Thursday, January 30, 2020

Exumer - The Raging Tides (2016)

I've never had the same level of cult appreciation for Exumer as some other thrash heads. To me they were on the level of a group like Assassin, or Necronomicon, who put out one solid 80s album before an inconsistent sophomore, then quickly faded into obscurity rather than aligning with the Teutonic masters in the field. Of course, just about every damn one of those B or C-list groups have now reformed, with varying results...hell, even S.D.I. just recently put out a new record. Exumer has gotten some praise for not only putting together some competent material for their 21st century run, but managing to improve themselves in the process. I can't say that for the band's proper reunion record, Fire & Damnation, but I can see why the group's fourth record, The Raging Tides, turned some heads before it commenced banging them, because if nothing else, it's about as consistently 80s as you could wish for.

Now, don't take that as a glaring recommendation, because I still find the band's style a little generic and indistinct when there are so many other options, but unlike some bands...say Onslaught, who took on a pretty heavily 90s influenced thrash aesthetic via Pissing Razors or Pantera, Exumer has dropped an effort here that would have fit right in after Rising from the Sea and blown that disc to barnacles...err smithereens. This is unrelenting, energetic, full of choppy Bay Area style riffing and never scums out into some Lolapalooza mosh groove for dudes with bad tribalz. Granted, there's not a single damn new or interesting thing going on in the riffing department, but the tone is decent, and the riffs are at least hooky enough that you won't complain about them sucking, with a balance between more frenetic, tremolo picked passages and beloved, mid-paced Exodus meatheadedness. The leads are all well-placed, if frivolous, and the drums have a nice snap to them that kicks you along. You could probably cut and paste this stuff onto any number of other recent thrash albums that are informed by the members' 80s record collections, and then swap those albums' riffs onto this without skipping a beat, but hey, it functions.

Vocally they still remind me a lot of a mashup between other bands like Tankard and Vendetta, but the vocals are actually really well produced, as are the backing gang shouts. The lyrics read as if they could have been written for any decade, timeless and not terribly topical. I also thought the cover art was cool, they gotta stick with their mascot in total 80s thrash fashion, so you've got this Jason Voorhees looking dude representing on what looks like an old illustrated horror poster, bursting from the logo, with some extra skulls, fire and...nooses to fill up that negative space. They also include a pair of covers that are weird...the doomier "Forever My Queen" from Pentagram, which they mange to thrashen up a little with a nice lead. They also really amplify their cover of Grip Inc.'s "Hostage to Heaven" and make it sound more fiery with some gnarly vocals that often border on Exodus sneer. This was one of my fave tracks on the disc, along with some originals like "Death Factory" and "There Will Always Be Blood", and it really fits in with their own material. A decent offering here, if not outstanding, a slight improvement over Fire & Damnation, which wasn't so bad itself.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (desecrate your lives in vain)

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Exumer - Fire Before Possession: The Lost Tapes (2015)

There is occasionally a charm to a band's earlier recordings, before they got bigger and hit the studio for a more professional stab at stardom. Now, how much 'bigger' Germany's Exumer ever got is in debate, but the band would go on to release a couple cult 80s thrash records, and then reform way in the future for an even more steady and productive phase in their career. Fire Beyond Possession: The Lost Tapes is a humble collection of recordings that narrowly predate their debut, and of course are delivered in a much rougher fashion, though they've been remixed so that they can sound at least tolerable through your speakers in the 21st century. Here is a case where one can certainly experience that 'charm' I mentioned, but there are some notable flaws that no amount of mastering is going to fix, and slightly mar the personality that the music was going for.

Now the material is here is literally 8/9ths of the Possessed by Fire debut album, as you might have guessed from this thing's title, and most of that is raw demo quality. I actually dig the mix quite a lot, with the crazy amount of reverb on Mem von Stein's vocals, and he sounds a lot crazier on these recordings, almost like a mix of early 80s Petrozza, Angelripper and Tom Araya. The rhythm guitar sounds pretty driving and awesome, and the drums very splashy, with the bass present enough to add some beef to the tunes, if not anything more interesting. I do think the lead guitar passages are a bit loud, and like a lot of these old takes it feels very compressed and muffled due to the tape transfer. I also felt a few points where something seemed to cut out a little in one or the other speaker but I suppose that's to be expected from this sort of throwback production. I can't imagine that I would ever listen to this over Possessed by Fire, an album I dig, just not as much as other thrash worshipers, but even in these more primitive passes the material sounds energetic and thriving, it simply does not stand out stylistically or by composition as much as the band's more popular peers did.

I would have liked it if they included the entire original demo, A Mortal in Black as a bonus there, one of the tracks is missing, but you're getting two of those songs anyways. Or maybe a couple of rare, unreleased tunes that never saw the light (maybe they all did, I have no idea). But for a limited press, to the few folks that will actually want their hands on this (it was originally tapes that the group just handed out to people), there's nothing really wrong with this release. It would do little but gather some dust for me, but if you're really in love with that debut album and want to hear it in a more rough around the edges or live context, this might be something you want to buy on CD or 12" vinyl and toss into your collection.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Virus - Memento Collider (2016)

Memento Collider hits you up front with the most mystique of all the Virus albums, the jazzy, walking bass lines of "Afield" served up with eerie guitar strums and those almost preachy-sounding spoken word narratives that the band had really mastered on the previous disc, The Agent That Shapes the Desert. To a group already so experimental, this already felt even further along the axis of weirdness, with just the right amount of progression and spin on the band's thick, low-end driven formula that it feels like a distinct step. There are also pieces, like this one, which seem almost as if they were largely improvisational, especially with all those breaks in its belly, which don't seem super polished but really pay off when the group erupts back into the jangling upper strings and beats.

Elsewhere, it does feel a little more practices and coherent, like "Rogue Fossil", one of my favorite Virus tracks in general for that amazing, bouncing blend of bass and guitars, almost like a Fugazi exponentially evolved into something more mesmerizing, melancholy in motion. The hues this band casts here are almost all shades of grey like the cover itself, and the material sounds like a mind starting to unravel in some corporate clean-space, stimulating itself with disjointed grooves. Those odd Voivod-like chords, with the saturation removed, clash into the more dextrous little fills and trills perfectly, and there are occasionally these walls of odd, vibrant chords which almost remind me of late 80s Sonic Youth and all their unusual tunings. Though the band will swap between tempos and riffing structures, I would actually say that a lot of the material is very consistent together, this is not a highly diverse album in of itself, but within even this little niche they find ample territory to explore that the full 45 minute experience never once bores me, and only tires me out due to the exhilaration and helplessness that comes with the realization I could never think up something this goddamn cool.

The one exception might be the closer "Phantom Oil Slick", because here is a track where for me the guitars came across just as level and powerful as those bass lines, with neither suffering. But even that, with the similar vocals gels so well with the material leading up to it, though I wasn't entirely sucked into the slower, broken ambient segue in the bridge, at least not until the bass finally takes over as the dominant instrument with the sparser chords splayed out above it. The title is too fitting though since this part of the song makes you think you're out on some foggy sea, drifting in a rowboat and perhaps running afoul of said oil slick. At any rate, listening to these Virus albums now for review is kind of making me sad that I won't get another one. Ved Buens Ende will be close enough, but interesting genius like this is all too rare, and even if I love this album a fraction less than Agent, it's still another one that will remain timeless escapism for when I need to exit the monotonies of my existence, or find new things hiding in the shadows in the corner of that reality. Inspired.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Monday, January 27, 2020

Tankard - Hymns for the Drunk (2018)

The third in a trilogy of absolutely worthless compilations cashing in on the good Tankard name, Hymns for the Drunk is another unjustifiable release in the age of the cell-phone, the internet, the streaming service, where any fan of the band can put his ripped (legally or illegal) alcoholic thrash tunes into a random playlist and generate much the same result. While Noise and Sanctuary were the first two culprits with their Hair of the Dog and Oldies & Goldies anthologies, here it is AFM reprinting material from the Germans' five-album tenure on that label, including B-Day, Beast of Bourbon, the wonderful Beauty and the Beer, Thirst, and Vol(l)ume 14. They even include some stuff from the Best Case Scenario compilation which was already made up of re-recordings of early 80s material from the Noise Records years...yes, that is the sound of me smacking myself upside the head with a big fat mug of fucking nothing.

