Monday, November 18, 2019

Hamferð - Ódn EP (2019)

The Faroe Islands fascinate me not only as a little nook of the world that I hadn't heard of growing up, but also as a place where a small but curious metal scene has sprouted, possessing a lot of variation within itself, but also some unique sounds when compared the world over. Of course I'm largely talking about Týr, whose Viking progressive metal is extremely distinct, but in this case I'll dredge up the atmospheric, oppressive Hamferð who really thrive in a niche between traditional Gothic/doom metal and something more otherworldly, perhaps like older Tiamat and Lake of Tears. I came a little late to this sextet's sophomore full-length, Támsins likam, but really enjoyed that when I got around to it, and this two track live EP, for all its format limitations, is phenomenal...

And there's an interesting story behind it. While the first, and newer title track was recorded live and filmed in Tórshavn, the second, "Deyðir varðar", a shorter version of a track of their full-length debut Evst from 2013, was recorded out of doors during a solar eclipse. Maybe a bit tacky, but when you watch the live videos of the performances (both available on the 'Tube'), you can see that this was done out of conviction and not just some soulless gimmick. Now the two cuts here are not cut from the same cloth; "Ódn" itself is by far my favorite of the two, and best fits the description I offered above, an 8 minute crawl of monolithic, measured pacing with gloomy power chords, and a mix of vocals between a potent guttural, wavering cleans mildly reminiscent of Candlemass, and then a style in between, a passionate, melodic howling which is more like a beefed up version of Primordial frontman Nemtheanga. Lean into this with some atmospheric organs that ride just at the edge of the chords' weight, and you've got a powerful statement that delivers more than a lot in its genre can muster in an actual studio.

The 'B-side' track is a calmer piece with cleaner acoustics and vocals, still quite great and folksy, but doesn't offer that same level of power if it still resonates emotionally. Again, the production is near pristine, you wouldn't know that these were live without a few minor details, and paired up with the stark, simplistic cover painting this is just one that will stick with you, or at least have you tracking down their older material which is very much worth it. While you'll find plenty of the band's DNA has been drawn from its primary genres, there just isn't an another band that sounds to me quite like this one, putting together these strands in this precise way, and they're another Faroe standout. As for the 12" as a product, I don't know if this band's style really jives with the format. Once you listen through "Ódn", you're going to want to hear a lot more than 8 minutes of that...and so it seems rather unfulfilling in that respect. So I'd bargain that unless you are collecting all the band's works, you could just check out the video versions of the tunes and invest your money in the full-lengths, past and future. If the second tune had been of the same weight as the first, then I'd ramp up the praise. Having said all that, this is still one of the finer, short live EPs I've come across in awhile, so if my rating seems a bit lowball, it's only because the 'product' doesn't match the musical vision. But the band is awesome.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Friday, November 15, 2019

Godslave - In Hell (2013)

Despite over a decade of existence, five full-length albums and a number of appearances on splits and other recordings, I have not actually listened or really even heard of Godslave before I sat down with this third record, In Hell. There's an obvious reason for that, as the rest of this review will reveal, but I have to say up front that I wanted to get into this. A band clearly rooted in the 80s, with a whole slew of influences that encapsulate a whole lot of the B-list or below of bands making their rounds back then. There's nothing overtly 'goofy' or exceedingly retro about what they write, they take those same influences and thrust them into a 21st century studio production; they are topical, they aren't just some self-flagellating 'thrash' band that wants us all to know just how 'thrash' they are.

So here's the issue...if you took about 20 or more of those thrash bands from the 80s, largely US stuff like Whiplash, Sacred Reich, Testament, Exhorder, and Exodus, but also traces of groups like Artillery, Forbidden, Xentrix, Mortal Sin and Destruction, put them all in a blender, both vocally and musically, and then removed any modicum of memorable riffing and choruses, you would end up with an album like In Hell. This is appreciably competent stuff, from both the dynamic range of the rhythm and lead guitars, the flexibility of the vocals, and the clarity of production, but so little of it really registers to a thrasher that has been there all along. It occasionally lapses into some really baseline Exodus neck-jerking riffs, but often has a bit more complexity to it, and normally the amount of effort put into something like that draws my attention, but the numerous times I spun the material I just found it sticking even less on each successive listen. None of the vocal styles are bad, you get a smattering of Phil Rind, Zetro, Chuck Billy, Chris Astley and even some Schmier sneering, but despite the chameleon-like scope they don't exactly develop a personality on their own.

The Germans also know how to put a track together with a richly busy, slick bridge section, some leads that feel like time was spent on them, and some nice atmosphere to the intros and how they progress into their verses, but it seems like a puzzle in which not all of the pieces were slid fully to where they belong. Certain re-sequencing of note patterns could have turned this into an absolute smasher of a 21st century thrash disc that looks both backward and forward at the same time. I mean, granted, when you look at this it seems more like some melodeath or metalcore disc with the band's logo and title font, so I was kind of surprised that the guys were so well practiced in a whole range of older bands that informed their style, but the music overall really just can't hurdle past respectable tribute to a whole era into something worthwhile on its own. Clearly Godslave have their shit in order organizationally, but this set of tunes is just not so inspired beyond the format itself. Quite possible that their other works are superior, but I'm not sure who is paying attention.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Asphodèle - Jours pâles (2019)

It's a complete surprise to me that such a new band can come up with such a consistent and compelling vision for its music in such a short time, and while a good many might turn up their noses at the 'post-black metal' tag that France's Asphodèle clearly belongs under, they do a really decent job at covering the bases and standing out for that particular style. Just looking upon the lush, hazy cityscape of the album cover, you can kind of get an idea of what this sounds like...urban, personal, and highly melancholic, like French cinema, cool and hip as you pass it in the park on a dim evening, with a cigarette callously hanging from its lips. Alright, I'm being a dramatic asshole with some stereotypical notions of this band's culture, but I didn't actually mean that in a bad way. It's the occasional despondency, the lack of interest in Audrey Sylvain's vocal contribution, and the glorious devotion to the driving, textured, somber riffs that make Jours pâles such a strong debut.

Yes, Audrey is involved here, and I suppose the obvious comparisons for the band's sound is straight to Alcest or Amesoeurs, and those wouldn't be far from the truth, but the material here is a little more brooding. The riffs are strong, mid-paced with a lot of chord patterns or melodies ingrained in them that remind me of groups like Katatonia, On Thorns I Lay and other bands of that style, in addition to many of the group's better known post-black peers. There are some instances where they pick up to a more roiling pace, but even then the mood is affected by the tiny slices of piano and the melodies that erupt in any corner of the album like flowers suddenly sprouting from a plot of city soil. I was also reminded of the Swedes Lifelover, especially their album Konkurs, especially when they spit out the harsher male vocals or the angst-ridden cleans, but here it's all performed a little tighter. Audrey's vocals work really well here, not always structured to match the pace of the music but sometimes delivered in a more fast-paced spoken word narrative, or even a flightier, happier sense; in any case, a good reflection of the urban sadness so intrinsically wrought throughout the record.

The beats are solid rock rhythms which occasionally get a little more splashy and intense, and the bass is quite a simple anchor to the rest, standing out a little more on the tune "Nitide" which has more of an eerie shoegaze vibe than its neighbors. All told, Jours pâles has a very high production level, all the instruments clear and set at appropriate levels to drift along the sinuous streets. The vocals are excellent, always full of emotion, especially on a track like "Refuge" where the grimier rasping is allowed to reign for a spell. The synths and pianos are tasteful and never overused. There's enough rhythmic variation to keep the listener in check throughout the entire track list, although stylistically much of the material moves at a similar pace and with consistent rocking chords that push them along. It's not always as catchy as it might like, but this is nonetheless a solid debut if you're into Heretoir, Deafheaven, Myrkur, Alcest, etc.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Faceless Burial - Multiversal Abbatoir EP (2018)

Multiversal Abbatoir is one of those releases that ironically suffers from having such a strong opening piece, in this case the creepy and haunting, brief acoustic piece "Sluiced in Celestial Sewerage", just under two minutes, which is in my estimation better than all of the actual death metal tracks that comprise the rest of the EP. However, that's not to say the band's harder material is bad at all, it's indeed solid, it just lacks the potential that a return to such atmospherics might have lent it, and it's a cautionary warning, when kicking off your recording with something so starkly different, be prepared that you might be dealing in some degree of disappointment. It's a self set snare, but one that Faceless Burial don't fall in quite so much as a few other death and black metal bands I've come across.

