alma mater, which is fine by me since that band is bananas. It also benefits a lot from not sounding painstakingly old school; this is clearly not a pure nostalgia trip by the band members, but an attempt to craft these influences into tunes that fit straight into 2018 and possess a little added nuance than just your average grab-bag British metal proxy. They're a bit more parallel to a Pharaoh, New Eden or Jag Panzer than an Eternal Champion, Cauldron or Visigoth, perhaps, but could be equally appealing to fans of all of these.

Big hooks. Audible bass lines grooving along with them. Big drums, cranked right along the guitars so you can hear every splash and thump. Clear emotional ramp-up between verses and choruses, with effective leads that disperse sorrow, melancholy and other feels over the bridge rhythms. Richards even employs a very mid-range, workmanlike vocal tone reminiscent of Biff Byford or Tank's Algy Ward, and that does bring me to one minor critique. As much as I'm cool with that approach, and how it best uses its available range, I did feel like some of the riffing and production tended to overpower them at times. Without needing a bunch of cliche shrieks and screams, a few more bells and whistles in the mix could bring them out more, whether that's just done in the mix or in the line composition. There was also a backing vocal or two which felt a little bland, muscle those up too. The only other quip might be that the four tunes here kind of covered a samey range of tempos and aesthetics, but this would easily be corrected by a full-length effort where they'll reach wider.

And I hope such an album is on the horizon, because Harlot's Grip is a refreshing entry into a niche I think is often neglected in these days of throwback tweaking...a band that looks backwards only for its foundation and then cements over it something a little more creative. Some classy riffing, some classy sword & sorcery artwork, well worth checking out if you're a fanatic for old heavy metal or UPSM with an emphasis on its songwriting groundwork rather than Harpy-like wailing eccentricity.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Zombiefication - Below the Grief (2018)

If I received only middling returns from the band's 2014 album Procession Through Infestation, that only highlights even more how much of a surprise Below the Grief has proven. Trace elements of their Swedish-derived death metal sound might persist throughout this fourth Zombiefication full-length, but on the whole it's far enough removed from the roots of their sound that it's easy to count it as the most unique they've ever produced. A hammering helping of death metal fundamentals fueled by anger and towering walls of melodic force, helmed by passionate vocals which seem like the singer was just crawling and dragging home from some violent altercation in which he received a number of bruises and cuts. It's also exciting, and unlike its well-produced predecessor, far less of a predictable experience...simple but effective riffs would just burst out of the landscape everywhere and keep me glued to my earbuds as I awaited what would come next.

It's actually a little daunting to a jarring mesh of death metal, thrash and hardcore with an overall atmosphere birthed from the sheer savagery of its motion. The drumming is extremely loud and crashy, albeit not so much that you can't make out whatever else is happening. This was actually one slight little hangup for me, I think they could have turned those down just a fraction. The bass lines are propulsive and groovy, and the rhythm guitars create this sonic envelope which is aggressive but constantly oozing out desperate or sad, if not entirely creative melodies. To that extent it feels like a natural progression from the album before it, only the way the whole picture comes together here seems much more fresh. The vocals range a little higher before, bloodthirsty and raving grunts and howls which almost feel like he's being slapped in the midsection by 2 x 4 boards while he's in the studio booth barking them out. Lastly, they incorporate these little unexpected twists, like the cleaner breaks in "Deliverance from the Astral Sea", or the tribal, clanging, evil intro to the following track called "Echoes of Light". When that chug rolls in off the beat and then they hit those patterns of interchanging chords it feels like the group has turned over an incredible new musical leaf.

And at that point they're only a short way into the album, interesting ideas persist throughout all the tunes. Below the Grief has a really compelling contrast between thundering unrest and melancholy, and reaches a higher bar of craftsmanship and songwriting than any of their albums before it. The production might have a few flaws for a lot of listeners; it's not quite at the level of the album before it, for which of the mix was the forte, but the ingenuity and emotion manifest here is just so much cooler. I'm not saying it's the most memorable album you'll hear lately, but it's clearly inspired. An effort I could see myself recommending not only to classic death metal fans, or 'death 'n roll' addicts who enjoy records like Entombed's Uprising and Inferno, but also to fans of crushing sludge, or Chaos A.D.-like groove metal, or even metallic hardcore acts like Ringworm or Integrity. It cultivates a worthwhile cross-section of ideas, without ever playing them out cheap, and it also signifies a lot more risk than Zombiefication's backlog, which despite the novel geographical origin could have just fit in snugly with a lot of other old-school Swede-loving tributes. Sometimes you take the chance, you roll the dice and come out with a critical hit, and that's what Misters Hitchcock and Jacko have done here, and it's exciting. Well done.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, July 13, 2018

