Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Todesstoß - Würmer zu weinen (2008)

I haven't decided yet whether to believe Martin Lang, longstanding proprietor of Germany's Todesstoß, is a mad genius, or just very far off his rocker. For nearly 20 years now his black metal vehicle has been churning out a large body of demos, splits and albums with not a whole lot of fanfare, and it's plain to hear why: this shit is terrifying. From the surreal, disturbing or just weird cover imagery that graces a lot of his releases, to the hideously primitive nature of the songwriting, this is not a musician driven by the latest, glossiest sort of black metal progression, but instead by contorting new patterns from its elemental ingredients, and not always the same way on each successive recording. Würmer zu weinen, the second proper full-length of the project, is a great example of how he can twist the quirks and flaws of his sound into strengths that haunt the listener far after the audio.

Think of this as slow to mid-paced black metal, entirely driven by a drum machine set to sound more like an industrial backline than a proper metal drummer. The guitars are extremely raw, with a very cheesy saturation to them that sounds a lot like (and probably is) a practice amp, and these are set out into very simple chord patterns, often smothered with a second, dissonant guitar line. At numerous points throughout the album, he'll let the beats and rhythms die down and then just concoct some eerie guitar that plays out in solitude with a nearly hypnotic string of notes. Above all of this is his lunatic, raving vocal style, which seems like little more than some psychopath making a mockery of the form with entirely unfiltered rants and rasps that channel a schizophrenic rainbow of goofy but unsettling personalities. We're all accustomed to the high pitched, painful vocals of luminaries like Varg Vikernes, but Todesstoß is next level, almost like a trolling or deconstruction of depressive black metal in general, with no fucks given. It gets even more bizarre when he'll drop out of the music and just use these as a tortured spoken word all on its own.

Here is an album which is accessible in its simplicity, but almost inaccessible in terms of many fans of this genre taking it seriously. Uncouth, unprofessional, and unconcerned. For all that, though, it's quite artsy and appealing, and if you can stretch your mind and tastes enough to appreciate its eccentricity, it can prove rewarding, although not the most interesting of the albums he's put out. The songs are generally long, between 9-14 minutes here, and while this sort of primeval bedroom black metal could throw that all away by becoming overly repetitive, there are usually some twists or unexpected, fuzzy melodies or synthesized sounds emerging through each landscape which keep it an adventure. An ugly adventure, without a happy ending, but a few passages of gloom and grace that will remind the audience of the roots from which this sprung. Depressive BM with a dash of death rock, industrial beats and maybe late 90s Bethlehem is an apt comparison, but even then I don't feel like that covers it. If you're on the hunt for well-produced, catchy or savage black metal, Todesstoß is one to stay wide of, but if your tastes permit for raw-boned production, genre deformity and plebeian experimentalism then this one might lose you in its minimalist maze.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] 


Friday, January 25, 2019

Flotsam & Jetsam - The End of Chaos (2019)

It is truly euphoric when a band you so idolized as a youth seems to have come back swinging in full. Flotsam & Jetsam recorded two seminal teen thrash albums for me, but then as early as their third full-length seemed to proceed into a slump that would last several decades. A handful of catchy tunes stood out here or there, but not anything with the attitude and catchiness of their 1988 pinnacle No Place for Disgrace, or even their debut Doomsday for the Deceiver, which was never a favorite, but far better than what they would be phoning in throughout the 90s and 00s. When 2016's eponymous 12th studio album came along, and we were back to good songs again, I was ecstatic...and here I am, even more so, since The End of Chaos is the best material the Phoenix mainstays have produced in over 30 years...

The production on this album is a marvel, crystal clear but perfectly potent for each of the players, which is important on an effort in which every minute detail is formidable. I mean, with the possible exception of some plebeian, ambiguous 'resistance' style lyrics and cheesy cover art, there is nothing at all cringeworthy across the 50 minutes of this disc. Michael Spencer's bass lines are throbbing, interesting and take on a life of their own at nearly every point on the album. Ex-Fifth Angel basher Ken Mary, in  his debut with the band, delivers an excellent set of beats, grooves and fills which are often fun enough that I could listen to them independent of the other instruments. The riff-set is nothing out of the ordinary for Flotsam & Jetsam, you've been hearing sprinkles of this bright, engaging power/thrash style for much of their career, but here they take familiar frames and sequences and then pair them up with nuanced melodies and genuine passion which engages in the intros, the verses, the choruses, and below the competent leads. I especially like it when they get a few layers of picking going, the album gains a lot of depth and is sure to thrill fans of either of the constituent sub-genres which feed this material. Accessible and straight to the face, but also intricate and detailed.