Other than that, though, these Australians prove themselves a competent old school mashup of sounds you might recall from the Floridian scene, perhaps with a bit of the earlier Dutch masters, bands from Death and Obituary to Asphyx and Sinister, with a little Malevolent Creation and Morbid Angel mixed in for good measure. The guitars are chunky and clunky, cycling between clinical, evil harmonized riffs, fleshier low end grooves that almost remind me of a more jazzy and experimental, broken Blessed Are the Sick, with a dash of Gorguts' late 90s metamorphosis. They cram quite a lot into each tune in term of tectonic tempo shifting, living up to the cataclysmic cover artwork, and they keep the listener on the edge of his or her seat, straddling the abyss of their infernal creation. That's not to say they write all the best riffs, a lot of these will prove minor variations on others that you've heard many time, but they inject a lot of controlled chaos in how they pattern them out which at least keeps you interested since there's no chance they're going to repeat themselves unto oblivion...dynamism is the key to the compositions' effectiveness.

With the sturdy, but natural drumming, thick pummeling rhythmic underbelly and dour, sustained growls, I quite dug listening through tunes like "Piteous Sepulchre (of Amentia)" and "Fistulated Beyond Recognition", although again they don't pack in a lot of breakout riffs, just a lot that sound cool when they're crashing into one another. Overall, though they don't really offer that same blend of dynamic death and doom, I'd liken Faceless Burial to their countrymen Disentomb in how they never lapse into an excess of formulaic writing. This EP, despite its shorter length, keeps churning and blasting you in the face repeatedly so you feel as if you've just witnessed some seismic rupture of the Earth beneath you, magma licking at your chin and paranoia taking over that everyone and everything you love is about to be swallowed up into the crust, and a lot of the wild lead guitars are so hit or miss that it only snowballs the chaos. So while I really would have liked a few returns to those wicked, excellent acoustics to round this all out as an experience, this still gets my seal of approval as something in which the creators have expended some effort to keep you guessing and keep you terrified.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Pénitence Onirique - Vestige (2019)

The Pénitence Onirique debut V.I.T.R.I.O.L. back in 2016 might not have completely won me over, but it was unarguably a wall of ebullient, shining black metal force which approached from an interesting angle a genre which is too often defined by convention or cloning those to come before. Granted, there is a backbone of traditional atmospheric Euro BM behind what the Frenchmen are writing, but the unending wall of sound created by the guitars and vocals gave it a fresh feel without quite teetering off into that boggy stretch of the medium we characterize as 'post-' anything. Their new album, Vestige, might not possess such a transcendent look to it on the surface, but I found the subtleties and variation here a fraction more enjoyable than I found its predecessor.

The pacing here shifts between surging, blasting black metal textured with repetitious, higher guitar patterns that are constantly saturating the upper atmosphere of the album with an ambient or post rock flavor, and then more measured, longer pieces which accomplish much the same but through a more stolid, doomed approach. On occasion the band will drop out the beats and just let some of the melodic pickings ring out, and it's glorious, the entire album feels like this tide that is going to drown you, release you, and then drown you again. The vocals are primarily molded in the traditional rasp that was also dominant on the debut, however they'll throw some cleaner chants, howls and even some more brutal guttural vocals in there just to increase the diversity of emotions they can flatten you with. They don't repeat themselves too often rhythmically, I mean the blasted stuff is probably one of the higher percentages but even in that you'll hear little differences in the drums or the fabric of the guitars being woven above them that help distinguish them a little, even though as a whole the record is incredibly fluid and coherent. Drums are intense, bass lines are solid even if they don't really poke through the desperate mass of sounds above them.

Now I think, atmospherically, Pénitence Onirique has its style on lock, and there's a certain segment of the modern black metal fandom which just wants that snarling intensity measured up against a more shoegaze-like panoply of chord options who really aught to check this band out, and in fact to that same crowd I say also track down V.I.T.R.I.O.L. One area in which I still think the group can grow, however, is by writing catchier guitar patterns...while I love the sonic half of their approach, there aren't a lot of guitar licks here that truly wanted to draw me back towards the album. Even the instrumental 'interlude' piece "Hespéros" felt like it was just sort of drifting there, a fine backdrop for a morning rise from bed with the sun glaring upon your brown, but not possessing any inherent note patterns that stuck with me, no infectious melodies embedded in there. It's all just sort of competently crafted emptiness that suits an emotional notion, almost like incidental music, and there's a place for that, surely, but it still lacks the hooks to become much more.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, November 11, 2019

Erebos - Pesta kommer (2018)

Pesta kommer's biggest obstacle is that it's a very cool black metal record entangled with an entirely mediocre dungeon synth album. Its second biggest obstacle is that those lush, beautiful melodic black metal components lack vocals to embellish them...not that this is a complete dealbreaker, mind you, but you can't help but to think that an entire album with the memorable qualities of the opening title track, laden in atmospheric rasps, would really have driven this one to the phenomenon level. So desperate and catchy are those guitar riffs that they deserve a little bit more than what they're served up alongside here, and it's a shame the sole musician behind this project didn't feel the same.

Now, don't mistake me, not all the synthesizer parts are a bust. Where they flow to and from the metal parts they are actually quite nice. When they aim for a more militant atmosphere, as in the second tune, they are also pretty passable. But several of them fizzle out with exceedingly repetitious key lines, fit to their genre, but nothing that you haven't heard or that you'll really want to listen through much afterwards. It lacks the creepy medieval tones and ambiance of a lot of the classics in that field, and brings relatively little to the table other than sounding like incidental music from a B-grade video game or historical TV show. Once the music stirs back into those emotional, bleeding tremolo picked guitar lines, which are just so richly executed over the drums and chords, you'll wish that the album featured far more of them, rather than leaving some tracks void of them.

Production is overall very good, on either stylistic end, but once more the metal really shines above its pure synthesized counterpart due to the layering of the guitars. The absence of vocals might not actually prove so bad for some, I just think that it doesn't reach the maximum impact it might have, despite its inherent excellence. A tragedy, because a half dozen songs that good, maybe interspersed with some more formidable, memorable synthesizer segues would be all the rage with fans into groups like Summoning, Druadan Forest, Eldamar, and Caladan Brood, while an album with the quality black metal alone would make ripples with the atmospheric, nature-themed black metal audience.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Decem Maleficium - La fin de Satán (2019)

Here's an interesting six-piece out of Santiago, Chile which has been around nearly 20 years, but that I've not had the pleasure to encounter on a previous occasion. I generally associate their country's metal scene with an eclectic mix of doomier groups and blackened/thrashers, so Decem Maleficium stands out a little for doing something different. Certainly the Gothic chants, layout and melancholic nature of the music tend towards the former, but to be honest these guys have more of a pure black metal core weaving influences from the Greek and Scandinavian scenes and then dressing those up with eerier elements that wouldn't be out of place if they were playing a more purely doom focus. They also have the capacity to throw me for a few loops here or there that maintain a certain vitality and freshness to their songwriting.

Just as examples in the first time, the proggy, sparse synth lines that occasionally arrive over "The Ceremony", or the atmospheric, even New Age jazzy segments you'll find buried deeper into its back-end, perforated with spicy little shredding lead guitars. La fin de Satán is not going to be perfect in all ways for all people, but it's certainly adventurous, from these aforementioned elements, to the more urgent, operatic synths they'll lay out behind certain black metal passages, the tribal drumming on some sections, the multi-tiered vocal styles which merge together some death-growls with cleaner crooning, and even the solemn acoustic breaks. There might be some room for improvement in a lot of these areas individually, but the fact that they plotted this all out to begin with is impressive all on its own, and immediately created a uniqueness out of a lot of familiar components. The musicianship is all-around tight, especially the drums and lead guitars, and while the tremolo picked rhythm guitars that make up a lot of the structure aren't wholly unique sounding, they bend and explore enough ground that they are spitting out satisfying riffs more often than not.

