Thursday, August 1, 2019

Good Friendly Violent Summer Fun

Off on another pesky summer vacation. I shall return September 23rd for over a month of horror metal reviews leading up to Halloween! Thanks so much, as always, for reading!


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

October Tide - In Splendor Below (2019)

I don't know whose idea it was to come up with the new October Tide logo for this sixth record, but it was a good one, replacing the bland typeface they had before and instantly making a statement before I've even heard a single lick of the music. Strangely, I think the change also rubbed out on the compositions here. No, they are not a black metal band all of the sudden, as that logo might imply, but In Splendor Below is certainly a harder-jamming death doom record than its predecessor, the surprisingly good Winged Waltz, and I rather approve of the shift, because it offers up something a little less predictable than just steering along the exact course. Don't mistake me, there are plenty of passages here which fall directly in line with the material they've been dropping since 2010, but they clearly don't sound like they are anywhere near running out of ideas and overall progression.

There's a new rhythm section here, which might account for some of the differences, but I think this one actually takes a little more of an Opeth influence circa Blackwater Park or Still Life and imbues that with some riffs and rhythmic patterns that their countrymen simply wouldn't have thought up. So if you miss those records, I'd definitely give this one a listen. Another alternation here is how Alexander's vocals seem more fleshed out and emotional crushing. Rather than a static, competent guttural, he's sustaining longer growls that shift more in pitch, ebbing and flowing like a tortured shoreline under the tides. There's more of a rasp to some of his lines, and it's just far more risky and involved than what he was doing on the last one, and to me an improvement. As far as the quality of the melodies and harmonies, I'd say this one is in lockstep with its elder sibling, not being more memorable although at times it does cover a little darker terrain. The drums are also noticeably more busy, which naturally suits the shift in intensity, without losing any of the subtle skill that was on exhibition in their recent past.

In all, they just take a lot more chances, and the songs end up a lot more diverse than either Winged Waltz or Tunnel of No Light. Rhythms break and resolve, note patterns get more complex and can take a few listens to really absorb, and it's very far from predictable...I had no idea what was going to happen around any corner, and I loved the harder hitting direction taken on tunes like "Stars Starve Me". But don't get me wrong, the record as a whole flows just a smoothly as its predecessor. Like the last album, the lyrics are actually pretty well written and can be interesting to read along with as you listen. Sure, they've dowsed with the same tales of woe you're going to expect from this niche of doom metal, but that doesn't detract from how you'll actually feel like they were penned with some genuine emotional ballast rather than just configuring a bunch of words that fit the style. All told, In Splendor Below is another very good album, well worth the time if you're into these dramatic and melodic Swedish death doom bands, just as fine as Winged Waltz, and to some will undoubtedly prove superior due to the increased level of instrumental activity.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, July 29, 2019

October Tide - Winged Waltz (2016)

October Tide is a band which has never quite lived up to the catchy, melancholic immediacy of its debut Rain Without End. Not for lack of trying, as they've never released an album that I would consider 'bad' whatsoever. At worst, they've recorded some mildly disappointing, but still solid and professional iterations on their melodic death/doom sound, which just don't resonate quite like it did in the 90s. At the same time though, they've been developing that same sound, and since coming back together last decade have proven more productive than ever, even if it it hasn't thrust them into quite the same spotlight as peers like Katatonia, Swallow the Sun and Insomnium. This is a band that has long remained loyal to its heavily saturated atmosphere of sadness, and to that extent I'd say they've put together another reliable record which should satisfy fans of the last two.

Winged Waltz
is, as expected, a slight gradation on their style, well written and patient throughout, capable of creating emotional weight, although it's not as dense as some of the material they've put out in the past. The compositions here almost feel lighter than before, still espousing the melodies and harmonies that define their overcast atmosphere, but letting the heaviness shine through more from the listener's response than by dumping massive gutturals over your head and Brave Murder Day style walls of melodic chords. Fear not, there are still growls aplenty, in fact that's the default for the record, but the guitars thread along through more dynamic ideas, from darker muted picking sequences to rain-glazed, open sky melodies. It's important to note that they put some effort into their heavier rhythm guitar patterns, so they never feel generic, and allow the bass lines to crawl along on their own at some points, the guitars entirely vanishing or pausing just to let a simple, sad melody ring out over the low end grooves, as they do in the depths of "Reckless Abandon". The drums are likewise good, they might not require much energy or aggression, but there are little details in the fills which constantly keep them interesting in a style which doesn't generally demand much of them.

The cover art is a little dull, I'll admit, but all the more reason that I was pleasantly surprised as I listened through this, because I think it's superior to its predecessor Tunnel of No Light. If you've spent hours immersing yourselves into the depths of albums by mid-era Opeth, late 90s Katatonia, Novembers Doom, Daylight Dies, Draconian, Swallow the Sun, or In Mourning, then this is a record which will rekindle memories of wandering, sorrowful creativity, interspersed with a little bit of heavier prog-edged death metal groove. There were few moments among it's 50 or so where I felt like I wasn't being drawn directly into the gravitation of the band's collective depression, and there are lots of catchy riffs here that rang out to me long after the tears dried. Good lyrics, really great production if you're a fan of polish and clarity, I think this one's been somewhat overlooked and is arguably their second best recording to its day.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, July 26, 2019

Iron Angel - Hellbound (2018)

Hellish Crossfire was such a sizzler of a second tier speed/thrash album out of Germany, that all Iron Angel's future steps towards a milder sound were bound to end up in disappointment. To their credit, Winds of War was still a solid offering, just lacking the infernal glee of its predecessor, and in the 30 and change years since that was dropped, with only a handful of compilations and a bad demo in the interim, I admit that I did not ever seriously expect that I'd encounter new Iron Angel studio material again, nor was I even particularly interested. The debut has remained a staple in my rotation ever since, especially when I'm looking for a backup to the better known Teutonic thrashers. Well. I was dead fucking wrong, and to an extent I am happy to have been, because Hellbound, while not about to supplant the cult classic debut in any category, is a very competent attempt to get back to the basics and shove some metal straight up your nethers.

Yes, the way this one works is how it shoots for not only old school riffing structures and vicious, lived in, authentic German speed metal vocals courtesy of Mr. Dirk, but how the production on the album really matches those things and sends you back, without being too blatantly retro. The guitars sound very organic, without being overbearingly saturated, and even though they're mostly playing the sorts of riffs we've heard from this sub-genre for like 40 years, they're absolutely timeless in these players' hands, even more impressive because both of these dudes, Robert Altenbach and Mischi Meyer, are new to the band for this freaking album! The rhythm section here is definitely playing at a power metal level, with thundering kick drums and arguably more energy than back in '85, a firm presence to the bass even though it kind of seems subservient to the other instruments. The riffs here are almost all pretty pure heavy/power metal, but they don't sound overbright or overpolished, so it more resembles the Priest-laced power that was emerging in the 80s rather than the bubblegum stuff like Dragonforce, and within that realm they've got a diversified riff set that makes for a well rounded effort, from the killer "Judgement Day" to the warlike setup of "Carnivore Flashmob" (what a title!).

Dirk Schröder sounds pretty amazing, I mean he's a lot less rough around the edges than he was on the mighty "Metallian", but still has a nasty edge to his voice when he wants, and he's easily the highlight of the record. Some of the backing gang shouts hit, others miss, but overall the verses and chorus lines are very well put together, and when the bands gets to its most dirty and speed metal in cuts like "Blood and Leather" or "Ministry of Metal", it's pretty awesome. Honestly this one falls in between a Hellish Crossfire and a Screaming for Vengeance, or rather a cruder Painkiller. If that sounds like what you'd like to hear from an Iron Angel comeback then you're in for a treat. Not perfect by any means, but seasoned and fearless, certainly a step above their sophomore in '86, and enough to forgive the lackluster attempts at new material since that point. It also looks a little bland, the cover art choice was a safe one if you've seen their first two records, but who cares when I can crank this on the car stereo, lower the windows and feel like I'm 16 again, just got my license, my hand-me-down jalopy and can maybe, just maybe imagine that I'm cool enough that a girl might talk to me.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Sodom - Partisan EP (2018)

Although they were never my fave of the German Big Three thrash acts throughout the 80s, 90s or 00s, if you had me compare all those veterans' latest efforts, Sodom's Decision Day would narrowly edge out Kreator's Gods of Violence as my favorite. It was a dynamic, professional piece of thrash metal which played up to all of the band's strengths over their career without sounding in the slightest bit jaded or ready to hang up the axes. As a band known to dump a few EPs onto the market to keep themselves active on fan radars and perhaps get a test sampling of whatever new material they are working on, Partisan was perhaps inevitable after they had put out the Sacred Warpath primer on Decision Day back in 2014. So I assume that at least the title track here will appear on their next full-length releasing somewhere around the 2019-2020 period.

