Thursday, December 24, 2020


If you're looking for the full list of my top 100 metal albums for 2020, check over here at my Rate Your Music Page. There's also a backup list of another 100 albums that didn't quite make that cut, as well as my favorite EPs. Below is the tighter, more hierarchical list of top picks. This year, partly due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, I set out to challenge myself to sample as many demos and albums from around the world that I could find, and thus there were thousands that I checked out, even if just for a couple minutes. So my choices this year come from a more massive sample size than that I can honestly say I will never attempt again! Despite the chaos of 2020, it was a solid year across multiple sub-genres, anything from atmospheric black metal to traditional throwback heavy metal.

My Top 20 Metal Albums of 2020

01. Havukruunu (Fi) - Uinuos syömein sota (95)
02. Katla. (Is) - Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (93)
03. Sölicitör (US) - Spectral Devastation (93)
04. Atramentus (Ca) - Stygian (92)
05. Akhlys (US) - Melinoë (92)
06. Midnight (US) - Rebirth by Blasphemy (92)
07. Lantern (Fi) - Dimensions (92)
08. Magick Touch (No) - Heads Have Got to Rock 'n' Roll (90)
09. Malokopartan (Sk) - Krupinské ohne
10. Proscription (Fi) - Conduit (90)
11. Napalm Death (UK) - Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (90)
12. Stälker (NZ) - Black Majik Terror (90)
13. Vanik (US) - III (90)
14. Bütcher (Be) - 666 Goats Carry My Chariot (90)
15. Sólstafir (Is) - Endless Twilight of Codependent Love (90)
16. Chronus (Se) - Idols (90)
17. Ulthar (US) - Providence (90)
18. Serment (Ca) - Chante, ô flamme de la liberté (90)
19. Undeath (US) - Lesions of a Different Kind (90)
20. Hail Spirit Noir (Gr) - Eden in Reverse (90)

My Top 20 Metal EPs, Demos and Splits of 2020

01. Lychgate (UK) - Also Sprach Futura (90)
02. Morketida (Fi) - Traveler of the Untouched Voids (85)
03. Rabid Beast (US) - Rabid Beast (85)
04. Schizophrenia (Be) - Voices (83)
05. Ordinul Negru (Ro) - Nebuisa (82)
06. Obnoxious Youth (Fi) - Mouth Sewn Shut (82)
07. Feral Vision (US) - Symbols for the Other World (82)
08. Ihsahn (No) - Pharos (82)
09. Ihsahn (No) - Telemark (80)
10. Plague Mace (Dk) - Primal Priest (80)
11. Golden Blood (At) - Cum, Coke & Blasphemy (80)
12. Expunged (Ca) - Expunged (80)
13. Necrocarnation (Ar) - Fragments of Dark Eternity (80)
14. Departure Chandelier (Ca) - Dripping Papal Blood (80)
15. Maul (US) - Monarchy of Mold (80)
16. Hot Graves (US) - Haunted Graves (80)
17. The Passing (US) - The Passing (80)
18. Mortiferum (US)/Hyperdontia (Inter) - Split (80)
19. Cadaver (No) - D.G.A.F. (80)
20. Apallic Decay (De) - Return of the Unhallowed (80)

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Holiday Break


Taking my annual Holiday break throughout December. Year's end lists will be posted after the 25th, and I will return in January 2021 with new reviews. Going to put an emphasis on some heavy or power metal discographies next year! Thanks for stopping by as always.


Sunday, November 29, 2020

Enslaved - Utgard (2020)

When I heard the first few singles for this latest Enslaved album, "Homebound" and "Jettegryta", I was suitably impressed, and thought immediately that drummer Iver Sandøy was a cool addition to the roster, bringing them yet another avenue for the soaring clean vocals they like to measure off against Grutle's snarling, or the other cleans contributed by both Vinje and Kjellson. But it wasn't until I watched them perform the new album in its entirety on one of their COVID-19 quarantine live-streams, that the hooks really started to sink into me; that I started to feel that hypnotic draw which their signature blend of progressive elements and Viking black metal has long manifest since the turn of the century when their style truly began to expand. This is truly one of the best of the business, an outfit which can seamlessly integrate disparate ideas, never truly compromise, and continue to garner the respect of both their audience and metal media.

That's not to say that Utgard is some crowning milestone of their career, because at its heart it's not one of their more interesting in terms of its quantities of nuance or creativity. To be clear, there are things here that you might not have exactly heard before, like some of the approach to proggy jamming, a few of the vocal configurations with these three throats, or some of the more exotic lead guitar passages, but you're still hearing a lot of the familiar aesthetics that defined their last 7-8 albums, like the spacious Pink Floyd sections, or the wintry black metal surges dominant on discs like Isa and Ruun. Utgard is very smoothly mixed and mastered, and surprisingly, while it doesn't lack for the complexity or inaccessibility of its compositional structure, it's somewhat more accessible on its surface level than other recent efforts like In Times or E. I don't think it's far-fetched to say that Utgard is playing it safe to some degree, but even an Enslaved sticking to its last decades' worth of sounds has a massive sandbox of riffs and combinations to play around, and tracks like the rollicking prog metal bite of "Sequence", with the ambiance of the other instruments layered over the verses; or the synthy Hawkwind-esque space rock of "Urjotun" are welcome and refreshing additions to the Norwegians' canon.

Performances across the album are spotless, and as usual its a technical feast of rhythmic variety, all manner of psychedelic rock integrations, but still fully aware of the band's own roots...and you can hear plenty of faster Frost-like executions as well as a number of thundering riffs that hearken straight back to the Viking black metal source of Bathory's Blood, Fire, Death. Certainly I heard individual riffs on this one which almost played out like a catalogue of references to their other albums..."Flight of Thought and Memory" might have belonged on Vertebrae, while "Homebound" channels a little RIITIIR or Axioma Ethica Odini. It might not be as stunning or revelatory as the first time you heard them delving into these styles, but the fact remains that eight of the nine tracks on this are extremely well crafted, the one exception being the 2-minute interlude 'title track" which is merely warped, windy psychedelic ambient noise with some throbbing bass, electronics and sexy spoken word. The lyrics are great, the cover art has a proggy sort of symmetry to it plus Hugin and Munin, and I've probably already given this a good half dozen listens during the month of October when I'm usually putting all my listening priority on horror metal stuff...what does that tell you?

still rules. I'm not surprised, you're not surprised, and Utgard isn't surprising, but in hands as capable as these that becomes the diametric opposite of a flaw.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Sad - Misty Breath of Ancient Forests (2020)

Sad is an unsung, relatively long-standing act in the Greek black metal community which might be dubbed as 'dependable', truly committed to the most fundamental aesthetics of their genre but never really manifesting anything truly impressive or unique, nor anything that really drags the bottom of the well. Albums like Devouring the Divine and A Curse in Disguise are textbook cases of the medium, with nasty rasped vocals and nihilistic energy that is derived from the European forebears and iconoclasts like Mayhem and Darkthrone. They don't have a terribly Hellenic feel or sound to them, although I'd say a few melodic parallels might be drawn towards the more sinister Rotting Christ or Varathron material.

Misty Breath of Ancient Forests is the duo's sixth proper full-length installment, and while it might be considered more of the same, I'd say this was easily the band's best produced record to date, and also cultivates a consistent melodic might to it that should sate purists. I was immediately taken in by the muted, murky artwork and just how well the musical content lives up to that. You're clearly thrust into the role of some corpse-painted barbarian scouring the ancient boreal landscapes of sound, wrestling with other predators to the unending glorious melodies that spew out of Ungod's strings. The vocals are standard for the genre, but definitely get crazy and suicidal enough sounding to compete with the incessant momentum of the music, and you might get a grunt to back up all the snarling. There can be a bit of a monotonous nature to the song structures...they cycle through a good number of riffs, and few that disappoint, but often the blast parts can grow a little weary, where if they had just thrown in an added break or simpler, slower transition a lot of this could come across far more sick and effective, especially when you're juggling 6-9 minute tracks.