There really isn't a standout weak point on the album anywhere, other than perhaps that its overall impact is limited. It's not super memorable, just good. The rasp vocals aren't terribly interesting I suppose, but they're not bad and they are well enough placed to match the intensity of the faster riffing. However, despite having such a good range of ingredients to work with, I never thought that La fin de Satán was biting off more than it could chew. Some listeners might not be into the synth tones, they do seem a little sillier than what is happening around them, but I thought they brought a mildly psychedelic charm to the darkness and evil on exhibition throughout much of the compositions. If you're looking for a band which takes its primary genre and then tinkers a little at its boundaries, or you dig expansive, occult black metal which isn't afraid to mix up its instrumentation or try some new rhythms and flavors, then this is an effort I'd happily steer you towards.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, November 8, 2019

Atavisma - The Chthonic Rituals (2018)

How many death metal records have you heard lately that begin with about a minute of crazy drum soloing? An uncommon strategy, but sure enough one employed by Frenchmen Atavisma on their Memento Mori debut album The Chthonic Rituals. Here's a record which does fall largely into the cavernous territory, with walls of claustrophobic, fleshy guitars that give the listener the impression he or she has been devoured by some abomination deep within the Earth and thrashing about to escape imminent suffocation. So, in other words, if you've been following the genre's trends for the last decade and change, or find yourself poring over the rosters of labels like Dark Descent, this album might be a given provided you are not already taxed beyond the attention span for the niche.

Incantation is the natural reference point, as it is for so many similar groups, but the saturation on the guitars here definitely has a more European vibe, raw and semi-Swedish without the band ever bordering on Entombed/Dismember worship. And I love the rawness here, how they'll leave some of the feedback in the mix to make it sound dank and evil, yet the production itself on the whole album is quite fulfilling, deep and dark but clear enough that nothing gets lost in the mix. The guitars roil and rend as they carve up a standard but effective slew of note patterns, and they ably blend the more blasted material with some slower, death/doom passages that they ingrain with melodies which instantly stand forth from the clobbering morass surrounding them. The drums are great, as you'll already know from that intro track, energetic and busy without any level of overproduction, and they give even the less interesting rhythm guitars a lot more pep to them. The strongest points of the Rituals for me are when they burst out into some hyper tremolo pattern where a lead-like melody emerges and get a little more atmospheric and extradimensional than when they're just gorging on the grindier rhythm guitars full-bore.

The vocals are fine if you're into the subterranean Craig Pillard style of nihilistic guttural, although I think that I've heard so many of this types of front man the last 10-15 years that they all sort of blend together, and certainly Atavisma is no exception in that regard, but they do get off some huge, ominous sustained growls and roars over some of the more chaotic points in the music, and I think anyone who's a real die hard for the style isn't going to have any problem with them. They're also often referred to as a death/doom hybrid, and I can certainly hear that in places like the end of "Invocation of Archaic Deities", or the trudging "Monoliths", just expect that some tracks are far more on one side of that spectrum than the other. All told, The Cthhonic Rituals is a worthy listen for fans into Dead Congregation, Father Befouled, Funebrarum, Ossuarium, and bands of that ilk.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Blacksoul Seraphim - Profane Devotions (2019)

Blacksoul Seraphim has been honing its brand of Gothic doom for years now, often infusing it with other of their influences like black metal, so the latest release, Profane Devotions comes as somewhat of a stylistic surprise. The band has stepped somewhat out of its comfort zone here with a focus on groovier, traditional doom riffs of the more direct Sabbath variety as channeled through their prodigies like Trouble, Pentagram and the like. That said, they haven't committed entirely to this edgeways evolution, retaining a lot of their core characteristics like the deeper male Gothic vocals, female backing vocals, organs, keyboards, and the polished, rigid, professional production style which is honestly hit or miss when you're exploring a more dirty, down to earth spin on the dooms so heavily prevalent in stuff like stoner rock. Again, this is not exactly trying to journey that far away from the band's earlier output, so what you're left with is a unique contrast.

A lot of pros here, but a few cons for me. The rhythm riffs are well-written and catchy, especially in "Doom Junkie" and "Bedlam Harvest", evoking that primitive, bluesy savvy you can trace back to the late 60s and 70s as Iommi and company were hitting their stride. Familiar, perhaps, as progressions of this style often are, but even then I think Blacksoul Seraphim does a damn fine job of keeping the actual structures of the verse riffs into chorus or bridge sections compelling enough that you can tell they've paid attention to how these mechanisms function and then translated them into their own tongue. Much of the musicianship is good on the whole...the drums keep the both the grooves and the choppier start/stop patterns in check, the bass sounds good and fat in the mix, and the way the synths are layered in against the riffs and vocals is balanced just right to enhance their power without any threat of intruding or outshining what is most important. The mix on the EP is quite good, which is no easy task when you're blending together the varied vocal styles and instruments here. It might even be too tidy, but again this band is not intentionally trying to sound as throwback as a lot of their peers, so there was little chance this was going to sound like a scratched vinyl from 1968 in a waft of cigarette fumes.

The lyrics are also quality, which is old hat to these guys, a mix of introspective despair as well as the hovering Lovecraftian influence that has long fueled them (and their former project Sorrowseed). But where I started to disconnect with this material is in the vocal choices. Now, to be clear, none of the vocals here are actually bad at all, if I were to isolate them from the whole they'd sound fine. The shouted, higher male vocals in "Doom Junkie" were quite good with the music, and where the male and female duet vocals were pretty well done. However, I just didn't jive all that much with the lower vocals over these groovier the past, when the band was playing with a more stolid, Gothic architecture to the songs, these fit more smoothly, but here they tend to drag down the grooves. I also wasn't a fan of switching over to the female lead vocals on "Priestess of the Deep". I reiterate, it's not that the voice is bad, or out of key, but somehow they seemed too constrained, too safe over the riffing, where I would have liked to hear her go a little wilder, which she actually does closer to the end of the song, enforcing my point. One other nitpick for me was that the lead guitars were a mixed bag, especially in the bridge "Priestess of the Deep" where the solo felt a little too sporadic and didn't go anywhere special musically.

In fact, apart from the core riff during the verse, and the decent lyrics, I just wasn't all that into the second song. Not a deal breaker, mind you, but it just stuck out a little in an awkward way. Ironically, if you were a fan of their earlier albums Alms & Avarice and Hymns for the Vanquished, you might actually dig that one the most. I was, but I didn't, and overall it limited my enjoyment here. Now, to be clear, this is not a full-length, but an EP which is dipping its toes into the waters of another branch of the genre they original set out to explore. Not a massive departure or experiment, but enough of one that some growing pains could be expected. To that extent, I think their riffs prove that they're capable of wrenching out those soil-encrusted doom roots. I was nodding my head appreciatively through almost all of them. But I'd like to hear them go dirtier, crazier, more hazy and psychedelic, soul hammering. A little less of that meticulous marbled Gothic structure and a little more raw, devolved freakout would go a long way with this strain of doom.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Cerebral Secretion - Infinite Realms of Decay (2018)

Cerebral Secretion's full-length debut has such an awesome cover that I instantly wanted to make myself like it, for the superficial reasons we always see such things and want to be immersed into a realm of horror and atmosphere. Judging by the logo, though, that wasn't exactly what I should have been expected, and indeed, Infinite Realms of Decay is knuckle dragging slam death metal of the Amputated Vein Records, not so meaty or brute-tastic as a lot of other bands in the field, and capable of some dynamic change-ups that actually rescue it from the sodden sort of mediocrity it could have suffered. Hell, this is even something I might recommend for fans of the style, largely due to the few differences it cultivates, but I was nonetheless disappointed at the disconnect I had between how it looked and how it sounded.

Right away, you get a sample about suicide and depression which isn't about a bunch of ghastly green-flame spewing cultists around an altar of cadavers in front of a haunted manor (and yes, I do realize there's a dude hanging from a tree behind the logo). So I was taken out of that notion immediately for some slow, chugging, grooving death metal smothered in the usual guttural stylings and some piggish snarls and squeals to offset them. This is the dominant form of writing on most of the tracks here, and they do it in a somewhat accessible fashion, not unlike UK's Ingested, although also not quite as memorable. This is balanced off with tech death excursions involving faster blasting, and spastic guitar melodies that go in one ear and out the other because they sound so much like so many others in the game. However, for me, the most distinct part of this is when they break out into these slower, atmospheric grooves with a simple, slightly effected melody that instantly created this feel of some slogging djent with a catchy line above it, the sort of area of a tune that would replace something chorus-like, and they do have a knack for making these specific parts stand out above the rest of the recording, so the listener is longing for them.