The EP features three songs, two of which are new to this release, and the last a live recording. The mix on this material sounds fantastic, with the vicious and bright guitars, sturdy bass tones, peppy and punishing drums, and most importantly, Tom sounding as nasty as ever, with a nice sustain and distance to the production of his vocals, even if the lines themselves aren't that exciting matched up with the rhythm guitars. Now, "Partisan" itself is a fairly average, mid-paced thrasher for the group, with riffing structures that sound familiar, as if they were patched together from other Sodom tunes, but the studio quality definitely lifts it up a notch, and it has a few nice lead guitar details in there and a general hellishness which maintains the momentum they achieved on their 2016 full-length. It's the sort of tune that would sound pretty much at home on Agent Orange minus the production difference.
"Conflagration" is the other n00b here, a slightly more punk-fueled cut which didn't really hook me until the more atmospheric vocals leading into the bridge, and then a nice neck-jerking pure 80s mosh riff breaks out and you kind of forgive the earlier blandness.

The live tune, "Tired & Red", actually sounds pretty fantastic, from the 2018 Rock Hard fest. I really love how the vocals sound, they're a little loud compared to the guitars, but very menacing with the effects, Tom sounds as seasoned as ever. It might not be enough to add a lot of value to this EP's existence, especially if "Partisan" and "Conflagration" end up on a more substantial album, but at least what is presented here is presented well, and that goes for the entire release. The songs don't hook me like "Sacred Warpath", "Blood Lions" and "Caligula", but certainly they show there is plenty of oomph left in the Germans' arsenal, and I've got no reason not to remain excited for what they come out with next, although the long-term value of this EP, sans the great black & white cover art from Roberto Toderico, is anyone's guess.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Monday, July 22, 2019

Sodom - Demonized (2017)

A reprint of Sodom's demos might seem rather useless since so much of their material was recast upon their legendary releases In the Sign of Evil and Obsessed by Cruelty, but I think this is the sort of fan service a lot of their audience will appreciate, especially the leather & spikes Satanic proto-black/death metal sorts who focus heavily on the Germans' formative years and ignore the political punk/thrash era entirely. Plus its availability on a number of formats include vinyl will be an appeal for those who thrive on having the wax versions of every cult recording in creation, and it's been treated with some simplistic cover art that will look flush on your shelves of old Venom, Bathory, Onslaught and so forth.

The material is reprinted faithfully, but there has been a little bit of mastering here to bring out the music's sinister fleshiness and perhaps make it more tolerable to ears weaned on their studio albums for the last 30+ years. I can't promise you that they are all that much more listenable, since the dirty guitars are a little buried beneath the tinny, driving beats, bass throbs, and messy as fuck vocals which remind me just as much of old demo-era Voivod as anything else. In fact, like those Canadians, you can really hear the punk roots in this material, which Sodom would of course revisit more directly in their 90s recordings. However, while I admit that even In the Sign of Evil and Obsessed by Cruelty aren't the greatest studio works out there, and I'm more of a Persecution Mania/Agent Orange guy, I have to say that the album versions are just so much more sinister sounding to my ears than what is represented on these demos. The vocals are so much more 'together' and vicious, while the guitars sound gut-wrenchingly evil despite their primitive tone and construction.

So this really does end up only in the sights of those purists and completists who want the most original recordings they can find of their favorite, veteran 80s bands, of which Tom Angelripper and company certainly qualify. I respect the decision to make this available in as close a 'real' form as the band was comfortable with, only adjusting a little of the mix for modern hardware, so that fans don't have to hear it on the usual bootlegs or just crappy .mp3s uploaded to the web, but I wouldn't even listen to this over the material on The Final Sign of Evil re-recordings they put out back in 2007. It's worth a few True Evil Points to have in your collection but I bet for most folks it just sits there while they listen to "Sodomy and Lust", "Nuclear Winter" and the 1986 version of "Proselytism Real" all over again. Still, this collection is EXACTLY what it set out to be, and you can pick from cassettes, vinyls or CD, whatever poison you prefer, so I'm not about to dump on it all that hard. If you woke up this morning and suddenly found yourself demanding that you own the Sodom demos, or the world would end, then they've got your back.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Friday, July 19, 2019

Rotting Christ - The Heretics (2019)

While it feels like forever since I've really been digging on a new Rotting Christ record, it hasn't actually been all that long. I had been slightly underwhelmed by the last two, Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού and Rituals, but neither of them was actually 'bad', they just didn't further the bands' expansive Hellenic sound the way I knew they'd be capable of, and they seemed like a downturn after the very good Aealo back in 2010. After listening through this latest effort, The Heretics, I found some commonality with a lot of their albums that I've enjoyed since pioneering that highly melodic, choppy style of Thy Mighty Contract and Triarchy of the Lost Lovers. The overall tone and production is more in line with the last few, and there are points at which it still feels like a choir-driven affair, but a lot of those catchy if predictable riffing patterns have returned, and I was into it for the most part.

Whereas earlier albums in the prime of this band focused very heavily on the guitars to create the action, offset by the Takis bark, this one features so many different vocals floating about its neo-classical narrative that sometimes the guitar melodies have to settle for the background. So a lot of the orchestrated influence is still present here, but they do their best to render it all down to that simple, heavy metal riffing which has long made bands of this scene more distinct from the blast oriented, chord-streaming black metal acts of Northern Europe. There aren't a lot of guitars that stand out quite as much as their later 90s fare, but they manage to make the tunes soar emotionally and really leave the impressions of these ancient religious clusterfucks that shaped faiths, nations and peoples. The album has a very thick, bombastic atmosphere thanks to the thundering beats and the simple depth of the rhythm guitars, plus the mournful timbre in most of the vocals. There are a number of riffing passages here which are just borderline doom, and each tune tends to take its time with just a few basic ideas and not become too cluttered...

Which helps when you're involving the choirs, the varied vocal styles, and other atmospheric embellishments, since the album feels more genuinely realistic, a solemn mantra of antiquity channeled through electric guitars, percussions and growls. Granted, this album sometimes has a lot more in common with Batushka or Therion than A Dead Poem or Sleep of the Angels, but if this is the direction Rotting Christ is determined to explore forevermore, then at least I can appreciate that they're pacing themselves to offer the listener some real gravitas, some sadness, some stakes to the topics they explore. The lyrics here are a mixture of quotations from authors and philosophers, and then very simple repeated lines of imagery that represent the Biblical subjects at hand, which is to say they aren't getting minimal simply out of laziness, but for aesthetics. And that is what The Heretics comes down to, orchestrated drama they've been exploring for the past decade, only this time it has a little heft to it. I was rarely mesmerized by the record's austerity, but it got a couple hooks into me early and kept me listening through a number of cycles.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Varathron - Patriarchs of Evil (2018)

It can't be any coincidence that, ever since Rotting Christ started to take a downward swerve in quality, their countrymen Varathron have really picked up their slack and gone on what must be the most consistent and memorable run of their career, first with the excellent Untrodden Corridors of Hades and following EP The Confessional of the Black Penitents. It's almost like they snuck into the Tolis brothers' minds one eve and devoured their dreams and aspirations, then converting it into their own creativity. I jest, but boy has this band translated this classic Greek black metal style into something truly splendid and fulfilling through the sorts of albums you want to listen to front to end repeatedly, picking out the details each time as they deliver nothing other than solid, worthwhile riffs.