Most importantly, Erik A. K. is once again on point here, sounding even more youthful perhaps than he did on their 80s albums. Granted, he doesn't really go for a lot of higher shrieks, but he gets so much personality out of that manic, shaky mid-to-high range he excels in, and bullrushes into each chorus part with gusto. There are times when he's singing along over a particularly melodic, more trad/power metal element in the guitars where The End of Chaos almost feels like a high intensity 'thrash' answer to Iron Maiden...not the first time I've felt that way, but really polished off here because the tunes deliver. I'm not lying to say when I say that I cranked this sucker and just found myself repeatedly focusing in on each little detail...it's not something I often do when so many albums go more for the sum than the parts, but this one just had me at attention for every single measure, churning out a pure neck-frenzy moment after moment, and never predictable to the point that I could guess what exactly would happen next.

It's a little hard to choose favorites, but some of the cuts on the first half, like "Control", "Recover" and "Slowly Insane" really kicked ass. But even the bonus tunes work, and they mess around with the songwriting dynamics enough that it never grows remotely dull. If you've been avoiding the band since the Cuatros, Drifts and My Gods let you down, then it's probably safe to get back on the wagon now; or if you're a fan for power/thrash ala Artillery and Heathen, and somehow missed out, this could very well be your thing. This is one of those albums that had me smiling from beginning to end, after having only scant expectations for it. These guys are in their 50s now...when I'm in my 50s, I'll be lucky if I've got the strength of limb left to drag my fluid bags around whatever hospice my wife and kids toss me into, trying to sneak a pudding cup after Bingo. So to hear The End of Chaos is nothing short of inspiring. It's got to be that dry, desert air or something.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Carnal Forge - Gun to Mouth Salvation (2019)

Always competent, if not always memorable, Carnal Forge struck when the irons were hot in the late 90s, playing a brand of death and thrash that easily fit in with the melodeath outbreak of that era, and managing to land some decent record deals and exposure in the process. Alas, they were inevitably lost in the shuffle, and by the time their least known, 'last', and in my humble opinion best album, Testify for My Victims came along, they already seemed to have become a footnote in the Swedish crop of bands which produced touring juggernauts like In Flames, Soilwork, Dark Tranquillity, and their ilk. They've had a couple single releases in the interim, but since that previous, underrated album had just proven such a riff rich environment, I'm not actually all that surprised that they have returned 12 years later, firing on most (if not all) cylinders.

Carnal Forge hearkens back to that age old tradition of keeping the heavy 'thrash' element of their songwriting so entrenched in tense, exciting guitar progressions, and it really shows, since it is by far the guitars which are the most engaging and impressive components of Gun to Mouth Salvation. With patterns that recall anything from the Teutonic and West Coast US thrash scenes of the 80s, to the Danish veterans Artillery, to melodic death pioneers At the Gates and Carcass, I'm always finding something to admire in just about every track on this record. Perhaps not always a strikingly unique riff, and occasionally erring on the side of cheesy groove-like rhythms, but there is such a punchy and genuine energy being packed into every tune that it's infectious. The rhythm section is more than capable of giving the guitars the right level of thrust, but apart form matching the excitement factor they don't exactly stand out against the choppier, melodically-engraved thrashing. The whole force of the band is absolutely loyal to that modern, clinical, industrial strength sort of death/thrash...don't expect raw production, lot of reverb, or other charming hallmarks of the Golden Age; this is firmly planted in the 21st century as most of their albums have been...

...whether that's a positive or negative, that sort of punchy, contemporary production and style, is really up to the listener's preferences. If you're a fan of The Haunted, Darkane, and so forth then I think these guys remain firmly in that camp. However, one aspect of Gun to Mouth Salvation I was not totally sold on was the new vocalist Tommie Wahlberg. He has a 'carnal', mealy-mouthed style which, while not inherently bad or lacking in personality, seems a little too rough-edged for the actual production of the instruments. It almost sounds like they were recorded separately with different ideas in mind. Take that other famous Tomas with the -berg suffix in his name, and approach that style of raving and barking with a more gut-felt, almost splattered timbre, but unfortunately not in a positive way. That said, if you enjoy the more eccentric, harsh lines spat out by frontmen like Lindberg or Friden, I don't think this guy will really get in the way of your enjoyment, and the music is just so solid, from the switch between neck jerking speed, mid-paced atmospheric rhythms and the ability to deliver a good old, epic Swedish melo-death style chorus. This one isn't quite as strong for me as Testify for My Victims, but the riffs are very good, and I like it more than any of the albums that came out before 2007. Their hiatus has certainly not rusted them whatsoever.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]