Nothing immaculate, but they did boost my estimation of the album overall. I also heard a few little glimpses towards old school progressive death metal that helped round it out, and it has a few tunes that I just outright appreciated, like "Chasms Carved from Darkness" with its pop-out, clinical melodic guitars. They also pepper the record with a few interesting instrumentsl like "Inconsistent Wiring" and "Passages to Vehement Planets", and their flangy, minimal, atonal guitars, or "Detach" which is like a super brief, 16 second injection of spastic mathcore dissonance. The Australians definitely excel at breaking up the experience and distributing the surprises so that you are never faced with some boring, exceedingly repetitive chuggression, and when you've got all that wrapped up into a 33 minute, concise experience, it's hard to feel too let down. So I did enjoy Infinite Realms of Decay to an extent, but you can help an old creep for wanting it to sound a little eerier, like the first impression you get when gazing at the great artwork. If you want 'catchy' slam that isn't too ridiculous or numbingly heavy, with a clear musical bent, check it out.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, November 4, 2019

Maïeutiste - Veritas (2019)

The eponymous 2015 debut from these Frenchman was a torrent of ideas fashioned into a cohesive but often overwhelming whole, as they wove together a number of metallic sub-styles; melodic black and death, doom, folk and progressive touches were omnipresent through that experience, and from the sounds of it that aspect of the band has not really changed with the sophomore effort Veritas. So go into this expecting a fair depth of complexity, not that individual riffing sequences are necessarily the most technical you'll run into, just that combined into the overall package, there's quite a lot going on and by the time you've ingested one of its elements, they will be all ready to dazzle you with the next. Fortunately, they're both great players and writers, with a lot of quality riffs on exhibition and it's a pleasure to lose oneself in their labyrinths of flavorful, morose hostility.

For example, within the first minute of the second track "Infinitus" you're run over by a bustling and claustrophobic mesh of melodic black metal riffs, and then the tune devolves into compelling, deep acoustic sounds and cleaner male chanting vocals which should definitely please fans of a Mikael Åkerfeldt, or the cleaner vocals employed by Enslaved and their peers. Then the almost jazzy, rhythmic currents erupt and I'm once again reminded of a group like Opeth if they were embedded in more of a storming black/death metal context rather than a pensive, naturalistic atmosphere. You will never know what you're about to face around any corner here..."Suspiramus" is essentially a brief neoclassical opera interlude, while "Universum" clouts you with these bold, tectonic mid-paced rhythms that feel like the Earth is stirring beneath your feet while the melodies ring out over an ever dimming sky above the turmoil. There is simply no moment that passes upon Veritas in which you can accuse the group of not being inspired, of creating a depth to their material that is vastly more interesting than your garden variety melodic black metal approach.

The musicianship is fluid and incredible without ever bordering on any sort of arrogance or lack of self-discipline. Maïeutiste is great in the calmer periods, like the spacious guitars in the lurching, doomed belly of "Vocat", and equally potent where they get the most intense, guitars blazing along in all manner of melodies and harmonies that ensure payoff for the listener. The drums are well done, both the harsh and clean vocals are perfectly fit to the patchwork of material, and there is a great wealth of dynamic range to their compositions to keep this interesting through multiple listens. It's probably a little more coherent than their debut, and I like it a fraction more, to the point that I'd heartily recommend if you're a fan of groups that transformed their more fundamental black metal roots into a more progressive, expansive sound later on, especially the Scandinavian masters, or perhaps Spain's Foscor is a good comparison even if they've progressed much further apace. Good band that painfully few people that talk about, another gem in that creatively overstocked French scene which remains one of the most interesting in the world.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Blitzspeer - Blitzspeer Saves (1991)

I remember first hearing Blitzspeer when a friend acquired their initial Live cassette out through Epic records, which I thought was unusual at the time for a debut to the public. They were kind of existing on that fringe edge of thrash metal, where they'd be associated in with other acts of that scene but didn't have a lot in common. I wasn't hugely impressed with that tape, but it's only now in exploring their sole studio album that I can really hash out why. These New Yorkers were essentially trapped between two worlds, a dirty hard rock band trapped inside a slightly heavier set of riffs that might occasionally place them within the punk rock or thrash ream. Not as outright cheesy or lame as a glam band, but you can hear just enough of that in the DNA to distract.

There's a lot of groovy hard rock here, and when they break out into some of those licks, as in the "Truck of Love" track, I wonder why they don't just do that exclusively, since it's their strength. The heavier, metallic riffs are a little dull, but when they get on more of a Guns & Roses or Skid Row meets Mind Funk trip they really sound like they're having a lot more fun. The guitar playing is solid, if only rarely exceptional since they have a lot of very dull riffs in their verses. On the other hand, when they do something like "City of Angels", which is more like a hybrid of punk and Sunset Strip rock excess, they are quite passable as a more sleazy alternative to Motorhead or the Ramones. Problem is the majority of the songs here have chord patterns that are quite uninspired, so no amount of glitz and attitude is going to edge that fact out. The drums are definitely poppy and rock-oriented, but the bassist is pretty good and keeps busy giving the lower end of the record a second of back alley boogie that makes you want to sell stolen watches from the inside of your leather jacket.

Vocalist Phil Caivano is an acquired taste, he's got a very grimy edge to his voice which works for some of this particular material, especially the chorus parts, but it's also a little hokey in spots. The leads are almost without exception bluesy and simplistic flourishes of rock & roll excess, but again they fit what Blitzspeer is trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, what they do end up accomplishing is in creating a record that doesn't quite seem to commit to either its heaviness or its sleeze, it never goes far enough over the top in either direction and seems to play it a little safe. I do feel that this sort of material would have gone over reasonably well at an 80s East Coast/NY club gig where you've got an audience mix of hairsprayed hard rockers, punk rejects and a few leather & spikes heshers, and perhaps that's the very reason they were inspired were hybridize their songwriting as such. Saves isn't without some degree of personality, it doesn't exactly suck, but it's more a throwback curiosity of a time when a lot of bands had to feel out where they wanted to travel sonically, and many got left by the roadside.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Numen - Iluntasuna besarkatu nuen betiko (2019)

Numen has always stood out among Europe's pagan/black metal pioneers for its use of the Basque language for its lyrics, and for conveying the beliefs and folklore of that region through them. Just looking through the song titles you're faced with letter sequences foreign to you even when you're used to seeing Finnish, Latin or Slavic, and it's a mark of distinction that permeates the band both superficially and in the subject matter of their songs. Alas, one thing I often found a drawback is that this was probably the only really unique thing in a lot of their music. If you're expecting an atmospheric or overtly folk-flavored experience, you might be left hanging since that appears only scarcely through the material and maybe not in the sort of melodic content you might expect.

Oh, it's there a little in the chord choices and clamor of their song structures, or in little pieces like the instrumentation that closes out "Itzaletan solasean", but for the most part this is just a suffocation and often dizzying black metal experience. A blasting tumult that weighs heavily on its ability to beat your face in with its hyperactive aggression and the literal floods of chords that it creates. Now, these might take on a more flavorful, Romantic sort of atmosphere in of themselves, as in the depths of "Iraganeko errautsak", but for the most part these motherfuckers play fast, they play hard and you are not liable to forget that as you dig your way through the 47 minutes of material. There are some breaks where the band hits a slower or mid-tempo and simplifies the chord structures, and once the dust of the album clears they offer you an acoustic outro with narrator-like Basque vocals, but this is the sort of momentum and force targeted towards lovers of traditional, fast-driven Scandinavian or Scandinavian-influenced European fare like Marduk, Naer Mataron, 1349 and their ilk, only Numen have enough distinction through the cultural influence and chord choices that they can whip up a frenzy of their own that doesn't sound like a crass impersonation.