Again, this is not super blasting black metal territory, they can pull that trick out of their collective hats if they need to, but this is more about the varied, slower riffing which draws a lot from thrash metal, but due to the exotic note and chord patterns, the raspy vocals, the choirs and synthesizers and the mighty drumming which feels like the advanced course to Celtic Frost or Therion's foundation. Considering the amount of musical satisfaction you get, they rein a lot of the tracks in around 5-6 minutes, with the exception of the finale, "Ouroboros Dweller (The Dweller of Barathrum)", that clocks in over 8. Within such a humble span they get a lot accomplished, each set of riffs feeling like it tells a complete, grandiose story, and it does, a saga of magic or mystery which transports your mind back several thousand years despite being conveyed to you with instruments that weren't used in this format until fairly late in the 20th century. While the great lyrics often delve into the 'evil' that the album title hints at, Varathron is musically pretty consonant and warm on this record, and I think it'd honestly make a great gateway for fans of epic heavy/doom metal looking to break into the black metal field but striving to avoid the cliches they might not like of lo-fi production and cold Nordic blasts (their loss!) It's just that universal of a sound, despite being part of such a tight regional style.

All the instruments sound clear and effective, and the band can seamlessly mix in acoustic passages to heavier riffs, while Stefan Necroabyssious' primitive grunts are far more effective than you'd think from his range, somehow managing to sound just as distinct and glorious as the brighter melodies of the instruments, only with that crude edge. I don't know that the riff level here is such that every pattern is insanely catchy by itself, but combined into the whole of Patriarchs of Evil, there are few notes here that I'd really want to change. It all serves the mystique of the band's occult explorations well enough that you can forgive an occasional dud, and I admit that this is one of those albums that has continued to grow on me since I first started listening. I'll rate this one even higher now than I would have one year ago, and I think it's very close to being on par with their last (and my favorite) full-length, missing only by a fraction which I'd attribute to just having a stronger connection to that mildly darker experience. But stylistically this is on point, and an essential Greek black metal disc for anyone into their past works or those of their better-known, ailing countrymen.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (storms and dead suns)

Monday, July 15, 2019

Varathron - The Confessional of the Black Penitents EP (2015)

As loved as Varathron's first two albums are in the Greek black metal canon, it was the band's decades-long transformation into the atmospheric, epic, dynamic juggernaut Untrodden Corridors of Hades which proved my favorite of their releases, and still quite loyal to the sound they helped develop on their national scene. So needless to say I was quite looking forward to the follow-up, and The Confessional of the Black Penitents EP isn't quite that in its scope, I was at least satisfied to hear that they were largely going to continue the sound from that underrated gem the year before. There isn't a ton of new material to pore over, even though it's 40 minutes of material, but the two 7+ minute new metal tracks are more than satisfactory and could have easily been tacked onto the end of the prior album and contributed even further to its greatness, with only minor tweaks in production.

Heavily varied, constantly interesting, majestic Hellenic black metal, with many know is performed out in a slower fashion than their Scandinavian counterparts, though Varathron can bust out a blast at any second they desire and maintain the same quality. It's all about the mystique, the representation of ancient Gods, temples, and the occult, cultivating nostalgia for fallen times while simultaneously resurrecting it forward to future generations. Grand melodies play out against thundering currents of drumming while a humble rasp leads it all like a tour guide through a violent midnight bacchanal. You can always tell that this crew is putting constant effort into how to piece together their tracks, and I can't imagine any diehard for the classic sounds of Rotting Christ and Varathron not falling for "Sinister Recollection" and "Utter Blackness" upon first listen, they are so well composed and such a dependable manifestation of that scene's cult sound. As for the titular intro piece, it's just some strumming strings with a few rasps above them that let you know the feast is about to begin, and I don't know that it stands on its own quite as much without what is to follow.

Now, if the EP were just this new material I'd rank it accordingly alongside the previous album, but the remaining tracks are from a live gig in Larisa, Greece...and they also sound pretty damn good. The mix is quite clean, permitting you access to the intricacies of the picking, the bass and drums and vocal slather without anything wresting dominance away from the rest. The material is also very level sounding even where it's drawn from such a big spread of their career. "Unholy Funeral", off His Majesty at the Swamp, sounds just as impressively potent as "Kabbalistic Invocation of Solomon" off the last record, and everything fits in so well to the performance, from the choirs and dark ambient back-scapes to the metallic core of the band. The result is that this whole damn EP is worth hearing and owning. You won't find the studio tunes or live cuts elsewhere, everything is quality checked and if you've been into any of their stuff ever (sans the lukewarm Crowsreign) then they've got you well covered.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Friday, July 12, 2019

Brutality - Antecedent Offerings EP (2018)

Antecedent Offerings is essentially a limited run, 500 copy 7" collectors' item in which 3/4ths of Brutality's 'classic' lineup revisiti a track each from their seminal offerings Screams of Anguish and When the Sky Turns Black and re-record them to see how they can be performed with over two decades' accrued experience and proficiency. Perhaps even a dash of contemporary studio 'wizardry', which has presumably also come some ways since the 90s (in either a positive or negative direction, depending who you might ask). As such, it's not like the band has fully committed to remaking a lot of their catalog, they just hand-picked two cuts which I'd assume are ones fans might want to hear in this context, and had at them.

Admittedly, I find both of these renditions a little dull, lacking the crushing potency of the original incarnations. The mix is quite consistent, the riffs performed well, perhaps even more 'balanced' across the speakers, but as soon as I go back to the brighter, album version of "Crushed", it just emotionally and sonically violates this new version, sounding like the genuine Florida death metal that put the band on the map in that 'second string' of bands beneath the legends like Morbid Angel or Death. The older version does feel a lot more youthful, maybe even disjointed in a few of the transition areas, and the remake is smoother in that area, I'll grant it, but the overall mix just has nowhere near the same level of energy for me. This is doubly the case for "Artistic Butchery" which also seems like a more lifeless version, and I get that it's 'death metal' haw haw haw but really there is no point to hearing the new over the original. The one thing that does remain very consistent between the two eras is the vocals, which sound almost identical on a good number of their lines.

So while this is only intended as a limited edition collectible and nothing to take so seriously, I have to say it doesn't do much for me whatsoever. The one positive is that it made me listen through those first two records again, which are slightly underappreciated gems from the 90s era, but I wouldn't go out of my way to hear either of these again. They don't suck in terms of production, but lack the personality in 2018 that their forebears had in 1993-1994. Skip it and listen to those albums, or even their last record Sea of Ignorance, which is much more exciting with its newer material.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Lizzy Borden - My Midnight Things (2018)

I've gotten so much enjoyment out of the first four Lizzy Borden albums throughout the 80s, that I could never begrudge if the band had just stopped there and never performed another note. Yet there is quite obviously a fire still lit beneath Mr. Borden and his troupe, and once they got back on the horse with 2000's Deal with the Devil, the only 'average' record in their catalog, there was a noticeable rebound in quality, the band staying very active on tours and doing what they love even if they've never quite hit the higher profile of other heavy metal legends from both sides of the pond. 2007's Appointment with Death was a good effort, almost as good as some of their seminal records, and I have to say that this newest disc, My Midnight Things, if not the most striking material they've ever released, sounds fairly capable as a band which heralds a lot of those 80s hard rock, glam and heavy metal aesthetics transplanted into the year 2018. It's not a total faceplant, but certainly a humbler and less ambitious project than its predecessor.

The core lineup here is down to just Lizzy and his brother Joey Scott Harges, with the former handling all the instruments other than a couple keyboard parts, and I think you can feel a little of the lack of intricacy or impressive guitar licks that defined career highs like Visual Lies and Master of Disguise, but what is performed here is at very least in line with what a modernized vision of the band might be. I'm occasionally reminded of the 90s Queensryche material, which devolved into a sort of progressive alt rock still carried by Tate's vocals, only Lizzy Borden keep things a little more metal and anthemic front and center, and just better. There are a lot of pretty obvious riff lines on the album, with predictable progressions to choruses, and the leads here are far too simplistic and don't do much to make an impact compared even to the chords surrounding them, but some of the stuff is still pretty sugary, catchy and dramatic. As for his voice, I'll once again make a comparison to Geoff Tate, since the two are quite similar in inflection, and also that Lizzy, like Geoff, isn't quite as screechy and wild as his youth, but remains very competent in rage, and there are certainly a lot of his self-harmonies here which could have appeared in the later 80s and nobody would be the wiser.

