Friday, February 28, 2020

Borknagar - The Olden Domain (1997)

The Olden Domain was the first Borknagar record to hook me, having picked it up alongside its eponymous predecessor at an import record store in nearby New Hampshire. This was a time when the Norse scene had really broken out through signings to labels with larger reach like Century Media/Century Black, and Borknagar had the benefit of riding in on the wave of popularity (or notoriety) that bands like Mayhem, Enslaved, Immortal, Ulver, Burzum, Darkthrone, and Emperor had already achieved even in my remote New England neck of the woods, and albums like this one were pretty much immediately accepted and circulated around my circle of friends that were open to the stuff, with a few early adopters dubbing or sharing it all with everyone else. That's not to even remotely slam this band as an also-ran, because they absolutely had merits to themselves, bringing a fresh perspective very early on in their career to a genre that would blossom with generic clones or more straightforward, less nuanced acts throughout Europe and beyond.

The sophomore is mildly more accessible than the debut thanks to an increased level of Nordic swagger and memorable, folk-flavored riffing patterns that dominated nearly ever track, although it's not a massive stylistic departure from where they had been prior. This still weaves together some of that mid-paced Blood Fire Death thunder with more intricate guitar progressions and a dynamic duality to Garm's vocals as he fairly evenly dispenses his heinous black metal rasping and the more broad, chanted, cleans which help establish the yodel-like presence of his successor. Rygg would keep his range lower-to-mid as opposed to Vortex' higher pitch, but there are clearly similarities in how they'd both express that raw, half-formed style which not a lot of other bands were doing much at the time. Even the keyboardist Ivar's mainstay Enslaved were leaning heavily on the snarls at this point, but in the future many groups of this scene (Solefald, Ihsahn, to name a few) would adopt the mix of 'beauty and the beast' vocal, only as opposed to the Gothic/death metal of the era, the beauties here bore wool sweaters beneath their leather and denim jackets, and lots more facial hair. There are a few points where Rygg seemingly goes a little off tune, and it can provide a very minor distraction, but overall there's just so much personality and atavistic atmosphere that it was love at first listen.

There's also a slightly more progressive/folk tendency being fostered beyond the obvious traces we had with the s/t, this can be heard heavily in the instrumental "Om hundrede aar et alting glemt" which begins as this beautiful piano piece with scintillating effects and striking chords that inevitably transform into more obvious electronics, which might have a lot to do with Ivar's influences but end up crafting potentially the band's most memorable instrumental. The whole first half of this album is stacked with brilliant tracks, winding and wintry and effectively catapulting the listener into the snowy dreamscapes of old that must have shaped the musicians' imaginations. Whether the band is throttling the double bass and black metal snarls in the verses of "The Eye of Oden" or opening each of the tracks to its more expressive, expansive, somber melody and instrumentation, the first 20 or so minutes of material here stands alongside anything else they've ever recorded, it's just that brilliant in its conception and execution. Detailed enough that it has provided me countless listens with a new note or beat to experience each time, but also fairly accessible as far as the more limited Viking metal pool that existed in the 90s before being appropriated by a lot of bands that would hone in only on its more superficial aspects.

"To Mount and Rove", despite having an awesome title, is where the album dips a little in quality, with the almost Dani Filth-like whispery vocals in the verse, and a structure that just doesn't inspire as much as those before it. It rights itself with the more aggressive "Grimland Domain" and stays the course there, and I especially love "The Dawn of the End" with its weird filtered vocals. But I wouldn't present The Olden Domain as 100% flawless; a trim down from its 44 minute playlength to around 40 minutes would have really tightened it up. That said, this is still an excellent effort after over 20 years, holding up as innovative and fresh today as when I heard it in my 20-somethings, and probably in my top 3-4 of Borknagar's outings overall. Considering the level of relative quality they've been able to maintain, even through the notable lineup changes, that's saying something. And I can understand how some purists wanting every album to sound like De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Transylvanian Hunger and In the Nightside Eclipse might find this one a little tacky, but everyone gets to be wrong sometimes. This is for me a dreamy, stream-gazing sort of record where each little riff is a rivulet that runs floating leaves off on another course as the snow overtakes the autumn canvas. Not a deep freeze, but a late Fall, early Winter work of majesty.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (With a shadow vague yet deep)