Now most of these albums were solid or better when originally released, and the material has not aged too poorly for a guy listening to it being reprinted in 2018, in 2020. The production is fairly even across those albums, so frankly a lot of the songs could have just been swapped between them and none would be the wiser. "We Still Drink the Old Ways" is present, my favorite Tankard tune of the 21st century, so at least someone had some common sense. Surprisingly, there are a lot of 'clumps' taken from the albums, like two tracks in a row on the original track lists that are also placed here in a row, somewhat chronologically. And most of the AFM new studio albums get 2-3 tunes, while the Best Case Scenario has four tracks, one of which is a even here the focus is on some of the same earlier material from older compilations, only the re-recordings, which as I've covered elsewhere, were completely unnecessary and lacked the charm of the originals in favor of a more streamlined studio presence with their 2000s fare (this worked well enough for Destruction but I really couldn't get into Tankard's attempt).

So what really can I say positively about this? If you've read my rants over money grubbing wastes of space like this, you know what comes next. If Hymns for the Drunk were being handed out at AAA meetings or elemental schools for free, to preach the golden gospel of Tankard, as righteous a faith as any, then I might go soft on it. But this is a product that'll set you back $15-20, entirely without any merit since any n00b interested in the Kings of Beer can just sample them from any number of sources, officially approved or not. The cover art is kinda cute maybe, or it would be as a beer coaster, but I mean unless this thing came with an actual functioning TAP attached to it, there would be no amount of gimmickry to overcome its vacuousness. There were no bonus tracks that could have been dug up from these AFM years, no rarities, that could have made this worth a piss? Why is this beloved, legendary band treated with such awful and ineffectual anthologies?

Verdict: Epic Fail [0/10]

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Tankard - Schwarz-weiß wie Schnee (Eagles & Tankards) EP (2017)

Tankard, football and alcohol have gone hand in hand in hand for pretty much the band's entire existence, culminated in the original  Schwarz-weiß wie Schnee EP back in 2006 through AFM records. Now that the band's enjoying its latest stint with Nuclear Blast, they've decided to go and 'update' that, gracing us with another limited edition CD and 7" EP which was presumably just as much a forgettable novelty as its predecessor. They've fattened this up with some other studio material we've already heard, a live gig, and of most interest might be another sports tribute bonus track which was available only as a video and a bonus track to the band's solid 2014 LP Vol(l)ume 14, which was coincidentally their last with AFM.

The punkier mix of the original "Schwarz-weiß wie Schnee" is reinforced with a more grandiose rendition, with audience participation and a more anthemic production. Of the two, this one feels like it's being played at you right from the stadium, and in fact that's where the video takes place, with an entire arena full of football fans cheering to think, if only every person in that audience was buying Tankard records, they'd be the biggest thrash band in the world! So that is at last fun to see, that the band was allowed to perform this (possibly numerous times). Now I don't know much about Euro professional soccer, and to whether this is a really big deal, I'm a World Cup/national team guy, but it certainly looks like the band is jazzed up and sure they fucking deserve it. However, I think in terms of digesting the track, I prefer the original incarnation which sounds like it might have been lifted off an old mid-80s punk album only injected with some slightly thrashier guitars. But hey, you can compare and contrast them and choose for yourself.

Apart from these two versions of the same song, the EP is padded out with the studio title tracks to their albums A Girl Called Cerveza and One Foot in the Grave. Both good tracks, but rather useless except as random filler that I presume they wanted to expose to football fans that might like hard rock or heavy metal and haven't already heard the band until their football anthem. Their other sportsy tune, "Forza SGE", has been reproduced here from its status as a Vol(l)ume 14 bonus track, and it's another punk rock spin with shoutalong vocals and it basically just sounds like a bunch of drunken hooligans. No interesting riffs or anything to be heard. Finally, there's a live version of "(Empty) Tankard" live, another punk-charged piece that goes well enough with the other content, but it's kind of a murky, subdued live mix. So ultimately, there's not enough new or interesting here to recommend at all unless you are dead set on getting that new version of the football song, and even that isn't so great if you're not in the audience cheering before the kick-off or half-time. The original EP is nothing to write home about, but this is even less of a curiosity, a product that doesn't need to be.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Kreator - For the Hordes EP (2019)

For the Hordes is another CD EP included with an issue of Legacy Magazine, which seems to have cornered the market on German thrash bands putting out exclusive audio souvenirs in the last decade. There isn't a whole lot to this one, just three live tracks, and a rarer studio cut that you can only find as a bonus track elsewhere. Even the lives aren't all that exclusive, since they're part of a more substantial release coming out in 2020, so at the best this is the sort of thing you might find while perusing and think was neat if you're into the band, but the process in putting it all together didn't demand much effort and neither should anyone but the most ardent Kreator fan put any effort into tracking it down for his or her collection.

Now the live songs do sound quite good here, plucked from dates in places as far abroad as Chile, the UK and the Masters of Rock festival in Czechia. Hellish, energetic and very clear sounding, they sound as aggressive as you want them to be, with "Hordes of Chaos" and the more melodic "Fallen Brothers" standouts, and then the legendary "Flag of Hate" finishing up the trifecta, and that one did not translate quite as well in some sections, partially because it's being broken up for crowd interface. The final track, "Earth Under the Sword", is actually really great, it was released as a bonus track on a bunch of versions of Gods of Violence, and even had a limited 7" single put out with Decibel, but in my opinion it should have probably been a main track on that album, it's energetic and has a little bit of cinematic atmosphere created through some sparse orchestration which manages to help it feel urgent and powerful without intruding on the core instruments or vocals whatsoever.

If you like collecting metal magazines, this EP is a nice little nudge in the right direction, even though all of its content will inevitably be made redundant. In that regards its very similar to the Chosen by the Grace of God of EP which also featured in this magazine, just a little lighter on the actual content. I certainly don't need it or recommend it beyond its nature as a collectible, but if you hadn't heard "Earth Under the Sword" somehow and you want quality live recordings you could do a lot worse, and at the very least it has me psyched that London Apocalypticon - Live at the Roundhouse should prove to be a potent enough live album come Valentine's Day, when you know all you want is to thrash. Partner optional.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Friday, January 24, 2020

Kreator - Violence Unleashed EP (2016)

Violence Unleashed was an EP pressed in both CD and vinyl formats which was to serve as a teaser for Kreator's great Gods of Violence album, released about a month after this one. A common practice for a lot of these larger reach, multi-decade veteran acts, although I can't tell you whether or not it's a successful one these days, since everything is just accessible online and a lot of folks have abandoned collecting physical media altogether. The Jan Meininghaus illustration is pretty basic but pretty good, tying in with the full-length, and for what it's worth you're getting nearly a half hour of content...none of which is particularly exclusive to this release, which as always, when you're looking for a hot new EP of content, a total fucking bummer.

You've got "Gods of Violence" itself leading this off, which I've already discussed elsewhere, and then the cover of Maiden's "Number of the Beast", which is pretty well done, but already available on Phantom Antichrist and the original Big Teutonic 4 split. "Wolfchild" is the one song I was not already familiar with, and it's a decent one, sort of a brisk heavy metal joint with Mille's distinct presence and a good flow to it all, erupting into the layered harmonies the band was sweet on for their last couple albums. Apparently this tune was also on the single for "Civilization Collapse", but new to me and the one thing here that doesn't feel too trite. "Iron Destiny" is another decent song, another Phantom Antichrist bonus cut, but probably unheard by many. It's a slower to mid-paced track, also with a heavy metal foundation, not terribly memorable riffs but if you're into this more glorious era of mature Kreator I can't imagine you wouldn't like it, especially the Maiden-like bridge.