My Midnight Things clearly has a more 'rock operatic' approach to it that most resembles Master of Disguise, almost like a Part II to that record, with songs that aren't quite as impactful or resonant, and a tendency towards some redundancy as to how a lot of them progress. Despite that, I still felt myself getting drawn into a number of them, I only wish they had been trussed up with better lead guitars, and riffs that were a little more interesting individually, even if in a pop-like sense they do flow well as a whole. It seems like a lot more of the gaps between the simpler rhythmic components are just filled in with synthesizers, and while they're not unwelcome, they're not so compelling in most instances. Lyrically, it's about on par with Master of Disguise, hard rock lyrics with a larger than life feel to them which seems very personal to this character that is Harge's 'Lizzy Borden'. One thing I did truly hate on this one was the new version of "Waiting in the Wings", modern and poppy and more electronically infused than the original and it just does not work, even if he can still hit those notes in the chorus. Otherwise it's a passable record that suffers somewhat from lacking the full spread of weaponry that Lizzy Borden offered with a full roster in the 80s. Decent ideas for vocal hooks, solid drums, but the rest could really have been improved upon.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, July 8, 2019

Acid Witch - Black Christmas Evil EP (2018)

Dave Slasher's last Acid Witch EP was this really great idea that involved covering four Halloween-worthy hard rock horror movie tracks, but unlike a lot of others, who lavished praise upon it, I was just not a fan of the actual execution, even though I I was a fan of some of the original fare it was based upon, and appreciated that such songs would get some attention. Hey, nobody can question the guys' taste. This newer Black Christmas Evil EP is a similar idea, only with another particular Holiday theme, and shorter at only two tracks. This time, the presented material is original, and like a lot of the band's full-lengths, much more to my liking. I rather dug how it felt like a continuation of their very solid, original 2017 album Evil Sound Screamers, only trussed up in a Santa outfit.

So yeah, hideous lo-fi death/doom drudging that sounds enormous despite those factors. I love the integration of the cheery keyboard lines which feel like they were taken off some incidental Xmas record, or some cheesy mid-90s black metal band like Ancient. The vocals are gruesome snarls that are heard well above the music itself, and the overall atmosphere is suitably fun and still heavy. I wouldn't call the riffs in this one their best, but they are dynamic and groovy enough in a succinct tune like this to keep you from growing bored. The second tune, "Christmas Evil (You Better Watch Out!)", was my preferred of the two, opening with a sample from the trailer of the 1980 film of the same name, but then going into this classier doom structure. Lyrically, yes, each of the tracks is based on the eponymous slasher films, which is really par for the Acid Witch course and one might even hope they do a lot more such 'theme' EPs since there's a lot of turf to cover in the horror genre.

There's not a lot of meat on the victims' bones here, but it's a two track EP for $2 on Bandcamp, so there's not much cause to complain, especially when they're well enough written that they could have appeared on Evil Sound Screamers. I think the love of these films shines through in just about everything Dave Slasher and friends put out, and since my own fondness for campy old horror flicks has only grown with age it's something I look forward to. I'd also take the opportunity here to plug his solo synth/score project, which is really well done.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, July 5, 2019

Death Angel - Humanicide (2019)

Upon first glance I admit I didn't find this latest Death Angel album to be all that appealing. The Humanicide title seems trite and cliche for a thrash disc, and even though the artwork for these three wolf mascots is on point, I thought it also felt a little generic that three of the last four albums they put out had nearly the same artwork, with slight shifts in color scheme and whatever part of the post-apocalypse they were pawing their way through. After popping in the disc, though, most of my worries disappeared, because it turns out this is just another example of the modern Death Angel doing its homework and getting it right. Maybe not as right as on the two albums before it, which it seems to be a hybrid of, but it was generally a good listen with a lot of dense, headbanging and yet another palette of powerful riffs by the Cavestany/Aguilar team that moves in a lockstep you rarely hear outside of bands like classic Artillery.

This record moves. And it is angry. West Coast thrash metal evolved to incorporate a wide array of influences, between technical thrash and groove metal. Flashy, well-written solos sputter out from the gapless network of energetic rhythm patterns, while the bass and drums keep really damn busy forcing it all into the same concrete lattice of impenetrable power. I will say this album has a higher ratio of forgettable riffs than the two before it, but not for lack of trying, it's just that its particular configurations didn't quite worm their way into my earholes as much. I mean, when you get down to it, while a lot of the material here is very well arranged, it's just not so catchy and feels like a lot of material you've heard from decades of thrash bands, only paraphrased into more punchy cuts. Mark Osegueda's vocals here feel a little more pinched than the last couple discs, and there were also some lines where I thought he sounded so much like Erik A.K. from Flotsam & Jetsam that I had to look up that he hadn't taken over those duties for this album. Weirdly, I think I was more into the drums on this than the last two albums with Will Carroll, perhaps just a dash more potent personality.

They bring in a few guest soloists like Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom and Jason Suecof of Capharnaum (and recording engineer of many well known records), but I hardly noticed because the band's own guitarists could probably have done with them equal flair. I dug quite a few of the songs, but if I were to pick a few out of a lineup with the three albums before it, they'd have to be "The Pack" for its more interesting rhythms and well timed gang shouts, and "Revelation Song" because it very much took me by surprise with its huge heavy metal riffs and great, groovy rhythm bridges during the leads. Basically the tunes where they sort of break off from the dextrous clip most of this material is flying past at. But in the end, Humanicide is well in line with Relentless Retribution, The Dream Calls for Blood and The Evil Divide as the most consistent streak the band has ever had in its decades of existence. No, I'm not going to pull this off the rack over "Evil Priest" or "Voracious Souls", but any of these four albums would sound great through the car speakers when I just want a thrash album that cares about what the fuck it's doing. When this phoenix finally emerged from the creative ashes about a decade ago, it decided it would stay aloft.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Death Angel - The Evil Divide (2016)

What immediately struck me about The Evil Divide is that it was a more clear return to the direction Death Angel was headed on their Frolic Through the Park and Act III records, back during their prime when they were becoming a household name among the thrash fans at the turn of the decade (1990). It's certainly a more advanced and involved record in terms of composition, and it also has a stronger sense of dynamic range than the album before it (The Dream Calls for Blood). The production isn't nearly so harsh and concrete, it feels 'modern' but not overly so, which I think turned a lot of cult thrash fans off that one a little. Stylistically, it's a bit of the same and then takes a few risks, not to an experimental level of weirdness like Frolic Through the Park, more in just how clinical and technical they can pack their riffing style.

The fact is that this lineup really gels here, and the rhythm guitars are fucking intense and like the album before it, just flooring you with the sheer number of riff patterns that are strewn about the 45 minutes. Probably a higher count than any other Death Angel disc, or most thrash records for that matter. The bass tone is nice and fat and given some air to breathe in a few tunes. The leads are quite good and superior to the previous album, and unlike a lot of peers that are spewing out modern thrash records after 30+ year careers, The Evil Divide seems capable of putting in some genuine emotion without getting to cheesy, as on the riffy, memorable "Lost" where Mark lets his cleaner, more sustained vocals and harmonies reign. On a lot of the material, he actually gets a little more grit to his voice than on The Dream Calls for Blood, although that album might have felt heavier in sum because of its more abrasive, crunchy guitar tone. I find the instrumentation just in general seems as if its more practiced and effortless, but also more inventive and melodically imbued to stick to the listener's brains long after the death's head moth has fluttered away. Speaking of that, it was a little strange that they dropped the horn-crowned wolves which they had been using on the two albums prior and then also on the follow-up to this.