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Artillery - The Face of Fear (2018)

I always want to root for a band like Artillery on the basis that they once provided me with an album so good that even thinking about it results in astonishment. I'm talking about 1990's By Inheritance, of course, a standard of accomplished power/thrash riffing and furious energy that to this day has never been surpassed in my estimation. Sure, there have been other artists to evolve the style in some other impressive parallel, but this remains one of my absolute favorite metal efforts 30 years later. Not to marginalize the Danes' first two records, which were great markers on the road, but there's a reason why the band has more or less been trying to remake their magnum opus for a few decades now and just not seeing the same success.

I can't knock all their output, because albums like B.A.C.K. and even When Death Comes had their moments, but since that time the band has lapsed into a cycle of endlessly diminishing returns, not albums that lack for professional production or competent musicianship, but in producing the kind of passionate, inspired craftsmanship that was led so much by brothers Michael and Morten Stützer and their insanely intricate riffing. Nothing they've put out was really bad, but records like Legions and Penalty by Perception seemed to me like going through the motions. Is The Face of Fear, the 9th full-length offer, going to right the ship? I'd say it is, to an extent. There's nothing fundamentally different about what the band has assembled here. They've still got Michael Bastholm Dahl creating his more melodic, power metal vocal passages over a riff-set that certainly dwells in a similar aesthetic space to By Inheritance, and he's definitely become comfortable here. Sure I preferred Flemming the most, even for his flaws he just had such a wild presence, but Dahl's range and delivery are tight enough here that he feels like a natural over the tunes, with some nice reverb echoing his voice over the meaty rhythm guitar onslaught so vital to their music.

Speaking of those guitars, they don't come even close to hitting that 1990 wizardry, often settling into some more banal groovy thrash riffs, but there are plenty here that sound like something new the two have come up with instead of just repeating themselves, such as in the strutting "New Rage". You'll hear plenty of parallels here, like how parts of "Thirst for the Worst" seem reminiscent of "Terror Squad" with the flow of the chords, but I'd say a good 30-40% of the album feels like a breath of fresh air, even if it isn't insanely catchy. The drums are quite good, the atmosphere of the album is also on point with the balance of aggressive lower end guitars and Dahl's soaring presence. There aren't really any throwaway tunes, although the album does go a little soft through the power ballad "Pain" and its ensuing instrumental "Under Water". But they correct course there, with one of the more blistering cuts "Preaching to the Converted", nearly worthy of By Inheritance with an Eastern flair to the guitars, and then a pretty solid re-recording of their old demo track "Mind of No Return" which, lets be honest, crushes its predecessors.

In sum, it's a solid package, with decent lyrics, artwork, production, and songwriting that at least compelled me through a half dozen or more listens in the last couple years, something I cannot say for its director predecessor. In fact, this is the second best album in the 'modern' reunion era of Artillery that starts with When Death Comes. I was a little torn up at Morten Stützer's tragic passing last year, and I can't imagine the band is ever really going to sound the same going forward; but as they're apparently continuing, I really hope this album will push them in the right direction. I would be ecstatic to hear them produce some godly late-career masterpiece like Voivod has done.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Artillery - In the Trash (2019)

In the Trash is not Artillery's first flirtation with a compilation of their demo and pre-signing material, but it thankfully differs from the 1998 anthology Deadly Relics by including the one full demo that wasn't available there, as well as the Terror Squad demo which was dropped between their first two albums. And I think that's going to be the major draw for anyone who wants to acquire this, the fact that the two collections complement each other, maybe rubbing a few toes together but not planting themselves firmly down on one another's feet. Having said that, the appeal will still find itself limited for anyone who had grown accustomed to or fond of the brand of more elaborate, technical power/thrash that the band had evolved into with the magnum opus By Inheritance, or the later albums which bite from that same fruit but don't quite match the same sweet taste. By that token, this might not even be all that charming for fans into their earlier, more straightforward albums Fear of Tomorrow and Terror Squad, coming before the Stützer brothers had taken on both guitar positions and found that brilliant rhythmic lockstep that would define their sound henceforth.