Friday, January 18, 2019

Malevolent Creation - The 13th Beast (2019)

I can only imagine the amount of  hard work Malevolent Creation mainstay and guitarist Phil Fasciana had to put into The 13th Beast to make it manifest. Not only did original growler Brett Hoffman pass away tragically to cancer, but the rest of the lineup had also changed since 2015's well executed effort Dead Man's Path. So as I'm sitting here listening to this record it's a real testament to the Fort Lauderdale band's professionalism and resolve. I say that as one who has always followed the band for their importance as one of the Florida scene's enduring, guttural voices in the death metal medium, but also one that's never been terribly taken with a lot of their material, which falls into the 'passable' zone a lot more than the 'memorable' one. With the exception of the weird Joe Black EP back in 1996, Malevolent Creation has never failed at kicking you firmly in the posterior, even if they don't always do it with sticky, timeless songwriting and dynamic range.

The 13th Beast is a bit more brutal and monotonous than its predecessor, bouncing between their usual bootstrapped blast beatings and roiling Bolt Thrower/Brutality-like mid-tempo material. The footwork is intense as usual, the guitars fast and true to the form, or moodier when they slow down and feel reminiscent of stuff you might hear off an album like The IVth Crusade. Leads warp in and out with ease, often adding some genuine thrill to what can otherwise be a duller rhythm riff set, and the bass and drums sound like they need to for an intense battery such as this. Unfortunately, while there are a good number of riffing progressions flying around, too many of theme seem run of the mill and forgettable when assimilated into Malevolent's body of work as a whole. I mean a tune like "Mandatory Butchery" really goes for the throat, giving the listener the entire range of their style, but even then the guitars feel sort of familiar and unsurprising. The rhythm section performance feels slightly more of a mechanical thing, competent and in lockstep but not adding much personality.

As for the new vocalist/guitarist, South African-born Lee Wollenschlaeger, he's got some pretty huge shoes to fill. While his straight brutal vocal is competent and not unlike Hoffman's, there is likewise a bit less charisma in how he delivers it, with far less variety. Gone are a lot of the shifts between snarls and gutturals, here you just feel like you're being beaten repeatedly with a dull hammer. Not that his predecessor was the most unique in the genre, but these feel as if they could have been replaced by any number of other 90s-style death metal vocalists and there wouldn't be a huge difference; whereas experience had really sharpened Hoffman's delivery. Still, Lee's a competent player and growler, fits right into the mold here and with after settling a bit more into the material, should turn out fine. I'll ultimately liken this record to Cannibal Corpse's Vile, a new album from a heavily entrenched death metal band with a new vocalist, which doesn't quite live up to the material just before it, but is not at all much of a dip from the stuff Malevolent Creation has been consistently churning out for nearly three decades. If you're a big fan of Invidious Dominion or Doomsday X then I don't think you'll be too disappointed with this, but I'm unlikely to return to it much.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] 


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Malevolent Creation - Dead Man's Path (2015)

Dead Man's Path is likely to go down as a fond remembrance as the last Malevolent Creation record fronted by the band's late growler adept Brett Hoffman, but it should also go down as being one of their better offerings, reaching far into the past for the pummeling death thrash of The Ten Commandments, but also taking a few chances on something a little outside their typical wheelhouse. In full disclosure, while this a band I've long respected since their inception on the burgeoning Florida scene decades past, they've never quite been a favorite. I largely consider the 1991 debut to be their best, but then again they've put out a pretty long string of albums that turn out 'decently' if not really inspiring beyond the violent moshing primacy that they espouse.

