Sunday, September 30, 2018

Orloff - Apparitions Among the Graveyard Skies (2012)

Orloff is one of numerous projects involving Vanessa Nocera of Razorback Records, known here as 'Alucarda Bellows', and right up front there looked to be so much I was going to dig about this sole full-length, Apparitions Among the Graveyard Skies. The cover artwork is excellent, comic-book style and eerily evocative. The band's logo is great. Even reading through the lyrics, I'd have to say almost all of them are decently written, fully entrenched in the cult horror that is explored throughout much of the Razorback roster. I will even go so far as to say that the initial listening impressions had me hopeful...haunting organs cede to dingy death metal just slathered in dire melodies and even some shredding lead in the first metal tune "Cobwebbed and Decayed".

Unfortunately, Orloff really puts its best foot...fang? forward, because Apparitions feels like a whole slew of ideas programmed together into a 50 minute horror-trip, with little regard for whether they really fit or not, or to any consistency of quality. The transitions are almost universally weak. A lead or an organ section will arrive and depart with haste, like miniature interludes, only badly edited so they don't really deliver much of an impact, and just feel like they've been cobbled together from a bunch of riff ideas that were stored on a hard drive. The shredding parts are a mix of coherent and too short, or sloppy and uninteresting, where the rhythm guitars are also a mixed bag...ranging from evil, inspired vintage death/doom metal ("Nine Eternities in Doom") to the offensively banal chugging of "House Where the Beast Dwells", to "The Needful Revenge of Arthur Grimdsyke" which sounds like a pure, derivative heavy metal song with growling attached to it.

Some of the beats and fills are incredible, where in other places they feel like they're going to collapse in on themselves. Bass lines don't seem to serve much of a purpose to the music, apart from just a bulkier bottom end for the other guitars. In addition to the aforementioned organs, there are some more acidic synthesizer lines which sound like they could come from a giallo flick, only they're not very well implemented in the places they show up. Orloff also uses a few acoustic, classically styled guitar parts, which actually work out well on the instrumental title track, but feel a little jarring and wedged in elsewhere. The majority vocals are brutish and deeply guttural, while some higher pitched snarls are added in for contrast, but in either case, while they're a good fit for this style, they don't always bark out the most interesting syllabic patterns over the riffs churning out beneath them.

I'm not fully aware of the seriousness of the project, since after one demo and this album it seems to have vanished, but Apparitions Among the Graveyard Skies ultimately suffers from shoving together too many ideas which needed further gestation. Take out some of the dumber riffs that spoil it for the rest, align some of those beats and vocals a little better, and spend a long time fixing transitions, and you'd have yourself a pretty kick-ass Halloween/horror record. But as it stands, once you hit the waning moments of the album, it almost feels like the band is just as through with it as you are. Not a terrible album, just a lot of missed potential.

Horror-meter: Eight cemetery encounters out of ten.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Vampyric Blood - Howling by Candlelight (2017)

I'm a pretty big fan of the gloriously cheesy cover art on this album. Graves. Trees. Bats. Candles. Dragons. Ye olde title and logo fonts. And imposed like a ghostly image against the red-tinted photograph, the Lord of Shadow himself, corpse-painted and slung with a hefty pentagram, for all to understand that this gentleman is absolutely the Real Fucking Deal. And he IS, because Howling by Candlelight is a record that sounds exactly as it should when you're looking at it, a relic of 90s raw black metal aesthetics infused with the Romanticism of bloodsucking, wampyric aspirations laid fertile in the hearts and imaginations of Goths and black metal freaks decades over...and by that I mean it features keyboards, prominently but not tastelessly, as an atmospheric backdrop for the bitter riffing.

The synthesizers are hit or miss. Not because they're obnoxious or happy at any point. Not because the the pads and tones chosen aren't wholly appropriate to this recording. A few of the notes just seem to drag and drone a bit, as in the intro "Lighting the Candles in Storming Darkness", which doesn't turn out quite as promising as it starts. But in general, when working alongside the instruments, or the Lord's huge, fulfilling rasp, they blend in rather well to give the listener the impression of haunted Eastern European landscapes through which witches frolic, dark rites are cast and the shadows of ruined castles promise eloquent terrors hidden behind and beneath their walls. Guitars are a mish mash of early Norse black metal influences, heavy on the Darkthrone during slower rhythms but also a lot of De Mysteriis-era Mayhem when the pace picks up, and doing a pretty decent job in both cases although there are only a small handful of actual riffs on the album which I'd call truly evil and effective. In fact, there were some here that were rather dull and melancholic and couldn't contribute fully to the utter damnation that every second of this record should evince.