The production here is very straightforward, with the drums and guitars surging, bass filling in whatever gaps you might hear on the lower end. The vocals are a pretty standard rasp for the most part, and not a terribly interesting one, although to be fair they are being outclassed by those deluges of chords and tremolo picked black metal guitar passages which always shine brighter. I certainly thought that, while the tempo shifting here and dynamics are always clear, some of the tunes suffered a little encumbrance from trying to quash too much rhythmic change into a space that couldn't support it all, but on the whole you can tell these guys have been around for awhile and they handle the attack with sincerity and professionalism. Iluntasuna besarkatu nuen betiko is a solid effort with no question, and I found myself admiring the dedication and level of detail in the riff patterns. The production and the beautiful artwork are well suited to the sound, but I did feel that the material this time around wasn't the most memorable. Good riffs in the moment, but few moments resonating in my head long after the music ended.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, November 1, 2019

Destruction - Born to Perish (2019)

It's amazing to think that we're already nearing two decades of the Destruction 'reunion' period, that is to say the new material being produced after The Least Successful Human Cannonball debacle, with the two main members of the band getting back on the same page and deciding to kick the world's ass ad infinitum, while other aged thrashers seem almost lazy in comparison to such an endless parade of productivity. That isn't to say that, musically speaking, they've been the envy of the genre since the new millennium. They peaked this new, furious thrashing attack and its production style back in 2001 on The Antichrist, and since that point have been sort of replicating that record with only minor variations in personnel, studio mixing and songwriting quality, even going so far as to put out two collections of re-recorded early material that sounds similar with the new era's material.

To be fair, all of these newer records have passed muster to the degree that they provide the anger, energy and Schmier's irresistible snarls their audience might seek. They never really shot any blanks, the sonic spunk concentration just receded for about 15 years. None of them were duds for me, but neither were they as exceptional as listening through The Antichrist again, or their earlier run of records throughout the 80s, which still feel more fresh and alluring than much of this ironclad, post industrial apocalyptic thrashing phase. Spiritual Genocide was my favorite of the later lot, and I was in the minority there, but it felt like it had the most outside influence going into it, perhaps a few shades of Schmier's beloved side project Headhunter. But I'm happy to say that Born to Perish is consistently firing off some of their strongest material in the last 18 years. Sure, it's not reinventing anything they haven't already been releasing over these last couple decades, but I feel it just has the best balance of memorable riffs, dynamics and musicianship of the lot. Whereas a bunch of the last 5-6 albums could all be thrown in a blender, with their track lists mixed up and you wouldn't always know the difference, here I find a lot more replay value.

Now a four-piece, the performances here are all exceptional. Mike's rhythm guitars still sound like beefy razors cutting down the opposition on a rusted landscape, with Swiss string-slinger Damir Eskic peppering on a bunch of spry and searing leads that add some character to the proceedings, a glaze of electric atmosphere, rather than just feeling obligatory. Even when they some cleaner bits like the intro to "Butchered for Life", they flow rather well and don't get upstaged once the distortion is cranked on. The bass lines are fat and potent, occasionally disappearing into Mike's power picking vortex but given some parts where they can stand alone. Skin-bashing legend Randy Black of Annihilator and Primal Fear makes his debut behind the Germans' kit, and he makes it sound effortless as he just rifles away, though I couldn't say I felt much of a difference from Vaaver's beats, but then again that's probably a good thing. There is no interruption of service on this album, if you've been enjoying the riff styles and general level of competence and professionalism that the band has maintained since All Hell Breaks Loose, then it's all par for the course.

All of the songs are decent if not outright fun, and while many of the rhythm guitar riffs can feel like they're paraphrased or disassembled and reassembled from older material, Damir's airier guitars actually go a long way in helping them feel slightly renewed. "Betrayal", "Rotten", "We Breed Evil" and "Fatal Flight 17" are probably some of those I was most magnetized towards, but they're not a whole lot more potent than their neighbors, so this is an album I have no problem sitting straight through for 50 minutes when I'm in the mood. The cover of Tygers of Pan Tang's "Hellbound" is appreciated, keeping its original heavy metal spirit, but given a little more thrust as its transformed just enough into the Destruction canon to earn its existence away from the original. Then again, Schmier is no newcomer to the style, having taken part in Panzer and Headhunter to great success. Overall, this was a very fun surprise to fuel me through the mid-to-late summer weeks, I wouldn't say it was some exceptional thrash album, but it's easily proof that the Germans' music still has some value to it nearly four decades into their career, much like their formidable peers Kreator and Sodom.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Mercyful Fate - Into the Unknown (1996)

Into the Unknown might be one of the duller looking albums in the Mercyful Fate catalog, but not the worst of them. This marked a point for me when the band's inspiration seemed to be drying up and they were releasing albums to seemingly fill out a contract, or at least that's what a tour through their 1996-1999 material feels like. Nothing they put out was necessarily bad, but a lot of the riffs and ideas felt like mere retreads of others you'd already heard between Fate and the King Diamond albums. And that's really the greatest crime committed on Into the Unknown, which might be one of the more ironically titled albums I've come across, because this one is as straightforward and unsurprising as they get, sort of a mix of Don't Break the Oath, In the Shadows and then Time's production values, updated to their day.

Now you might say that even an average Mercyful Fate record is still probably better than a lot of other metal out there, and I have no argument against that. This is one I can enjoy sitting through because for what it lacks in creative development it compensates for in the energy level. The band is firing up a set of classic MF licks, with enough grooves to sate the fans of their earlier 90s material but a classic feel to the leads and harmonies which kicks me back a decade. The rhythm guitars are some of the simpler patterns they've scribed, with a leaden, chunky tone to them that keeps them hammering above the thick, embedded bass lines which sound pretty fuckin' rad on their own. The leads are modest but worthwhile, and they alternate between a mid-paced gait and the slower grooves from tunes like "Listen to the Bell" which sound like outtakes from In the Shadows (the song even has a line 'deep in the shadows...'). The drums sound good, and the band still knows how to structure a verse-chorus transition quite well, and there are clearly a handful of riffs here like the opener to "Fifteen Men" which I think are pretty damn awesome.

King himself sounds quite good, perhaps not as jazzed up or intense as his performances on the earlier albums in both his mainstays, but he does some cool falsetto counterpoints, and still can deliver some chorus parts that stand out from the rest. The lyrics here deal with cool subjects like Caribbean pirates and other period horror which helps expand out King's lexicon of chills, even if the music might in places feel a little dumbed down or redundant with cuts from In the Shadows and Time. I also got a kick out of the intro, "Lucifer", which is a chanted bastardization of "The Lord's Prayer". Cheesy, indeed, and the most useless track on the album, especially when you consider some of the great intros he's had before, but you just have to get a kick out of King Diamond thinking this was such an edgy idea in 1996. All told though, this is a solid record that I wouldn't necessarily break out unless I was really sick of the first four, except if I wanted to hear one particular tune. Certainly better than its follow-up, but not as timeless or inventive as I'd have hoped.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (This is your time, not mine)

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Notre Dame - Vol. 1: Le théâtre du vampire (1999)

Though some might say it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, Le théâtre du vampire is certainly a crazy record that lives up to the vision that it presents, an almost vaudevillian pursuit of extreme metal which fuses a number of sub-genres together. The band name and title might trick you into thinking this was some French Gothic black metal outfit, but in fact this was a Swedish project assembled by the prolific Snowy Shaw, who performs most of the instruments here alongside a former partner 'Vampirella' and at least one real and one other imaginary musician who bear the surname 'de Sade'. So right away, just from the handles you can tell this was going out for something cheesy, perhaps Shaw seeing the success of groups like Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir and...Ancient, and being the diverse performer he is, deciding to throw his hat into that ring...

And what a circus this debut is, a mix of black, thrash and groove metal dressed up in all the Gothic architecture and theatrics you would have expected just from looking at its evocative cover photo. A lot of people would probably liken this most to Cradle of Filth, and that wouldn't be too far from the mark, at least when the band is executing a faster, black/death riffing strategy as in "Le Theatre Du Vampire" itself, or "A Sleighride Through Transylvanian Winterland". But I found a larger portion of the record more measured, more inclined towards Gothic rock or doom metal influences laced with bigger, groove metal guitar riffs redolent of when a lot of thrash was jumping those hurdles earlier in the 90s. However, they don't exactly start kicking out the frantic Jonathan Davis vocals, these parts are still draped in a mix of manic whispers, female spoken-word or operatic sections, as well as mid ranged vocals that have a biting, creepy Gothic edge to them. I'm probably not doing well to sell the experience, but it's actually a fairly catchy combo even though it comes off slightly scatterbrained.