Just listen to when they curb the speed a bit in "White Death" and you get those really great sounding melodies to the surging chords, or the saddening guitar strings that ring out over the roiling bass drums of "Hades Gazing". These aren't a huge deviation from the main thrust, but they hint that Sad could benefit from even more versatility in tempo and riff selection. But that's the only major gripe I can say about Misty Breath of Ancient Forests, because it sure as hell is well-assembled, and if you're a fan of classics like Transilvanian Forest which could also be pointed at for its too-persistent pacing, despite it being a masterpiece, then I don't think this one will bother you. A bit overlong, especially without some more breaks, segues, or varied tempos, but with ease this is one of Sad's better outings.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, November 23, 2020

Outrage - Run Riot (2020)

Outrage could safely be considered an institution of Japanese thrash metal, with almost 35 years of experience and recordings behind them, no massive gaps between releases, no sizeable breaks of any sort, very little if any deviation from their chosen path; yet they've gone virtually unnoticed in the rest of the world beyond the microscopic (but always increasing) niche of metalhead Japanophiles. Even then, this is not a band that fits into any of the major trends of their own country's metal scene writ large...they're not visual kei artists, they're not playing the blistering, trendy symphonic power metal nor are they a mashup of extreme groove metal and some idol group. I can recall a day when I'd read mention of them as a 'next Metallica', probably around their old albums like Black Clouds and Blind to Reality, back in some old metal or skater rag, but as with most such predictions and appraisals, it turns out only Metallica was the next Metallica...

That's fine, because Outrage is still pretty good, and Run Riot, their 14th full-length effort, doe just what its title advertises, a molten hybrid of thrash and speed metal aesthetics which doesn't sound like the band members have aged a day since that late 80s era. If you're looking for complex song structures or nuanced riffs, this is not exactly the band for you, but if you want simple, predictable, catchy energy drenched in wild lead guitars and charismatic barking thrash/hardcore vocals, that's all here. Noaki Hashimoto, who has fronted the band for most of its career, has a nice timbre which ranges from mid-ranged grit to a higher scream, and although his accent does naturally mold his delivery, the lyrics are hammered out clearly and don't delve into Engrish. He's often got some solid gang shouts backing him up and ultimately they get a broader selection of vocal weapons than you'd expect from the style. The guitars are a mesh of pure old blitzkrieg US thrash circa 80s Metallica, and bluesier speed/heavy metal which would make Lemmy and company blush; naturally this might create a split identity for the band, but somehow the strong studio mix and the vocals hold it all together into one unified, fist flailing brawl with cuts like "Cyclops" and the hilarious titled "Supernaturally Outlaw of the Cosmic Void" providing ear candy for anyone who likes their thrash metal straightforward and effective.

If they have any faults, it's only that they can occasionally get a little overly silly like "Science Spirit Hits" which is more like Butthole Surfers style rock & roll, but even that is catchy here, and I rather like how the effects on his vocals kind of evolve as he gets angrier, and it's some mean driving music either way. Surely there's nothing present on Run Riot that would surprise anyone that had heard the band's music before, only that the band hasn't had a wider reach. It's not like they do anything more crazy or special than other, comparable bands, but from front to back this is just a fun album with enough versatility that it never gets boring across the 44 minutes and change. I usually check out all the band's albums as they arrive, because I've always had a fondness for the veteran Japanese bands like this one, or Loudness, or Anthem, and I'd have to say this is one of the best they've come out since their first three. It's about as un-pretentious as it gets, and there aren't a lot of unique riffs that will stick out for long, but it's perfect for your Corvette cruises, or at least the dreams you have of having them.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, November 20, 2020

Death Angel - Under Pressure EP (2020)

I have almost no interest whatsoever in acoustic recordings from metal bands. There, I said it. It's not that I harbor a particular disdain for the style; I can recall fiddling with a 12-string around a beach fire with some friends and having a blast. I don't mind the instrument being used for a shimmery or melancholic interlude, or an intro, or even being tastefully woven into some epic with the electric instruments, but I was never an Unplugged fan, and only once in awhile did I appreciate the nuance brought to a track when it's spun off into an acoustic version. Plug in and thrash my face off. When I saw there was a new Death Angel EP out, and they were covering the Queen/David Bowie hit "Under Pressure" as its center piece, I thought it'd be cool for a listen, but the prospect of four acoustic tunes, one of which is a new version of a song that was ALREADY an acoustic track (in part), the mercury was hardly busting out the head of my thermometer.

To be fair, the thrashers' acoustic rendition of the title track with the multiple vocals is enthusiastic, in no way something I'm going to ever steer towards over the original, but it's clear they put a lot of effort and emotion into it, and despite a little excess silliness balancing these vocals against Mercury and Bowie, it is the strongest tune of the four here. "Faded Remains", an original, is an attempt at a Death Angel country or folk cut that falls fairly short, it really just never hits that catchiness that it's striving for, and I found it a bit monotonous even with the solid backup harmonies and a decent performance from Mark Osegueda which if nothing else proves he's more than capable of handling the style. The new version of "A Room with a View" might sound fun sitting on the porch in the shade, watching the breeze stir the trees, but it never picks up with the 'oomph' of the original and thus doesn't exactly justify it's inclusion. Probably the greatest departure is "Revelation Song", being rendered down from its heavier version on Humanicide, and interestingly they keep it fairly aggressive, harsh and bluesy despite using the acoustic guitars, and I'd have to say this was the only other track besides "Under Pressure" that I thought was alright.

Ultimately, even as a fan who enjoys a number of the Death Angel records, I wasn't too thrilled by what Osequeda and Rob Cavestany put together here. It's pretty bland visually and aurally, though the execution of the guitars and vocals is adequate; it's not their first rodeo with these chiller vibes. I look at it this way: just a harmless, short filler release for themselves (and whatever fans might be interested), and it's better to get this idea out of the way and focus on keeping the thrash train on the tracks. In times like we're all having lately this sort of sentimental offering will surely reach some sympathetic ears, but I maintain that I simply don't think it's all that compelling a direction for this band to delve into much further. Not garbage by any means, but neither is it that inspiring. Let's break out those copies of that magnificent 1987 debut. "Voracious Souls", "Mistress of Pain", "Evil Priest". Where should you go from there? Channel those sinister teens within.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Inherit Disease - Ephemeral (2016)

Signs your artwork might be better than your music: when you've got some sort of scaly, multi-headed slug-creature, or plural slug-things, with some human victim or patient that looks like its jacked into your squamous bio-matrix. Honestly I have no fucking idea what is going on with the cover of Ephemeral, but I know that it's awesome. That's not to say this third Inherit Disease full-length doesn't have other qualities to recommend it. In fact, if you enjoyed their fairly kickass sophomore Visceral Transcendence from 2010, you'll probably find plenty to like about this one as well. Hailing from that wave of Californian tech death acts that have been legion in the 21st century, these guys manage to scratch the itch you'd have for brutal, agile death metal in the vein of a Suffocation but without coming off too wanky or obnoxious.