Bass-lines are pretty mundane, but at least they're audible and offer some nice ballast for the guitars rather than just cloning them 100%. Beats are exactly what they need to be, distant and crashing and effective without getting in the way of the other instruments. I had mentioned the Lord's rasping vocals are massive, and indeed they are, with some great sustain and snarl, fitting perfectly to the riffing and atmosphere. At the same time, they are completely generic for the style, meaning they don't distinguish themselves from a few thousand other bands; there are no real nuances or quirks that mark them as particularly memorable. Simply well done for what they are, and he'll occasionally throw in some murky chants or other bits to offer some degree of ritualistic variation. There are also a number of spots throughout Howling in which one instrument, a riff perhaps is just given a bunch of space to resonate on its own, an effect that isn't often very interesting but enforces the commitment that the Lord has to placing atmosphere right at the forefront of his work along the riffs themselves.

This is another of many obscure BM albums which I don't think has the chops to stand out from the ceaseless crowds, yet it's worthwhile enough that when listening to it I'd never turn it off in sheer frustration. The issue here is simply that the individual songs don't all deliver good riffs, no matter how purely indebted to the genre they sound; nor are the atmospheric components fascinating enough to distract one away from the fact that a lot of the guitars are grist for the mill. Provided that you're a listener who doesn't mind the presence of keys for the theatrical nightmare-scape they can provide, and you're looking for some pure genre fare circa 1993-1994, spacious and diabolical, lyrically focused on black magick, wampyrism, horror and death, without flashy musicianship or any pretense beyond its own swollen darkness, then this one won't probably won't let you down. Personally, while I dug everything the Lord was aiming for, the music itself just wasn't often strong enough that I would keep hearing it in my conscience once the clouds of bats had dissipated.

Horror-meter: Six blood-dripping candles out of ten.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, September 24, 2018

Rostok Vampires - Transylvanian Disease (1989)

I had encountered the name Rostok Vampires a handful of times through the 80s and early 90s, probably referenced in some zines, or perhaps the 'thank you' list in some album's liner notes, and I thought whoever they are, they sound kind of cool, as we often would think scouring the metal underground before being faced with the reality. It would be around a decade before I'd tracked down any of their music, which happened to be their first full length album, Transylvanian Disease. Cool band name. Cool album title. My expectations were that this was going to be some sort of horror crossover/thrash band, but in reality that's more what they evolved towards on later efforts, like their sophomore Misery, which had a lot more metallic riffing across its tracks than this debut, which is more or less a straight horror-punk record with only a few brief guitar parts one might classify as thrash or heavy metal of any sort.

Transylvanian Disease is essentially a hardcore punk album, very heavily influenced by the Misfits, as you can tell by the happy, predictable punk riffs wed to the pained, howling, Glen Danzig-a-like vocals and gang shouts. The difference is that, contrary to what the cool cover artwork implies, the lyrics and song themes don't seem terribly rooted in horror. Perhaps a little of the imagery conjured in the lyrics of a few tracks, but largely this is a mix of the personal non-conformist punk shtick with some social and political lyrics, such as "Faith" which covers Islamic extremism, or "Gun" which might be a criticism of firearm ownership, though the lyrics are fairly minimalist. So right away we've got this huge thematic disconnect which only breeds some degree of disappointment, after seeing that illuminated graveyard, dark trees, and thinking this was somehow going to be some creepy crossover. Just know this in advance, it looks a lot cooler than it sounds. Now, having said that, the Rostok Vampires debut is actually not all that terrible of an album, if you're into the punk and hardcore sounds of the early to mid 80s and seek out records that followed along that path.

The album opens with a screaming sample and then breaks down into a drum-driven, groove which frames some stock rock chords and weird, atonal leads, all before the inevitable circle pit thrust with the raving vocals that places itself somewhere between the Misfits and Minor Threat. The guitar tone, drums and general atmosphere are actually quite good, it sounds snug with its times and that automatically lends itself to a sincerity a lot of genre fans really crave. The songs don't seem like they required a whole lot of thought to conceive, split between some energetic muted hardcore riffs and punk 101 chord progressions, but there's at least a little bit of fire lit beneath these Germans, a little more anger and rawness, rather than the kitschy drive-thru horror vibe of Danzig, Doyle and crew. Bass and drums are about as frantic as this genre got back them, and you certainly get the impression that if this were played on a stage in front of you there would be a whole lot of mohawk-slinging shit kickers whipping their leather jackets and spikes around. Although once the lead guitars break out, and there are several whipping around, a few of the true might have gotten confused.

