Friday, November 30, 2018

Voivod - The Wake (2018)

That a band could experience a career Renaissance almost four decades into their career is a rare enough phenomena, but I'm not sure I've experienced one quite to the extent that Voivod has been taking it. Even further, this newfound era of excellence came at the emotional nadir for the band, having lost long-time guitar anomaly Piggy. As it turned out, Mr. D'Amour had chosen the absolute best individual on earth to replace him in Daniel 'Chewy' Mongrain. The subsequent release of Target Earth in 2013 proved that there would be no stopping the Canadians, implementing a style very loyal to the band's legacy, but unafraid to throw a few new ingredients into the mix. After that, 2016's Post Society EP improved upon the writing even further, and now we have arrived at 2018, the proper sophomore for this full new lineup (Rocky taking over for Blacky on bass)...

...and the first perfect score I'm giving to a metal album since 2010. The first perfect score I'm giving to a Voivod album since the 1987-89 trifecta that I consider a hallmark of music, period. The Wake is such a polished, seasoned, inspired record that it seems as if these four have been playing together since that early 80s period in which the group formed. Now, when I said 'Renaissance' earlier, I did not mean to imply that the band had been experiencing much of a slump. In fact, I wouldn't say they ever had...Negatron might have been the low point for me, when they were transitioning to a three piece with Eric on vocals, but that was far from a 'bad' album, and even then they rebounded quite nicely with the interesting followup Phobos. Some fans despised the 'Rock-vod' years which started with Jason Newsted's tenure in the band, and ended with Piggy's failing health, but I happen to enjoy all three of the records of that era as fun, catchy driving tunes. No, when I say 'Renaissance', I mean these last five years have been an escalation from that phase back to their late 80s greatness and perhaps even beyond if they stay this course.

Stylistically, The Wake hearkens back to the 1988-1993 stretch, fusing the high science fictional concepts of Hatröss and Nothingface with the accessible, cleaner, prog-friendly presentations of Angel Rat and The Outer Limits. That's not to claim that these eight tunes are radio-ready singles, in fact they each possess quite a lot of depth, but that is achieved directly through the writing and musicianship, not through some obscure, raw approach to the production like the unnerving cover artwork might imply. The guitars are as clear, punchy and potent as ever, whether jamming along speedier little thrash licks, somber, bluesier moments or crystalline lead harmonies. The bass lines are entirely flush with Blacky's style, groovy and thick with just the right level of distortion on them so as not to give the listener a headache. If anything, Rocky handles the instrument with even more agility and progression than his able predecessor. Snake's vocals are among the best I've ever heard, with a lot of variation between his drugged out, psychedelic cleans and then an array of grainier growls or snarls that help diversify the stories being conveyed through the lyrics. Away's drums range from a patient, tribal bliss to the more hectic techniques the band launches into once they get heavier.

Even the occasional synthesized bits here sound fantastic, lending ambiance and mood to the busier instrumentation. Reverb and other effects are tactfully applied to vocal lines or guitars so that the listener feels as if he's floating through some derelict asteroid field or abandoned spacecraft, and the 'alien' aesthetics that Voivod first introduced through earlier efforts like Rrröööaaarrr, Killing Tech and Hatröss feel as fresh and innovative to me now as they did when I was a teenager. What's more, the band is clearly trying new ideas here...such as the soaring, memorable leads in the belly of "Sonic Mycelium", to which the backing rhythm guitars are splayed out in staccato patterns that almost feel like the band was using them as orchestration. Or the cybernetic psychedelics of the vocal patterns in "Always Moving" before they switch off to those guitars. Creating an album which is 100% loyal to their own history and yet still surging forward, somewhere, is no mean feat in this day and age, and the genius here is that The Wake is an album I think might thrill stubborn hold-outs who adhere only to the group's 80s discography, while still reaping in newer, younger admirers from many other realms of the progosphere.

The lyrics are quite good, nothing too impenetrable perhaps, like the story of Nothingface, but possessive of a similar scope of a personal perspective set against some cataclysmic singularity which forces humanity to awaken itself to the greater universal society around them. I'd also like to add that the double disc Digipak I'm covering also includes the entire Post Society EP, which I've covered elsewhere but is almost equally stunning as the newest material. So that's a pretty good bonus if you missed that release, although this obviously lacks the great packaging that had. The artwork in this version is good and freaky, although there isn't a lot of it, instead the lyrics and photos are presented simply and clearly, almost as if they wanted a minimal aesthetic to defy the spiraling chaos and creepiness of the front cover. There are a half dozen live cuts also added after the EP, but these all sound pretty grainy. Hardly a critical component of the release, but since they're just dressing on the bonus CD, their presence doesn't detract.