Dead Man's Path is that and a fraction more. You're still getting the same, machine gun battery driven blend of roiling blasts and breakdowns, smothered in Hoffman's sustained snarls and growls, but I find something mildly more atmospheric than their norm. Perhaps this is anchored by the opening title track, a slow, doomed build which uses strange narrated vocals which almost sound like the guy has some sort of strange accent...ascending into these atonal, but memorable guitar harmonies. But it's also through the confidence and certainty with which they execute the heavier shit through the rest of the proceedings. Few if any of these riffs are of the variety you've never heard before, and they're just as predictable as you might believe, but the production and balance of speed and groove here are very well managed, and it remains pretty exciting throughout. Tracks like "Corporate Weaponry" are able to develop strong lead guitars, melodies in the verse and chorus riffing as well as a nihilistic, warlike atmosphere somewhere between Bolt Thrower and their own Warkult.

Hoffman effortlessly shifts between a number of different harsh vocal timbres, without ever coming off as too overbearing or jarring in their transitions. It sounds exactly like a bunch of psychos having a board meeting over the apocalypse should sound, and he dials it back often to let those guitars breathe their necrotic tremolo picked nightmares. The bass has just the right level of bombast and swerve to it to carry the rhythms, and Justin DiPinto puts on an almost untouchable performance behind the kit, one that would probably still be fun to listen to if you muted the other instruments. It's almost a pinnacle of Malevolent Creation professionalism, an exhibition of their better qualities across a quarter century of writing, recording and touring. Don't get me wrong, this album is still pit ready enough to sate the barbaric lusts of the hardcore and 2nd tier death metal fanatics looking for a fight, but as the closure to such a massive chapter of the band's history, it's worthwhile, and their best material in at least the decade leading up to it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (dark souls shuffle by)


Monday, January 14, 2019

Sytry - Hunger of Cold Nights (2008)

Hunger of Cold Nights is an album with so many characteristics I admire that it's been hard to bring myself to the painful realization that it's only a hair above average in its impact. From the grim, hand drawn cover artwork all in shades of black and white, to the band's simple but memorable logo, the perfect packaging for newsprint toned black metal, eloquent if familiar lyrics, and an even-keeled, powerful, clear studio production that sounds fantastic bursting forth from my speakers. Sytry had all the ingredients here for a breakout underground black metal debut (or sophomore if you count the re-issue of the eponymous demo as an album), but it's hampered by the endless sameness of its composition style and for never truly embracing the sinister DNA from which its sprung.

Seriously, this thing 'sounds' great, but utterly fails to produce anything but repetitive, unmemorable midlist black metal which is competently crafted in execution, but lacking imagination. Streaming, semi-melancholic riffs play out in predictable, cyclic patterns, with nary a chord progression that can stand out on its own anywhere. The drums are flawlessly beaten, but so many of the tracks thunder along at the exact same speeds that the beats become mechanistic and indistinct. There's a decent swell of bass to support the airier production of the guitars, but it doesn't carve out creepy enough lines of its own to really add the depth and atmosphere the album could use. Lastly, the vocalist has a fairly sincere snarl going on here, broadcast loudly enough to stand at the fore of the instruments without ever weakening or drowning them out, but his own syllabic patterns just aren't tortured or passionate enough to enhance the riffing beyond its standard state. Creativity was just not a virtue for Sytry here, but rather adding yet another album to the endless canon of early 21st century black metal bands aping their predecessors and peers.

It's difficult to pinpoint the precise 'scene' where this Italian act fits in, because they don't particularly sound like their own countrymen, but more like a mashup of Swedish and Teutonic styles, or a kinship with the Greek bands that also went for a Scandinavian aesthetic to their writing, rather than the more regional, mid-paced melodic pacing. I'd liken them to some of Endstille's output, only they lack the ability to conjure up riffs nearly as hypnotic as those Germans, nor are they as violent. But they possess that same aim to throw those higher pitched chord-flows at you repeatedly. Hunger of Cold Nights is not an album I'll immediately boot from my collection, since I've got a soft spot for traditional black metal and really like how the thing looks, but it's just never one I'd reach for with so many proven options available to me. Recommended only to those most strict, non-picky adherents of the black metal genre who will appreciate anything with the right drums, vocals and guitar tone, but demand little more than that to sate their night-lust.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Pensées Nocturnes - Grand Guignol Orchestra (2019)

Frenchmen Pensées Nocturnes have long been thinking beyond the bounds of traditional black metal, but their latest, 6th album Grand Guignol Orchestra trades in a bit of the Romantic flourish of prior efforts for a more intense, abrasive experience which certainly rises up to the packaging displayed before you. Yes, this is essentially a circus-like black metal record, digging up a middle ground between Peste Noire and Mr. Bungle, and every bit as disturbing as that idea implies. The freakish cover clowns and the excellent graphic design put together between the band and Les Acteurs de L'ombre is an excellent vehicle for the themes explored, and I feel as if the album is far more committed to this warped, canvased sound than prior effort like Arcturus' Las Masquerade Infernale.