We Are the Dead is the band's 1982 demo, and moves along at a generally mid-paced gait, brash, chunky and raw, although not terribly produced for such an early tape. It features the band's original vocalist Per Onink, who has an everyman, punkish vibe about him that is occasionally struck with some howls or higher pitched screaming attempts, but much less impressive than his any of his numerous successors through the decades. Still, it's got an honest quality to it that doesn't detract entirely from the listening, and the guitars are so fuzzy, heavy and loud over the pulpy bass lines and slap of the drums that there's a rude, drunken charm to it all, like these guys were recording the demo late at night in a rehearsal space after sharing a 24-pack. Some of these songs like "Mind of No Return" have gotten revisions as recent as The Face of Fear in 2018, and have become a little more functional within the band's overall discography, but I just thought it was amazing evolution to hear them on this material and then pop in the flawless By Inheritance, one of my favorite thrash albums (or albums in general) of all time, and heard how the riffs evolved into something really original and brazenly melodic from these decidedly humble origins.

On the other hand, some of the other recordings here, from a few years later in 1984, are quite good. "Bitch" has a real thunder about it, slightly less crude than the first demo, with much more aggressive and over the top vocals and superior thrash riffs. The Terror Squad demo is a rehearsal demo for the album, and thus some of the most raw shit on the collection, but you can already hear how the band's riffing had progressed into its forward-momentum excellence, and with Flemming coming in on the vocals its a whole lot more fun, even though I'd probably stick to the Terror Squad full-length itself if given the choice. Overall, I think I dug this one quite a bit more than Deadly Relics, which I simply have never really needed to revisit since writing about it, much preferring just to spin the albums again. I'm not saying this one will fare much better, but I think it flowed a little better, even with slightly less material present. Look, if you ask me about Artillery I'm pointing you straight at the first three albums and not necessarily in that order, the demos amount to nothing when compared with the effort that went into much of the Danes' legacy to date...this is a middling collection or reprints that don't offer even a fraction of the reward, but if you're hardcore about collecting your favorite band, or you're just into the historical curiosity, you could do worse.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Assassin - Bestia Immundis (2020)

Not that this is the first cover art hiccup from Germany's Assassin, if you'll recall Interstellar Experience or The Club, but you'd think after over 30 years you really want to present your music in the best way possible. While I've got no problem with evil creatures rising from the muck, this image and the title font leave a lot to desire. In fact, the band seems to look its best when represented by futuristic tanks circa something like Battlezone, so I say adopt those metallic monsters of a forgotten future as your mascot and just roll with 'em. That said, when we're going beyond the surface level, I've never been the biggest follower of the group. Their debut The Upcoming Terror was a good B-list record in the 80s German thrash wave, the two albums after that grew increasingly worse, and then when they tightened things up a little to produce two solid if uneventful efforts in Breaking the Silence (2011) and Combat Cathedral (2016), which showed some consistency and dedication to their early style.