The Wake is an album with no real, discernable highlights, because EVERY SECOND is a highlight. There is not a single note or syllable I would want differently. I would not sift through this for any one individual song, as they are all equally compelling. A 56 minute trip I'm willing to take at almost any moment. I feel a profound joy that I get to be a living, breathing organism in a time of human history when I get to hear something like this. The first few times I was listening, as I was sorting through Magic the Gathering cards at one of my day jobs, hypnosis was immediately induced. Certainly the frenetic, fragmented picking and clever, swerving bass grooves of "Orb Confusion", or the roiling anger and aggression of "Iconspiracy" might 'pop' from the framework of The Wake more than some of their neighbors, but really this is a Court of the Crimson King or Tales from Topograhic Oceans for me. I didn't come here for a quick burst of exhilaration, but for a profound experience, an escape to a place I can't touch with my fingers, only my brain.

This is the best album I've heard this year in any genre.
Voivod is the best band on Earth.
Fuck off nowadays jock metal.
The nerds win.
We were always going to.

Verdict: Epic Win [10/10] (recycle yourself)

Friday, November 23, 2018

Warpath - Filthy Bastard Culture (2018)

Ever since I did a review swarm covering the evolution of German thrash through the 80s, 90s (and beyond), Hamburg brutes Warpath have proven one of several control groups in how to approach the medium in as banal a fashion as possible. Now I don't take any pleasure in constantly harping on a particular band, but their 90s records were constantly the very definition of mediocrity (at their best), and after the gulf of two decades, their return with last year's Bullets for a Desert Session showed startlingly little growth, even after the career nadir Kill Your Enemy that dropped in 1996 to barely a scrap of fanfare. Now normally I might have set this pull a 180, and regale you with my shock and awe that these guys have finally dropped a worthwhile album, but Filth Bastard Culture is sadly nowhere near deserving of such an accolade. I admire the band's persistence, and they manage to hang on to a Massacre deal, but man was I hoping it would be different this time.

Okay, let me back up and make one exception...this record has the best production I think they've ever presented us with. Clear, powerful chords, abrasive and grooving rhythm section, gravelly and angry vocals, and even the few embellishments like the symphonics used in the title track sound quite good in the mix. I struggle to call this much of a 'thrash' metal effort at all. The band has always had just as much of a tie to the blunt instruments of groove and nu-metal throughout the 90s, while not nearly as annoying as most bands to bear those descriptors. The stark simplicity of the chords here, running through predictable, bouncy cuts like "Back to Zero", often reminds me of the metallic derived elements of New York hardcore, and many of the riffs are purely rock or punk injected, differentiated only by the more growled vocals that seem more indicative of aggressive thrash. As I hinted above, Warpath does try a few deviations here, like the orchestration used to kick off and accompany the title cut, or the slower paced "Believe in Me" with its clean, deep vocals and guitar lines that lead into the bruising of the distorted chords..."St. Nihil", with its doomed gait. Alas, these just don't bring the 'catchy' any more than the rest of the material...

There is some thrash, to be "Killing Fields" with its Black-album Metallica pacing, or a couple other tunes with thick palm muted phrases ripe for 80s urban moshing. There are a handful of melodic or lead-like elements, as in "F.U." (come on, really?), but these seem a little subdued, as if the band isn't confident enough to slather them over the brickheaded grooves. And that's another thing, the titles and lyrics all seem rather bland, not that this is always a dealbreaker to me, but when there's not a lot of music to value, they definitely can drive an experience further under. As a total package, Filthy Bastard Culture offers just so little aspiration, so little genuine nastiness, comparing this to their 80s German forebears like Destruction and Kreator is like having a Cro-magnon emerge from its cave, to see a jet or helicopter soar above for the very first time. Nothing risked, nothing gained, and after over a quarter of a century, I'm not sure anything ever will be. Far from the most incompetent band I've heard, yet a long way from making any progress. I'd hesitate to say that it truly 'sucks', but the most memorable aspects of this album are the production and the fact that they're still packing that logo which looks a lot like New York thrashers Whiplash.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Bloodbath - The Arrow of Satan is Drawn (2018)

The Arrow of Satan is Drawn is one of those albums I want so hard not to feel disappointed with that I've burned out trying. Ostensibly the record that would really capitalize on the band's direction from Grand Morbid Funeral, there was only one lineup change here with Joakim Karlsson of Craft stepping into Per Eriksson's slot on the second guitar. I was truly hoping that 'Old Nick' Holmes would settle into his sophomore outing with the supergroup and crush this out of the park, and that the riffs would gel a little better than they had on the 2014 album, back to the level achieved with their earlier lineups on records like The Fathomless Mastery and Nightmares Made Flesh, but what comes across here is a jumble of ideas that just doesn't quite come together for me until it's too late.