Now, to be clear, this is not an album I heavily enjoyed, but rather one I appreciated for its aesthetic aspirations. This is truly calamitous, unapologetic black metal that has been thoroughly kneaded with horns and other instrumentation that casts a mid-20th century, back alley carnival shadow...a place that would allure you with its glowing lights and euphoric festivities, but not one you'd want to bring your kids to for fear they would be devoured by its attractions. Trumpets, bass lines, organs, various levels of distorted guitars, tuba tones, all manner of whirring and whizzing percussion and a vocal range that is cast through morbid rasps and howls, and cleaner, boisterous tones much like a circus caller or a ringleader attempting to stir up his audience. There is so much flying at you through these tracks that they can become a whirling labyrinth of confusion, a magic mirror-house of torture. And it takes a particular level of skill to arrange all this, to be able to successfully supplant the traditional instrumentation of this metal niche so evenly with the other instruments, above a constant rhythmic battery that is very impressive with the strutting, grooving bass guitars and drum kit.

No, there is no lack of effort herein, and in general I very much dug the carnival parts like the thumping segues in "Comptine à boire" or the frightening freakshow nostalgia evinced through the opening crawl of "Triste sade", but when it comes to the metal content, it almost loses itself to the rest of the experience. Which is sort of the point, I'll grant you, but it wouldn't have hurt to have a few really catchy guitar lines vomited forth that could compete with the great horns and the unwavering, schizophrenic vocal performance. Occasionally the album becomes just too calamitous and 'extreme', like a Naked City record on a post-black, spazzcore bender, and while the intensity is cool, I wish the music itself stuck to the memory a little more. However, Grand Guignol Orchestra is such a damn cool, visionary sort of album, so conceptually successful that I'd be remiss not to recommend it highly to those seeking something on the outside, a bevy of childhood nightmares given flesh through an abusive, murderous adult musical palette. Something wicked this way fucking comes, with a painted smile and a bloody, spiked bludgeon. A ticket could be your last.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Basilisk - A Joyless March Through the Cold-Lands (2004)

If ever an album title was destined to be a mission statement for the music contained within, this would be it. A Joyless March Through the Cold-Lands...the modus operandi of just about every one-man basement or bedroom act in the universe. Right? Hell, the 'one-man' in question here even dubs himself Vintyr. Okay, I'm exaggerating, and to that effect, I'm afraid to say that this album does not, in fact, feel very wintry at all. This isn't black metal for the forest or fjord, for the howling of wolves or the feel of your blood being frozen in your veins as you wander through the hibernal nightscapes bearing just a cloak, corpse paint, spikes and a replica sword you ordered online from your favorite fantasy film. This is actually a dimmer, danker, personal style of black metal which revels in its rawness and the negative emotions conjured through its composition and production choices.

Basilisk takes timid, programmed beats and echoing, spacious melodic guitar lines and then slathers them in some of the most impish, distorted, sick snarls and rasps you were likely to hear back in the mid-oughts. And despite how primitive and unprofessional it all seems, I have to admit that once in a while this stuff gets pretty alluring. There is barely any variation within the framework of a particular track, although between the different tunes the distortion and riffing style will occasional change it up with different levels of saturation. All roiling in the primacy of the form, but slicing the listener's ears up in a few different frequencies. The riffs themselves are extremely basic, occasionally cutting out for strangely atonal melodies or harmonies like in "The Force Inside the Opposites", before they shift back into mid-paced chord carvings. At the record's most vicious extremities, like "Bitter", Basilisk is definitely channeling some of its ancestors...A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Deathcrush, Under the Sign of the Black Mark or the first few Burzum efforts, but in some ways it can become even more simple and clearly the product of just the single demented mind letting all his guts spill out through the amps and microphone.