Death Angel got a lot of good buzz off this one, and for an understandable reason. Re-evaluating my own feelings on it, and getting back into it, I feel like it's even better than its predecessor, although there was a time when I might have told you differently. Mature, intelligently written, about as far from the run of the mill pizza thrash that these guys and their Californian peers inspired throughout the early '00s as you can get. The Evil Divide is still a catchier album when I'm listening to it than when I'm not, but that said I do keep a couple of its hooks stored in the grey matter when I'm thinking about the band on the whole. Had this album come out in about 1992, even with a slightly less professional production, I think it would have been the stuff of legend and blown peoples' heads off, it certainly eviscerates The Art of Dying and Killing Season, to me the nadir of their career, those early 'comeback' albums that didn't wholly justify the return. At any rate, folks looking for detailed, dynamic thrash metal which isn't afraid to stretch its wings out will very likely appreciate this one.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, July 1, 2019

Death Angel - The Dream Calls for Blood (2013)

There are quite a number of classic thrash bands, both in the States and Europe, who for me really haven't survived their transitions into a more modern style and brick housed production. Okay, maybe they've survived on touring and tuning in a younger audience, but simply haven't been putting out the same caliber of material they were capable of in their fiending youth. Essentially the stuff has become 'dad thrash', competent and mixed for the times but lacking the essential soul of the 80s. Acts like Exodus and Onslaught have fallen to such a fate, but a few others, like Death Angel, make it work for them. I could level a bunch of complaints at this band's body of work starting with Relentless Retribution, but the fact is they handle their modern body of work just as infectiously as they did their seminal efforts. Nope, they haven't ever released a rival for their debut The Ultra-Violence and I doubt they will, that was such a distinct, fevered and evil slab of West Coast thrash, but when I hear their modern efforts I don't feel even vaguely like I'm getting ripped off, or that they're anything less than genuine.

Part of this is Mark Osequeda's angsty, nasally vocal style, somewhere between Joey Belladonna and Russ Anderson in strain and tone, he just injects this edge to the material which aids even the less inspiration riffs here. And riffs there are a plenty, some of them memorable and nasty, and others just seem like they're going through the motions to play with their pretty distortion, but like a modern Artillery, they keep throwing them after you and never really running out of ideas, and I think there are far more winners here on The Dream Calls for Blood than there are losers. It's also a creative record, they'll bust off into some hard rock grooves, or some floatier atmospheric section without warning, helping to round-out the majority of the meaty thrashings, Cavestany and Aguilar are legion when it comes to the rhythmic syncopation and if you're looking for some neckbreaking I think this album really delivers. Leads flurry on by with bluesy abandon, all flash and testosterone and entirely suited to the massacre going on, while the combination of Will Carroll's seamless beats and those rhythm guitars create an appreciably intense lower end to the record. Granted, I think the drums do lack a little nuance and personality, but they're not really what I focus on here.

The lyrics are all about rage, revenge and other thrash-worthy feelings, perfect for the adolescents attracted to this subgenre, but not written cheaply or stupidly. There's a cover of Sabbath's "Heaven and Hell" which is played pretty close to the vest, but due to the mix it fits right in with their own original material, and Osequeda is up to the task although some of the oohs and aah lines have a cheesy delivery (not that they didn't in the first place). So when I think of veteran thrash acts who have thrived with a new, blockbuster sort of production fitting to the loudness levels of the 21st century, Destruction's The Antichrist always comes to mind as the exemplar, and there are no tracks here which are nearly on that level of me wanting to constantly hit replay until I've worn my finger to the bone (or the CD to slag). But I think much of Death Angel's modern material certainly passes a quality check, using its tools well and not just a overproduced, overinflated bore like these enduring bands often put out with their bigger studio budgets. The Dream Calls for Blood is frankly one of Californians' best albums period, a very well balanced attack. It's no Ultra-Violence, an anomaly borne from the members' then-youthful creativity and raw aggression, but it'll do in a pinch.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, June 28, 2019

Carnal Diafragma - Grind Restaurant Pana Septika (2017)

The impressions I once took away from the violence and spasticity of grindcore have long since abated for me, and these days I find myself searching far and wide for bands in this niche that can craft up creative riffing, interesting aesthetic themes, or successful cross pollination into other genres. The same old sped-up punk and core riffs don't really work for me, nor does the shock value or silliness of the vocals that I once got a laugh out of. Sure, the eccentricity and extremity of the lyrics might still get a tickle, or just the notion that there are so many bands out there still doing this and loving the fuck out of the style, but it's not often I reach for a record of this sort beyond the early goregrind staples already in my collection. So I've begun examining a little deeper into the European stuff, in particular the Czech scene which seems to have had a thriving grind scene for some time now.

Carnal Diafragma is fairly standard for the goregrind style, with effortless blasting, thick rhythm guitars spewing out riff patterns from the Carcass and Napalm Death playbooks of the later 80s and early 90s, and a mix of vomitous gutturals and gremlin snarls that are going for the gut laughs. They also pair these up with a couple churning, groovier slow sections where the riffs actually sound pretty solid, but you kind of get the drift in the first few tracks and there isn't much beyond that to surprise you. These guys aren't sample-heavy. There are a few, but usually they cut right to the chase and serve up a salacious menu of tunes that sort of stay on-theme with the album title, basically about disgusting delicacies. It's kind of a cute gimmick, but since I can't speak the language or even read the song titles without a translator, and there's nothing musically out of the ordinary to convey the vibe that you're in some grotesque bistro, the theme is only flesh-deep. Having said that, I don't think diehards for this style of grind would be too disappointed, because they capture as much excitement as possible into the tempo shifts, the cut-off riffs, the occasional breakdowns.

The production here is excellent, good and loud but not feeling like polished silverware. The utensils
Carnal Diafragma serves you with have been well washed in guts and goo, and the album will not lack for kicking your ass straight into the cauldron and then seasoning you up. The vocals blend together pretty well, again very voluminous but managing not to overshoot the guitars, and there is enough dynamic range within each of the 1-2 minute tracks that you'll never be bored, partly because they don't give you the time to, but mainly because with a 22-year history and numerous albums and splits already behind them, they know the ins and outs of this madness. I would even go so far as to say they can come up with a catchy riff about 1 out of 5 times, which is a good average in this style, but as many positives as I can lay upon Grind Restaurant Pana Septika, it's just not that addictive, a gruesome gourmet that you'll soon forget about once it vomits forth from your nethers.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Squash Bowels - Grindvirus (2009)

Poland is another heartland for grinders of the gorier persuasion, and Squash Bowels have proven one of the more enduring of their carnal connoisseurs, with 25 years experience and a long laundry list of pulverizing splits and albums. Plus they've just got one of those band names that sticks out to you, probably for all the bad reasons, because who hasn't felt this way about their digestive system after catching a stomach flu or eating some very, very wrong?! It's a bit of a surprise, considering their name, that a lot of their lyric focus in the past hasn't necessarily been all that gross, but their 2009 effort Grindvirus definitely has a slight waft of scatological violence about it, although not attaining the stench levels that many of their peers do on a regular basis.

It's hard not to label this Napalm Death worship, because really they just have so much in common with those British Godfathers of grind that you could interchange a lot of their riffs and vocal patterns and not know the difference, especially from the period around Death by Manipulation, Harmony Corruption or Utopia Banished. Perhaps not a direct clone, because there are a few differences, like the meatier production used by Squash Bowels, and a guttural vocal that has a little more personality than Barney's muffled roars. They also do some slower groove parts that almost sound like nu metal (as in the parts of "D.I."), primarily because of how those riffs are paced with the lower tuning. But when they're belting out one of those downtrodden, brutal fast riffs they sound exceedingly close to the source of their genre, and to me that was one of the limitations. I can't pick out a single riff on this entire album that was remotely interesting or unique, they're all par for the course, no matter how much of a thick, crushing production they are given as they repeatedly pummel the fuck out of your ears.