It's definitely hard not to start laughing through a track like "Black Birthday (Hip Hip Hooray)", but even then the band doesn't seem like its intentionally trying to amuse you, and because of that this disc can get a little awkward, almost as if there was some space here where more creative ideas could have been slung together, but Shaw and company just went for something a little more lighthearted and silly...meanwhile the guitars are still pretty cool there, thus the weird contrasts. The black metal rasps also get a little too crumbled, almost as if he's snarling them while eating cereal or his throat is literally drying up as he's delivering each line, and it's unintentionally comical even more than Dani Filth's mode gremlin-like moments. But despite the cringe factor present, Le théâtre du vampire rarely comes off as if anything less than a good effort was put into its composition. Even the 15 minute closer "Spiderella's XXX", which plays out like a sampling dish of everything else you find on the album, propped up with even more haughty Operatic garishness and weirdness, seems like there are a few memorable ideas tossed around. So this record just barely gets a pass from me, if you could imagine black metal being conceived at a Big Top or freakshow rather than a desolate castle or woodland, this seems to follow that angle of development.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Necrophagia - WhiteWorm Cathedral (2014)

Covering WhiteWorm Cathedral after the passing of its creator Killjoy is a bittersweet task, since this would be the last studio full-length recording by what is his best known project, Necrophagia, or at least the one he poured the most sweat and blood into for over three decades. My history with this material is more often miss than hit, I've long admired what he was going for but just never thought the balance of the grisly death/thrashing and cult horror aesthetics was ever perfected. Killjoy was never concerned much with strict musical evolution when it came to nuance or proficiency, the riffs you find here are hardly more complex or unique than what he was putting out in the 80s, and that is both a boon and a curse with the material on this swansong.

WhiteWorm Cathedral is possibly his best produced Necrophagia album, with a huge, plodding, and direct sound that fully embraces its simplicity. The riffs throughout the entire album are very basic, slow or mid paced thrash riffs with a bit of groove metal or doom in spots. It's not exactly laconic or boring, but when the speed picks up, as in "Elder Things", some of the personality is lost until you hit that breakdown. And that's really what this album is about...chugging, heavy as fuck rhythm guitars that won't let you stop moshing unless you've heard all the patterns before a thousand times and don't really care much about that. Guilty as charged on that count. Sure, I found my head slowly bobbing to some of the charnel grooves, but even when I got into the swing of things I just never felt rewarded with some amazing transition, chorus or elevation to what was happening. It's not exactly samey or redundant in terms of how the riffs are put together, there is some variation throughout, but they just never seem to hit an interesting chord progression, they just belt you across the jaw with what you'd expect, and in a way I feel like the strong sound quality here was partly wasted.

The samples, organs and other 'horror' effects are sparse but tastefully executed right behind the pump and pummeling of the metal instruments, and the bass is fat as fuck, with the drums sounding nice and snappy for the rock beats they are usually devolved into. Killjoy's vocals are probably the star of the record, enormous, powerful snarls that you can recognize right away, laden with some echo and reverb that really carries across even the potent, blockbuster rhythm section. Sometimes this album sounds so much like nasty death/thrash for cavemen that you can't help but feel its pull towards whatever mammoth hunt is taking place; like in the track "Coffins" where those tried and true vocal patterns and the bluesy segues really help drive the meaty chugging home; or "Rat Witch", with its little swerves towards dissonant mystique among the crunch of the palm mutes. Add in the bells and general atmosphere, and that last one is probably one of my favorite Necrophagia tracks, extremely straightforward but not really needing much else.

In a way, the album gets points for just doing its own thing. It's not emulating other elder bands because Necrophagia IS one of those elder bands, and it's not some technical brutal death metal or goregrind exercise...this music is brutal because it's just produced so fucking heavy with a minimal structure that relies almost entirely on that bonecrushing tone. It can be fun to break out, and it's better than other efforts like The Divine Art of Torture or Harvest Ritual Volume I, but I'm still a little saddened by the fact that, with a little more gestation and atmosphere, this could have been the album that knocked it out of the park for me, and now it's just not going to happen. That said, if you enjoy really simplistic, snarly, growly, evil death metal with no pretensions, or you like the cult films that inspired some of these tunes, then you might at least give this one a whirl.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Midnight Priest - Aggressive Hauntings (2019)

One of a number of bands spun out of a healthy worship of King Diamond and Mercyful Fate, Portugal's Midnight Priest have in some ways slowly began to evolve away from that classification, while in others staying quite comfortable with it. The presence of the King still weighs in heavily in the vocals of 'Lex Thunder', which is as porn star sounding of a handle you're going to give yourself; in particular, his higher pitched range has a bite to it which reminds me a whole lot of KD's falsetto narratives and shrieks from the later 80s efforts like "Them", perhaps with some Henning Basse, Ripper Owens and Halford thrown in there, or at its most intense, Dan Ainlay from Italy's Burning Black. But when he dips into the middle of his range, he has a potent, soaring vocal which actually sounds more unique to me, and frankly I wish he'd use it more...

As for the band's riffing, it's not quite as eloquent or catchy as stuff you'd hear coming from the camp of King and Andy LaRocque, there's a shoddier, crunchier power metal edge to it which is more redolent of Accept, U.D.O., Primal Fear, Running Wild ("Iron Heart") and Judas Priest, sometimes generically so. Which was an issue I had on this album more than any others, that so many of the rhythm guitar parts couldn't live up to or elevate Lex Thunder's vocals, and thus they both sounded a little desperate independently and in unison. Don't get me wrong, if you love every garden variety mid-paced Euro power metal riff you encounter, then there's no reason to think you wouldn't love them here. They also lace in a lot of smoother, speedier licks with a decent sense of melody to the chords which is more representative of their primary influence. But the fact is that there's just not a lot to this one you haven't heard before on the bottom end, and while the musicianship is coherent and would make a bad-ass background for a motorcycle ride or a leather-clad street fight, it doesn't stand out to me in such a crowded feel when other bands can put riffs and choruses together in a way I'll remember a lot more.

The production is brazen and punchy here, with the guitars up front between both their hammering mid-paced chords, little glints of melody and the more-than-competent lead-work which was one of my favorite parts of the record. It's all legit and energetic, and while the lyrics don't form quite a cohesive narrative style like KD, the images and subjects they capture are all perfectly gloomy and metal, not to mention that certain transitions feel a LOT like 80s King Diamond, almost as if they were paraphrased from the original. As I mentioned, though, the shifting vocals and the emphasis on more hard-hitting trad heavy/power metal riffs reminiscent of the German and Danish scenes do keep this band away from being labeled complete clones, and I think they'll improve even further if the singer drops the KD parts and hones in on the stuff he does below that which worked for me a lot more alongside these riffs. Loud, solid but unremarkable stuff here, good enough to get the heads banging but not a lot of my blood flowing. I do remember liking the eponymous debut album a bit more than this one, with the lyrics in Portuguese.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Cradle of Filth - Hammer of the Witches (2015)

Although I personally felt that Cradle of Filth regained its footing on the 2008 album Godspeed and the Devil's Thunder, after a string of pretty average releases (after Midian), I think the consensus is clearly that Hammer of the Witches was their most impressive outing since the 90s. A lot of folks that had written off the band forever seemed to be back on the wagon, and it even garnered a measure of respect from some of the band's longtime detractors. I don't think it's hard to tell why, as this was arguably the heaviest and most focused recording they'd released in many years, and even though I might not harbor the same level of reverence as others, I've grown to appreciate more than the albums that lead up to it, Darkly, Darkly Venus Aversa and The Manticore and Other Horrors, both of which I do enjoy and might even hold up as a little more creative than this successor.

That's not to take away from what the band accomplished here, a 56 minute rager of a record which played to me like a natural successor to their classic Dusk and Her Embrace, albeit with a better integration of the symphonic and haunted castle components and a broader selection of riffs which built upon everything the group had really accomplished in the years between. Most importantly, I think the production here was a step above so many of their works...generally I might have an issue with one or two instruments or vocal 'personalities' taking a back seat to the rest, but I cannot think of a better example than this of when they all were balanced so well together. The grunts, growls and gremlin snarls of Dani Filth, the professional if still somewhat goofy female operatic parts, the panoply of shimmering synths and organs, and rapid fire drumming of Marthus Skaroupka, and of course the riff selection, which continues to walk the line between thrash, death, black metal and even some more aggressive heavy metal parts. That Cradle has all this weaponry at its disposal and can seamlessly plug it all into the whole of their aesthetic remains impressive.