Now, I'm sure there is a large percentage of the black metal audience, which focuses highly on the musical proficiency and intensity of the drumming and guitars, which will now and forever feel that an album like A Joyless March Through the Cold-Lands sucks, but I rather appreciate that uncouth nature of the music...that personal exhibition of suffering that you hear a lot in these one-man acts. It's nothing exemplary or particularly memorable, but I tune in to albums like this because I want to feel like I'm walking along the edge of some abyss, and Basilisk, for all its flaws in audio and musical chops, certainly grants me that. I don't know that this one is quite melancholic enough for the pure depressive BM crowd either, but if you just want razor-raw riffing, atrocious vocals that splatter nightmare-stuff all over your lobes, and just enough of a rhythmic skeleton to propel its pitch black imagery forward, this is an obscurity you might wanna spend some time with. Plus it's also named after a cool mythological creature, for extra points.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Mansion - First Death of the Lutheran (2018)

Mansion has its roots deep in Black Sabbath territory, but what it does with those roots, glazing them in a hypnotic cult psychedelia and phenomenal production values, is what makes the difference between a band like this and so many other wanna-bes vying for the throne of the doldrums. First Death of the Lutheran, the Finns' first proper full-length after a number of EPs and splits, is not about to win any awards from how it formulates its bare-boned excuses for doom metal riffs, but rather in just how well-made it is, structured to crescendo into claustrophobic fear with its killer vocalist and the unusual lyrical focus on Kartanoism, a Christian group formed nearly a century ago that was known for its young preachers, stark social dogmas and wild prayer sessions which involved a lot of freaking out, speaking in tongues, you know...the hardcore shit.

In fact, when played at just the right volume, this album mesmerized me into the sort of ritual trance it explores thematically, all with such simple formulae, almost like a contemporary counterpart to Coven's legendary Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, even if the music is wrought from a darker cloth. Heavy guitars are used more or less as scarce drudges that lurch the momentum of the songs forward, while the bass smothers the undertow in huge grooves. Strings, organs, fuzzy little proto-electronic sounds and ambiance are slathered across the weight of that bass, and the tinny and lush, minimalist percussion that is often left to its own devices once the proper, tribal beats disappear. But the real star of the show is moody, ritualistic intonation of Alma. Simple lines, mid-ranged pitch, and often filtered with slight levels of effects to create that creepy, claustrophobic vibe I hinted at above, a sort of euphoric dread. The male vocals here are decent also, Gothic and downtrodden, especially on the cover of Joy Division's "The Eternal", which works surprisingly well amidst the original material, especially when Alma goes more ethereal.

The production is so perfect that you feel like you could hear a whisker drop amidst the sobering, psychedelic swell of the songwriting, and it would only add to the steady tension. The bass and guitars are perfect volume so as to complement the vocals and effects, and the whole purity of the thing feels like you're having it played for you live at some wooden, remote lodge where you won't normally her another sound for many miles around, apart from the writhing religious exultation. The lyrics are exceedingly simplistic, yet they're an aesthetic match for the primacy powering the music. After checking out a few of their earlier EPs, I wouldn't say the style has evolved all that much, it might rely a little less on riffs and more on the atmosphere surrounding them. At any rate, this is one I'll readily recommend to fans of Jex Thoth, Seremonia, Sabbath Assembly and Blood Ceremony.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (And know you've been mislead)


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Dawn of Winter - Pray for Doom (2018)

With nearly 30 years under their belt, I don't think anyone can really question the commitment or sincerity of Germany's Dawn of Winter as a 'true doom' metal act. Perhaps not the most prolific of their peers, releasing but one full-length album every decade on the '8th' (and really 9th) year; but there is nothing remotely trendy here on Pray for Doom, just a band that sticks with a classic formula and hones in on the how to deliver that with clarity and potency. This is very clearly doom of the dreary Sabbath mold, where simplicity is effectiveness, yet translated a bit further through the Gothic stylings that Swedish bands like Candlemass or Memory Garden, brewed up from the tears of the 80s and 90s, the same era in which this band itself was also manifest.

That being said, after listening through this album a number of times, I've come away only with a very mundane reaction, because unfortunately Dawn of Winter writes some of the most saccharine, predictable sorts of riffs for the genre. Bolt and loud, perhaps, but so minimalist in their composure that they feel like they're simply paying homage to their own style and not truly hooking in the listener, much less dimming his or her skies with the rolling-in of mournful clouds. You know where each and every riff is going as soon as you hear it, and while occasionally on a metal riff that can be a good thing with a convincing enough, thriving energy, here it's a bit of a drag. They'll often dress it up with a slightly thundering, tribal pattern as in "Woodstock Child", but as you start to finally feel some of that electric, melancholic chill coursing over your being, it flattens out into some pretty pedestrian songwriting that just makes me want to listen to Nightfall again, where it felt fresh. The instruments all sound exactly as they should, perhaps even a little too clean, but here it's really just a matter of not taking any risks on interesting chord progressions, leads or melodies.