Lastly, some live cuts of "Phobia" and "Violent Revolution" which are pretty useless to me since I've got the version of Gods of Violence which has the bonus live CD/DVD that includes them and more. Honestly the version of "Phobia" is a little silly, Mille sounds like he's losing his voice for part of it. But really, these are unnecessary editions to a fairly lame release that doesn't have much reason to exist other than as a promotional tool. Had Kreator maybe included an alternate version of "Gods of Violence", 3-4 unreleased studio tracks and then maybe "Wolfchild" for good measure, this might be a thing of beauty, but as it stands I have no reason whatsoever to revisit it beyond just that one song, and it's a hollow product that nobody's ever going to revere like they used to when bands put out EPs back in the earlier metal decades, where they were pretty important releases that built up their own cult followings and were often full of great original material.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Destruction/Kreator/Sodom/Tankard - The Big Teutonic 4 - Part II EP (2015)

The original Big Teutonic 4 split was a fairly fun idea, so why not tap that well another time? That was Nuclear Blast's thinking as they rounded up the usual suspects for another go at some rousing NWOBHM covers. This time, each of the four thrash bands is taking on a different English forerunner, with only one of those bands (Maiden) being redundant with the original split. Raven, Saxon and Tank are all getting a turn to have some of their material in the spotlight. And once again, much of the material here has also been published elsewhere, so the value you're going to get out of it is pretty limited if you're not a long-term follower/collector of the German bands. As cool as it was to hear the slightly lesser known bands like Raven and Tank done justice, I was sadly less into this split than its predecessor.

Kind of like Sodom's cover on the earlier split, Kreator's version of Raven's "Lambs to the Slaughter" is one I've already been familiar with forever, since it came out on the Out of the Dark...Into the Light EP back in the 80s, and many represses of that with the Terrible Certainty album since. Sodom's contribution of Tank's "Don't Walk Away" is also an oldie that has been around since the days of the Agent Orange. Both are solid versions but they don't really change up the formula all that much, maybe in Mille's case but even he is trying to emulate some of the Raven screams with mixed success. I feel that Destruction's rendition of "Princess of the Night" is more of the transformation you want to hear when a thrash act is covering some trad metal, but it also comes off a little goofy with all the vocals and backing vocals going over it, cluttered where the original is just so elegant, perfectly written and executed. Bringing up the rear yet again, Tankard is the one band doing something exclusive here, with yet another Maiden cover, this one a somewhat exciting romp on their eponymous "Iron Maiden".

Part II sort of falters with the first two tracks being pretty obvious covers that aren't news to anyone, and Destruction's is once again a bonus track from various versions of Spiritual Genocide. Since these three were all pretty saturated in exposure and easy to acquire, I think this is less of a value than the first time around, which was already a debatable value. So once again, hardcore Tankard fans will benefit the most from having it. What's the most disappointing though is that the label and bands could have taken this idea and done something really special with it, like new original 8 or 12 track 4-way Teutonic split with 2-3 new original cuts from each band would sell like hotcakes. But this just seems like a lazier followup to something that already generated a little cash flow and it shows in both the selection and the product.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Destruction/Kreator/Sodom/Tankard - The Big Teutonic 4 EP (2012)

Now here's an example of a split release between numerous thrash metal luminaries which, at least on the surface level, seems rather an interesting one. I agree completely with the designation of these four bands as 'The Big Teutonic 4', happy that Tankard was at last being counted among them (I'd been doing so since the 90s when it was clear they were persisting where others faltered). This was yet another CD being issued exclusively through the Legacy magazine out of Germany, but Nuclear Blast also released a version of it some months later, so...not so much. What's even more curious, is that this doesn't feature original songs, but rather covers of two titanic English bands in Iron Maiden and Motörhead, with two German bands taking on each of them. Unfortunately, most of these are NOT exclusive to this split, but taken from various other singles, past albums, or previously issued bonus tracks, by the respective artists.

The most obvious of these is going to be Sodom's handling of "Iron Fist", which we'd already heard as far back as Persecution Mania and even live on Mortal Way of Live. It's a classic, in the hands of either its originator or Tom Angelripper, and a natural cover from a band that draws so much of its own style DIRECTLY from those NWOBHM road-dogs, however at the same it was the inclusion I was least interested in, having heard it many times before. However, Destruction's cover of "The Hammer", which was only included with the Japanese version of Spiritual Genocide (that I had not heard), is quite nasty, Schmier plastering his version of the vocals all over the punk-fueled speed metal massacre. It's also a little messy in the right ways, not as tight as the original content those Germans were putting out, but that's fine in the context of this particular cover. Another of my favorites here is Kreator's "Number of the Beast", not the first time they've taken on Iron Maiden, but even though the music plays pretty close to the original, it sounds great with Mille's harsher vocals, and I loved the lead sequence. This one is also located on the later Violence Unleashed EP or the Phantom Antichrist single if you're trying to track it down elsewhere.

The thrashier version of "The Prisoner" that Tankard includes is also a good one, filthier guitar tone and filthier vocals via Gerre, but they still touch on some points of atmosphere that you wouldn't expect from the German drunkaholics. And as far as I know, this is the one cover that is only available on this particular split, at least for now, so if you're a Tankard collector, you've got the most motivation to snap this up. Now, if ALL of these songs were exclusives, then I'd say this was a CD or vinyl that almost anyone would want...the songs are all good, even if Sodom's contribution is a bit too redundant. And to be fair, many fans might not own most of the tunes elsewhere. It's a fun concept to round up these thrashers, legends themselves, and then watch as they don't toot their own horns, but cover even mightier legends of British heavy metal. If you can track one down, it's pretty sweet to have on your wall, even if the content isn't all that valuable. Not a necessary purchase, but neat if you've never run across these covers before. And to think, Nuke Blast and these same four bands would be doing it again in just a couple years...

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, January 20, 2020

Destruction/Tankard EP (2014)

The Pitch: Dude, two of your favorite German thrash bands have decided to release a split 7" together. It's totally limited, under a thousand copies, available in three vinyl colors and with some pretty cool cover art for each side that...looks a little much like cover art that both bands have released before, but try not to let that get in the way!

The Response: How many tracks? Are they exclusive? Is this one of those deals where each band is covering the other? Are they collaborations?

The Pitch: Well the Tankard track is also being released today on a full-length album called R.I.B., you know like Reign in Blood only its Reign in Beer! Surprised they never did that before. But the Destruction song, "Wildstyle/Immortality" is unique to this 7" as far as I know!

The Response: Well, that's somewhat less exciting, but let's check out this Destruction track. Hey, it's not so bad...sounds like a bunch of riffs that could have been patched together from anything they've put out from 2000-2014, but it's got that vicious energy they excel at, gnarly Schmier vocals, and a decent breakdown with lead guitar accompanying it. Nothing to scoff at.

The Pitch: I am so happy to hear you say that. So you want a copy? How about one of each color? Oh wait, you're not a Bronze Status Customer. I can only offer you the Red and White...

The Response: Nah, I'll just buy the Tankard album instead, and hope Destruction drops this on another album as a bonus track somewhere down the road. Thanks for nearly nothin'.

Verdict: Skimpy Fail [2/10]

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Destruction/Rage - The Devil Strikes Again/Second to None EP (2016)

Here is the sort of wasteful musical product that I'm honestly surprised can still exist in modern times, a split 7" commercial double-single that gives the fanbase nothing it's not going to acquire elsewhere in a more substantial form. What you've got here is basically the title/lead-in track to Rage's The Devil Strikes Again album, and one cut off Destruction's Under Attack, both of which were being promoted around the spring and summer of 2016. Print them up on limited edition 7" vinyl, 1000 copies, a couple different colors to bilk collectors with serious acquisition disorder, and turn just the tiniest bit of profit...not nearly enough to justify a product's reason for being.