Dire Omen - Formless Fires Embodied EP (2018)

While they still might not register the same visibility as some of their Canadian counterparts also trailblazing the visceral crossroads of death and black metal aesthetics, Dire Omen has proven by this point that they're well worth the effort to check out if you're at all a fan of an Aurochs, Mitochondrion, or Antediluvian, or others worldwide who commingle the suffocating miasma of antiquated death metal with spastic, dissonant runs that often fall more into the camp of frenzied, blackened post-modern extremity. Formless Fires Embodies is a smaller dose of dizzying restlessness than their Dark Descent debut Wrestling the Revelation of Futility from 2014, but it's a great example of how just adding a little something extra can elevate a medium from stagnation to the death metal deli counter.

Fresh to order. What I mean by that 'little something' in the case of this EP is how each of the three tracks' harrowing, chaotic subterranean density is sliced through by some degree of middle or higher pitched, heavily dissonant guitars which immediately lends it a new layer of atmosphere. Obvious examples of this are in the creepy waning moment of "Malkuth", where bewitching harmonies create a haze of paranoia before the EP closes out. Or in "Null", an all-out assault on the senses, when the spikes of fragmented, Voivod-like guitars blanket a phrase over the blunt gutturals and lightly grooving bass lines, before they just erupt back into blasting your noggin off. Passages like these catapult Dire Omen beyond what might otherwise prove a more clinical exercise in the style, and while the bulk of the material here might tend towards the more straightforward and aggressive, it's that detailing which had me wanting to revisit the tracks rather than any of their brutality.

The production of the EP is definitely as dingy and claustrophobic as their past work, placed organically underground without ever shifting over towards vaulted, ominous inaugural Incantation worship. The vocals are used primarily like brute neolithic grunts that serve as an additional percussive weight alongside the drums, and to be honest I wouldn't mind if a bit of effects were placed on them just to have them stand out slightly more. They're intrinsic to the style, but perhaps a little dry and redundant when the music around them is so much more spastic. This is more about the mix than their syllabic placement, and in fact I think the tunes in general could benefit from a more brazen approach, where the guitars more boldly churn through your intestines and the drums cave in your skull. Beyond that lack of gloss, however, there is so little to complain about, and these tunes are equivalent in quality to that prior full-length. If you're seeking an experience bordering on Portal or Abyssal, only 'unmasked', or you're out tacking into the warping winds of chaos-born, dissonant death metal, Dire Omen should be at the other end of your spyglass, approaching with haste.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Zombiefication - Procession Through Infestation (2014)

Although they possess a whole ton of the elements that make for a Swedish death metal worship band, drowning in nostalgia for those early 90s classics ala Left Hand Path, Dark Recollections, Like an Everflowing Stream, and Clandestine, I thought it was interesting to watch the development of Zombiefication, being one of the rare Central American bands to adopt that sound, whereas so many of their peers are straight from Europe. And truth be hold, there was a sizable payoff when the band's 2013 sophomore full-length At the Caves of Eternal proved a notable improvement over their 2010 debut Midnight Stench in every category: the production, the musicianship, the songwriting potential. Fairly hot on the heels of that record, they released Procession Through Infestation, and it's an effort I'm rather split on, thinking they've once again made a formidable leap forward in one area while not exactly delivering in others...