Aesthetically, there a number of positives to this latest Bloodbath outing. The cover artwork is interesting and disturbing. The title is cool. The commitment to an even more repulsive production than Grand Morbid Funeral could have wound up something compelling. Nick's grainy growls still felt like a fresh change of pace from the more polished gutturals used in the past by Mikael and Peter during their tenure within the group. The lyrics maintain that vibe of recapturing a lot of the death metal tropes of the 90s, which really remains the whole point of this project. The production, while looser and more murky than any of the prior albums, does have the necessary punch to impress Swedish tone-a-philes, and they manage to spruce it all up with some atmospheric, higher pitched guitars that occasionally add a level of creep to the proceedings. But fuck if this album takes so long to deliver anything of any lasting value...the first half of it is almost completely devoid of the good riffs that stick to the ears for more than a couple moments.

Where is the "Year of the Cadaver Race" for this album? The "Outnumbering the Day"? "The Soulcollector"? Or "Devouring the Feeble"? Too few of the riffs present on The Arrow of Satan is Drawn are worthy of even sharing the same cemetery plots as some of their predecessors, and so the album has to aim for a more total atmospheric package that contains a lot of humdrum guitars which are unfortunately serviced as well by the crunch of the tone as they ought to have been. Granted, it's not the most roughshod recording in the band's catalog...Resurrection Through Carnage is much more cheap and torn sounding, but the issue here is that with the exception of the melodies or the disjointed leads that might explode over the meatier rhythm guitars, none of the progressions really stand out beyond the billion or so records out of Europe that have come along to share in the worship of the Swedish forebears like Entombed, Dismember and Carnage. Energy isn't the issue, since the production gives it plenty of hellish swerve, but the riffs feel too hastily thrown together as if just anything would do because HEY WE'RE BLOODBATH.

Even when they seem to get something really going in "Bloodicide" with those great, almost cosmic melodies, the rhythm guitars are just too mediocre. The latter half of the album is a little tighter and more appreciable, and they do try some varied song structures you haven't heard before in tunes like "Wayward Samaritan" and "Deader", but I was always left feeling like I'm hanging, that the results could have been so much better if Blakkheim and company just did a couple more run-throughs at the idea-stage, changing some of the chords here or there or the order at which they pummel through the track. I'm also just not convinced Holmes is the best man for the job here, as much as I've enjoyed a lot of his early Paradise Lost growls (and his other Gothic vocals), there's little to the rhythm and meter of his delivery that thrills me. It's gravely and grim like the path up to the mortuary, but once you've heard a couple syllables and sustains it gets old pretty fast.

This is far from a terrible album, but it's somewhat undercooked to my ears, and while this might have been a purposeful stylistic choice, to just scrabble together some death metal jams and go play a couple festivals, to not overthink it, I think it wound up in the worst of their full-lengths to date. Almost all the components were there for something great, but the execution escaped me.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Darkenhöld - Castellum (2014)

Castellum is the most straight-to-the-face of the Darkenhöld discography, choosing to eschew some glistening Medieval acoustic or synthesizer intro to savage the listener immediately with a strong, scorching eight minutes of "Strongholds Eternal Rivalry". Don't mistake me, within that track's parameters, there is already plenty of dynamic range, from the blasted Scandinavian verses into the more swaggering, mid-paced glorious chorus which sounds like you're rounding up a posse of disavowed knights to ride down and bring low some border lord's castle and militia. There are some nice acoustics in the bridge, with a cool, lightly fuzzed bass line, but it sets a reliable, slate-gray tone to how this album is going to sound as it celebrates the magnificent stone walls of the cover edifice.

The rest is business as usual, which is not a bad thing for one of France's greatest tributes to the Dark Ages, and Castellum is probably the least fantastical of their output, with tunes like "Le castellus du moine brigand" genuine historical references in their lyrics. It's also one of their best produced, along with the debut. Guitars have a nice crunch to them but also sound great streaming chords along to the faster drum tempos, and you can hear all the upper strings being struck to portray a few glimpses of atmosphere. The bass lines are tucked right under the rhythm guitar, and not doing anything terribly interesting, but they diverge just enough to matter in the context of the album's atmosphere. The synthesizers are as usual very well implemented, not too subtle but never brazen or disruptive to the metallic components. You very often feel like you're charging around a courtyard or a mountainside while the sunlight is gleaming down upon your armor. Cervantes' rasp here is not too far at the forefront, but it sounds just as good if not better than their other albums, and his delivery can get good and nasty to accompany a glorious piece like the thundering of "Glorious Horns".