It doesn't help that Gerrit P. Mutz' vocals just don't stand out for me in the field. Ironic, since some of his earlier power metal outings with Sacred Steel gave me the opposite reaction: sticking out too much in the wrong way. You're not going to get any of his insane wailing through this material, he reins his pitch in to respectfully match the style of this band, but the voice just lacks the supreme passion and eeriness of the best doom front-men, there is little agony or despair to be wrought from the lines, even though he's a competent craftsman at phrasing them out. Combine that performance with the stolid pacing and production, and the lack of any real surprises once the first few tracks have marched past you like a pair of stone oxen pulling a cart along, and you've got yourself a pretty run of the mill doom experience which never truly plays up to its strengths. Even the lyrics are bland and often feel as if they were culled from a checklist of graveyard emotions and 'doom' imagery. Not bad, inoffensive, perhaps a dependable disc if you're a purist who just wants more of this particular traditional style, but I hardly had my soul crushed listening through it.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]


Thursday, January 3, 2019

Funeral Frost - Queen of Frost (1996)

There's a certain level of purity implied by such barbaric and amateur artwork on a black metal record like this. I'd be lying if I said that the cover itself, a raven-haired axe goddess terminating a blonde counterpart in some tiled Dark Age manor or comparable structure, wasn't a big factor in me wanting to check out this obscurity. Long out of print but looking really good on paper. The band name. The album title. The fact that it was released on some little homebrew imprint called Wolfnacht Domain, which might be the coolest label moniker ever if they had ever put out anything beyond this, which to my limited knowledge they did not. Queen of Frost has quite a few cards stacked in its favor before even a note has been played...

And admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised here to find a lo-fi but competent black metal recording that reminded me a bit of fellow Swedes Marduk during their mid-90s period, sans a little of the same capacity for blasting aggression. It's probably the dingy but clear production, and the way they subtly and effortless employ dire melodies alongside the savage outbursts. Then there's also a little bit of a Bathory (or Barathrum) viking pacing to some of the slower, groovier riffs which truly feels like the cover looks. The drums definitely sound like they're being beaten down in a garage, but the kicks create havoc with a continuous rumble that sounds like an avalanche of fist-sized hailstones bouncing off the roof above your head, and when they, in tandem with the guitars, whip up a storm of volatile speed it's hard not to picture a band of yetis barreling down a wintry mountainside on war sleds, spears thrust forward and ready to impale anyone unfortunate to be skiing there that day.

Queen of Frost is a little moody in how it shifts between the faster and slower moments, with just enough dissonance and tremolo picked uncertainty that I didn't find it as predictable as I might a lot of unknowns from the same era. The vocals aren't exactly the most evil sounding, but feel like a guy is having his throat gouged in with ice picks, and the bass lines, while only hovering slightly behind the rhythm guitars, are at least audible enough to make an impact on the album's infrastructure. There are also a few timid synths used in tunes like "Far Beyond the Ravenstar" (what a title). It's probably impossible to find this album without using the internet, but if you pine for these lost moments in the evolution of European black metal, I'd have to say this one is decent enough for a listen. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it has spunk. One of the guys would go on to drum in the band Jotunheim for a couple demos, and apparently there's more material released on an EP more than a decade after this album, but beyond that I'm not even sure of the rosters' longevity or participation in the broader Swedish scene.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Blurr Thrower - Les avatars du vide EP (2018)

When your first release is a two-track EP with songs clocking in at 19 and 17 minutes, respectively, you've got to have something there to entice the listener's commitment. Fortunately, while they do rely a lot on repetition to fill much of that space, Île-de-France's latest enigma Blurr Thrower has just enough of a hypnotic shadow cast through its atmospheric black metal that I was in fact addicted by about the 8-9 minute mark of "Par-Delà les Aubes", the first of these two cuts. Even more fortunate, that immersion actually paid off throughout the remainder of the recording. That's not to say the concept and riff sequences here prove unique or highly nuanced by any means, but the adherence to just those basic building blocks of melancholic black metal in their hands proves enough of an escape that I looked forward to repeated exposure to these sad, soul-tearing evocations.