Now I love both of these bands...they've each been in my life for over thirty years. Had some effort been put into this to create some exclusive tracks, maybe have the bands covering each other, or creating more of a joint effort, you could have had a nice little fan package. I thought that the art for the Destruction side was really cool, possibly the only positive thing I have to say about this. As for the two songs, they match up well enough, as it's one of Rage's angrier modern style tracks which has just enough power behind it to hang in there with the more complex thrash of their countrymen. But each is far better experienced in the context of the other material written to be released along with it. There's simply no justification for this product independent of that. It's just as worthless as any old single which is cut & pasted from its respective album release, with no unique bonus content, not even any live or rehearsal cuts, cover songs, nothing.

Why bother in 2016 when the anxious audiences of the bands can just sample the tunes on their phones, their PCs, or whatever other devices and then go and grab a digital or physical version of the album? This shit is just useless. Any and ALL points I give to this are simply for the artwork of Gyula Havancsák, the Hungarian musician/artists who did the Destruction side. The rest is just needless Nuclear Blast excess from a label that has kept up with the times and thus I would assume should know better.

Verdict: Epic Frailty [0.5/10]

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Sodom - Out of the Frontline Trench EP (2019)

Out of the Frontline is the third Sodom EP to release after the surprisingly great Decision Day in 2016, and one wonders if the momentum of the band's legendary aura after almost 40 years of thrashing has become such that they could exist on these sorts of releases indefinitely, or if they're just lazily hashing out a bunch of pieces to their next full-length album. Which, to be honest, would not be such a bad thing, because most of the newer material I've heard on discs like this one, Partisan, etc is fairly worthwhile, keeping up the traditions and maybe occasionally hurling a new riff or too your way when they can come up with one. I mean none of these short-form releases have been the equal of 1987's Expurse of Sodomy EP, but I'm in no rush to throw them out the window.

This time out you get abused with a trio of new tracks before any of the tomfoolery begins. "Genesis XIX", "Down on Your Knees" and "Out of the Frontline Trench" are all nasty, dirty thrashers which I can't deny enjoying...there's a clear beeline back to Agent Orange and Persecution Mania in how they are composed, with choppy riffs being sauced in wicked sounding Angelripper vocal lines, material that seems it was conceived in the 80s with little tremolo picked parts, brief effective leads and just a vicious overall tone to it that leads me to believe the next time we get a full-length album it's going to be one that clearly looks backwards to the same era. In other words, I could argue that these three cuts are better than almost anything the band has put out in the last 25-30 years just by virtue of the style they were conceived in. To enforce the point, they've also included a re-recording of "Agent Orange", which doesn't sound's extremely loyal but has that slightly more modern sort of production which is present on the new originals, and I'd be lying if I told you I ever got tired of hearing this of my faves.

Lastly you get a live rendition of "Bombenhagel". Again, living up the past...what you hinting at here, Tom? It sounds fairly good too, fresh and violent as the day it was birthed to the stage, and the contrasts between the blitzing thrash assault and the more anthemic bridge with its melody are fully present on the stage. While that could have been left off here, and I would have accepted just the new tunes and the new "Agent Orange", it doesn't kill the cohesive feel all that much. But yeah, this is a pretty good EP, nothing too original but I think those of us who have been waiting most of our lives to hear Sodom give it that real mid-to-late 80s Teutonic thrash appeal again will be satisfied. I know it's still remained there in fragments of their sound on every album since then, some more than others, but this stuff is really shaping up to be what might have happened before or after Better Off Dead if the band hadn't gone for the more bruising sound on Tapping the Vein (nothing wrong with that album, mind you).

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, January 17, 2020

Sodom - Chosen by the Grace of God EP (2019)

Chosen by the Grace of God is another of the many limited run CDs included with European metal magazines as an exclusive, which, to be fair, is pretty strong marketing for the dwindling print industry these days. Sometimes these are splits, sometimes live sets that aren't available officially elsewhere, and if you're really lucky, it's a bunch of material from one band that might include a few things you don't already own elsewhere. These are often longtime metal veterans, in particular thrash, and Sodom's Chosen by the Grace of God is absolutely an EP that is targeted towards collectors based on the exclusivity of some of its content, and those will be the persons who get the most value out of throwing a few Euro at the German Legacy magazine with which it comes, although there is a little bit of redundancy here with other products.

That redundancy is "Down On Your Knees", a track that serves as a preview for the band's latest 'official' EP Out of the Frontline Trench, which is out through Steamhammer in several formats. As I'm also going to cover that release, I'll focus here on the more exclusive content. There's a live cut of "One Step Over the Line", a track that has appeared on numerous Sodom releases in the past, and it sounds loud and chunky, punchy and effective even if it's not among their better material. "Predatory Instinct" is a great number, invoking the energy of albums like Agent Orange, and a good bonus if you don't have one of the versions of Decision Day where this belonged as a bonus track. Like that album, and several of the band's myriad EP tracks in the last decade, this one shows the band is still on a roll and just as energetic as ever, even if not's the catchiest song in their canon. "Lifeline" is a very cool cover of an earlier tune from England's Sacrilege, back when they were more of a punk grind band before their mutation into atmospheric heavy/doom. Sounds just as natural in the hands of these Germans as its originators, and they put an angry, pulsing spin on it.

The last little perk you're getting here is the track "Inside My Crosshairs", which was originally from the split 7" they did with fellow Teutons Running Wild, for yet another magazine exclusive in Rock Hard a couple years ago. Another solid thrasher with a few cool parts to it, possibly my favorite that is actually on this release. So when it comes to value, this one will really depend on if you're a big collector and own a lot of these more obscure recordings which also featured most of its content. If not, and you're just a Sodom fan who subscribes to professional print zines, then I'd say this is fairly neat, the live and cross-EP tracks aside. The material is consistent and engaging enough that I have confidence Sodom's win streak should continue beyond just Decision Day. I just hope we don't have to wade through another half dozen EPs before we find out! As an added note, the same issue also has a compilation CD with some more underground bands on it, a few recognizable, so it's clear the magazine wants to supply its readership with substantial bonus content and that is to be lauded.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Belenos - Argoat (2019)

Another stalwart of French darkness, Loïc Cellier, aka Belenos, has been serving from the black metal cauldron for going on almost 25 years, with a number of records like 2002's Spicilège which have generated their fair share of underground buzz. That particular disc is also my favorite of his catalog, but I've often had mixed feelings about some of the other material. Clearly for a one-man band this guy goes all out, he's talented on all the instruments, and to that extent I have to give him the utmost respect. His vocals are also quite good, between the rasping, deeper throat singing, and broad  chants that grace a lot of the album, giving it a strong sense of contrast and dynamics while the instruments surge along. But when it comes to memorable songwriting I've felt mixed results.

The production here on Argoat, his 7th full-length (excluding the 2009 re-recording of Errances oniriques) is like bottled thunder, with a forceful-low end feel that is even carried through the more melodic guitars, distributed in a dense but clear tone that amply reveals every passionate progression of notes. There is constantly a lot happening in a Belenos track, consistently strewn between faster blasted passages and glorious mid-paced segments which seem to me like a more complex parallel you might hear from a Franco-Bathory of the late 80s-Viking metal era. Lots of places where the individual riffs or instruments are allowed to shine, such as breaks where some strong new guitar melody will be woven into the affair, or some calmer acoustic parts where the drums will still barrel right along for yet another interesting contrast. Despite the overall package, he also manages to keep the tunes rather confined to 5-7 minute song lengths here, so no real chance to get bored with all that he is packing into each of them.