For me, the favorite aspect to this band has always been Dani's florid lyrical treatments, this idea that he was like a Wordsworth of occultism, dark mythology and salacious Gothic smut, and as usual, even on the band's weaker records, the stuff he's written here is a pleasure to pore over line for line. Lots of verses here in tunes like "Deflowering the Maidenhead, Displeasuring the Goddess" invoke Martin Walkyier's vile meter and inflection, but of course Filth partitions this out into the various little personas created by his gutturals and higher pitched, effeminate rasping. He reacts well to just about every riffing change-up through the album's duration, which is saying a lot because the guitar duo packs in a lot of value for each track...individually, they might not seem complex, but there's just such an exhibition of riffs flying by on any region of this recording that it's hard not to be floored by the sheer effort it must take at remembering them all. Bass doesn't always stand out here as much, unless it's given the chance during a break, but you can always hear it hovering along and keeping the few fractional spaces between the guitars busy and the ears trained. Skaroupka's drumming is just ridiculous, and that he's also performing the keys and arranging the orchestration goes to show how overall valuable he's been as he's evolved through the band over the prior decade.

Hammer of the Witches is a pleasure to experience on the whole, though if we were to really break it all down, it's a refinement of riffing progressions, and a set of balancing scales between aggression and eloquence that won't be new to anyone familiar with their output. I myself found few of the sequences here to be truly memorable among old favorites from records like Midian, but even having said that it's an effort that I continue to sit through on occasion and listen to entirely rather than just cherry-picking individual tunes. The creepy orchestration and operatic interludes are very well done if you want something to conjure up that Transylvanian landscape you no doubt associate with the British veterans, and the prowess of the instrumentation and cohesion of the compositions is undeniable when you sit back and realize the scale of what they write, and how much is going on in so many of these songs. Love them or hate them, this album doesn't sound like they've lost an ounce of energy since they dropped their debut over 20 years before fact it sounds like they've only ramped up their lascivious frenzy.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (pressed to confess from the pain)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

VHS - We're Gonna Need Some Bigger Riffs (2019)

VHS might be one of the first bands I've come across purely through social media; I initially saw their page recommended to me, must have been on Facebook, around the time they put out their debut Screaming Mad Gore back in 2016. Their name pretty much says it all. If you were 'privileged' enough to be around during the old Blockbuster rental years, renting or purchasing stacks of VHS tapes for horror and exploitation films, felt the campy thrills and gnarly shocks of all that formative sleaze and gore, then you already know what these Canadians are all about. Most of their tunes are either direct or indirect tributes to specific creature and slasher films, served up on a pallet of dynamic riffs that cover a good array of sub-genres.

Sure, VHS fits pretty snugly into that largely West Coast US scene of schlock horror acolytes that includes the likes of Exhumed and Ghoul, with a healthy heaping of other acts like Cropsy Maniac, Macabre and Impetigo. They don't take things all that seriously, but they obviously love what they do, and without much sense of irony, even the cheesy films and stories to which they pay homage. The cartoon cover art only adds to the charm that these are a bunch of guys who might be hanging out in a garage or basement in your neighborhood, 80s posters on the walls, B-movie slashers on the TV, lighting up a joint or a cigarette, pounding some brews. Enjoying every moment of it. As you should be if you were hanging with them. Somehow, they manage to translate that feeling into a competent, entertaining mix of thrash, death, punk and grind aesthetics captured in a bright, loud, meaty production through which every neck-straining riff is felt straight to the face. I would say that the central style most relied upon is thrash, which comprises a lot of the energy here, from the more uptempo material to the breakdowns, but they certainly go off on whatever tangent they feel without the album ever feeling strained or like its trying too hard to please everyone.

The more gruesome elements are in the vocals, a set of low gutturals and rabid snarls which hearken back to the tradition of good ol' Carcass, which is no surprise when you saw the other bands I had compared this to above. All of these are performed quite well, although you could say they were fairly standard for their styles, not especially gruesome...maybe the sustain on the lower growls when they are sustained for more than a second, but otherwise just functional, fun vocals, and they go well with the bigger grooves on the album like in "Marine Monstrosity". When it comes to the more hard hitting, structured death metal riffs that alternate with the thrashier parts, you definitely pick up vibes of mid-paced stuff like Obituary, Bolt Thrower and earlier 90s Cannibal Corpse. Melodies and leads are no strangers to the Canadians, who spice up several of the tracks so you're getting a little more than a one-track beating, they clearly put a lot of effort into making the 14 tracks on this album varied enough that they all actually mattered, without one feeling too repetitive of another.

Toss in a tight rhythm section, some guest vocals from Matt Harvey (Exhumed) and Trevor Strnad (Black Dahlia Murder), lyrics about your not-so-guilty favorite films like Lake Placid ("An Old Lady and Her Crocodile"), or Creepshow 2 (or least I think that's what "Oozing, Bubbling Black Mass" is about), and you've got yourself a pretty good time. The focus isn't entirely on nautical horror flicks but certainly with the cover art and a number of the tunes that is a prevalent theme (they've even got a "Zombie vs. Shark" song). Have you heard a lot of this stuff before? Certainly with bands like Ghoul, Blood Freak, Frightmare, XXX Maniac, among others, but it doesn't really get old when you're having fun with it, and We're Gonna Need Some Bigger Riffs surpasses Screaming Mad Gore with exactly what it advertises.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Abscess - Horrorhammer (2007)

Dennis Dread has got to be one of my favorite cover artists working today, and California's filth merchants Abscess had the honor of dressing up their records with his distinct black and white artwork numerous times, my favorite of which was 2007's Horrorhammer. I'll also go against the grain and say that this was hands down one of my favorite albums from Reifert's post/pre-Autopsy project, while understanding the complaints against it...that it's not quite so gruesome as their output before it. But I'm not going to lie, I've had a bit of fun when cranking this record and I love its focus on the more upbeat material and really clobbering you over the ears. Horrorhammer lacks any degree of subtlety, it simply lives up to its title and for that I am grateful.

I'm not saying I entirely love the album, but when I'm in need for a grisly, high-body-count reel of death metal, speed metal, crossover and punk, graced with Reifert and company's unmistakable vocal ugliness, this one scratches my nethers. You could think of it as a halfway point between Autopsy and Seattle splatter-gods The Accüsed. Velocity meets carnage on a freeway of cult exploitation, but I don't want to mislead you into thinking this is monotonous. There are some faster, simpler cuts here like "Another Private Hell", or mid-paced like "Four Grey Walls", which are essentially pure punk adrenaline made different only through the vocal presence, but quite a lot of them have brief, slower sequences, sometimes just an atmospheric clench on a few dissonant chords, or some of the obvious death/doom that creeps back into the sound with a cut like "When Witches Burn", one of my favorites in their whole catalog. I love the guitar tone this time, not too abrasive but keeps its corpulence whether fast or slow, and sounds great with the rocking leads that often burst from the rhythms like a cannibal baby from its womb.

The drums and bass sound equally cool here, but all of this stuff is simply in support of the undead elephant in the room, those abusive vocals, just as loose and unhinged as Chris' mainstay, and thus more genuine feeling than most monotonous guttural orators which don't sound nearly as sick as they'd like. And even better, they sit equally as uncomfortable across whatever genre component Abscess is using at the time...the more accessible punk parts, the speed/death licks or the doomier sequences. Just enough effects on them at points to make them feel as if they're raving and barking at you from the sepulcher, or chasing you down a tight alleyway at night behind the butcher's shop. To some it might seem a bit garbled, but the energy there completely matches the waxing and waning of the musical muscle, or the oft-shoddy transitions between sub-styles. The instrumental title track is cool, as are the lyrics, simple and gory as they are. To be honest, there aren't a lot of truly catchy riffs, maybe a half dozen on the disc. But when those do appear, like the intro lick to "Hellhole", they do kick some serious posterior, and it's an album so compact I find no problem listening through the entire 35 minutes, as it congeals together so well like clotted blood.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Dellamorte - Home Sweet Hell... (1999)

If Dellamorte had shown up during the huge Swedish d-beat death metal revival that struck around the 'oughts, I think they might have made some in-roads as one of the more savage, raw bands to adopt the style. Unfortunately, their tenure in the 90s came at the tail end of when the audience was first starved for the sound, with bands like Dismember going strong, and others like Entombed having already been there, done that, and moved into other pastures (before the inevitable ID crises that would lead them back). So I can see why they were overlooked, but those who really enjoy that sort of late 80s/early 90s aesthetic unraveled by Nihilist will probably find a soft spot for these guys as a sort of pure gorehouse approach to the niche, a lot closer to Dismember than others.