Maybe the issue is that my expectations are too high for this style? I mean I hear a group like fellow Poles Antigama, who keep their riffs quite compelling and establish a unique mood for the genre, or even Nasum, who succeeded by tossing a healthy heaping of catchy d-beat Swedish death metal into their grind-matrix...and I'm on board. But here on Grindvirus there just isn't anything a lot by which I can distinguish them. Don't mistake me, the production here is quite good, the energy is obvious, and they have a lot of the veteran hallmarks, even some pretty cool cover artwork. This is even put out here through Willowtip Records. I'm sure folks over at the Euro festivals can mosh the shit out of this material, but all I get here is 28 minutes of battery that doesn't really endure even in the midst of experiencing it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Monday, June 24, 2019

Morta Skuld - For All Eternity (1995)

While they've never been numbered among the most legendary US death metal acts, one can make a solid case for the earlier works of Wisconsin's Morta Skuld as minor Midwest 90s cult classics, in particular the debut Dying Remains, which at its best was almost capable of going toe to toe with some of its Floridian forebears of around the same period. With the four full-lengths they released from '93-'97, however, there was a fairly steady, if not immediate decline in them writing much of interest, which bottomed out on the album Surface, upon which mediocrity was finally achieved. For All Eternity, their third album, and their first with UK's Peaceville Records, shows that there was still a little bit of fight left, a number of riffs that were clearly winners wedged among some that weren't.

I liken their style on this one to a heavier take on Chuck Schuldiner's Death, primarily the sense of pacing; or perhaps a few pages torn from the Obituary sophomore Cause of Death, or the first few Gorguts discs. The focus is on slower, heavy grooves, but keeping them dynamic and interesting, with some nice tremolo picked patterns and no tendency whatsoever to dwell on anything that might border on boring. Once in awhile they break out into a faster pattern, but they are all about keeping this thing heavy and really fleshing out all those chugging palm mute patterns so that they're easy to distinguish from one another. There's also a bit of influence here from more clinical thrash sounds, used in bridges or breakaway sections before they barrel back into some Morbid Angel-like groove. There are clearly a lot of riffs here that don't quite pass muster, but they just keep those breakdowns and tempo shifts rolling along, so the overall bodies of the tracks are well arranged and keep you interested if you dig your death metal plodding and pugilistic without being interminably dull.

The vocals are a gruff growl redolent of the bands I mentioned above, and not the strongest point of the record since they don't vary it up all that much by the lyrical patterns, but still competent enough, and I can't imagine what other style would really match the rhythm guitars. They lack the psychotic edge of a John Tardy, and actually cross a bridge into the more brutal death vocal style that was becoming popular around the same time through groups like Suffocation and Malevolent Creation. The drums here are very tight and groovy, the guitar tune a bit muffled but not as much as some of Scott Burns' worse mixes, and I think it's better produced than As Humanity Fades was, although the riff quality is fairly even on both those records. The cover art is pretty cool, the lyrics are more personal and thoughtful (ala Death) rather than a gorefest, and I'd have to say that if you were out scouring the past for some well-constructed death metal, this one holds up fairly well to this day. If not game-changing or constantly memorable, it's at least capable of filling out its 48 minute length without putting anyone to sleep.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (innocence is over)

Friday, June 21, 2019

Outrage - Brutal Human Bastard (2013)

The simplistic sort of death metal advocated through bands like Austria's Outrage is honestly pretty brave these days, when you consider that it's not a style many fans of the broader genre really go for. Groups like Six Feet Under and Jungle Rot received mixed at best reactions from an audience divided between the nostalgic saturation of old school, atmospheric, evil death metal aesthetics and the more flashy, athletic scene honed in more for precision, technicality and clinical production standards. So efforts like Brutal Human Bastard don't cross my path very often, and while that might be a good thing in general, these guys actually attack the genre from a slightly different angle than I'd expected from the cover. I won't go on record to say I'm the biggest fan, but this sophomore outing gets a little credit for having a few refreshing ideas, hit or miss, which define it.

The bedrock of the songwriting is slower, churning, accessible death metal circa Bolt Thrower or Six Feet Under which is heavily mosh-flavored; in fact the large majority of the time the material is pit ready at the cost of creativity. That's not to say the riffs don't work, especially in the clarity of the production which allows you to feel the weight of those rhythm guitars straight in the belly, but you won't often be surprised by the notes they choose, it's more a vehicle for the front man's broad yet monotonous gutturals. Where the band really shifts it up is in how they obviously take a big influence from rock and thrash metal, and come up with these pro lead guitars sequences through most of the tunes that are quite catchy, and even more impressive in that their contrast with the bulkier, brawling undertow doesn't come at the cost of the music's overall potency. I'm not going to call it 'melodeath', although certainly there are a lot of faster paced melodic death metal groups that place a similar emphasis on the consonant lead-work, harmonies, etc, but it definitely creates a warmer vibe than what you'd expect on Realm of Chaos or War Master.

The drumming is quite good on the album, a lot of steady, tribal, warlike rhythms to keep those simpler mute patterns more bombastic than they'd be otherwise, and although I'm not always the biggest fan of 'clean' mixes for my death metal records, this one services the style well. I did not get much out of the riffs, mostly just blander death/thrash patterns I've heard before, but sometimes they bust into a cooler tremolo picked passage or something that stands out from its surroundings, and the album doesn't really experience any lulls, it's consistent stuff throughout, for good or ill. Though the growls are pretty bog standard to the genre, they do throw some snarls over the top to give it a more Deicide vibe, and he can shift the guttural up to a slightly higher pitch for variety. For me, the main highlight was always the leads and melodies and how they combined with the rhythm section to create something seasoned and dynamic. Song titles, lyrics, even the album title were just a 'meh'. I can't give Brutal Human Bastard a glaring recommendation, I was lukewarm with this stuff at best, but those looking for some intro level death metal (and I don't mean that insultingly) which is honestly the polar opposite of trendy right now might dig it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Varulv - Wolfszorn (2015)

Wolfszorn is not a record reared on subtlety or invention, it's what you'd call a 'textbook' example of the black metal genre which does not step outside the margins of that realm in any capacity. I was immediately taken by the rustic folk art, as I often am within this genre, especially because the werewolf central to the image appears to be carrying the Holy fucking Hand Grenade from Monty Python & the Holy Grail. And also whatever the hell else is going on in the image. Is the dude with the sword in the taking a piss? Are those witches strung from the gallows in the background? Is that laborer exhausted or did the lycanthrope push him or her to the ground. Does anyone even care that this man-beast is driving a pushcart of Papal corpses through their village? And what's with that thing in the background. Is that a building on fire or just a very unusual-shaped potted plant?

So many mysteries to unwind, except for Varulv's music itself, which pretty much just kicks you in the chin immediately for a swift takedown, and then spends the next 36 minutes eviscerating and playing around in your entrails with its direct, ghastly traditional black metal. This is not a record which dabbles around with nuance or atmosphere, the details are straight to the face and perfectly content with that attack plan. That's not to say they lack some degree of dynamic range...the riff patterns here swerve between glorious, melodically-engraved charges and slower, nastier grooves, both of which recalled the Darkthrone of the early 90s, but there is no ramp-up whatsoever. Do not expect acoustical, haunting segues, intros or interludes, synthesizer scapes cultivating the full moon light to catalyze the transformation of the Varulv. Nope, this thing is in full Crinos form, ripping down the village doors and dragging the women and children, or rather the clergymen, to their grisly feast by fang and claw.

Guitar tone is a major factor here, it's kind of huge and mid-range and has a solid texture in which you can hear every note of a chord shining along, but still vorpal sharp and hostile. The black metal rasp is super carnal, which suits the subject matter, but rather generic in its inflection and doesn't have much ability to catch could honestly use a little more flawed inconsistency which would lend it a little charisma. As it stands, the only deviation you get is when some ominous, broader growl is used to double it up. Bass doesn't really seep through this album at all; you can faintly trace it in the slower moments, but it's mostly all six-string testosterone and intense drum battery and that can grow a little dull, although the Austrians handle it with a professional competence. And truly, if you are in the mood for just black metal of the most obvious format, the most direct distillation, then I think there are some sections of Wolfszorn that wouldn't disappoint, but I didn't find the album to have much character beyond the obvious, much horror lurking beneath the surface carnage. The debut was creepier, if less forceful, and the third record Sagenlieder is more well-rounded without losing the teeth.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Monday, June 17, 2019

Dauþuz - Monvmentvm (2019)

If Monvmentvm has any flaw, it's that it comes after three records which defined the conceptual freshness Dauþuz brought to their genre, and doesn't really do a whole lot to further expand upon or innovate upon that theme. Not that these are necessities in the composition of a great album, and this third full-length is quite good for all that, but I felt that at this interval, the Germans might pursue a little more nuance, layer a little more aesthetic variation into their formulas, or just come up with a masterwork to cap off what has already been a formidable slew of recordings. Instead, they play it rather safe here, if an underground black metal record with German lyrics about mining could ever really be considered 'safe'. I'm sure we'll be hearing it on our local mainstream radio networks anytime now. Wouldn't that be a world?