That said, there is a degree of formulaic sameness to a lot of the individual riff patterns as well as the aesthetic impact of the tracks, all very solid when listened to as a whole, but I don't know that many of the tunes really stand out from one another. Maybe "Dishualder" with its atmospheric, folksy intro, which frankly is so good that I wish he had included more such material on the album; or the briefer closing piece "Arvestal" which has a decent Medieval swagger and some of the more overt chanted clean vocals on the whole disc. But it does feel like some of the highlights I'd pick out in one tune are also present in other tunes, and at 53 minutes it goes a little past the point where it feels resonant or fresh. Still, I won't deny that you can lose yourself to the style Cellier manifests, in particular if you are fond of Celtic black metal like Morrigan, or the wave of French Medieval black metallers like Véhémence and Aorlhac which might have a bit of Belenos influence in their musical DNA. Argoat is competent and confident, just not extraordinary.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Virus - Oblivion Clock EP (2012)

At 30 minutes duration, Oblivion Clock is fairly substantial for an EP, it's also a treat because it gathers not only a quartet of new tracks hot off the exhaust of their masterful 2011 album The Agent That Shapes the Desert, but also has a few added tracks that were only available through the double-vinyl release of that record, one of which is a cover tune, as well as an unreleased song from back on the Carheart recordings. What's more, the material here is almost all album quality, tracks that would have been just as worthwhile had they been released with Agent or Memento Collider. There are a couple exceptions, where the band experiments a little further out to left field than normal, but at least four of the seven tracks are superb...

And in most of those cases, they're tunes that drudge along a little slower, but with the familiar, groovy bass lines, and a little more of a wall of discord to the guitars. New tricks are keyboards are implemented to great effect, almost choir-like in their swells, and as is normal for Virus, the combination of those intricate, flowing bass parts, morose almost spoken-world vocals and eerie guitars is unnerving and unforgettable. "Inverted Escape" moves along at a pretty quick pace, but it's so dense with ideas in the guitar lines and grooves that it demands repeated listened to really ingest it all. "The Pull of the Crater" is really creepy with those warped, almost orchestrated effects creeping along to the jangling rhythm guitar and wailing ambiance, possibly my fave through the EP. The other tune I dig (from the Agent double-vinyl) is "Saturday Night Virus", a pumping, playful tune that stays true to its title with a disco-like momentum dowsed in all the Norwegians' strangeness...this one could be like some trippy answer to Primus or Mr. Bungle, but despite its upbeat perkiness it's just as compelling as the more serious fare.

The one that didn't quite succeed for me would be "Gaslight Exit", sort of droning, raw, guitar track, the most experimental anywhere here, but while the bevy of daunting tones is itself interesting, they don't do much of note with it until the end when it begins to resemble Virus proper. The cover of the Walker Bros' "Shutout" is kind of fun, like Virus getting all bluesy and proggy in a dimly-lit, smoky dive bar in the wee hours of the morning to an appreciative but half-drunk audience. One wonders what these guys could have come up with if they dug through a broader array of covers and gave them the same sort of treatment, bending them ever so slightly into their own sound palette. Oblivion Clock might not have been meaty on its own enough to fill the 4-year gap before Memento Collider would arrive, and its not completely consistent, but paired up with Agent it was more than enough to believe that they still had some distance in them, and its highly recommendable to anyone who dug the full-length albums leading up to it.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Virus - Carheart (2003)

I first encountered this album in early 2004 after finding it in a stack in the basement jam room of a drummer i was playing with, and had no idea what it was, thinking that it looked like some sort of alternative rock or post-hardcore record. When inquiring about it, he told me it was the new project of Ved Buens Ende, who I had already been exposed to, and thus I was intrigued enough to take it home, check it out, and then never really look back. The band's unusual stylistic interpretation of groovy, maudlin post-metal was one of a kind, aesthetically informed by everything from jazz to noise rock to a heavy smattering of Voivod in the bass, guitar and vocal departments, and being that that was one of if not my fave band in the world at that time, I was delighted to hear something new take any kind of related approach...

Carheart is the record I've had the most time to gel with, and fascinatingly, while there have been small evolutions in the band's sound over the four albums and two EPs, it's surprising how early they sort of found their niche and rarely ever wandered away from it. Not that I'm complaining, because this was such an unusual concoction in the first place, and the song quality itself would improve for their last two full-lengths, but they could put together a playlist or live set of anything in their output and it would flow pretty smoothly together. Thick, barreling bass grooves serve as alchemic constant, from which just about everything else flows, unless they're taking a pause to let the guitars' jangly, hazy dissonant note patterns. The drums are very rock & jazz oriented, a nice construct in which to settle the endless curving low end note patterns and their haunted, unnerving upper strings, and they will occasionally cycle in some additional percussion to clap and snap along. To top that all off, you have Czral switching between two vocal patterns, one very haughty sounding and the other more drugged, monotonous and subliminal, which creates this dope-addled atmosphere which sounds like you're hearing this in a dazed state after having your tonsils removed.

Within that range, I will say there's a good degree of versatility. Maybe not as much as something like a Primus album, but some tunes will go a little more moody and eerie, like "Road", letting the guitar and it's drizzly, slightly-twanged out tone take the fore. Others like "Gum, Meet, Mother", go for a more technical and proficient pacing which is sure to keep you glued to its subtleties as that almost numbing, fat bass tone collides with all the little distorted intricacies. In fact, Carheart is arguably the Norwegians' most varied effort just in terms of its rhythm and weird vocals, even lapsing for a pure ambient piece like "Dogs With Wheels" to break up the successions of vertigo-inducing rhythm. Once upon a time, I considered this my least favorite of their output, but I think through the years it has grown on me as one of the more monumental progressions of a formerly black metal or black metal adjacent act from this scene, and nowadays I like it more than the sophomore, The Black Flux, although that's also quite good. I would easily recommend this stuff to fans of Solefald, Ihsahn, Dodheimsgard, Ulver, Arcturus and the like, just as much as I'd offer it to a fan of Voivod or their fellow Canadians NoMeansNo. Exceptional, creative, deconstructive, timeless music seeped in evocative lyrical minimalism.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (As we whip ourselves to sleep)

Monday, January 13, 2020

Moonreich - Wormgod EP (2019)

Moonreich might not stand out like some of their trendsetting French peers, and they don't pursue quite the same level of avant garde in their compositions, but they've been on a tear with their last few albums Pillars of Detest and Fugue, rich and roiling exemplars of aggression, evil, and atmosphere that would sate not only fans of higher end European black metal but I think also a lot of black/death fans, of say, Behemoth or Belfegor. The Wormgod EP is not as robust an effort as those two annihilations, but it does a serviceable job at sweeping up the ashes with some largely blasting, blitzing material that highlights the extremity that beats at the heart of main-man Weddir's soul like a crack-addled drum.

Basically a way to think of tracks like "The Swinging Noose" is as hyper Euro blasting circa Marduk or earlier Enthroned, but with a bedrock of faster Morbid Angel-like riff patterns, shifts into slower and dense groove riffs, atmospheric bits like samples, dissonant higher guitars ringing off into the vaulted darkness beyond the blasts and rhythm tracks. But then they'll throw on a slower, more melodic and somber cut like "They Burn Without Wings" and change up the formula, where you can hear the bass-lines and the incandescence of the higher strings a lot. They definitely tease a little dark ambient/industrial around the corners and shadows of such material, but the bulk of this EP does consist of the faster material, performed with neck-breaking certainty. I was most surprised by their cover of Depeche Mode's "Broken" to close out the release, where the vocals are switched towards a more loyal, lower pitch clean, but they still include little periods where the drums are blasting away to make it feel like a more original rendition of the tune, and it's quite wonderful, my favorite part of this alongside "They Burn Without Wings".