You do get a dungeon synth-like, minimally percussive interlude in "Feodus Obitus" and the excellent, shining finale "Medium Aevum", but otherwise it's about 38 minutes of majestic and determined black metal which never thrives on being the fastest or meanest, but instead locks itself in canter with the atavistic imagery portrayed. There are some truly effective moments, like the melodies in "The Bulwarks Warlords" or the mystique-building depths of "L'incandescence Souterraine", but there's not a bad track among the bunch, and next to A Passage to the Towers... I think this is their best work, although all four of the full-lengths thus far have been in the same ballpark quality. Wholly traditional black metal baptized by just the proper amount of cinematic grace through the keys, and the Medieval trappings are something I'll never grow tired of.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (vigilant winds assemble)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Deicide - Overtures of Blasphemy (2018)

I've long been a picky listener of Deicide, appreciating the 'shock value' and importance they've brought to the death metal genre, but only rarely desiring to listen to much of their discography. Apart from the first two, which I listen to largely for nostalgia reasons (and not for the production, which I'm not terribly fond of), the record I turn to most often is The Stench of Redemption from back in 2006. This was an album that took the stock Deicide formula and gave it new dimensions through more melodic dynamics and the quality leads of the late Ralph Santolla, something appreciated in a catalog that largely featured dull, blunt riffing and the dual snarl and growl of Glen Benton, with little interesting songwriting to be had...

Ironically, Overtures of Blasphemy isn't some unique, transitional milestone for the Floridian Christian crushers, but it's a record that incorporates a little of that Stench of Redemption vibe, while at the same time reducing the riffing down to its bare basics, tremolo picked patterns and a whole lot of brute force chugging. Despite this, I've quite enjoyed it, because the riffs are tight and energetic enough, the songs so compact in their 2-3 minute formats, that each feels like an infernal burst of genre purity straight to the dome. Benton only uses his growl for most of the duration, competently executed, with only a couple lines where he'll break out a goofy snarl. Rhythmically, the band is a flawless machine. Asheim's kick drums sound like anti-aircraft machine gunnery, felling squadrons of angels at a time, while he can blast off effortlessly where the band wants to transform the mood away from the moderately paced churning and grooving. Glen's bass sounds about as fantastic as you're going to get when you're following the rhythm guitar so closely, with a meaty tone that feels like it can clog any of the diminutive air-holes between the chugs and chords.

Fine-tuned, hellish brickwork being laid out at unholy speeds, so when the lead guitars erupt they are always striking an excellent balance against the fury below them. These aren't always quite so catchy or explosive as on Stench of Redemption, and there aren't a whole ton of them, but they work very well where they exist and really round off the whole album. In terms of riff strength, there might be a lot here you'll feel like you've heard from this or another band in the past, but the production is just so spot on, the tracks so skintight that they feel like they're exactly what the songs required to remain kinetic and entertaining. One of Jason Suecof's best recordings to date, just honest and punishing and yet clear enough to let the smaller details through. The lyrics are about exactly what you think they are, and yet they are rather well done this time out, providing some memorable imagery along with the typical blasphemy. I'd also like to point out that Zbigniew M. Bielak's cover artwork on this one is astonishingly good, for me easily the best Deicide have ever had, and that really wraps this package up into something worthwhile. After a few spins, I was quick to promote this to one of my favorite albums the band has ever released, even if it's nothing novel or unique by any stretch.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (there's nothing worth saving)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Darkenhöld - Echoes from the Stone Keeper (2012)

While not advancing the band's purview far beyond it's debut, Echoes from the Stone Keeper was a fine sophomore effort which continued to channel the mythistorical Dark Age consciousness into the 90s European black metal medium, fantasy and folklore into gnarled, atmospheric black metal that holds firmly to both its cultural and musical traditions. It might not dazzle as much as its predecessor in terms of 'surprise', hearing this great idea for the very first time as I did with A Passage to the Towers, but the necessary steps are taken to cement the band's style and penchant for solid, well-laid-out compositions which transport the listener, preferably the atavistic European individual or someone across the sea who wishes he or she were such, into grim landscapes of stone, forest and steel, where there was no cellphone onto which you could scream during your inevitable beheading by some errant knight or highwayman en route to some plague-infested berg.