This is just a rhythmic stew of bricklaying double bass, blasting, chugging and guttural fortitude which tries to lay claim to the suffocation and hopelessness of that cover artwork, and it does a pretty good job of placing you within a punishing labyrinth with absolutely no hope in sight. Sure, if broken down on a molecular level, the riff progressions from the Inherit Disease repertoire don't come across as very unique or distinct against such a wide landscape of similar acts, but they've got enough dynamic business going on at any one given time that I kept just on the edge of my seat. A palm mute might chug just one more time than I expect, or a blasted sequence might cut out into a roiling groove, or they might just squeeze in enough evil, clinical notes into that next tremolo picked segment that the brutal death maven which feasts upon my inner child perks up just enough to pay attention, which is always my worry when dealing with all these acts on labels like Unique Leader, Inherited Suffering, Pathologically Explicit, New Standard Elite, etc. Great at putting together products and expanding their rosters with acts that fit the bill, but sometimes a little too much.

Inherit Disease has a well-balanced attack, familiar but occasionally also offering up a little mystery about where they're going next, like in the closing track "Drone" and its dissonant, depressive note selection that pairs up well with the blasting intensity. The lyrics are a lot of fun to read through, and the production is fluid and clean without being too plastic or fake sounding. Definitely a band that should impress fans of groups like Deeds of Flesh, Severed Savior, Insidious Decrepancy, or other acts that have this comparable array of weaponry...who might not entirely shake off the shackles of their brutal tech/death niche and the facelessness it can create, but are clearly striving for something when they sit at the kit and amps to formulate their concepts. Ephemeral is maybe a fraction less appealing to me than its predecessor, but the band is no joke if you like those machine gun sounding muted riffs that whip up an uncaring, rapid, cold, otherworldly oblivion beneath the surface of all you hold warm and dear.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Xentrix - Bury the Pain (2019)

Xentrix was a competent if unexceptional British thrash band that, after two worthwhile albums and a goofy cover of the Ghostbusters theme, quickly fell victim to the 90s, when their subgenre dissolved in the face of grunge and death and black extremtiy. That's not to say that they gave up the fight, but the albums they produced after that were really generic and increasingly dumbed down without the catchier tracks like "Balance of Power" or "Questions" to guide them. Some 17 years after Scourge, they decided to get back together for real, and now we're seeing the fruits of that reunion in Bury the Pain, an album that is probably the best at capturing the style of the debut Shattered Existence and thrusting that into the 21st century with the expected louder and cleaner production values that will help modernize them with the current darlings of the era circa Warbringer, Evile, and their ilk.

There is no argument at all that this is about the purest thrash you're going to find, taking that heavy Bay Area/West Coast influence of the 80s and laying it out straight to the table. Choppy, propulsive riffs that all sound as if they've been paraphrased from the Testament backlog with a heavy helping of Master of Puppets. Solidly structured, with your normal verse/chorus builds but some decent riffs in the bridges, including a couple that have a slightly more clinical feel. The leads are all placed perfectly well but aren't terribly memorable, and the rhythm section here operates in perfect lockstep to provide what is on paper a flawless execution of the material. The biggest change to some might be the new vocalist/guitarist Jay Walsh, but to his credit he actually does a good job in emulating the original Chris Astley who has done various stings with the band. His timbre is slightly deeper, but possesses that same sort of grainy vibe, which also reminds me a hell of a lot of some of Steev Esquivel's stuff in Defiance, a band that is also quite a good comparison to Xentrix in general, as they were both sort of second stringers of the 80s thrash medium that had potential but very little originality...Aussies Mortal Sin also fell into this subset.

On a technical level I think this album is fine, but it does suffer a little bit from sounding uninspired, much like the modernized albums of their countrymen Onslaught. Bury the Pain is more melodic and catchy than some of that group's latest studio outings, but they both lack an element of personality which comes as a symptom of just how straightforward and structured they feel. Don't get me wrong, if you're just looking for an album that gives you the feel of a Shattered Existence, Face of Despair or Practice What You Preach, then Bury the Pain is more than serviceable. I think it's a far superior beast to either Kin or Scourge, but I think the album could really use some more blistering fast sequences or choruses that don't all feel the same. It just passes muster. It's almost like Xentrix is committing to be the best average thrash band they can be, and even if I found myself banging head to "The Red Mist Descends" or "Let the World Burn", they just didn't have the sorts of riff variety and qualities that will make them stand out to me long after. Now that they're back, and have successfully gotten back to the point that they were at in 1989, I'd like to hear a longer reach with more interesting songs that can reach outside the safety zone without sinking into the mediocrity of their post-1990 run.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Six Feet Under - Nightmares of the Decomposed (2020)

Like most of you folks, I heard the first (or one of the first) singles off this record, "Zodiac", and was immediately taken aback at how poorly Chris Barnes' vocals sounded, and over such a miserable selection of riffs that shouldn't have made it past the band's own quality control despite the wealth of mediocrity they've produced since the 90s and his split with Cannibal Corpse. Now, how it got past Brian Slagel is a mystery we might never have answered, I'd like to think he stares at himself in the mirror and repeats, over and over, like a mantra 'It was only for the money...just the money." When I got around to finally listening to Nightmares of the Decomposed in its entirety, I was somewhat relieved that not all the material was quite so pathetic, at least on the riffing front. The cover art is pretty cheesy, but in a fun way it almost reminds me of something Primus might have done 25-30 years ago if they had been writing death metal instead of alterna-funk.

I think the main issue with this 17th (unbelievable!) studio effort is that we're clearly experiencing the nadir of Chris's throat-ational ability. Not like I was ever truly impressed by it, I'm more of a George Corpsegrinder guy, but clearly his presence was a huge factor on the success of those early Cannibal Corpse records and bringing a lot of fans into the genre. Here his throat sounds like it's decayed, or maybe congested from smoking too much of the good stuff that he's always been vocal about. Whether you put some kind of filter on that or not, it's quite obvious this is the worst album he's ever recorded with that particular instrument, and a huge setback. Whether it's something he can bounce back from or not we'll see, it wouldn't be the first time Six Feet Under has surprised me, like that time in 2012 when they actually wrote a really fun album called Undead.  But even when he sounds the most 'normal' here, the vox are truly lacking behind even the laziest riff selections that populate tunes like "Zodiac" and "Death Will Follow" with their humdrum groove metal and chugging.

On the other hand, tracks like the opener "Amputator" have a springy, evil old school selection of rhythm guitars which, with a better vocal performance, might have been pretty juicy. Jack Owen and Ray Suhy manage to keep it together, and it's even got an exciting lead. "Blood of the Zombie", a track which relies heavy on its creepy muting patterns, is also passable, and "Self Imposed Death Sentence" and "Dead Girls Don't Scream" also have some potential, with a few points where his vocals are almost at their usual painstakingly average. Wherever this album gets slower and groovier, it gets extremely dull, almost like they couldn't spend 10 minutes writing these fucking songs and just laid out the first patterns that came into mind. There are also a few inconsistencies with the mix on some of the songs where some sound to me a little thinner than others, and it overall lacks a level of polish to to the mix which might have smoothed out the reaction. Overall, there might be 3-4 tunes here that, with better production and entirely different vocals, could have passed for a reasonable death metal EP.

But let's be frank: since the anomalous, uncharacteristic Undead, 6FU's trajectory has been steadily downward. It took a few records to stink just like the old days, but once they dropped that Unburied EP in 2018, which was just chaff from the Undead and Unborn sessions, you could kind of tell that they back to the same old string of garbage that defined the band from around 1997-2010. Nightmares of the Decomposed feels like they were rolling down this slope and then just plummeted off a steep decline, an album worthy of trash like Warpath, Bringer of Blood and TRVE Carnage, another nail in the coffin of one of the most unshakeable, overrated musicians this genre has ever known. I think Chris himself sums it up best with the lyrics to track #8, if you'd like to do some digging yourself.