I do feel like the French scene is still dominated by its mysterious or outspoken, controversial luminaries like Peste Noire, Blut Aus Nord, Glorior Belli or Deathspell Omega, but really there is this substrata of bands who are all extremely talented and ready to burst forth from the crust at any moment if the world would just give them a listen. A number of these are focused more in recreating a Medieval, atavistic feel, but others like Moonreich are just exceptionally good at marrying just enough of an obscure gloom to blasting extremity, while possessing an aptitude at the broader range of dynamics when desired. If you're new to the band, then I'd probably nudge you over towards one of the prior two albums for a fully immersive, destructive experience, but the new material here will certainly serve as a good balance if they were to mix it into set lists, and the cover tune is sweet.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Virus - Investigator EP (2017)

I was somewhat disappointed when Virus announced they were going to break up in 2018, and when I heard the year after that their alma mater Ved Buens Ende was reforming, I continued to be bummed out. While I do enjoy that older band, I felt that Virus took some of the same sonic concepts and further extrapolated them into more interesting material, groovy and dissonant, progressive melancholia that was honestly one of the best examples I can think of when you throw out the idea of 'modern' metal. It's not that the band had no precedent, there's a healthy heaping of Voivod's guitar style in the mix, as well as in the groovy, driving bass lines, but they had this really introspective, almost laid back, urban vibe to them that was truly refreshing. In the end, they did give us four great full-length records, and I'm excited enough to hear what future Ved Buens Ende recordings might sound like, so it's hardly the apocalypse.

Their final recording as Virus was this two-track EP which felt like a marginally more roughly produced extension of Memento Collider. "Investigator" itself was one of their bassiest tunes yet, with loads of thick lines cruising along as the primary instrument while the drums splashed along in the background, fused with cleaner-toned guitar tones that create that ever-weird atmosphere the band is so well regarded for. Czral's vocals continue in that monotonous, wastoid timbre but take a clear back seat to the instrumentation. "The Blue Flags of the Dead" is a slower paced track, where the guitars stand out a little more but the bass is just as thick. There are a few organs and harps in there which mesh rather well with the atmosphere, and I loved the churny, choppy bass lines playing out under the vocal passages near the center of the track. Both tunes are pretty good, if not the best stuff the band had released. They certainly in a way felt just as complex, if not more complex than the material on Memento Collider and Oblivion Clock.

I've only heard this digitally, and assume the 7" is quite hard to find, and so as a swan song it's kind of underwhelming, and I've heard almost nobody ever talking about it. However, if you enjoyed their run from Agents through Memento Collider then it doesn't hurt to have a little more of the same, and these tunes are at least close to worthy of that magnificent output.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, January 10, 2020

Ghost - Prequelle (2018)

Prequelle did not woo me quite as mightily as its predecessor, but over the year of 2018 it did grow on me to a point that I listened to it in regular rotation (ergo, the stuff I'm constantly spinning that is not queued for reviews). Part of this is probably that of all the full length Ghost releases, this one shows the least amount of growth or change from the last, a trait I had really come to expect from them; but nah, this is largely Meliora Part II. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since there are plenty of small details here which strike out on their own, and there's no problem with a band dwelling in its comfort zone for spell...hell, there are major metal bands that, in retrospect, I wish had spent MORE time in their comfort zones, rather than teetering off into an oblivion of mediocrity, or trying to keep scoring with the times and instead getting dunked on.

The "Rats" single was the first I heard of this, like anyone else, it was a fun tune, lot of energy, like a livelier "Square Hammer", and I really dug how they refrain that evil melody at the end from the instrumental on the previous album (it's also used in Prequelle's choral intro "Ashes"). I think it was also a pretty good choice to front-load the more metallic material here, letting us know that Tobias still considers it an important component of their sound, before they traipse off into the more varied territory. "Faith" is probably the hardest tune on the album, which surprisingly drew some parallels to Chastain of all things, with that neo-classical shred line reminding me of David's playing, and the verse groove highly reminiscent of some of the stuff on For Those Who Dare. Coincidental, most likely, but I found that amusing, and the song pretty kickass with a great groove to it and a really awesome, memorable chorus, once again using their trademark organs to supplement a killer vocal hook. If you've got a version containing it, they also do a heavy cover of the Pet Shop Boys' "It's a Sin", a natural fit to the Ghost style, although I thought the Gamma Ray cover off Power Plant was a far cooler, more metallic transformation of the pop gem.

Not to take away from the mellower material here, because a lot of it is quite catchy, like the folksy piano-driven ballad "Pro Memoria", which picks up quite nicely even though a couple of Forge's vocal lines sound a little goofy in the bridge. "Witch Image" is a nice, driving rock track that I'm surprised didn't turn into a radio single, although the dramatic butt-rocker "Dance Macabre" accomplished exactly that. "Miasma" is another standout, a steady, proggy instrumental that is satisfying throughout its escalation, leads, and tons of ear-worm synthesizer lines. It's not the only instrumental present, but the calmer "Helvetesfönster" didn't impact me quite as much, despite the nice Medieval melodies buried in there. And that's rather an interesting decision, to have about 11 minutes of the album, a full quarter of its playtime (excluding covers) devoted to instrumental journeys, which are mostly successful. Perhaps Tobias could score a film, is all I'm saying, I can certainly imagine some lush, 80s-like young adult fantasy with this sort of music all over it.

There's another cover of Leonard Cohen's "Avalanche" on the deluxe edition, but as well produced as it is, I just didn't enjoy Tobias' rambling vocal style over it, he seems a little weak when he's in that mid-range, spoken word inflection, and the ascending power of the instruments in this one could have used a little more brawn over it. Other than this and a few of the other, slightly less impressive tracks, there are few complaints to be had. The production is excellent, and I'd argue even more dynamic than on Meliora. The lyrics are still pretty good, even if they're not quite as emotionally relevant to me as they were on the prior album. There some cool guest spots nestled in here, like the esteemed Steve Moore on synthesizer, or Mikael from Opeth contributing some acoustics. The Cardinal Copia persona, which I envision to be more of a laid back Papa Emeritus, is fun...let's say Papa Emeritus if he was guest starring on Three's Company. Papa Emeritus if he watched women's prison exploitation flicks while smoking fat cigars. Papa Emeritus if he could tear up a disco floor, which he basically does, only in a city street with a lot of carnage strewn about him. And Zbigniew Bielak's cover art, despite clearly being referenced from a certain old Sepultura record, is just awesome looking. Prequelle's another win to me.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (what you've sold you cannot unsell)

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Ghost - Meliora (2015)

Meliora was the Ghost album I most immediately glomped on to, from the initial release of the "Cirice" single and it's entertaining, strangely alluring video, the ensuing teaser singles ("From the Pinnacle to the Pit" and "Majesty"), onto the full release in August of 2015. I loved just about everything I was hearing, and with a few minor nitpicks, this remains my favorite of their catalog. Granted, I rate this one and the debut about the same score-wise, but the level of stylistic flexibility and the insane level of catchiness here push it just a fraction of a fraction beyond Opus Eponymous. This stands the point where the band's pop, retro, metal and occult ingredients were held in a near perfect balance, and for me the full proof of the band's concept, a bevy of memorable riffs, lyrics, and vocal lines that were all a match for the band's theatrical, sacrilegious live celebrations.

I won't go into detail on every single track, but it features one of the best 1-2-3 punch combos for opening songs that I've got in my entire music collection. The rousing "Spirit" with its eerie and endearing synth-lines, building through a steady driving verse into its epic chorus, a glorious hymnal dowsed in proggy keyboards and choirs. The groovy "From the Pinnacle to the Pit" with its fat, throbbing bass lines, creepy guitar harmonies, and excellent drumming that shifts around until this one too hits a monumental chorus. "Cirice", with those morbid acoustics that lead into one of the best doomy rhythm licks I've heard in my entire life, and some of my favorite lyrics in their discography. Each of these tracks scores on every level, from the strength of the riffing, the ebb and flow of Papa's gracious vocal chords, to the slight bits of nuance like timpanis crashing or smooth, simple leads. The minute-long string instrumental "Spöksonat" is a wee bit useless, but at the very least it sets up the closing segment to their future single "Rats" off the following full-length Prequelle. And right after that you're getting "He Is", the band's ultimate, beautiful mockery of some soaring Christian arena rock power ballad, you can just see the lighters flicking on out in the crowd, but the crucifixes being inverted as they're raised towards the stage.