Bestia Immundis sounds better than it looks, a burst of traditional thrash metal which once again stays faithful to the notion that it might have been written several decades back. What this reminded me of most is Sodom, Persecution Mania through Tapping the Vein, with the nasty faster paced guitars always bordering on death/thrash, simple rhythmic patterns that you've heard before, but sound pretty heavy and sincere in these guys' paws. They don't produce a lot of riffs that leap out form the bloody, bruising canvas, but as permutations of those old albums by their countrymen, they sound just too savage to scoff at. The leads are wiry little interjections, bluesy and melodic and produced to stand out from the writhing momentum of the rhythm guitars. Unlike Sodom, the bass got a little lost in the murk for me, but the drums are barbaric and really feel like you've hit a brick wall. The vocals are similar to the last album, and the second effort with this new singer Ingo, as Robert parted with the band after Breaking the Silence. He's got a pretty decent thrash snarl, especially with the nasty sustain on it, but they also use some death gutturals in the mix, reminiscent of how Testament used those on their albums like Low and Demonic, only the throat here is nowhere near Chuck Billy level.

There also some snappy gangbanger chorus parts in tracks like "How Much Can I Take" which are kinda catchy, in fact a lot of chorus parts go for this with varying success. I think one of the biggest letdowns here is that occasionally they'll just erupt into this ripper of a track, like "Hell's Work is Done" or the insane "Shark Attack", but apart from the vocals, some of the surrounding tunes just don't seem as strong, and they just don't have the sorts of riffs that are appeal to the ears for long as the origins did back in the 80s. But, really, that would be too tall of an order, and I give Assassin credit for still sounding coherent, unforgiving and heavy, even though there wasn't much here to continuously draw me back to the album more than a few times prepping this review. I still think The Upcoming Terror is the good starting point and remains their most prominent effort, but Bestia Immundis is nearly on par with Breaking the Silence, and if you're tracking down some German thrash and don't want the usual suspects, these guys are roughly on the level of peers like Exumer, Darkness and Necronomicon; competent and neckbreaking, if unexceptional thrash.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Anvil - Legal at Last (2020)

With cover art and an album title double entendre that I can hardly keep a straight face over, Anvil rolls out its 18th studio full length effort. After an inconsistent decade, which started off strong with Juggernaut of Justice, my favorite that they'd put out since the 80s, it's a little difficult to build up any sort of expectations for whatever is going to happen next. The Canadians are survivors, I'll give you that, whether their hit documentary film spurred them on through the 21st century or not, but after a couple relative duds like Hope in Hell and Pounding the Pavement, any hope of a new winning streak was cut rather short. Still, they weren't all bad, 2016's Anvil is Anvil was a fun enough outing, and Legal at Last offers more along those lines, a dozen tracks of primitive, meaty heavy metal which offers no surprises whether you've been following the band for 4 weeks or almost 40 years...but then again, you won't need any.

As you've guessed from the title, this one's going to have a handful of Anvil's crushing sonic love letters to the marijuana, but despite the silliness with which their lyrics are often imbued, the music itself is no jokes, just some energetic heavy metal, starting out faster with the title track, and then going into one of their loping, mid-pacing, burning metal numbers "Nabbed in Nebraska" which will slightly remind you of fare like "Metal on Metal", "Concrete Jungle" or "Forged in Fire" only not nearly so legendarily catchy. But Robb Reiner's drums sound really powerful throughout, and they pull off a nice lead bridge and some backing vocals heavily redolent of old Twisted Sister. Other fun numbers include "Chemtrails", the rumbling "Gasoline" and the twisting "Talking to the Wall", a cool, darker, menacing cut which reminded me a lot of some of my favorite Anvil stuff on discs like Pound for Pound or This is Thirteen. Great riffs here, with a steady mid-paced tremolo picking and Lips sounding as bent as angry as he gets these years. And the hits don't stop coming there, in fact there aren't really any tracks here that I'd consider weak, and the vast majority of the material is hard hitting and memorable enough that I've been enjoying repeat listens.