Verdict: Fail [3/10]

Sunday, November 8, 2020

In Cauda Venenum - G.O.H.E. (2020)

In Cauda Venenum is a French group that focuses heavily on creating swollen soundscapes which incorporate black metal, post-black leanings, and a cello into something sweeping and dramatic, with the intention that the listeners grow ever immersed and lost in its reveries of harsh but alluring sound. The last time I encountered them was their rendition of Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks piece "Laura Palmer's Theme" which they put out on a 3-way split some years ago, but the structure to this new album G.O.H.E. much resembles their s/t debut from 2015, with two tracks clocking in at over 21 minutes length. This is a LOT of space to fill with something captivating, and while this sophomore does have a few moments of elevation, I'm not sure the bulk of the material really ekes out its existence in the most memorable of manners.

It's certainly a classy vibe with the chords thundering forth and the cello strings gliding above them, or the pianos, and they do a fantastic job of making that all feel so natural within the parameters of their style. Where I felt it fell behind was in the riffing selection...these all flow well enough, but they just never stick individually, so it's the sort of album which I could only appreciate on an atmospheric level. The drums do shift things up, and there are some nice segues here which balance off the instruments and seem to set up the next wall of sound for the post-black riffage, but the music never seems to climax quite enough with its choice in melodies, so it always seems like it's a swell of incidental music from some modern art film, just enough of a chord change to set a mood but without the visuals you'd see on a screen it doesn't really dazzle that much. The murky rasping vocals are executed well enough, and I believe they are sometimes doubled up which creates this creepy, fulfilling presence, but this also could have benefited from a stronger set of riffs below it.

The two tracks do have plenty of similarities, although the second, "Délivrance" centers more on a doomed, crawling gate and a slightly more interesting riff-set, plus a nice swerve into pure neo-classical terrain which I thought was one of the more heartening points on the whole record. Still, though, both sides feel heavily bloated; without the fascinating twists and turns required to create a compelling narrative structure, I felt like I was just listening to two halves of a very level plain, without any real secrets hidden upon it. Soothing occasionally on the surface level, but without the hypnotizing depths that I need to fix my attention. I dig the esoteric style, and there's nothing wrong with this as sheer mood music, but I'd love to hear them with a more engaging attack, perhaps more ferocity from the black metal influences and higher highlights of grace with the cello and melodies.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Iron Angel - Emerald Eyes (2020)

It's got to be difficult when you're responsible for a great cult record like 1985's Hellish Crossfire and then for over 30 years that same lightning just doesn't strike again. Granted, Germany's Iron Angel wasn't present for half of that time, but despite never putting out a bad full-length, they don't seem to have taken the metal world by storm the way that they had been poised to back in that fabled 80s era. Hellbound from a couple years ago showed a lot of promise, and I listened to that for a few months, but it was soon drowned out in the usual deluge of other bands putting their own stamp on the veterans' sounds, a pool that continues to spill ever outward as the younger generations of metal fanatics tap into those old veins and evade the glossier tech and bore-core of modernity.

Emerald Eyes is an attractive looking new album, and there is no question that the band's energy has not at all been sapped through all the years, with Dirk taking the helm over his younger cast of bandmates and unleashing an admirable and authentically-German sounding blend of power/thrash metal which is as loyal to Hellish Crossfire and Winds of War as you'd hope, but dialed up to current standards with a mix that sounds fresher but never artificial. I'd say the album sounds like a happy medium between Running Wild and Destruction; you've got a lot of those pounding, pumping heavy metal rhythms carrying a bunch of the tunes, and Dirk's voice actually reminds me a lot of Rolf Kasparek here, especially with the reverb that carries his bark out over the charging instruments and the airy backup vocals. And on the other hand, they slice up a few more clinical thrash riffs and toss them in there to keep it interesting and just a bit bloodier than you might expect. I was impressed by the sheer velocity of the track-list, I think this thing goes about six tracks before ever really slowing down, with tunes like "Sacred Slaughter", "Descend" and "What We're Living For" being some of my faves that they've written since the debut!

When it does finally reach that more measured pace, it's still a neck-strainer packed with riffs and charisma that will charm the leather off all the most die-hard 80s enthusiasts. Chances are, if you've got a wall full of records from the back catalogues of Noise, Roadracer and Steamhammer then this one is going to jerk upon the heartstrings or your nostalgia until you may require defibrillation. Good leads, solid drumming, a nice production that channels the age of its style, and a largely fast and furious selection of tracks that make me feel like I'm twelve old all over again, scrounging around with lunch and paper route money for whatever . No, Emerald Eyes doesn't contain a selection of timeless tracks that are likely to weather the next 35 years, but it's about as good as you'd expect for a reunion era band that never quite hit the level of the major German power metal or Big Four thrash acts, and I'd say this one overall nudges past Hellbound a little in quality, making it the best Iron Angel since "The Metallian" years. Iron Angel is STILL worth our time, ladies and gentlemen. Support!

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 2, 2020

Griffon - Ὸ θεὀς ὸ βασιλεὐς (2020)

Another group ascending to the top tiers of modern French black metal acts, Griffon has in a few years and a couple of albums refined itself into a blazing balancing scale of savagery and atmosphere which it makes sound positively effortless. The Greek title and themes give it a sort of innate 'thinking man's' aesthetics, but I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that this is any way overly flashy or technical or 'progressive' for its style...we've heard the components to this a myriad of times, but the reason this band stands out is how perfectly it aligns the blackened high velocity riffing and rasping with the elegant symphonics woven in and around the metal, narration and creepier or calm passages which feel like the polar opposite of when they lay on the fast and fury.

Part of this is the seamless production, which is leveling out everything from the spacious choirs, French spoken word, pianos, strings, sparkling leads and harmonies, and then the over the top rasps of Aharon which transcend their own hideousness as a sort of cradle of primacy from which the more elegant tones bloom. There's a lot of melancholy and somber grace which carry the moods of the note choices, there isn't much of an evil vibe to the material so much as there is a sort of searing paean to the tragedies of antiquity. The guitars are rich with riffing of all styles, from black tremolo picking to more punchy power or progressive metal sequences; and you could even feel that they'd entertain regardless of whether all the other elements of the band's orchestration were absent other than the intense drumming and vocals. But neither does it hurt the material whatsoever that it is so saturated with the airiness of the symphonics which are often complimenting the guitars on a note-for-note basis.

The album feels just right at around 40 minutes, with only one track that is pure interlude (" Praetera Nihil"), and even that one feels lush with its fluttering flutes and eerie, somber male choirs. Nothing ever feels tacky or overblown despite the sheer variety, and I'd say this might be the greatest attempt at a sort of 'neo-classicist' black metal I've heard on the French scenes. Where they've got their avant-garde exemplars and a strong wave of Renaissance or Medieval themed black metal outfits, and a few that check the boxes for other sub-strains of the genre, Griffon sounds rather refreshing and unique, and when it comes to proficiency and production they really have it all down pat on what is only their sophomore full-length, with much more to offer than 2016's Har HaKarmel, which was on its own already a fairly accomplished formidable debut, and sets up the material here even with its slightly less polished approach. But Ὸ θεὀς ὸ βασιλεὐς is simply next level, and offers earned rewards with each repeated listen, with enough of an identity that it stands alongside but apart the major names in symphonic European black metal.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Friday, October 30, 2020

Cradle of Filth - Midian (2000)

Midian was the second album in a row where I felt Cradle was dropping the smutty Gothic vampire Wordsworth mentality to explore some more compelling concepts that fit their musical style pretty well. I'm not saying that there isn't still a bit of that libertine sizzle in there, or that the delivery of the lyrics or the instruments had changed terribly much from efforts like Dusk and Her Embrace or Cruelty and the Beast, but I can't think of many bands that, from their inception, were pretty much destined to pay tribute to their countryman writer Clive Barker than this one. If the album title didn't give it away, he was a huge influence on this, with a healthy helping of Lovecraft for good measure. The cover artwork on this might not be their sexiest or highest quality photography; the creature looks a little cheesy as does the figure up in the purple clouds, but at least it has some detail to it and a nice color scheme that differentiated it from their others, with their awesome logo just at home as on any other of their releases.