The only songs that I really wasn't in love with were these small instrumentals, although the organ heavy prog rock piece "Devil Church" is a little better than "Spöksonat". For a while I also wasn't into the vocals for "Mummy Dust". Musically it's wonderful, but I just felt like some of the whispers, mutters and lyric lines felt corny. Eventually I got over that, especially because I love the riffs, solos and synthesizers throughout the tune. Similar, the closer, "Deus in Absentia", while solid, isn't quite on the same level of quality as the other six tunes. Otherwise, Meliora is phenomenal, it's such a fun and meaningful album despite any of its silly eccentricities. The production is polished but potent for the market the band was playing to, since by this time the guys were already circulating on the radio and internet a lot more than you would have thought. Every note, every beat mixed exactly as they needed to be, and yet, despite the accessibility of the record, I never found it mindless, cheap or shallow in anyway. Although the lyrics are set up as your normal verse/chorus refrains like in any pop or rock song, they manage to craft these hypnotic lines that mean a lot in context, like 'I can feel the thunder that is breaking in your heart/I can see through the scars inside you', or 'All those things that you desire/You will find here in the fire'.

For what a clean cut, friendly guy Tobias seems to be, he certainly has his sinister side! And we're all the richer for it. Now I know that Ghost has developed into a rather contentious band, and sure enough they bring out a lot of mainstream music influences from the 60s, 70s or 80s that might not be all that exciting for those who were more into the Mercyful Oyster Cult influences, or just for folks who don't want any sort of pop taint or accessibility within their music. I can understand it. What's the big deal, right? Well as someone who has always enjoyed occult rock, pop, prog rock, and heavy metal, I just really appreciate how these Swedes transmute them into a consistent style, which can maintain all the constituent variability of these genres and still come off sounding like a single band. I also don't mind having the occasional band most of the 'squares' in my life can hear in my car and get into; they don't always take well to my Icelandic black metal or cavern core addictions. And maybe it's a superficial thing, but I also love the subversion of such catchy and occasionally 'friendly' metal carrying its Luciferian undertones, a philosophical inversion of pop music and poppier religion. I mean, only Odin is real, but the Devil can be a hell of a lot of fun.

Version: Epic Win [9/10] (Anti saint wormwood catapulting your mind)

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Ghost - Popestar EP (2016)

Popestar is anchored by "Square Hammer", the band's most popular non-album track and one of their most popular in general. Apart from the fact that the tune's central riff/melody reminds me a hell of a lot of a heavy metal version of "Message in a Bottle" by The Police, it's a pretty good tune that escalates into a satisfying chorus. About half the Ghost fans I know out in meatspace actually got into the band through this song initially, so there's obviously something to it, although I wouldn't consider it among their top tracks. I did dig the noir horror-like video that went along with it almost as much as the music itself. Fortunately, like If You Have Ghost, this is an EP primarily built from cover tunes, an area Tobias is decently strong with, and like that release, they've made some interesting choices here.

They handle Echo & the Bunnymen's "Nocturnal Me" rather loyally, keeping the similar, solemn textures but inserting a few doomier guitar lines in there to personalize it more towards their own material of the Meliora era. I especially like the ending with the busy drums and the mildly heavier prog atmosphere. The other cover I was familiar with is "Missionary Man" from the Eurythmics, which once again gets a heavier jump start due to the presence of the guitars. Musically I was on board with this, it works well with those chords churning it along, but I felt Papa's vocal here was far too nasally and distracting, especially as he is delivering it in a rather monotonous tone. Not that it's terribly distant from the original, but Tobias Forge is no Annie Lennox, as I'm sure he is aware, and we'll leave it at that. As to the other two tracks, I was unaware of the originals and so I had to go back and listen through them online just to make some comparisons. "Bible" by Swedish 80s rockers Imperiet is played quite close to the original, vocal harmonies and all, and in "I Believe", Ghost takes an English electro-pop cut from the 90s and reduces it to a more purely ambient piece with the shimmering synthesizers and Forge's voice leading it along...

That was a pretty interesting adaptation, but having now heard the original I was kind of missing all the little bleeps and beats that carried the dance version, which was basically a British New Wave track done a decade late, but hey at least it was an introduction for me. Overall, I think the choices here are pretty curious but not always as triumphant as I would have liked. "Square Hammer", itself arguably a half-cover of another famous track, is the main reason to return to this one. David Brinley's artwork is nice, architectural, imperious looking, which sits nicely aside his cover for the Ceremony and Devotion live album and Zbigniew Bielak's cover for Meliora. All the material, original or covered, is produced with a pretty safe poppy mix that emphasizes what it needs to. I'm sure this is sitting in most of the Ghost audience's collection already, but if you haven't already got it, try and grab the 2CD version of Meliora which features this is as the 2nd disc and possibly save yourself a couple bucks. On its own, the value is debatable.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Ghost - Seven Inches of Satanic Panic EP (2019)

Ghost has proven to be such an ever-evolving species of band drawing upon multiple eras of heavy metal, hard rock, prog rock and psychedelia that you can never quite predict where Tobias Forge is headed next. Once I saw the gaudily bright colors that would provide the cover for Seven Inches of Satanic Panic, a limited edition, wait for it...7" record, I kind of figured he'd be taking us back on a tour of the 60s, or rather the 60s as filtered through Cardinal Copia's imagination. True enough, that seems the primary influence to these tracks, though he's definitely trying to keep them consistent with some of the other Ghost material off the latest two full-length albums, so the differences are superficial at best.

"Kiss the Go-Goat" is a slab of 1968 hard rock circa Iron Butterfly or Steppenwolf, with a stock, predictable, main riff drizzling acidic little leads and organs. Forge's vocals tether it directly to the Ghost canon, but there are a few differences like the mildly fuzzier rhythm guitar tone and so forth that I wouldn't mind hearing an entire album based around. The chorus and bridge definitely feel like other songs you've heard by the Swedes, and overall I was left slightly wanting for some catchier nuances here...for all its experimentation at dialing back yet another decade, this one doesn't have a lot to stand on. "Mary on a Cross" is more somber and atmospheric, and strangely enough captures the nostalgia of the intended era more successfully, even though it's driven by a standard hard rock undercurrent like a "Dance Macabre", which is similar. But it's the vocal harmonies and the way the organs are implemented that sell it, and I like the little break where the beat disappears after 2:30 where it makes you feel like Tobias is crooning at a high school dance 50 years ago, before the rest picks right back up.

The production is pretty good, that's never really an issue on Ghost studio recordings, but I think the two tunes here are among the least impactful of their career the last few years. I don't mind them, but it's easy to understand why they'd be better placed on a novelty item like this EP rather than on a full length where the stakes are higher. Who knows, though, perhaps Forge was thinking of heading even further back in time, channeling earlier chronological influences, and wanted to send this thing out as a crowd test to gauge the reaction. To that extent, at least to me, I would consider it a success, as I think an entire album of better written tunes in this style might be a Strawberry Alarm Clock meets Ghost effort. But as far as its inherent value, I don't think I'd be including either of these on a playlist of my Forge favorites...most of the material on Meliora and Prequelle sticks with me more than either of these, although they were innocuous enough ear candy for a couple spins.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Monday, January 6, 2020

Ghost - Ceremony and Devotion (2017)

As slick and polished as Ghost comes off on its studio recordings, the band was pretty much built from the ground up to excel in the live setting. The costumes, the characterizations, the set pieces, and the sheer accessibility of their material lends itself well to the good old sing-along, and lyrically and emotionally they touch upon a number of cornerstones of individualism and rebellion that will appeal to both younger and older audiences both, the former smack dab in the middle of that time of their lives when it all matters so much, and the latter because they remember when it did for them. Theatrically, if not musically, they've got a lot more to bring to a gig than your average quartet of guys in black clothing, not that there is anything wrong with a quartet of guys in black clothing, most of the best shows I've ever SEEN are 4-5 dudes in jeans and black t-shirts, but it's nice that we've got some acts out there who take it a little further over the top and justify those ticket prices. I mean I'm right by your side watching the local death metal bands, but I like to check out some fuckin' KISS, King Diamond and Alice Cooper too.