Honest, blue collar heavy metal with a monumental rhythm section. The Lips/Reiner/Roberston lineup has really solidified over the last few years and they make this all sound effortless, not that it's particularly technical or nuanced for the genre but they clearly sat there and managed to come up with a dozen ragers at varied tempos, with no real filler. Hell, they even save the heaviest track "No Time" for the end, another one that throws me back to their darker sounding stuff from the past, and another killer lead sequence. Anvil has a distinct sound in their field, instantly identifiable, and this one plays to all of their strengths without ever drifting off into some of the mediocrity that has crippled more than half of the records they've put out since the early 90s. Should satisfy the long term audience as well as younger folks just looking for some bar-busting, catchy heavy metal with zero pretentiousness anywhere to be found. You might not be able to hammer out an effective weapon or tool on that glass mascot bong, but they'll certainly club your ears in with this record before fleeing town with your old lady and a bag of ganja.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, February 14, 2020

Kreator: London Apocalypticon - Live at the Roundhouse (2020)

Kreator went quite some time without releasing any substantial live albums, fairly deep into their career, having already established themselves as one of the 'Big Three' of German thrash, while their two major neighbors had released Mortal Way of Live and Live Without Sense fairly early on. However, in the 21st century Mille and company have been quite active putting out such releases, from the more 'official' stuff like 2003's Live Kreation to a whole slew of limited edition, shorter live efforts that were often included with various metal magazines as exclusives. Where it counts, though, on their major live releases, like this one, they put quite a lot into the production and performance and it pays off once again with a high quality recording that spans a wide swath of their career.

This one is out in a bunch of formats, from the basic CD or download to double vinyls, multiple CD or vinyl and Blu Ray combos, the works, so Nuclear Blast is making a pretty big push for it. It's from a late 2018 performance in England, and it sounds really good, with 17 tracks ranging from classics like "Pleasure to Kill", "Flag of Hate" and "People of the Lie" to fare that was recent at the time for Gods of Violence touring, like "Satan is Real" or "Hail to the Hordes". Of course with such a massive range of albums to choose from as Kreator has, they're going to miss a few things here or there, with some phases neglected entirely and others over-represented, but I'd say the selection of songs here is very much killer assuming you're an older fan who has continued to follow and enjoy their material. It's also cool that you get to hear more of the intricate, melodic recent fare mixed in with the more primitive 80s thrashers from their first few releases, and it doesn't actually sound all that bad by contrast, they can build a cohesive live experience from all of this without it seeming lopsided or like they're pandering to any one component of their audience.

The drums sound loud and almost machine-like in precision, where the guitars have a satisfying crunch to them that thankfully doesn't drown out the more melodic lead-work. I'd say if there was a weaker point, maybe the bass lines don't quite thrum along potently enough to make a difference, and you'll notice, as he ages, the more flaws and imperfections in Petrozza's delivery. That's not always a bad thing, though, because he retains that barking torment he pioneered back on the older releases, but you can tell the guy doesn't always spit out everything in the exact pitch you might remember it, and sometimes seems as if he's got an amphibian caught in his throat or goes a little too atonal with particular lines, or that he's running out of breath. Still, for all that, he'll actually bark out a few more sustained snarls and shouts on some tunes that prove he's still got a lot of energy, and there is some stage banter included here which really helps stoke up the audience.

It's better to experience with the Blu Ray on than without, since they carry that one off pretty well and you'll get the kinetic elements of the performance, like background screens, pyrotechnics and audience banging heads that help smooth over some of the little quirks you'd notice in the audio only. All told, London Apocalypticon is no joke, possibly the best Kreator live stuff put to disc, and while I would personally prefer hearing more stuff (or any stuff) from albums like Coma of Souls, Terrible Certainty and Extreme Aggression, I can't really fault their choices, it pretty much all sounds good. Will this be the live album that is held up through history like Destruction or Sodom's classics that I mentioned above? Time will tell, but although Live Kreation has a fraction more vitality to the performance, I think this is a damn solid offering for fans who still support commercial live releases.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Minotaur - Beast of Nations EP (2016)

Although it might not be the most interesting stuff musically, I think this Beast of Nations CD EP and 12" is probably the best produced stuff Minotaur has put out to date. Their 2009 album certainly did what it could to remain loyal to the Power of Darkness era while delivering the band into the new century, and this ones goes a little further with a nice even mix to the guitars and vocals, which gives Andi's vocals a much more focused, splatter-thrash effect to them. It certainly seems nowhere near as sloppy as the EP they put out back in the 90s, and all four of the tracks here play out with a genuine 80s riffing schematic that is probably more than acceptable to fans of no-nonsense, nasty fucking thrash metal.