Book-ended with great ambient passages, "Par-Delà les Aubes" really hooks the listener with its baleful blend of slightly distorted guitar notes and lightly swelling background feedback that are soon joined by a blast beat and other, tinny, noisy guitars and harsh, raving vocals which seem to exist at a nexus between traditional 90s atmospheric black and the more recent waves of 'blackgaze', without falling too far into either of those directions; at least not until later in the song when some really mesmeric sheens of melodic guitars pour across the listener like cold water after a nap in some dank, echoing, lonely dungeon. The second piece, "Silences", doesn't highly differentiate itself from its predecessor, even playing out around the same length, but there is just a fraction of dissonance to its intensity that keeps me glued to it. Bass passages throb ever so sparsely beneath the lattice of haunted guitar-work, and while the beats aren't all that exciting, their cold, repetitious feel certainly is a boon to the overall effect being attempted through the music.

Another positive here is that occasionally, you'll hear something emerge off in the distance or the recording, perhaps just a phantom your mind is tricking you into believing is really there, that gives the tracks a little more depth than you might have expected. Even periods where the beats disappear and you're just left with this somber wall of heavily distorted, mildly melodic picking seem greater than the sum of what's happening, and the album revels in its dreariness, never freeing you from its clutches, except perhaps the ambient finale of the first track which is subtle and beautiful. Les avatars du vide does suffer slightly from a dearth of variation, but considering it's an EP I'm more than willing to forgive that, especially since it might distract one from its very point. That said, should Blurr Thrower proceed to put out some more substantial full-length releases, a bit more dynamic range will be essential to capturing the audience's attention span. But this is for sure an effective start that makes good on such a limited set of sounds, and Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions continues to excel at signing and promoting such atmospheric countrymen.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

JT Ripper - Gathering of the Insane (2018)

JT Ripper seems at first glance like it's going to be one of those bands in which one of the members is called by the 'JT Ripper' namesake, and then everything else just sort of gravitates around his role in the band. So before even listening to a note of Gathering of the Insane, I already knew this JT Ripper cat was pretty goddamn cool, and that I wanted to hang out with him, at least as long as he could tolerate such an idiot. Looking a little further, that's not the case here, JT Ripper is obviously abbreviated for the serial killer of Whitechapel, and these Germans are just a trio of seasoned thrash metal tyrants by the names of Chris, Daniel and Steffen. However, any such disappointment becomes short-lived when you hear the filthy aggression these gentlemen scalpel out in generous, surgical portions.

They play a variety of hostile thrash/speed which hearkens back to the early nexus of metal extremity which would later splinter off into black, death and pure thrash metal. Bands like Possessed, Venom and earlier Bathory lent a lot of their DNA to the style here, but it happens to be a sub-genre that I never grow tired of, and JT Ripper have enough going on to keep me engaged throughout the whole 36 minute runtime. Frenzied tremolo-picking guitar passages channel their Teutonic forefathers into punishing patterns that fuel the constant momentum of the thundering drums, so if you were looking for your next contemporary fix of Sentence of Death, Endless Pain or Obsessed by Cruelty, it's safe to say they have you covered. The music is consistently intense for that style though, the beats so busy that it almost takes on a near war metal-vibe sans the monotonous, over-saturated riffing you might expect from that style. The bass is loud and pops right along to the guitars once they hit a mid-paced charge as they do in "Feast", while the hoarse, sustained growl vocals and some of the faster riff progressions are firmly entrenched in 80s death metal.

Production on the record is potent but raw, with clarity in the instruments that doesn't seep away from their genuine attempt at sounding like they belong around 30 years in the past. They don't sound quite so nasty in the mix as bands like Deathhammer, Exxxecutioner, or Obnoxious Youth, but I think the choice for a mightier, steadier tone really lends the record some strength, especially when they're at full thrust and some of those higher pitched, evil riffs break out. Though the band does occasionally dial down the tempo a bit, the vast majority of the material here is aimed at the higher speeds of the German originators, and I think this is one area in which JT Ripper could work on integrating a few more head-banging, mid-paced riff sequences that would really supplement the replay value of the whole package, but that's a little bit of nitpicking, as Gathering of the Insane is an album that worked for me right away, an entertaining sophomore that I'd gladly recommend to fans of any other band I've name-dropped above, or perhaps a Toxic Holocaust, Baphomet's Blood, Cruel Force, Desaster, or their I Hate label mates like Antichrist, Dreadful Fate, and Deathstorm.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]