It's a thicker sounding, blockier album than the first, as if levels were being tweaked between the instruments to try and even them out, and some slight calamity occurred as a result. Don't get me wrong here, Echoes is still quite listenable, but the dynamic range of its Passage was superior to my ears, and remains so, since I went back and listened to it before tackling the rest of their catalog. On a stylistic standpoint, this is very much that mid-90s style of black metal pioneered largely by bands out of Norway who early on applied symphonic elements as complements to the guitars. You could trace it back to Emperor, Limbonic Art, Old Man's Child, and their ilk, good influenced to have as they permit Darkenhöld to truly manifest the archaic, haunted majesty of their lyrical themes. The riffing here is quite solid, perhaps not always so unique but shifting about often enough that there is no real boredom anywhere, with tight-cropped tracks that don't their heads to spawn mediocre 'epics' that lack the ideas to fill them. Drums sound tight and appropriately crashy, while the guitar tone itself is good, the synths are laid out just right behind it all and the vocalist's rasp slithers right thru to coil itself around the listener's bewitched ears.

It's only when it all fires off at once that I sensed a little bit of clip or excessive evenness which robbed some of the individual components of their power potential. Sometimes the keys would shine forward a little much for the strength of the guitars, and so forth, but I'm such an admirer of this style and where it takes me mentally that it's not a great obstacle. The 'dungeon synth' like intro pieces, "Subterranean Corridor" and "Interlude" are well enough made, but perhaps not as catchy as the keys used in some of the proper metal tunes, and not as good as those Darkenhöld has used on some of its other albums. For this album, the more the band takes risk and provides evil riffing, the better the tunes seem to be, as in "Chasm of Asylake", but they hit a lot of mid-paced Blood Fire Death style sequences adorned with eerie symphonics or pianos that I also found quite agreeable. The lyrics are also worthwhile, whether you're into fantastical creatures ("Wyvern Solitude Chant") or alchemy ("Under the Sign of Arcanum"). All told, I'd say this ranked as their third best album, quite good but not as impressive as the debut or the album that would follow it in 2014.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ossuaire/Ysengrin/Aorlhac/Darkenhöld - La Maisniee du Maufe - A Tribute to the Dark Ages (2011)

I'm years late checking out this four-way split, but as a fan of three of the four French bands participating on my way into it, I figured it was just about mandatory. The common thread running through the creators here, apart from the shared nationality, is that they all have some devotion among their own projects to atavism, diving into the distant past for lyrical and musical inspiration, and I feel this micro scene, more prevalent in Europe than my own USA, offers a cool counterbalance to the more modernized strains of black or death metal which head off towards more progressive ideals. I also thought the layout for the split album was interesting: at about 31 minutes, three of the four bands all feature an instrumental intro or outro along with a harder, metallic track.

All three of these instrumentals consist of a clean guitar component, with Aorlhac's album opener being the most purely rustic and folksy, pure acoustic bliss. Darkenhöld's is a little more dingy and tribal, with some ambient sounds hovering just at the crest of the guitars. The finale of the split, Ysengrin's "Herege", features some electric guitar along with the acoustic, and cedes into a more funereal synth as it comes to its close. All three of these pieces were very well done, highlights of the recording, and for their small differences flow together rather well with one another and the slightly divergent styles of the bands. Fortunately, just about everything else on offer is also worthwhile, from Aorlhac's savage, riffy "Les charognards et la Catin", to Darkenhöld's mid-paced, evil piece and fittlingly titled "Eerie Plain at Dawn", to Ysengrin's morbid amalgamation of death, doom, heavy and black metal "La Procession Noire" with its more atmospheric, guttural vocals and weird, snaking riffs and leads. Each of these tunes is quite fluid with what the band was releasing individually at the time, and like a lot of their material easy for the Dark Age headbanger trapped in the 21st century to lose oneself in.

Ossuaire was new to me, but their sole track also seems like a microcosm of what their peers had on exhibition, with some acoustic guitars that transmute into some chunky, dissonant black/death metal with, yet again, guttural vocals rather than the black rasps that you'll hear from the first two bands on the split. I did think this tune was okay, but perhaps my own issue was the dingy, dissonant tones and overall production once the heavier sections kicked in stood out a little much from the rest. Some of the style here reminded me a lot of another French band, Suppuration, which is cool, and I did like this enough that I'll track down their 2010 full-length Mortes Fables at some point to check it out, but I'd say of any of the selections for this release, it was probably the one I would have cut out to make the rest flow a little more smoothly. That aside, and its a minor gripe at best, La Maisniee du Maufe is a very cool release which delights for much of its runtime. France has by far one of the best scenes in all black metal these years, and even though the bands included on this would be considered second or third 'tier', they are all well worth hearing, following and supporting.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 12, 2018