At any rate, this is still a fine record, from the outside in. Luciana Nedelea's gorgeous black & white artwork might be the most aesthetically pleasing of their covers, although I had no problem with its predecessors. The production of Monvmentvm is probably their most level and balanced, and while that might leech away some of its dynamic punch, it creates their most mournful atmosphere yet, accompanied with some very sombering guitar lines, and probably the largest number of woeful clean vocals they used yet, which are somehow even more effective in how they don't stand out terribly much from the instruments. The acoustic guitars continue to glimmer sadly, whether they are used directly in a longer metal tune or in the instrumentals, of which there are three. There were also some well integrated acoustic pianos at the finale of the album, its 10-minute title track. The guitars have been slightly more prominent on past albums, to be sure, but you can still here them quite well roiling against the drum patterns with their huge, glorious, if somewhat predictable melodic passages, and there are occasionally breaks where they get to breathe by themselves and its rather euphoric.

This is probably the Dauþuz album where no individual component stands out far beyond any other, but it's also strangely the most laid back, 'epic' experience if you're simply seeking an escape from your daily grind and wish to journey back to the grinds of craftsmen and laborers centuries past in a black metal transfiguration. You'll still have some of the suicidal howling to create tension and no insignificant sum of horror, but you can also pop this on your headphones and doze off (in a good way). Another notch in a belt of well-cut gemstones, but one does hope a little that the Germans' inevitable follow-up offers a slightly more expansive or ambitious piece of jewelry to complement what they've already adorned themselves with. I'd place it roughly between the first two albums in quality, and once more recommend it to fans of Medieval or atmospheric black metal with the adage that it's still quite firmly rooted to the genre's conventions and offers more of a thematic departure than a musical one.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, June 14, 2019

Dauþuz - Des Zwerges Fluch EP (2018)

For a newer band, Dauþuz has kept itself very busy over the three years of its existence, dropping one new release annually, before most in the potential black metal market have heard any of them. But, damn it, for whatever limited audience pays attention to my ramblings, I aim to change that last bit, because they deliver on all counts to the traits I want out of well-rounded, fulfilling, effective underground black metal. Des Zwerges Fluch ('The Dwarf's Curse') is a less substantial offering than Die Grubenmähre, being an EP of around 35 minutes, but that's still quite a lot of bang for the buck, and it's a fluid continuation of the previous material which enacts a few tiny embellishments into its harsh and acoustic mining-scapes to easily justify its place on your shelf if you're into Medieval or antiquity-focused black metal escapism and not just looking for your next horn-throwing fix.

Certain of the tracks here, like "Unwerk - Des Zwerges Fluch I" and the 10-minute opening surge of "Steinhammer" are among my favorites in their whole catalog. The screams and growls have become even more crazy and intense, and the use of cleaner, chanted vocals has become more confident, they usually just follow a melodic guitar line with them but it really helps drive home the subterranean aesthetics they aim for, without all the claustrophobic, smothering stereotypes you'd find in cavern-core death metal. Some will probably find this approach a little cheesier, but I couldn't give much of a fuck since this is the sort of band where the mood itself is central to my appreciation and Dauþuz hasn't faltered from creating such an atmosphere, almost entirely through the riffing and keeping. The material here on the EP probably has the most even distribution of flooding faster rhythms and then the more gradual, melancholic bits where they make good use of harmonies. The acoustic parts are just as impressive as ever, gloomy and Medieval fireside vignettes that doesn't outstay their welcome, and are often paired up with some snarls or screams or samplings of the tools of the trade central to the theme.

Lyrically, this one stretches a little bit more into folklore territory on some tunes, which I think is welcome. In fact, while I love the historical mining theme, I wouldn't be put off if the Germans decided to do some fully fantastical concept albums in the future. An album about Moria? Sure, or pretty much any dwarven lore from any setting. They still don't incorporate dungeon synth elements, a request I had from back on my critique of their first album, but I think by now I've fully forgotten about that, because they've just become so solid at their sound, and it's not like I can't get that stuff from a thousand other places. Again, highly recommended from me, I think Die Grubenmähre is the best starting point to explore their sound, but this EP is entirely complementary to that.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Dauþuz - Die Grubenmähre (2017)

Dauþuz' second album, Die Grubenmähre ('The Mining Horse'), doesn't distinguish itself all that much from their debut, but for being just a year apart it does seem as if the duo were pursuing a slightly more dynamic range to their riff patterns and the result is a more foreboding and desperate effort than its predecessor. While it might lose a fraction of the first album's brightness, there are a number of minute shifts here which make it more of a soul scarring listen. Never mind the thematic implications of the title and cover, thinking back on these ancient work-beasts and their thankless and fatal toiling at the behest of their domesticators, automatically casting shadows of sadness and empathy across the recording, but the music itself carves into you like a pick into the stone.

First off, the vocals are far more intense, aiming for that more suicidal, screaming tone that you find in a lot of suicidal or Burzum-like black metal, sometimes to ghastly, delirious heights, but playing them off against the rasp of the debut, and some deeper groans and growls. This permeates the music with a more panicked appeal, as does the harsher flood of rhythm guitars. They still ingrain their chord selections with a lot of melody, but Die Grubenmähre at its heaviest does feel more brutal and unforgiving than the album before it. The mid-paced rhythms remind one of Blood Fire Death a lot, with different vocals, but just as much pomp and glory. Tempo and mood changes here often feel more abrupt than before, but also much more effective, such as when they'll let a single tremolo picked guitar start off into the distance and then trample it with the ferocious howling, blasting and some chant-like vocals which hover on the edge of perception. Some of the percussion here on the low end really thunders along, almost as if representing the thudding of the mining tools down in the depths of whatever doomed excavation the Germans are on about.

Bass does not play a very strong present in terms of sculpting and molding the songs, as it didn't on the first record, but the rest of the atmosphere is solid enough that you'll be following right along with the rest of the instruments and won't care a whole lot. When these guys hit a beautiful riffing passage as they do in "Dem Berg entrissen", it's instantly more memorable than the material off the prior outing, and almost all the non-acoustic songs across the 50 minute span of this disc have at least one such moment which will send thunder and shivers down the listeners' spine. Ultimately the album is better than its forebear in all categories, offering the same style but fleshed out into more dramatic upheavals, nastier vocal passages and songs that resonate well past their playtime. We have the evidence that Dauþuz is not just some one-off, but a promising new voice on the German scene which offers heavy immersion into its specific theme, very much worth experiencing whether or not you lie behind the language barrier as I do (though this is mostly fixed with an online translator).

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, June 10, 2019

Dauþuz - In finstrer Teufe (2016)

As an individual whose atavistic tendencies are often triggered by the art he chooses to experience, I fully endorse using metal music to explore historical themes, persons, civilizations, and eras. Black metal, perhaps due to its inherent grandeur, atmosphere, mysticism, and instrumentation has long been the main sub-genre in which this transpires. Germans Dauþuz have chosen to hone in on the advent of European mining in particular, an excellent, interesting concept which immediately attracted me to the group's music, which as it turns out is also quite good. A bit on the conventional side, where I might have incorporated more directly ambient or cavernous sound to immerse further into the theme, or perhaps some overtly dungeon synth elements, but I think they at least succeed in transforming the roots of this critical industry into something suitably intense, oppressive, and melancholic.