Now, naturally, an audio live album isn't going to be able to convey that whole experience, and that's one of the obstacles Ceremony and Devotion faces. You're getting some cool new cover art, some photos, a list of tour dates, and a pretty well-recorded physical proxy for attending and listening to them perform. You're not getting a single, complete performance accompanied by a DVD or Blu Ray of that gig, which I think would have been a far superior product for the fans, especially those who haven't gotten to attend one of their tourdates. This is material pulled from several different dates, curated to provide clear, consistent sound quality and crowd buzz and prove that they can largely emulate their studio offerings, which they more or less do throughout this selection. 15 songs, the vast majority of which I enjoy, the only exceptions being a couple like "Per Aspera ad Inferi" or "Body and Blood", but even those sound fluent enough in the live setting. The material is drawn fairly evenly from Opus Anonymous, Infestissuman, Meliora, and "Square Hammer" from the Popestar is the opener, so a lot of my favorites like "Con Clavi con Dio", "Cirice", "He Is", "Year Zero', "Monstrance Clock", "Absolution", and "Ritual" are present and accounted for. No complaints there.

The songs do lose a bit of power on this recording as compared to their studio counterparts, by which I mean the band is so devoted to playing so cleanly that I got a more sterile reaction when listening to these versions. I wouldn't have minded some more flaws and imperfections if they had a slightly dirtier live mix, or changed the material up a little more to give the audience something more novel. The guitars here sound a little constrained, although they pull off all the parts well enough. I think as the tunes move more towards a climax, as in the chorus to "Year Zero" when they've got the choirs, the band firing away, the bells, and so forth, it does come together rather nicely, but there are some points where certain instruments seem subdued, or Papa's voice, while crystal clear, just doesn't carry the same effectiveness you'd expect. In fact he sounds a little too dweeby in some parts with the cleans, but where he might spit out a lower, growled tone it's more potent. That said, this is what's going to happen when you're curating tunes from separate gigs rather than just delivering all the sincerity and bluster of a single performance (although I've read somewhere that many of these were taken from the same show).

Ceremony and Devotion is professional, unquestionably, and most of my complaints here are rather minor since the audience sounds like its having a good time, and the band clearly puts a lot of effort into the performances. However, this isn't one that I'm going to be taking off the shelf to experience in place of their studio offerings. It's not a case like Live Without Sense or Live After Death where I want to specifically listen to that recording, even though I think most of the set list is fantastic and it's a decent overall product in terms of packaging and audio quality. Had it come with a DVD to match, I'd probably give this a boost, it really could use one, but as it stands I think it's just decent enough to give a passing grade.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Ghost - Dance Macabre (2018)

Here's another digital Ghost single which was of interest to me because it featured an electronic artist I enjoy doing a number on one of Prequelle's singles, "Dance Macabre". Like a lot of that album, I do like the original song, I remember it standing out as semi-unusual in that it felt almost like a hybrid of disco and 80s butt rock, the sort of song you might expect more from Speed Strid and his Night Flight Orchestra than Tobias Forge. It manages to pull of an extremely familiar feel to all of us that survived the 80s, and lyrics that don't exactly live up to some of the Swedes' other work, but nonetheless it was catchy as hell and I listened to it a few dozen times despite the goofy video that went along with it, which can be forgiven since about 99% of all music videos are rubbish.

I'm going out on a limb here to say that I actually dig the Carpenter Brut remix of the song just as much if not more than the original. This is the Frenchman responsible for "Turbo Killer", setting beats for and starring in one of the remaining 1% of music videos that actually fucking rules. While his augmentation of the Ghost tune isn't quite as dramatic or extreme as some of his own tunes, I like the throbbing roller skate-ready synths he mixes for the bass line in the verse, as well as the more exaggerated, very retro radio synthesizer pads, and the reverb he throws onto the vocals. I have quite a lot of fun listening to this, even the slightly more atmospherically enhanced chorus with a couple of slightly acidic tones on top. The synth solo just about matches the guitar solo in coolness, and it's just a well done adaptation which knows what its about and doesn't need to force the envelope too far.

Now, as an overall value, this single isn't much. It's just that remix, plus the album cut, which is not necessary since you could compare it to the one on Prequelle. So it's a fairly useless release that just happens to feature a remix every bit as enjoyable as the one Health provided for "He Is" on that tune's expanded digital single. Perhaps Carpenter would be a trendy pick, but the fact is that he handles this material with respect, injecting just a fraction of his own persona while letting the original structure of the song thrive, and you couldn't ask for much more. It's not much of a product but if you like both of the artists then certainly listen to it online.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Ghost - He Is (2017)

As one of my favorite tracks off the Meliora record, and by Ghost in general, I was pretty curious to explore this digital maxi-single which features four different versions (thankfully excluding a repeat of the original album mix). "He Is" plays like a perfect mockery on some Christian arena rock power ballad, gone from rich, glimmery acoustics to a potent, memorable chorus, electric leads and just an uplifting proof of concept for Tobias' Luciferian lyrical themes and the band's ability to weave classic rock styles onto a present day audience. That being said, the various alternate takes on this tune don't quite hold a candle to the studio one I was accustomed to, as is obvious by how well that one comes off live...

...on the very first track on the single. Possibly an error in judgement, since I think that could have been shoved off to the close of track list, but since this is just distributed digitally it's not like a lot of listeners are going to have any loyalty to a perceived ordering of its presentation. Yes, the live cut recorded in San Francisco is quite good, with the guitars and vocals up loud and front, sounding awesome, proof that Forge can largely pull this all off in the moment. Most of the instruments sound close to studio perfect, the climactic chorus retains its power and the audience roar is kept strictly to the backdrop, almost as if it were sampled in there where tolerable. The second cut here is a more directly acoustic piece, without the electric swells, and featuring Allison Mosshart of The Dead Weather and The Kills. Her style is definitely a little more grainy and emotional in her voice, but I found she was a little overpowered by Tobias once they were singing in duet, and although this plays more like a 90s alt-rock version of the tune it didn't hold a candle to the album cut.

After that, the selections become a lot more interesting...the "HEALTH remix" is a pulsing, rave version which lowers the pitch on the vocals and then becomes a rather mid-paced, atmospheric ambient piece that would be perfect to listen to through a sunrise. Aside from a few throbbing, sparse beats, this one never just goes outright techno, and while I was expecting it to, I was surprised that I preferred it just to stick with this rich, ambient texture with the more ominous vocals. The final version presented here, the "Haxan Cloak Remix" is a far more industrialized version with some more abrasive, noisy electronic sounds after a more ambient intro. I loved this one at first, thinking it was just the whole track being minimalized into these strings, keys and other ambient tones, a gorgeous reduction, but I was a little less interested when they were throwing the subdued vocal samples back in under the ear-rupturing, dirty synth explosions later on. Still, it's good for a few minutes.

Overall, it was curious to hear the different approaches in contrast with one another, but only the "HEALTH Remix" with its L.A. rave inducing-euphoria is one that I'll find myself running back to. The others are pleasant, especially the opening sections of the last remix, but there's never a need for me to listen to them over the album version. I think it was pretty wise to leave this sort of thing as a digital download for the diehards, and it's harmless enough, but mostly just an oddity with one real positive. The live track sounds great but you can also just hear that over on Ceremony and Devotion, a full live album that I'll cover soon.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]