I'll lead in with the production, which I found absolutely fantastic and the high point of this disc. As a band so thickly rooted in that old, raucous, heavy Entombed aesthetic, I loved how hugely it comes across on the recording. The rhythm guitars are potent and crashing, the bass corpulent with just the right amount of boom and buzz to stand out solidly in the mix. Drums are raw and snappy, cultivating a very live feel that works nicely with the sheer impact of those rhythms. 'Mr. Hitchcock''s vocals are likewise praiseworthy, massive and grotesque and never content to simply emulate themselves, the guy is always reaching deeply into his gut for another Petrov-ian howl or guttural sustain. The higher pitched melodic guitars here are also a nice touch, showing a clear influence not only from those most foremost Swedish legends, but also bands like At the Gates, Desultory and Edge of Sanity, and they never lay them on too thickly, affixing them to the meatier undercarriage of the rhythm in a perfectly bloody marriage. In fact, the way those melancholic or gloomy melodies interact with the other components reminds me a lot of the last two Tribulation albums, only more brute, less elegant.

Sadly, for all the glory of their carnal presentation, the songs and riff choices here really did not stick to me whatsoever. The chord patterns and melodies are all sort of average, without any standouts or climactic surprises waiting around any corner of the catacombs. The album is like wandering through a low-to-mid level dungeon and fighting the same monster in 8-10 different chambers, rather than slowly building towards that climactic boss battle. There were hooks I was invisibly hearing in my head that just never manifest, and while the sound of this record does do a lot to compensate when cranked out at high volumes, I just become too bored as I realize the musical progressions here are slightly bland. To be fair, there's occasionally a little clamor or unpredictable start/stop when they setup a track, but once you're out into the proper depths of the piece, it just becomes a little too repetitious; not that they're using the same chords or phrases over and over, just that it doesn't go through a series of emotional peaks and valleys, rather just stays on a level plane. It's an issue I take with a few of their European counterparts like Revel in Flesh (who they've done a split with) or a handful of Rogga's projects. Well-produced, well-intentioned, just not terribly memorable.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (we resurrect from tears)

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Vultur - Entangled in the Webs of Fear (2018)

Don't let the fact that Vultur doesn't fit entirely snug into the general population of the Sevared roster throw you off, this is an immensely brutal band...only brutal by an earlier genre standard than a lot of the more tech Suffocation or Deicide-inspired acts you often hear from that camp. Entangled in the Webs of fear feels like a more muscled alternative to the Floridian death metal once spawned by Death in the 80s, only with a lot more blasting and bulk through the enormous production, and vocals that feel a lot more in the vein of an Incantation, Wombbath or Rottrevore. So they do 'old school', sure, but they do it like a bunch of heavyweights in a grudge match against a much smaller opponent, and that opponent is your fucking skull.

This album sounds huge, with an ominous airiness coming from the speakers that really lets those churning guitars, growls and beats settle in for punishment. No tricks or gimmicks, just a slab of the purest death metal you're like to hear this year, an album that could appeal across several generations of fans. The guitars are a mix of dense chugs and coiled, evil tremolo picked lines that actually make you feel somewhat creeped out in spots, especially when the light, eerie leads break out over the surface. It doesn't sound like it took a whole lot of effort to come up with these riffs, for when you're in the mindset of how to just make something sound evil and aged, a lot of them seem like they'd spring directly to the muscle memory of your palms and fingers, but that's quite alright here because they exude a pummeling, claustrophobic intensity that transcends time. The bass is thick and oozy, and doesn't stick out too much in terms of note choices but just an extra layer of syrup driving home the darkness. Beats are thick bottomed, with nice fills, double bass rolls and effortless blasts where those work.

It should be noted that several members of this group are in another comparable outfit known as Ectoplasma, which isn't terribly different in style, and also has a recent album out called Cavern of Foul Unbeings that you should probably check out if you're into this. I actually liked the Vultur disc a bit more, but it's certainly blunter. Straight to the gut, vile and colorful death metal which bends the imagination way back to when it all felt so fresh and new, even though there is literally nothing new or innovative about a single damn thing they do. Doesn't matter, when it's wrought with such brute sincerity and passion, and even though the songs do grow a little samey throughout, I've had a great time spinning this one on numerous occasions, and highly recommend it if you're a fan of some of the groups I listed above, Spanish bands like Avulsed and Putrevore, or Finns like Purtenance and Slugathor. The cover art by Raul 'Mortuus' Fuentes is also really noteworthy, had this album come out back in '87-88 it's the sort of image that would be considered iconic decades on.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (ghouls and manglers gathered to feast)

Friday, July 6, 2018

Calvarium - Assaulting the Divine EP (2004)

Counter to the stereotype that black metal is best listened to in the wintry months, I find myself more enraptured through the deepest, hottest months of the summertime, for at least then in addition to the other qualities I find in the genre, it gives me an escape from the season I admittedly hate the fuck out of. July, in particular, is the worst offender of the lot, so in the midst of the Fahrenheit spikes which break down any semblance of civility and fortitude others might describe of me in lighter climes, I find myself once again rummaging through the blackened discs, files and other detritus that have accumulated in my office for something that can temporarily estivate me from the surrounding blaze. This time I've stumbled across an untouched EP from Finnish obscurity Calvarium.