Home Sweet Hell... was their third and final full-length and it hits like a truck with a fat, imposing Sunlight Studio tone slathered in some sustained, raw-throated, angry fucking vocals which give the other vocalists in this one-limited field a run for their money. They're not all that different than how L-G Petrov or Matti Kärki hammered them out, but perhaps a little more snarled and outraged, and you can often hear some backups shouted alongside them which creates a mild variation on what you're used to. The guitar riffs are straight from the book of the first three Entombed records, or Indecent & Obscene, with an often heavy emphasis on the death & roll riffs, mixed in with some simplistic, chunky chugging parts that carry a lot of heft due to the straight to the face production of the record. The drum kit in particular gives it a lot of rock & roll feel, not to mention the implementation of wah wahs, lots of grooves, and chord patterns that are painfully simplistic. Dellamorte truly relies on the sheer volume and potency of what they play to impress the listener, they are about as far from subtle as you can get, and even if there were nuances you might not hear them because of how the album is mixed.

This is an effort that I've always wanted to like more than I do. The vocals are savage, the power is undeniable, but it ends up with a barely passing grade from me simply because there are too few riffs worth a damn here, most just being coughed up from the playbook of pre-existing Swedish death metal bands, or rather, duller versions of those played more intensely. On occasion it really rocks the fuck out, as in "Into the Fire", and if you're a fan of all things blazing and d-beat then I can't imagine tracks like "The Tombs of My Fear" would turn you off. I mean this album pummels the fuck out of you...the tone, the pounding bass-lines which hover just below the rhythm guitars, the grooves and the momentum that they shift between, but I just think the album needed a little more attention to the riffs...if there were another dozen or even half-dozen killer guitar parts on this one I'd get so much more mileage out of it, but at the very least it's a sobering blunt instrument to the eardrums when I'm in the mood for the densest, simplest and most pissed-off sound that this sub-style can mete out.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Morgul - Sketch of Supposed Murder (2001)

Sketch of Supposed Murder is not nearly the leap that The Horror Grandeur was over the first two Morgul albums, but its certainly an enforcement of the notion that Jack D. Ripper was content with his newfound industrial influence going forward, and if anything this is just a fraction more accessible and varied, but clinging to the horror concepts all the while, with an emphasis on torture, murder and misanthropy. It's also an album that sounds a little dated in its ideas. Many black metal bands had turned towards electronic, Goth and symphonic stylings throughout the late 90s and beyond, and many in the audience found these genre maneuvers unwelcome, so it might be considered a bit of a trend-jumper. There are parts to this album that might sound like a ghastlier Marilyn Manson. Or other parts which sound like Cradle of Filth's snarled vocal channeled through Samael's electronic beats and simplistic chord progressions which serve only to add some beef to the industrial beats.

More accurately, there are parts here, like the track "The Dog and the Master", which sound almost identical to what fellow Norwegians The Kovenant were up to, so mileage is going to vary, and those who want nothing of these musicians beyond their black metal roots should probably stick a fork in Morgul beyond just Lost in Shadows Grey and Parody of the Mass. Despite the obvious cheesy or cringeworthy elements, I still enjoy this one a bit because the production is fantastic. Orchestrated or ambient components are these resonant tapestries against which the heavier frontal rhythms and snarled, goofy vocals balance perfectly, and just when you think some of the guitars might be too dull, or things are getting predictable, Ripper will throw some great new beat at you, or orchestral sweep, or one of the handful great choruses here. It's only rarely pure black metal, except the electrified blast beat in "Dead for a While", but the overall atmosphere throughout will certainly give a shiver or two to fans that don't mind when releases in this medium sound like they belong in a cheap, second-rate haunted house or carousel ride.

Programming is really great, as are the synths, organs, and guest violins. The guitars sound very good in the mix, but again with a lot of industrial metal or Neue Deutsche Härte they are extremely banal and only rarely involve any semblance of creative, instead settling for a percussive effect to keep this vaguely within the 'metal' realm at all. Over this, Ripper splatters all manner of grumbles, growls, goofy narratives, dramatic cleaner ravings ala Vortex or Garm, and some really warped vocal effects that create a psychotic phantasmagoria which lasts through pretty much all the original tunes here; he's also a little experimental in the use of the violins, crowd sounds, etc. The cover of "She" by the mighty KISS, however, is rather ill-advised, and although it's tacked on at the end of the album, it kind of botches up the cohesion of whatever came before it. I remember that dragging it all down for me when I first heard it, and even more so now. Not like it's an awful cover in of itself, but just has so little to do with the rest of the material.

I dig Sketch of Supposed Murder, and it makes a nice combo with The Horror Grandeur around this time of year when the Halloween decoration are up and you can feel all that anticipation brought on by both the holiday and the autumnal season in general, but can fully appreciate that it's not going to satisfy everyone. Think of it like The Sham Mirrors' weird older sibling decked out in mascara, Gothic hosiery, sipping absinthe while he's watching a marathon of noir mystery murders. If that sounds like a party you want to attend, then I think this is also an album you'd like to attend. But stop it after the 8th track.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Coffin Dust - Everything is Dead (2016)

Coffin Dust unquestionable hails from that same death/thrash tradition pioneered by Carcass as they distanced themselves away from their goregrind origins. More recently that mantle was taken up by the family of bands that includes Exhumed, Impaled and then Ghoul, who have been running with it since well before the British butchers reformed. Yes, that was sarcasm. There's at least one member here who has played live with Exhumed, and the roster and ex-members of this group have a pretty vast repertoire between them which encompasses a number of sub-genres. Put it all together and you've got what I might dub a more 'organic' sounding proxy to Matt Harvey's deathgrinding flagship, one that differs in production and also in some of the songwriting nuances.

I enjoy that the record is book-ended with a pair of swollen, dark synth parts that set up the vintage horror aesthetic, but I'm not sure the rest of the material here really matches it other than the themes running across the lyrics. Instead, this is a very crisp, spry blend of tremolo-picked death metal lines, faster 80s thrashing progressions and even a good chunk of crossover/hardcore when the band wants to barrel roll into something more straightforward. The rhythm guitar tones are quite natural feeling, not as heavily saturated as, say, Exhumed, and this lends itself to a lot of slick, speedy little guitar licks which were quite consistently catchy throughout the six originals here. Even better, there are a lot of interesting little lead guitar blitzes that give the whole experience a bit more depth than I had expected, and these two are dispersed throughout the origins and helped hold my interest even in the few sections where I wasn't on board with the rhythm passages. Hooks for days, not that you haven't heard their like before, but performed with some engaging energy.

The bass throbs along the low end, occasionally walking off on its own groove, but I also wanted to compliment the drumming here, which is quite solid, with some cool little shuffling beats used to perk up sections of tuns like the titular finale. The vocals are a satisfactory guttural for the most part, well fit to all the sub-styles being blended into the record, and actually helping mold them into one whole, and there are also a lot of snarl/growl dual vocal parts which is par for the course with just about any band in this niche. The cover of Slayer's "Metal Storm/Face the Slayer" is quite well done, and fits in fluidly with the original tunes, revealing its obvious influence on the thrash side of this Pennsylvanian newcomer. All told, the album is a compact 35 minutes, I was never lulled into any sort of boredom. A few of the more hardcore styled riffs didn't do a lot for me, but these were easily compensated by all the quirkier little melodies and speed/thrash licks. So if you're looking for a band in the vein of Exhumed, Ghoul, Frightmare, or Ex Dementia, but with a slightly less blood & guts production style, this is well worth a listen.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]