What isn't in any question for me is the quality of the writing here, because SPOILER ALERT, Midian is my favorite album of their nearly three-decade career to date. The compositions are rich in variety, with a salvo of riffs in every track that instantly stamped me as memorable. This also has to be one of their best incorporations of pianos, synthesizers and ethereal female vocals that work in lockstep with the metal instruments, never coming across quite like a gimmick but rather a stew of components that would seem mandatory to create such a paean to the horror material which inspired them. I think the production also holds up quite well, especially at higher volumes, despite everything going on I can hear all the little guitar zips, every percussive strike, all the panoply of schizoid Dani Filth vocals and the numerous guest vocalists like Sarah Jezebel Deva and Mika Lindberg. Having Pinhead himself narrate on three of the tracks could have proven goofy if handled incorrectly, but instead he gives us a tone like the deepest lines of his iconic Cenobite and it blends right in. And while Cradle of Filth by this period was already a target of mockery for the black metal gatekeepers, before they seemed to magically reclaim acceptance in the late 'Oughts, Midian was sure as shit more creepy and evil sounding than a lot of the other bland purist third wave black metal spewing forth from Europe and the States by the turn of the century.

But it's the SONGs, the songs that draw me back to this one time and time again, and I've made it a habit that I listen to this one every October, a staple to go alongside the first five King Diamond discs, the first two Danzigs, Keeper of the Seven Keys, you know the drill. It's a perfect haunted house sort of sound, only more like a haunted labyrinth with unknowable Escher-like dimensions. "Her Ghost in the Fog" is one of top Cradle tracks, with its snake-charmer rhythms that range between warm and chilling, excellent flow of keyboards and some of the best Dani vocals ever which maniacally shift between throaty whispers, petulant sneers and guttural shadows. "Cthulhu Dawn" is one of their most impressive, charging nocturnal black metal pieces with great tremolo guitar lines and an almost weirdly Wagnerian vibe to the synthesizers, plus some of the more spooky female vocal harmonies they've ever used behind the surging verses which still have Filth plastered all over them. When it breaks into that high speed organ bit and the guitar melodies burn back in I swear I felt like I was in a tryst with with Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee simultaneously. There is no track I would toss out of this..."Death Magick for Adepts", the more brutal "Lord Abortion", the thundering "Tortured Soul Asylum", even the purely instrumental synth piece "Creatures That Kissed in Cold Mirrors" is fucking Tales of the Crypt-level wonderful.

That the lyrics absolutely rule is no surprise, that's been the case for almost everything they've put out, even their most mediocre records like Midian's followup Damnation and a Day can be fun to read through; Filth puts more thought and time into composing these than almost anyone in the entire genre, and even if the guy could be teased for having the presence of a Gremlin tearing up the display shelves at a Hot Topic, I would probably just buy books of his lyrics alone, even if no songs were written to accompany them. A Byron to counter the twerk generation, as fluent in penny dreadfuls and occult lexicons as he is those most acclaimed Major British Dead Guys. Midian really puts the third-time charm in their most pivotal streak of records beginning with Dusk and Her Embrace, and for the life of me, even though I've enjoyed their last decade or so of albums from Godspeed to Cryptoriana, I can't tell you with a straight face that they've ever surpassed or progressed beyond what is written here. All mere permutations on peak Filth, platitudes for the appreciators of their perverse pantomimes. Jesus, now I'm beginning to sound a lot like this motherfucker, put a stake in me.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (Dawn discovered her there)

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Deceased - Behind the Mourner's Veil EP (2001)

King Fowley and Deceased are no strangers to paying tribute to the influences that got them where they are, and on numerous occasions released entire albums with a considerable number of cover tunes. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if, by this time, they had recorded more covers than origins...between Zombie Hymns (2002), Rotten to the Core (2004) and the most recent Rotten to the Core Part 2: The Nightmare Continues (2020). The earliest I had heard from them was probably the "Voivod" cover from The 13th Frightened Souls EP, and then this little EP Behind the Mourner's Veil which was cool as it mixed exclusive new tracks with a handful of covers from recognizable names like D.R.I., Tankard, and Anthrax, which wouldn't surprise anyone as sources of inspiration for the horror death/thrashers whose aesthetics have always been so mired in the rougher, filthier aggressive metal of the 80s.

The new tunes are ragers, although I can understand why the band felt they'd probably be better spent here than on one of the full-length records like Supernatural Addiction or As the Weird Travel On. "It's Alive" and "The Mausoleum" both contain many of the band's hallmarks, charging thrash/speed metal laden with traditional heavy metal melodies and an occasional foray into the faster elements of primordial death, in particular with King's vocals. They're well-developed headbanger tracks, not as righteously catchy as some of the material on the couple proper albums before them, but certainly enough to help tide one over for the next. More dynamic would be the 10 minute closer "Victims of the Masterplan" which is lyrically based on the West Memphis Three saga, and divided into a 4-part metallic narrative which for me had most of the best original riffs on the EP and a bit more of a dynamic spread than the openers. Especially I liked the moody breakdown with the samples which really kind of put this all into perspective, I mean that was a horrifying fucking situation for the victims and also for the accused, one that I don't think we've collectively shaken off as Americans. Child killings are traumatizing for me, but Deceased actually tackle this with an inquisitive respect, even at the risk of creating an unbalanced tone against the sillier originals and covers.

The covers themselves are decent, but a tune like Tankard's "Zombie Attack" is so great to begin with that it's difficult to live up to. King and crew make it even more murky sounding and throw on some more death metal growls, but otherwise play it fairly straightforward. "Reaganomics" is over in a flash of course so something like this pick is more to score a few points. On the other hand, I actually really dug their version of Anthrax' "Deathriders", in fact I might listen to it more than the original, this more aggressive style suits the riffing and lyrics well, although they still throw a few screams in there too. Same with their version of "New Age of Total Warfare" from British speed/thrashers Warfare, I'd probably reach for this before the original, it just sounds that awesome. All told though, you're getting almost a half-hour of material here, cool cover art, and really their best release while you waited it out in the 5-year stretch between Supernatural Addiction and As the Weird Travel On. Not as formidable as most of their full-length albums but some quality fan service nonetheless.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Ozzy Osbourne - Bark at the Moon (1983)

It's as much of a tradition for me to break out the first five Ozzy albums every Halloween season as it is to bust out my collection of King Diamond, Mercyful Fate, Deceased, Rob Zombie and other champions of the metal macabre. Not that Osbourne uses the horror genre as a particular focus in most of his lyrics, but clearly his feats of stage legend back in the prime of his solo career were focused around the shock-rock variety, and the cover art and aesthetics of a number of the songs clearly fit into the creepy category. Now, I'm a fan of the Randy Rhoads era just like the next guy. Like most of you, I thought he was a talent cut down well before his prime, and would have loved to hear what he could come up with through an extended career. But having said that, I've always been drawn more to the material Osbourne wrote with his next two guitarists, Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde, at least up until Zakk's debut on No Rest for the Wicked, which, perhaps heretically, is my favorite of his solo efforts. But if I were to hand out a silver medal it would be a tough choice between tidier, accessible The Ultimate Sin and this 1983 effort Bark at the Moon.