Now, while this particular project might not be well known, releasing only one album and this shorter successor, its members also play in, or have previously played in a who's who of other, comparable acts like Baptism, Horna, Black Death Ritual, Anal Blasphemy, Behexen, or the arena-touring, kid friendly Black Priest of Satan. By the looks of Assaulting the Divine, one is in store for a battering of traditional, newsprint black metal with few twists or surprises, playing it safe within a genre that conventionally relied on being unsafe. And that is the EP in a nutshell, a scathing 20 minutes of tremolo-picked, mildly raw black metal with not a single idea that anyone would ever mistake for being unique. That's not to write off Calvarium entirely, since this is a competent and obscene occult style of black metal which never really grows old for me, even though a great many of its proponents seem incapable of writing the evil riffs, gnashing vocal lines and atmospheres that chill enough to crack the flesh off the bones. These Finns are versed well enough in how to provide such elements, but simply don't ever excel at them.

I'd liken Assaulting the Divine to mix of Bathory and Horna, the former in the storming swagger of the excellently titled opener "Wrathpainted Hammer Upon their Weakening", and the latter almost everywhere else, with sibilant streams of submerged melodies and tinny blast beats driving much of the action. The production on the guitars reminds me of earlier Marduk albums, perhaps Enthroned off their first couple albums. I actually prefer the opening tune to the others, with its hoarse, bloodied rasp that escalates into a broader growl later in the verses, and the fact that I want to ride into battle just like it's Blood Fire Death all over again. "Through the Scars of Selfmutilation", despite its really excellent opening sample (which I couldn't quite pin down to a source), just felt like pretty typical charging glorious material without any standout riffs or truly abrasive feeling. The other highlight might be the black thrashing surge of "The Dark Blessed Elite", but if I were being honest I'd keep the first and last tunes, cut the two in the middle and then maybe find a place to keep that sample. It's just not all that interesting and half of the content is more sinister and memorable than the other, so it's essentially a solid single with some filler tunes.

That said, if you love this genre to a fault, it's really all here and issued with a relentless tenacity that will manifest some admiration. Clearly with this and the previous Skull of Golgotha we caught a glimpse of a group with the chops and experience to make some unsettling waves, but the roster instead decided to do that elsewhere with a myriad of other projects to keep them busy, and some that have borne superior, rotten fruit to this one.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Six Feet Under - Unburied (2018)

Six Feet Under doesn't have the best track record when it comes to the compilation format. Barnes and his various crews have hardly spammed the market with label-born 'best of' nonsense, to their credit, other than a shitty iTunes comp and the elaborate box set A Decade in the Grave, which, while not worthwhile, at least gives the fans a massive amount of content, some new to it. But they have have continued to push the long-suffering Graveyard Classics cover series, which to this day has yet to produce anything that justifies its existence and seems like a no-win situation unless there is some massive, hidden legion of 6FU fans out there I am unaware of that snap the things off the record store shelves like piranha assaulting some bloody, meaty haunch thrown into the river.

If you've been following this band at all, you'll recognize the cover here as a sort of amalgamation of the albums Undead and Unborn...mostly the latter; and as the title implies, this is a compilation of 'rare' or unreleased tunes that were recorded during the sessions for those albums and scrapped due to...wait for it...probably not being good enough for those albums. Now, 'good enough' is a relative phrase with regards to Barne's enduring, uneven career, but I was at least a little bit interested in this due to Undead's status as being the sole Six Feet Under full-length that I hold on to, a shocker that seemed to come out of left field with a volley of catchy riffing, slightly less simplicity than on the many albums before it, and an excellent balance of intensity and grooves. They haven't exactly recaptured the quality there with its successors (including Unborn), but 2012 was clearly a sea change in the band's potential to kick ass with the write mix of songwriting and band members, and in fact Unborn and Crypt of the Devil were competent follow-ups until they once again started to slump with last year's forgettable Torment (and a few of the unreleased cuts here are also from that one).