Darkenhöld - Memoria Sylvarum (2017)

I've been drawn into Darkenhöld's brand of glorious, melancholic Medieval black metal since the very debut, and for years now they have been cementing themselves as a paragon of escapism. Though they play in a far more traditional vein than the 'Big Three' of the French scene (or at least my own 'Big Three'), they are with ease one of the more consistent in the 'second tier', and like their countrymen Belenos and Aorlhac there's a historical spin to the chosen themes, although this particular band dresses it up in a fantastical element. Essentially they're one of those black metal acts which would find appeal for dungeon synth fans, and vice versa, although their own exploration of that divergent style is limited to a very small fraction of their albums. Still, if you dream of castle walls, long rides across cold moors, or any other idyllic Middle Age aesthetics to permeate your black metal, then it's hard to imagine you wouldn't at least get something from their albums.

Musically the focus is on mid-90s black metal riffing, an admixture of scathing rhythms, dim chord choices and occasional swings into full-on, ale-pounding majesty that come out of left field. The mix of the album is very even, with the guitars, bass, drums, synths and nasty snarling of the frontman 'Cervantes' complementing rather than fighting with one another in the speakers. It's a firm medium between the rawer elements of the genre, and the more overly produced, big budged offerings of the Scandinavian luminaries and mainstays. The atmosphere is created through the graying moods of the guitars, adorned with organs and other synthesizer effects which fit them perfectly. There is one brief interlude piece called "La Grotte de la Chêvre d'Or" which you could consider full-on dungeon style synth, but otherwise the band is heavily guitar driven, with a heavy use of acoustic guitars that are seamlessly integrated along with distorted lines when they're not appearing alone. Some of the riffs are quite good, with occasional drifts into leads or melodies that stand independently of the rhythm section, but to be honest there are a number of forgettable or overly familiar patterns that would not stand out whatsoever if not for the sum atmosphere created on the album.

The snarl is quite good, but also akin to many you've heard before, so I'm thankful that they also do include some soaring, background choral vocals that make it sound like it's being broadcast at you from some mountain monastery. Memoria Sylvarum also keeps most of its tunes reined in at around 4-5 minutes, so they aren't so headstrong to think they can cycle endless waves of repetitive riffing at you in a vainglorious attempt to seem epic or profound. With a couple exceptions, Darkenhöld just charges into battle, as a convocation of black knights attending a joust, and then doesn't wear out its welcome, providing the listener an atavistic portal into his or her own fantasy. It's almost elegant apart from how it does occasionally deliver the savagery of the earlier albums by acts like Midvinter or Old Man's Child. While it's not my favorite of the albums they've put out to date, this does not disappoint, it's only marginally less engaging to me than A Passage to the Towers or Castellum, and yet again secures a catalog of consistency for a band that, Franc-ly, is not spoken of nearly as often as they deserve. Sorry for the terrible pun, it appears my jestering skills need some dusting off.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Bâ'a/Verfallen/Hyrgal - Split LP (2018)

The only of the French black metal bands to feature on this 3-way split that I've previously encountered was Hyrgal, who released the very solid album Serpentine last year, also through local label and bastion of consistency Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions. The others here, Verfallen and Bâ'a, are actually making their debuts with this very release, and from the level of competency being exhibited here, I hardly think it will be the last we hear of either of them. What's more, the three bands all match up rather well in terms of overall stylistic intent, not to the point that they could be mistaken for clones, but it helps give the hour-long experience a very seamless transition between them, so at times I forgot I was even listening to a split and felt it was more of a concerted, complementary effort.

Bâ'a opens with a volley of fast-paced, highly melodic and sorrow-stoking black metal complete with some great bass-lines and added layers of orchestration at just the right moments for just enough of a transcendence. There are some breaks in the momentum, where the material becomes more longing and pensive, but overall they are just a well-rounded project with a multi-faceted attack that worked for me at any pacing. Verfallen feature some of the longer tracks on the disc, each over 9 minutes long and giving me some nostalgia for 90s melodic black or death metal with an intense blast beat battery and some harsh, nasty vocals. They too will throw in some segues where they move onto a more mid-paced, charging style or some softer guitars, but when they're firing on all cylinders I got the impression of a French Dark Funeral or Marduk, maybe some shades of Merrimack. They're probably the most monotonous of the three bands here, but I don't mean that in a bad way, the songs are just more grandiose in weight, there is still plenty going on to keep the listener's ear trained and not lapsing into boredom.