You really can't go wrong with any of his material during that 80s era, in which he firmly established that he'd be able to succeed outside of the Black Sabbath camp, bringing his familiar vocal style to a more contemporary set of metal and hard rock tracks which were arguably more arena-ready than his unshakeable alma mater. When I look at the lineup he had on this particular album, there was almost no chance I wasn't going to like it. Lee's six-stringing talent ranged from slick, explosive speed/heavy metal licks as in the title track or "Rock 'n' Roll Rebel" to the more caged, dramatic, bluesy feel he'd incorporate into a piece like "You're No Different" where he's almost playing second fiddle to Don Airey's keyboards. It doesn't hurt that Airey himself is a legend whose loaned out his talents to more memorable bands than you could count, or that Ozzy also had another rock god Tommy Aldridge on the drums, or Bob Daisley, formerly of fucking Rainbow (among others) on the bass. This record came armed and ready, and for my money, despite the tragedy of Rhoads' passing and the other troubles the band had gone through since the 1981 sophomore Diary of a Madman, it totally delivered on its promise.

The title track is probably in my top 3-5 of the Ozzy solo career, with ease, Lee's tasty playing leading the way for some of Osbourne's great verses. I mean once the Prince of Darkness cackles  after that first chorus, if you weren't into this well... Other highlights here included "You're No Different" with its woozy, epic pace and super 80s proggy key pads, or tunes like "Centre of Eternity" and "Rock 'n' Roll Rebel" which were just awesome as hell heavy metal for a 9 year old to experience on his dingy old record player. I absolutely LOVED Jake's tone, it was just such a  commanding and dominant force alongside Ozzy's voice, and you can clearly hear how it set up a lot of what Zakk would emulate a couple albums later, with the exciting, expressive squeals or flash put into every riff. "So Tired" is probably my least favorite cut on the disc, but even then it's definitely a catchy, dramatic big band style of ballad which channels Elton John or the Beatles and I can't say I ever feel I need to skip it when I'm playing through the album. And right after that he rights the ship immediately another cool pair of harder cuts, "Waiting for Darkness" a nice foreshadow for the sound on The Ultimate Sin.

Everything on this album sounds wonderful to me almost 40 years later, and I even appreciate some of the cheesier sounding synth lines which are unquestionably its most dated aspect. The lyrics are great, a few keyed in to the horror genre, but they were especially impressive to the younger me, and the cover photograph of the shaggy Ozz-wolf just perfectly captures this time and this content: we're going to be heavy, we're going to get dark, but we're going to have fun. And I did. And I'm still doing just that.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (living in a lunar spell)

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Burial Ground/Grave Wax/Severed Limbs/Crospy Maniac - Four Paths to Horror (2015)

Four Paths to Horror is a 12 track split CD featuring four bands, three of which are projects from prolific death metal gurus Kam Lee, Rogga Johansson and Patrick Bruss, who combined must make up a not insignificant portion of death metal releases these last two decades. The idea of course is that all of these groups have a heavy lyrical bent on the horror genre, something that can probably also be said for the wealth of that trio's constituent bands. That is truly the connecting ligament on this release, because individual, while there are comparable traits between the acts, they often approach their genre with different production values and songwriting quality, and while that's not always an unwelcome factor on a split recording, it sometimes works to the detriment here because the level of professionalism seems highly inconsistent.

First off you have Americans Cropsy Maniac blasting through four tracks and six minutes of Carcass spawned deathgrind, starting off with some samples to their namesake slasher and then just bludgeoning you at high capacity with only a few hints at tossing in some background guitar melody or something that could actually make the tunes mildly more interesting. It doesn't quite work, and though I could say these guys are the most energetic on the split, they also gave me the least return. Belgium's Burial Ground, a group that has existed almost entirely on the demo/split level thus far, dishes up some crude but evil old school death metal that I thought was quite cool, almost like a mix of Autopsy's raw and grotesque punk-death form and the more structural Germans Morgoth on their earlier recordings. The riffs didn't always stick with me so well, but I can at least say I experienced some fond flashbacks for that late 80s/early 90s era, they had some curious quirks like a loud bass tone and even some narrative on their paean to "Last House on the Left". Fans of old Autopsy, Asphyx, and the like might wanna track them down, I believe they've got a compilation out that might have all their split material.

Even uglier is Kam Lee's Grave Wax, who have an even cruder and uglier style than anyone else on the split, and though Lee's vocal effects are cranked up to almost caricature level, these tunes were also quite fun, almost as if you were listening to them live but Lee was too high on the mixing board thanks to some zealous dweeb sound guy that wanted to fuck with the knobs. However, just like Burial Ground, these are actually fun, especially "Transmuting Techno-Terror". Ugly, inspired, no fucks given death metal. And bringing up the tail end of the recording are two tracks from Rogga Johansson's Severed Limbs, a decent project with a chunkier Swedish sound, although not just an emulation of Entombed or Dismember, but a more American style to the riffs, simply dowsed in that familiar production. These are two of the stronger cuts on the whole thing, and like his album Sores Galore that I reviewed earlier in the year, if you dig his other groups like Paganizer or Revolting you are likely gonna enjoy this stuff also. It's not a project he puts much importance in but certainly a worthy one.

In all honesty, I would have dug the Grave Wax, Burial Ground and Severed Limbs contributions as their own individual mCD/EP releases, or at least maybe just a 2-way split from the first two. Cropsy Maniac's inclusion here felt a bit stylistically disparate from the others beyond also belonging to the death metal genre in some way or form, you might have more fun checking out one of their own recordings; and the production across the bands lends to an uneven sort of experience, which I'm not terribly fond of on split recordings, but if you love all the piling on of the retro death metal these last decades then I think there are certainly enough highlights that it just squeaks by on the quality meter.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Sulphur Aeon - Gateway to the Antisphere (2015)

As fond as I've grown for the older school death metal aesthetics that initially won me over to the genre in the 80s, and the acts that today continue to refine and redux those specific traits, there's something to be said for a band that doesn't strictly rest on the laurels of its genre. Sulphur Aeon is one such band, and within the span of a single decade has risen to stand alongside groups with three times the lifespan behind them; a new bastion of production, professionalism, and style which has become a thing unto itself. That's not to say you can't trace individual components of the Germans' sound back to some of the usual suspects, but it's how they intertwine elements of classic and brutal death metal, black metal, and even melodic death into a daunting, unified whole that gives them a near limitless arsenal of weaponry at their disposal.

Perhaps less distinct is that they tackle the popular subject of cosmic horror, the Lovecraft Mythos in particular, but they've definitely got a focus on the more post-apocalyptic approach vector. The Old Ones have already arrived, their cataclysmic destruction being wrought upon both mankind and nature itself, or at least this is what is captured in the songwriting. Their extraordinary debut Swallowed by the Ocean's Tide definitely had the aquatic/R'lyeh vibe going for it, but here, like the Ola Larsson cover artwork splendidly depicts, they're stretching their tentacles between sea and stars. Musically, it doesn't diverge a great deal from its predecessor, but Gateway to the Antisphere certainly plays around with a greater range of dynamics, from slower, roiling, rumbling atmospheric rhythms to thundering blast sequences which put them right on the same level of finesse as veteran groups like Behemoth, Septic Flesh, Morbid Angel, Nile and Vader which could all be considered peers in terms of skirting the sweeping, epic parameters of death metal's entire potential. Tracks like "Calls from Below" or "He is the Gate" lay it on thick, there is constantly something interesting going on...Daniel Dickmann's frenetic bricklaying, sheens of melodies in the guitars that contain both elements of Eastern influence and beyond, Martin's guttural dominance and sustained growls that mange to have just enough personality where he doesn't feel generic.