Unfortunately, since these tunes were drawn from a couple different album sessions, there's straight up an unevenness in the production values and style. Half of the nine tracks are incredibly dull and straightforward groove offs in the vein of much of the tripe they were emitting in the 90s and earlier 'oughts. Something like "Violent Blood Eruption" had potential as a 'lost track' from those better albums, but even then the production is pretty weak and it would have to be mastered and mixed better to even consider it. Same goes for something like "Re-Animated", which is brute and minimal like a lot of their weaker albums, but seems constructed well enough otherwise to get your blood flowing and head banging at its adorable simplicity...even the lead here would be excited if you could hear it, but it just doesn't feel throughout Unburied like there was a concern to master all the material so it would level off with itself and feel like an album unto itself. I get that the intent is to present a bunch of rough cuts largely as they were, but some further care and attention could have transformed this selection into an album on par with or at least more formidable than a bunch of the past stinkers.

As it stands, Unburied is an inconsistent mess trading off some truly middling tunes with a few that could have proven worthwhile if allowed to gestate in Barnes' imagination, or on the mixing board. Die hards will discover a couple hooks hidden here or there, but as they weren't really 'good enough' for the albums they were originally written for, it's hard to think they've somehow snowballed into better Six Feet Under songs in the interim. Hard pass for me.

Verdict: Fail [4.25/10]

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Mutilate - Tormentium (2018)

While the majority of throwback death metal bands attempt to emulate their favorite acts of the 80s and 90s as closely as possible, there are others who seek to strip back the years to the point where that style was just lifting off, and then attempt to create a primal and even intentionally pedestrian sound as if the rest of it never existed. The strength of New York's Mutilate is that they manage to pull that off by hooking you with the most simplistic riffs, riffs you've probably heard before, a thousand times, and yet for some reason feel timeless in the hands of these brutes. One can tell just by the band's name, and half the song titles here ("Severed Limbs", "Life in Pain", "Sadistic Butchery", etc) that there's literally nothing new going on here. Creativity wouldn't come anywhere near this album, for fear of contracting some infectious disease...

And yet...YET, Tormentium is a fairly charming, bludgeoning way to pass 40 minutes when you're seeking out the sort of escapism you would turn towards death metal for when albums like Scream Bloody Gore, Eyes of Horror, To the Gory End, Master and Fuckin' Death were novelties. Heavily rooted in pummeling thrash riffs, driven towards the grave by the blunt and (admittedly) monotonous, muffled vocal growls. Drums that give you a mechanistic beating beneath the efficient, predictable rhythm guitar progressions. That said, because the material seems so formulaic, the album does offer up a surprise or two, like how the morbid, Death-like guitar at the opening of "Splattered Remains" is slathered with this raucous, wailing, super-minimal lead. Or those evil, neolithic grooves in the belly of "Sadistic Butchery" which are inescapable. Mutilate knows the boundaries within which it works, and never stretches them to any appreciable degree, but between those lines they give you about as much punch as you would desire, without sounding too much like a copy.

Does this have a lot of lasting value, when you could go back and listen to the other albums from the era to which it aesthetically strives? Probably not. There are only a scant few catchy guitar parts, and there aren't quite enough atmospherics to bind it all together. The vocals could use a little more of a dynamic, evil range to them, and a few compelling bass lines would have gone a long way to help with that dingy, subterranean atmosphere which the material dwells upon the fringe of. It's a murky mix, but more like something from a sewer or back alley than an abandoned catacomb or a swamp. The themes go for the violent imagery and proto-brutality that the Death debut and its ilk carved out for the coming kingdom of death metal, but offer up nothing new in that sphere. But for all of its flaws and irritations, Tormentium is still an album which achieves that bare minimum of enjoyment, a thuggish approach to death-metal-that-was-and-will-be, a clubbing of the senses; so if you wish your extreme metal was forever stuck in a cycling time-loop of 1987, give it a listen.

Verdict: Win [7/10]