Hyrgal, the 'veterans' of this release, take things down a notch with a very somber, morose piece that moves at one of the slowest crawls, but packed with harrowing emotion and driving chords. A few parts of their album closer, "Sicaire", ramp up the pacing to flow more fluidly with some of the offerings of their compatriots earlier on, before then breaking down again into a soul-sucking climax with some multi-layered vocals, and lastly a wonderful ambient ending that trails off for the last 4 minutes, spacious and heavily distorted guitars ringing out before a torrential downpour cedes to some stormy swells of cleaner, sparsely strung notes. All quite breathtaking, especially after the near hour of time you spent building up to this, it's as if all the tension of the bands' material breaks at long last, drenching the listener in a chance to reflect back upon the journey. All thoughtfully constructed, and while these particular bands might not have the same level of distinction or creativity as some of  their better known countrymen, they're all quite good at what they do. Passion, savagery, escapism, such crucial components for black metal. France has a very rich scene in this genre, and here are three freshly blooming examples of why.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 5, 2018

VCID - Jettatura (2018)

You might not see a metric ton of bands labeling themselves 'black n' roll' out there, but in truth the two mediums work well in tandem, and it's hardly a novel concept. A quick listen through first wavers like Hellhammer or Venom will reveal quite a few pure rock-ims; sure, they might be saturated in raw production that sounds alien to anyone looking for radio-friendly classic rock, but the simplicity and intent is laid bare. VCID is a French band which pretty much attempts to serve as a poster child for what that hybrid would sound like in 2018, and if you can set some expectation for that in advance you will find unfortunately find no surprises on their first full-length Jettatura. That's not to say this album is a bad one per se, because its clear production and thick guitars hold an estimable level of potency, but where even Satyricon were able to pull of a few evil, addictive grooves on their own 'black'n' roll' era records like Now, Diabolical and The Age of Nero, this one is all surface level, all straightforward and doesn't have much in the way of subtle tact or memorable riffing.

Jettatura is primarily mid-paced, driving rock-punk rhythms with a few slightly faster, dissonant chord patterns woven in and out for good measure. It shows a sort of parallel development to how crustier metal/hardcore bands of the D-generation write at moderate speeds, only with a brighter production level. Think Nails playing a Darkthrone cover, mitigating their anger a bit for a more bruising, cruising effect. It's not so sunny, rocky and punky as something like Turbonegro or  Kvelertak, but take that style and integrate some more mug-swilling, atmospheric and melodic disposition and you're in the right ballpark. In fact I'd say they sound most to me like the Danish band Horned Almighty, although I didn't enjoy this quite so much as that band's catalog which has a more cruel, abusive streak to it. The riffs here are just slightly north of 'stock', occasionally dressed up with a jangly little minor note fill so it's not just all meaty chords, or some occasionally chugging which will break off into a faster tremolo picked sequence.

A lot relies on the vocalist 'C' (they all use initials here), who has this very level, consistent and nasty rasp which is capable of some sustain to match up with the general mid speed of the instruments. C sounds loud and central to the mix, and about as professional as you're going to get, but at times I also though the vox were a bit too obvious and overbearing, without the little flaws and personality quirks that would make them stand out. Essentially it's a rock solid delivery over a rock solid base, with the drums and bass and rhythm guitars all adequate for a style of black metal that is the very opposite of flash. I think they do a fairly decent job of balancing out their two 'sides', but the issue I had for much of this was just that the black metal riffs are never evil enough, nor haunting, even when they clearly try to be. Some more experimentation, higher pitched guitars, perhaps some more unpredictable rhythm guitar patterns could really turn this around because VOID clearly knows how to achieve a high level studio sound. The album packaging looks cool, and they also have a really cool lyrical style which seems to flow like beat poetry when you read them outside of the music.

A lot of potential here, I just wish the band would go further out into the unknown. I think in the end, if you're really into that early Darkthrone black metal style but want it cleaned up a bit, Jettatura would hardly be a waste of your time, but the whole experience felt a little too stable and samey for what I'm looking for in this particular niche.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Friday, November 2, 2018

Necronomicon - Unleashed Bastards (2018)

Unlike a few of their thrashing peers in the German underground, Necronomicon never really took some huge break from the music. Sure, there was a decade of general inactivity between Screams in 1994 and 2004's Construction of Evil, but otherwise the band has been somewhat consistent in productivity, dropping a new disc every 3-4 years. Never really among the forefront of the Teutonic titans, possibly due to the constant comparisons to Schmier and Destruction, they've actually held up pretty evenly in the quality of what they release, with a lot of average-to-decent tier albums, the best of which have been Revenge of the Beast and Pathfinder... Between Heaven and Hell, at least among their 21st century offerings. Unleashed Bastards continues the legacy of those works, another of their more elaborately written albums, which certainly sounds like no effort was spared in putting it together despite any lack of expectations that the thrash audience might have.