My German is rather pathetic, and for this reason I wasn't able to translate everything perfectly, but I believe the album title here translates to something like 'In dark (or sullen) depths', and man do the lyrics to the tracks on this debut relay that through descriptions of not only the environment and process that these centuries-old diggers and spelunkers experienced, but also the tragedies which often befell them, a perfect topical choice for black metal which is at once desperate and angry. When Dauþuz is charging ahead with some sorrowful melodic stream of picking over a blast beat, and vocalist Grimwald is spitting out those tortured, sustained rasps, you can easily picture in your mind the desperation of some workers trying to escape a cavern collapse and grasp futilely at the last light they might ever see. On a broader spectrum, this stuff falls right in line with a lot of glorious European black metal through which the listener can fantasize over some grim, idealized landscapes. It's not quite as claustrophobic as its subject might imply, but instead rather spacious and majestic enough that it could find purchase in the audience of Medieval black metal particularly prevalent in France and England.

There are not a lot of tremendously catchy individual riffs, but the overall songwriting patterns here are quite consistent throughout the experience. Guitars are savagely loud but gloomy, while the drums and vocals are mixed just right to accommodate them. Acoustic segues and interludes give you the real feeling of a night at rest after some exhausting dig, by the flickering firelight with a waft of roasted meat to accompany the dirty countenances and strained muscles of the miners. Structurally they don't deviate much from other acts of their style, but they do inject enough of a dynamic balance so as not to come off totally monotonous here. There's little I can promise that you won't have heard before, but this is a really solid debut with good production, and if you've encountered either of the members' other projects like Idhafels, Schattenthron, or Isgalder, or have an interest in Germanic veterans like Falkenbach, Horn and Menhir, then this one is a pretty safe bet to check out.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, June 7, 2019

Darkthrone - Old Star (2019)

While Darkthrone's different 'phases' have cultivated individual audiences to themselves, some not too keen on the others, this is one band I've found enjoyable to follow wherever the wind would take them. From the frigid earnestness of their seminal death and black metal records through the nostalgia-tinged, often tongue-in-cheek side treks into punk, thrash, speed and heavy metal, they've always branded each album with their trademark personality, self awareness, and lyrics more clever than they might seem on the surface. I just don't feel as if they've ever failed me in this regard, and still get just as much pleasure listening through The Cult is Alive or Dark Thrones and Black Flags as I do A Blaze in the Northern Sky or Soulside Journey. In fact, I've long considered that they purposefully created their own counter-culture to the now-traditional necro black metal style they themselves were heavily influential upon, and I get a fat kick out of that.

Arctic Thunder stumbled for me a bit, not as a 'bad' record, but the first case in recorded memory where I felt some of the catchy nuances were missing, it didn't really string together the sort of personality that their earlier material thrived upon, with a lot of riffs that felt half-formed and just on the edge of catchiness without crossing it. Thankfully Old Star sets them right again, not a record bound for modern classic status, but a thoroughly consistent, enjoyable listen, especially at higher volumes, which sets out on a particular sonic path and then sticks the landing. While a lot of the initial reports and reactions I've read herald this as a 'return to form', meaning the band is back to its 90s black metal roots, I'm going to disagree there. Sure, you could place this back in around 1998 as a natural successor to Total Death and not sense that any major deviation to trajectory, but Old Star is heavily inspired by the classic heavy/doom metal riffing that they played around with on efforts like The Underground Resistance. Perhaps not quite so quirky or melodic, but it's given a more stolid and mighty countenance to create this huge, accessible sound. I'm not implying that you're about to hear Darkthrone cycling every half hour on your local corporate rock radio channel, but this one has a straight to the face, level production that many of its predecessors lack.

Everything sounds phenomenal, from Fenriz' simple, effective rock and roll beats and fills, through the dominant rhythm guitar tone, to Nocturno Culto's timeless, broad rasps and the lowly hovering bass lines, hardly adventurous but giving the rest of the mix just enough weight. I'd point out "The Hardship of the Scots" as a poster child for the aesthetic blend here, almost entirely a heavy/doom style track which busts back out into the Norwegians' Hellhammer-inspired churning and bending throughout the bridge. Others like "Duke of Gloat" go the opposite route, more or less a pure 90s throwback Darkthrone cut but with that same, formidable production pounding you in the skull. It's also astonishing how the band can still take a set of fairly stock, predictable riff patterns and then somehow refresh them just by putting their own touch, production and vocal style on them, and then whoosh, I don't feel like I've heard them all a hundred times before, even when I have. That's one hell of a skill for a band not renowned for anything bordering on technicality or complexity. It's also one of the reasons they've long been high up on the short list of my favorite bands ever, and if Old Star is any evidence, that status isn't going to change for a very long time.

Lyrically the album continues the pattern of simplistic verses containing clever little subversions, all wrapped up into song titles that you HAVEN'T heard a hundred times before, primarily in English, as usual these days, but with a handful of Norse lines. Granted, a lot of folks will probably never read them, but while they are far from poetic wizards, the grisly-yet-thoughtful layman's appeal to their words is among the best in the entire scene. If Chadwick St. John's cover artwork seems familiar, it's because he uses a similar, gruesome, detailed pencil-like style that you might recall from Grafvitnir's Obeisance to a Witch Moon or Arckanum's ÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞÞ. Great to see here and very fitting to the atmosphere of the six songs. Overall, Old Star is a step above Arctic Thunder and The Underground Resistance; the former because it left such a dry taste in my ears, and the latter because its handful of  genius tracks are counterbalanced by some of its more muddled ideas. This isn't the first Darkthrone CD I'm going to grab off the rack, but it's very well constructed, gets a little better with each of the initial listens, and if you're down for a mix of, let's say Total Death and Circle the Wagons, then I think you'll be more than satisfied.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]  (while Atlas cringes)

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Kafirun - Eschaton (2017)

Unlike a lot of their fellow Canadian acts, Kafirun eschews the rustic and naturalist black metal atmosphere for something more hypnotic, ritualistic and blunt. That's not say that there aren't some nuances to Eschaton, their proper full-length debut album, but rather than having raw guitars that emulate the sounds of streams, wilderness and history, these guys go for the throat with a heavily blast-centric songwriting style and then layer the more atmospheric embellishments on top of it all through gruesome vocals which are often sustained into low rumbling chants, which honestly feel as if you're experiencing them bouncing off the walls of some creepy cavern deep below the light of the sun. This is a claustrophobic, unforgiving descent into the occult and philosophical horror which should please pundits who prefer their black metal to remain evil at all times.

Now, while I maintain that it hones in heavily on its faster paced material, I didn't mean to infer that Eschaton lacked dynamic value. In fact there are quite a few spots here where the material will move at a slower or more glorious mid-paced gait (as in "Omega Serpent"), and here the drumming gets more interesting. Guitars throughout are either melodic-tinted, fell majestic chord patterns or some that become faster and more drone-like or insectoid, which is where they actually introduce an alien, mesmeric sort of experience. We're not talking Deathspell Omega levels of dissonant, labyrinthine, fascinating riff structures, but there's plenty going on to keep the imagination engaged without ever sinking to idea-less, vapid repetition. I wouldn't say all the guitars are compelling, and you'll know where a lot of them are going within a few notes, but they keep the notes and patterns flying and occasionally there are a couple that will stick with your brain once the smoke and ash of the whole album experience fade. For me though the favorite parts are when they're streaming some evil chords, the drums are going full frenzy and then they break out one of those groaning vocal lines.

They also know how to dress up a track with melancholic or cryptic guitars that seamlessly erupt into the more aggressive speeds, so there's a lot of musical value to each beast rather than some soul sucking blasted monotony. The bass lines are loud enough to keep the furious drumming and guitar lines grounded, and while some might find the mix of the record calamitous or confusing I think it all worked pretty well in conveying the determined and horrifying mood. There is no warmth and happiness to what is transpiring across the 42 minutes of material, it's an explosion of moldy subterranean spores and viscera that only lets up to attack you with different, more measured angles of obscurity. Worth tracking down if you're fond of the dissonant and unrelenting style used by groups like Antediluvian, Mitochondrion, Dodecahedron, Ulcerate, Auroch, Deathspell or Blut Aus Nord.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]