Unfortunately, now your up against the wall of the fact that there are already thousands of bands having done this by this point, and while Minotaur definitely holds claim to having been around near the dawn of the medium, they're not really writing songs that reach the level of either their more famous German countrymen or the many younger bands that have done an excellent job at crafting fiery, hellish black/thrash or death/thrash that feels just as virile as the stuff did when it was first pressed to record in the 80s. The riffs and even the vocals on this EP sound like an also-ran with elements of Sodom, Destruction, and Kreator in them, which is not a bad thing if you're into all of those like I am, but at an age when time can be such a precious commodity, there's not much of a chance I'm going to prioritize the material here over the many classics I own from the field, or even upstarts like Antichrist, Vulture, Deathhammer and their ilk who have done such a phenomenal run at making that savage speed/thrash of the Golden Era viable again moving forward.

But, what I will say is that Beast of Nations is not something I put on and really scoff at. As familiar as the riffing patterns are, and the structure of these four tracks, I was never yawning or bored as I listened through them. I think if the band took this production style and level of vocal vitriol, and then sat around writing up some really kickass riffs that glue themselves to your ears, they could probably write a knockout third full-length effort. There is little here that I find substantially subpar when compared to what a lot of the German B and C-team thrashers like Assassin, Vendetta, and Exumer are putting out in their recent configurations, but then again there's little to no innovation beyond what the band was already releasing in the 80s, just a tightening of the reins. Some might lament that the more accessible production here loses some of the character that they had on the Power of Darkness, and perhaps that's true, but I think this EP is a solid adaptation which only falls short in the lack of truly exciting songwriting.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Minotaur - Welcome to... EP (1993)

The cover to this EP reminds me so much of what I loved about thrash and heavy metal back in the 80s...vintage fantastical artwork which summons up all manner of possibilities, with a classic logo style that would just look great in any record bin as you're filing your way through obscurities at a record shop. The labyrinth is of course fitting to Minotaur's brand, and I even the graffiti scrawled about the entrance which is a great thrash aesthetic. The almost muted colors as well give it a dusty, antiquated feel, maybe this is some post-apocalyptic maze set up by a nuclear warlord. At any rate, if you noticed I'm spending a lot of time day dreaming over this's because it is the only real positive to this limited 12" which arrived far too late to matter...

Not that it would have made a difference had this launched in 1985 or 1986, because it's pretty much just a mess of sloppy, un-memorable riffs and raw production aesthetics that don't do it any service, and I'm guessing not by choice. I mean, I'm a card-carrying disciple of the first two Venom albums, and when something is unwashed, under-produced, but comes packaged with great songwriting, then that rawness can either intentionally or ironically prove beneficial, but here it just falls flat. The EP opens up with a half-decent, almost Maiden-esque style of melody with an appropriate Hellenic feel, but then "Multi-Morbidity" just falls right off the rails, a clusterfuck of boring chug riffs, and messy speed metal riffs peppered with Andreas 'Buschi's' barked vocals which are constantly trying to contrast these little screams and wavering evil lines against the harsher monotony. Props to him for trying to give a little personality to his delivery, and occasionally some of his upper register screams are pretty cool, or the unexpected lower pitched death barks, but with nothing catchy or impactful going on around them it's almost like he wandered into this drunken thrash jam session with the tape recorder on.