The Vampires seemed comfortable in this sound, but apart from a few slightly darker riffs or breakdowns where the tunes seem to mutate towards more 'core or metal, it's just not a set of songs that have really stuck with me whatsoever. I would never pick this one out of a lineup against the Misfits, Ramones, Black Flag, Seven Seconds, The Exploited, Agent Orange, or any of the other early punk and hardcore that I often find myself spinning through the decades. They offer a little more than some shallow impersonation of the American and British scenes, to be fair, but really didn't seem to have hit their stride at this point. Coupled with the missed opportunity for some creepy, atmospheric, unique Euro punk or hardcore that really embraced the horror theme that their moniker and album title imply, it was quite a disappointment when I at last got around to listening to it. I'd easily recommend heading straight for their heavier, thrashier albums like Torment of Transformation and Misery, but if you're super invested in that 80s heavier punk sound then you could do worse than Transylvanian Disease. Just keep the fangs and fake blood in storage, because this album does.

Horror-meter: Two out of ten pretty gravestones.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Bloodfiend - Dead Blood Madness (2014)

Bloodfiend is an Argentinian metal act doing its part to channel the death metal deities of yesteryear, only from a slightly fresher angle due to what I can only assume might be a more localized regional listening influence. Judging by the cover artwork alone I wasn't sure whether I would be faced with some indistinct, brutal death via the mid-90s style. The zombie-strewn cover art looked cool, but as a subject matter many would argue that they've long outworn their welcome as vehicles for horror. So it was a positive surprise to hear a group reaching even further backwards to the 80s roots of their genre and twisting them just enough that they've manifest a sound which is conventional and predictable, perhaps, but also authentic enough that you never get the impression they were just setting out to copy any one of their forebears in particular, but rather calling upon a whole host of inspirations.

To be more specific, I'd liken Dead Blood Madness to a Scream Bloody Gore, or Cause of Death, only infused with the South American blood of a vintage Sepultura or Sarcófago. Primitive riffing patterns splayed out in familiar patterns that juggle between evil tremolo picked open notes and a more chugging, meaty substrate. When they erupt into the faster tempos, they walk...or shamble, along a fine line between Chuck Schuldiner's earlier rhythm progressions and those you'd equate with Schizophrenia and Beneath the Remains, but the larger percentage of slower, grooving riffs are rife with the DNA of bands like Obituary, Cianide ("Rage War" is covered at the end of this album), even a little Bolt Thrower for good measure. I really enjoyed the guitar tone, just fat enough for the palm mutes and lower chords, but really slicing through you like a surgical knife though suture and flesh; just about perfect for their style. They also include some higher pitched, simplistic melodies that also recount sepultural atmospherics, but seem to shy away from the unkempt, explosions of lead guitar, which does seem to create a vacancy here that those melodies can't entire fill, especially on the instrumental tune "Decaying Madness", which would have been truly excellent with more lead work, or at least some vocals.

Gabriel Rotten's vocals possess a natural, nihilistic growl which really anchors the old school riffing into the graveyard, with just enough sustain and resonance, and he'll occasionally pitch a higher or louder guttural into the vaulted ceiling of the album's sonic envelope to curb the monotony that this style often faces. The drums offer up some concrete death/thrashing aesthetics, occasionally burst out into controlled blasting but never going too extreme that the album is turned loose from its decidedly throwback feel. The bass guitar really got lost for me behind the rhythm riffs, and doesn't seem to do much of anything interesting throughout the 33 minute playtime, but to be fair I can't imagine that fattening up the tone or wandering off into disparate, distinct lines would have done much to strengthen the overall presentation Bloodfiend was reaching for, which is more like a spade full of clumped cemetery soil being tossed into your face. The band really knows what it's trying to capture here and I think the production choices are seamless towards that vision, the riffs and beats are placed at complementary levels and the vocals are loud enough to dominate without stealing your attention away from those ravenous rhythm guitars.

Ultimately, Dead Blood Madness is a sort of record that I might not reach for above classics of its genre, or even the better retro bands of the current day, but it definitely engages the imagination and nostalgia once you've gotten caught up in it. I could have spun this record in 1989-90 and gotten the same chills as I did some of its peers back in that era, though whether it would have held up as much is unlikely. The horror themes course through its veins like dried up, blood, and for a good chunk of this you can feel the hopeless claustrophobic press of lumbering, mobile corpses as they prepare to chew the life out of you. Pairs well with a can of cheap beer while you ingest an afternoon of B or C-grade zombie flicks, and if you think that's anything but a compliment, then you and I are just never going to work out, so we'd best see other people.

Horror-meter: Seven out of ten decaying neighbors.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]