There are a couple flaws...for instance, the cover art is really shitty, some aberration of their Chaly like winged skull mascot superimposed with half an evil woman face, and completed by the tacky album title font. Doesn't bode well for what you're about to hear, and that's too bad, because this album delivers on many fronts. The other setback here is that, for all the detail and extravagance on exhibition throughout Unleashed Bastards, a lot of the tunes center around some really generic riffs that you've heard a thousand times before. Does Necromonicon offer enough relish on top of this fundamentally predictable core to help offset that fact? I'd say they do, because the album has a great flow to it, with plenty of variation in the riff-sets, lots of good leads and melodies applied to the duller rhythm guitars to help spice them up and keep the ears fixed. Tracks like "Forbid Me from Living" and "Imperial Hunger" really soar through the roof, not only because of these guitars but also the resonant, Schmier-like vocal quality of the band's long time axeman-singer Freddy.

He has that ability to pitch that nasty Germanic mid-range bite into the stratosphere with some great chorus-work that patches up many misgivings I'd have for some of the verse riffs. The lead guitars if a little forgettable, are all thrown in at the right times and places, and combined with the heavy use of melody there is easily an appeal here for fans of bands like Heathen, Forbidden, Paradox, Deathrow,etc. The rhythm section is rock tight with some great drum tone throughout, and busy bass-work in spots that really help lend the tunes some replay value. They'll also throw out a couple tunes with unexpected structures like "Malevolent", which takes its time ramping up to the neckbreaking. All told, this is some pro stuff here, with a production that I can't find any complaints about. The packaging might suck, but Unleashed Bastards has vaulted itself to my favorite album of their post-2000 catalog, and  second favorite only to Escalation among their entire discography. Perhaps not among my thrash picks for the year, but these guys prove why they've remained in the game for so long.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Darkness - First Class Violence (2018)

Say what you will about the fluxing quality of the various Teutonic second string thrashers' reunion era records, but there's no question that bands such as Vendetta, Accuser, Assassin, Necronomicon, Exumer and Darkness are committed to the cause. Not just taking one shot at kicking their midlife crises in the jimmies to reclaim their hopeful youths, but attempting to forge a genuine secondary career out of returning to the metals. As for Essen's Darkness, the 2016 comeback The Gasoline Solution was a competent and well executed thrash album that, to me at least, was right on par with their 1987 cult debut Death Squad, possibly the only album that many would remember from the band. With First Class Violence, they return for more of their no-nonsense, urban thrash which eschews any and all gimmicks, bells or whistles for the pure headbanging roots of the medium.

The results here were mixed for me. I find the album very well produced with appreciable nastiness, and lots of cool flourishes in the lead work and the atmosphere that takes me right back to a lot of US underground thrashers in the 80s, from Atrophy to Indestroy, not to mention the overt parallels to their own legendary countrymen Sodom and Kreator. However, about half of the tunes here suffer from some really banal rhythm guitar progressions that are entirely too dull and predictable. "Low Velocity Blood Spatter" is a good example, because it starts with some nice, dim harmonies and seems like it's about to explode like a mix of Artillery's By Inheritance and Kreator's Coma of Souls, but then devolves into some lame moshy parts. These are saved by the fiery energy of the band, in particular the lead guitars wailing out all over the place, or the meaty drum performance. In general, they just perform far better when they're moving along at either a faster paced with speedier picking redolent of Agent Orange, or a few of the peppier mid-paced riffs which recall Exodus.

There's also a similar mood or feel to a number of the tracks here where a lot of the guitar seem to blend together; don't mistake me, they all feel flush to the artwork and atmosphere that the album is trying to present, but a few more guitar parts out of left field would have rounded it out better. The band's newer vocalist Lee does an adequate job of delivering a nasty, sincere, splattering tone, but sometimes a bit too polished and punctual. As I mentioned before, the leads are fired up and inspiring throughout, when they erupt in tunes like "See You on the Bodyfarm" they almost always elevate their surroundings, and without any need to be overly wanky or technical. It's largely thanks to these that First Class Violence is still an album I'd recommend to pure thrashing fans who are looking for proficiently implemented throwbacks to that 80s Golden Age, which Darkness themselves were a small part of. The Gasoline Solution was slightly better, but a tune like "Born Dead" works for me in any decade, these gentlemen don't sleep on the execution.

Verdict: Win [7/10]