Gateway to the Antisphere feels like the aural accompaniment to a plane larger than this or any other, one of controlled primordial chaos machinated by minds older than the universe. A symphony of punishment and suffering. It's not the creeping dread and despair you might expect from a Lovecraft story, but the end-state of having the gates of reality blown apart and all humanity put to knee before its new masters that they cannot comprehend. It's not insanely complex when it comes to individual compositions, but once you weave this all together it's just a magnificent devastating force that maintains a fair degree of musicality amidst all of its violence. All told, I didn't think this one quite as catchy as the debut, but more balanced in tempo and presentation and thus nearly on the same level due to such well-roundedness. The lyrics are good, the packaging impressive, and there's really no expense spared to create a formidable sophomore that is worth every penny. Fans of the aforementioned bands, or others like Mithras and Heaving Earth, should make this one mandatory to at least check out, and really anyone into any mixed concentration of extreme metal and cosmic horror should follow suit.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (scolding summonings at night)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Morgul - All Dead Here... (2005)

All Dead Here... might not turn out to be the final Morgul album, but it was the last before a 15-year absence that continues to the day that I'm writing this, and also an effort with furthered emphasized and explored the aesthetics that Jack D. Ripper had begun to incorporate around the time of his third (and best) effort The Horror Grandeur. This is more or less a Gothic/black metal hybrid, a fairly far cry from his earlier outings which were more true to their Scandinavian peers in sound. Morgul had developed into a band that ran more of a parallel with Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Hecate Enthroned or groups of that ilk, or if I'm going to be most specific, the Norse supergroup Kovenant, which I got a few flashbacks to as I was revisiting this one, especially in some of Jack's more impish, playful vocal lines in tunes like "The Need to Kill". Or the Finns Gloomy Grim, who for a number of albums had a style eerily similar to this one, to the point that I feel safe saying fans of one with almost assuredly get a kick out of the other.

Basically there's a bedrock of lush orchestration created with synthesizers, sometimes used, as in "Intro, The Mask of Sanity" to create a classic horror feel with some carnival-like keys and well timed strikes of percussion. The beats through the album are a mix of purely industrial/techno and then a few heavier ones more akin to its extreme metal origins. The rhythm guitars involve a lot of very simple, chugging and/or thrashing riff progressions which are semi-moshable, but not all that exciting if you were to take them out of the context that they're serving as anchors of aggression for the airier synth tones or Ripper's schizoid exchanges of black metal snarls, deeper gutturals and more acidic narrative cleans. This is often the most drugged out sounding album he's done, perhaps going a little overboard to the extent of self-caricature with the vocals alone, but then again some of the audience might have felt he'd been doing this since the two albums before. Every now and then you'll get this really fun overlap of these ideas, like the rolling chugs in the title track that are balanced off against the eerie strings, but the fact is that even by 2005's standards a lot of the lower end riffs on this album had been beaten to death.

The guitar tone is well produced though, and even though the vocals are often a little overbearing, most of the instrumentation is well balanced for the 21st century Gothic metal audience who will probably most appreciate this. The compositions are consistent to the point that you feel as if you could pluck a part out of one song, toss it into another and few would be the wiser. I personally enjoyed the guitars most when they were branching off into a harmony or some Eastern sounding passage, it made the album feel like it belonged in the soundtrack to some modern Mummy movie with all the lurching aggression. Tracks like "Shackled" and "Empty" have a great deal of potential that simply isn't realized when they devolve into some of the more rudimentary rhythm guitars. The lyrics here are focused more on generic concepts of death, pain and isolation, so it's not too detailed with horror theming. Although I'd hesitate to call All Dead Here... bad at all, it just doesn't really evolve or improve upon the style he had going on The Horror Grandeur or Sketch of Supposed Murder, it's not terribly inspired, and I can understand why he'd want to give the project a lengthy rest afterward. It's the least of the Morgul efforts, but there was an audience for this sort of sound if you were into stuff like the Napalm Records roster of that day and age.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, October 12, 2020

Crépuscule d'Hiver - Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres (2020)

France has had a strong developing Medieval black metal undercurrent for several years now, perhaps not as popular or as its more avantgarde genre frontrunners like Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Noir, but just as worthwhile to check out if you have any fancy for the atmospherics of earlier centuries, dark castles and idyllic landscapes. I've spoken on about groups like Aorlhac, Darkenhöld and Véhémence in the past, and now we've got the debut from an equally effective project called Crépuscule d'Hiver, which if my fading junior high knowledge of French isn't mistaken, translates to something like 'Winter Twilight'. A handful of you might be familiar with a dungeon synth act known as Gargoylium, and this is from the same individual, who carries over a lot of aesthetics from that and blends it rather seamlessly with his black metal influences to create an album I found just about perfect for this Autumn season and the Winter that awaits just beyond...

The aim here is create haunting, Romantic landscapes that evokes flashbacks to Gothic horror as well as the mid-90s European black metal that Stuurm no doubt listened to, and Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres is directly on target. Synthesizers are used to incorporate instrumental tones both Medieval and angelic, from brass and strings to organs and feminine choirs which are tastefully implemented to never drown out the darker visions being manifest through the beats, guitars and harsh raspy vocals. A lot of the more purely dungeon synth-like passages draw comparisons to the masters Summoning, but never to a degree of direct duplication, and where the flights of tremolo picked distorted passages and chords explode, they sound quite different than how the Austrian duo writes their own. Lots of melancholic harmonies and female vocals are mixed in to create this elegant sense of sadness and seduction, and the bass-lines churn wistfully below with just the right measure of thickness and groove. There's a good range of dynamic balance to most of the tracks, no endlessly cycling, dull repetitions but something fresh and new waiting around every corner of this antiquated, phantom-infested citadel that Stuurm conjures up in each of the lengthier tracks.

And let's face it, apart from the pair or shorter dungeon synth vignettes, these are some swollen tunes, ranging from about 8 and a half minutes to the 20+ minute title track. To the greatest credit of this album, I was never bored even for a moment: the musical arrangements perfectly mirror the excellent, spectral packaging of the CD and I felt as if I was lost for the full 70 minutes in this idealized nether-realm of cold stone, anguished spirits and elusive majesty. The riff-sets might not be perfectly unique in terms of this genre, but they felt as if they were trying something you simply don't hear on any newsprint necro record you encounter, and they're blissfully garbed in the more Gothic tones and instruments. For a group comprised of just one individual, I was extremely impressed, and while some listeners might find a couple flaws in the mix of the percussion or other nitpicks, the sum of Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres is nothing shy of magnificence that I'd readily recommend to anyone who enjoys either of the genres that birthed it.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Friday, October 9, 2020

Wooden Stake - A Feast of Virgin Souls (2015)

Another of many projects within the extended Razorback family to cross over members, Wooden Stake revolves around Vanessa Alucarda of Howling, Scaremaker, Orloff, and Surgikill, among many other acts. She was partnered up with the prolific Wayne 'Elektrokutioner' Sarantopoulos for the earlier album Dungeon Prayers & Tombyard Serenades and several other splits and EPs, but here is joined by her fellow Vaultwraith maniac William Warlaw for this sophomore effort, which somewhat steps away from the death/doom of previous outings for a focus leaning more on the latter half of that pairing. She still uses harsher snarls and growls fairly often, but the guitars themselves are written more with a mix of mournful traditional doom and heavy metal aesthetics in mind, a nice complement to the Gothic horror ritualism and occult themes within the lyrics.

If you couldn't tell by the lascivious cover artwork, A Feast of Virgin Souls kind of plays out like an X-rated alternate to a Hammer Horror flick: slow and steadily paced, not terribly action-oriented, with a lavish colorful palette for suffering. Atmosphere is established early on with the bass and synth-driven into "Dead Winter Resurrection" before you are introduced to the reverb-soaked, eerie doom riffing which traces its lineage back to stuff like Candlemass or Pentagram, with a few more Trouble-like groove riffs here or there. The beats are sufficient to create a genuine momentum along with a couple fills, but it's really Wardlaw's guitars and Vanessa's vocals that make this experience. I'm more accustomed to hearing her snarls or growls, which are here in abundance, but generally as a complement to her cleans, which are actually pretty good. In fact, they wouldn't be out of place in trendier groups like a Witch Mountain or Windhand, only Wooden Stake specializes far more in despair and lamentation than the more stoner-heavy vibes from those. In tracks like "Alzbeta: The Devil's Bitch", they actually sound quite effective being matched up with her sustained snarling.

Occasionally this record creates a hypnotic effect with a beat plodding along while William nails you with some of those good old bendy Sabbath notes (also in "Alzbeta") and Vanessa creates a sort of vampiric narration below. Quite evil and cool, but this record is also pretty effective when they veer a little more towards the group's death/doom origins on "Cross-Scalded Flesh". There are few songs that fall behind any others, with highlights coming in the title track, "Hanging from the Inverted Cross" and the finale "Curse of the Cauldron Countess", all stuff that would appeal to a lot of doom and horror fans if this band could ever get on their radars. The lyrics are likewise well written. The one weakness here is probably in the ability of the band to transition, they'll come in with a single pattern or tempo in mind, and offer you some variation, but it always feels uninteresting in its execution. They could also experiment a little more with the atmospherics, maybe some more organs, flutes and so forth could really help flesh this out. But A Feast of Virgin Souls is unquestionably catchy despite this roughness about its edges. I think with busier, organic drumming and maybe some more oversight and editing into how the tunes are structured, you could have a killer band.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Ghoul - Dungeon Bastards (2016)

It would be remiss of me to discuss Dungeon Bastards without first mentioning what fun packaging the CD comes with. Not only is the rear cover a mock-up of an old Dungeons & Dragons module, but the center of the fold-out is also a ridiculous roll & move board game complete with rules and everything, simultaneously helping flesh out some of the worldbuilding for their whole Creepsylvania schtick. The lyrics within are accompanied by an adventure narrative which ties the whole thing together as a concept album for all their Ghoulunatics to enjoy. As silly as it all might seem, few bands put such effort together for a product that can be appreciated well beyond just its listening capacity, and top that all off with some great comic-like artwork by Mark Richards of Heavy Hand Illustrations, and what is arguably the best of the band's album productions to date, and you've got the band's strongest attempt yet at breaking through into the wider metal audience...

On the other hand, despite all Ghoul has going for them this time, the songs themselves aren't quite so memorable as the packaging, or at least they don't start off the lineup of tracks here on the strongest of footing. This is still the same grab-bag of grind, thrash and death metal they've been serving up since the beginning of their mystery project, and it's more exciting than Transmission Zero before it, but the riffs don't always land with me, not because they're badly written or unfit, but just because a lot of the note patterns are just familiar to myself or others who have explored these sub-genres before. They still punch pretty hard thanks to the excellent, level production values that provide equal impact for the drums, guitars, and multiple vocal styles, but it isn't until "Dungeon Bastards" itself, or their fan anthem "Ghoulunatics" that I'm running into some riffs that really stick out to me, both well balanced attacks of their grinding guitars, fast-paced percussive battery, gang shouts and some really nice little metal leads, especially in the latter. I feel like these would have been better to kick off the whole album rather than "Bringer of War", not that it's bad but just suffers from some of the blander riff selections.

Thankfully, on the whole, the Ghoul personality shines through the whole affair, with the interchange of carnal rasps, thuggish gutturals and even some rhyming spoken bits that remind me a little of stuff like GWAR's manager in how they interplay with the rest of the chaos. The musicianship is on point, especially in how they balance out their tempo shifting and the pace of the album overall, and if you're down with this sort of 'funhouse' spin on the Carcass styles circa 1989-1993, or Ghoul's own sister acts Exhumed and Impaled, or Exodus or Vio-lence style thrashing on Fabulous Disaster or Eternal Nightmare and beyond, this is structurally on par with just about any of that. But apart from the actual mix of the album, with its wonderfully chunky guitars and effortlessly consistent rhythm section, there aren't really as many new ideas within the music itself as there are for the cover artwork. Superficially this exceeds its predecessors on all fronts, but it's the trifecta of We Came for the Dead, Maniaxe and Splatterthrash where they hit their peak charm, so I'm still more likely to pull those out of the cauldron whenever I need my fix of these four hooded freaks. Having said that, you can still have a blast with Dungeon Bastards cruising around with your bros on Halloween night, ganja and silly string in hand, aiming to misbehave.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (taking names, then stomping asses)

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Impaler - One Nation Under Ground (2000)

With all the rage over nasty speed metal acts like Midnight over the last decade, it's a little surprising that Minnesota's Impaler wallows in such relative obscurity. Not that they're entirely unknown or unapproachable, they've got a pretty decent internet presence and continue to record and play gigs even after decades; but their love of horror flicks, wrestling, their mesh of speed, heavy metal, and punk, and the cinematic gore and camp of their stage shows seems like it's a concoction that should have appealed to a far wider audience, especially as they've just been doing it for so long and never really turned from their path. Maybe they don't write the most impressive licks, but they've got the heart and sincerity in spades, a speed metal institution forever destined to sit below the radar.

One Nation Under Ground was their fifth full-length album released through the now-defunct Root of All Evil Records, and while the production had come a ways from their earlier efforts like If We Had Brains ...We'd Be Dangerous or Rise of the Mutants, the style is roughly the same. Simplistic rock & roll riffs played with metallic energy and slathered in Bill Lindsey's signature splatter-punk vocals, which can range from a more meaty bark to something more petulant and punky, with lots of gang shouts thrown in there for good measure. The way he exaggerates his style with that grimy, constipated edge almost reminds me of Alice Cooper, one of his biggest influences, as enforced by the presence of a "Teenage Frankenstein" cover which is second-to-last on the album. The drums have a great tone to them, the bass and rhythm guitar are fairly clean in the mix, but manage to catch a little bit of that infectious punk vibe you'll recall from a lot of your faves in the 80s. There are plenty of lead guitars, too, usually with more of a bluesy, reckless hard rock feel to them, fitting to the rhythm riffs but not too memorable on their own.

There are 15 tracks here, almost all weighing in at around 2-3 minutes, with just a couple that go longer, like the darker, doomier sounding "Under the Dirt". Occasionally they'll incorporate a spoken sample, or some special effects like the bell and howl you hear in the depths of "Dead as a Doornail", to keep you on the page with their horror influences. Once in awhile the riffs can get a little bit more thrashy as in "Call of the Wild", but the majority of them are more rooted in punk and straight hard rock; almost all of them do feel as if you've heard them elsewhere, even by the standards of 20 years ago. Thankfully, the production makes up for this a little, the instruments and vocals sound brash and bright and energized. I guess my other complaint would be one that I'd apply to a lot of horror-punk, psychobilly or horror-influenced metal in that the musical choices themselves rarely evoke the more evil and dark side of the genre. There's nothing creepy ever happening outside of those aforementioned samples, effects or Lindey's gruesome vocals, the tunes could use a little more dissonance, atmosphere or 'evil' note selections to make them stand out...

...but again, I've had this issue since the Misfits. It doesn't make the music bad at all, but it's more like attending a Halloween party with your family, bobbing for apples, carving a pumpkin and having a good cheer rather than getting chased through an abandoned, dilapidated asylum by a serial killer or supernatural entity. The lyrics are fun enough for what you get, tributes to old or campy horror flicks and they even have a nod to Bill's love of wrestling entertainment with "Cage Match Tragedy". The Alice Cooper cover is pretty decent, and the material is consistent over the 41 minutes, but it just doesn't stick with me for long after I'm finished. It seems mostly built to go along easily with their live shows with all the blood, guts and debauchery that ensues, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]