Few of the other songs are any more coherent..."State of Catatonia" is mildly superior, and "We Hate You" has a Tankard-like thrust to its verse rhythms circa The Morning After, but still feels very uneven, though the production does often remind of the first two Voivod riffs on this one because of the way the speed metal riffs play out. The B-side is slightly better, with "Wish You Were Dead" the best track on the EP, but even the peppy and cheerful "R.A.T." is too abrasive with the flaring guitar tone to really work. The rhythm section is fairly tight throughout the release, with a few points where the bass lines groove along admirably, but they don't really have the best riff set to work around and the entire affair still comes across like a set of songs that needed more development time, reining in the vocals and assembling the guitars into a more memorable structure rather than just feeling like they just rushed it all along, plugging one in after randomly.

I've certainly heard worse stuff in the genre, and there may be a little sliver of appeal to those that love tracking down rugged Teutonic thrash demos, or just want the music to sound sincerely filthy, but this stuff is inferior to their 1988 full-length Power of Darkness, which is itself not top-shelf, but has a more appreciable, nasty character to it. I'd even throw you a recommendation for their 2009 comeback album over this, which runs average-to-decent and doesn't sound as if much had changed for them in the 20 years between. Maybe if you REALLY love The Morning After and just want other things that give off a similar impression, but then this lacks the funny lyrics and certainly the amazing riffs and choruses on that one.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Friday, February 7, 2020

Borknagar - Borknagar (1996)

Viking/Norse metal acts might seem like a dime a dozen these days, with the subject matter so universally popular that you've got acts from many cultures using it as their lyrical inspiration, overarching concept, costume designs, and so forth. But I try to divide these into two camps. You've got the goofier, superficial stuff which is most interested in partying, singing surface level tales of the mythology, and not really integrating its cultural context into the lyrics or the actual composition of the music. This can be fun on occasion, if you just want to concede to some mug-swinging caricature and don't mind living out a little stereotype, but I'm far more interested in the bands that integrate the philosophies of the 'Viking' heritage or the humble lessons of the Eddas directly into everything from the lyrical dispositions and personal outlooks to the construction of the music itself. While they didn't exactly beat Bathory or Enslaved to the punch, I've long felt that Borknagar was one of the first to successfully pull this off,  and to this day has never really strayed too far from the path that it laid out on this eponymous 1996 debut.

To those approaching this disc from any of their modern releases, whether in the Vintersorg-fronted era, or the beautiful, blissful True North, Borknagar will seem a comparably harsh experience. When I first picked this up it was alongside the sophomore The Olden Domain, which I gravitated towards at first, due to its comparative accessibility and slightly catchier songwriting. The debut has a more scathing attack to its guitar tone, though it's just as diverse as its successor, but for whatever reason the songs just didn't gel with my brain at the time and I was only listening to it as a backup for the records that came later. Decades on, I've certainly warmed to this one a lot, it's well ahead of its time and already encapsulates so much of the musical DNA to what has long been one of the most reliable and legendary bands in my entire collection. That's not to say it's perfect, but what is most striking about the album is just how different it sounded to so many of its Scandinavian peers. There's a brightness, a melancholic desperation to Øystein's chord-streaming here that was truly rare, only the Enslaved album Frost even came close, but even as much as I LOVE that album, some of the riff patterns seemed slightly more conventional to the black metal fundamentals that were already in place back in the early to mid 90s. This band was writing almost a 'new metal language', if that makes sense, the way only groups like Voivod, Slayer or the like accomplished through the prior decade.

There is some precedent, of course, that being Bathory's awe-inspiring Blood Fire Death record, which certain segments of Borknagar seem to pay conscious tribute to, as in the warlike, steady row of "Krigsstev" with its somber chants and martial percussion. However, there are many more layers being added to this record, such as the glinting, beautiful acoustic guitars engraved into a number of the tracks, those hillside-echoed chanted choirs, and the very core of how the guitars are written. It doesn't hurt that the lineup on this is astounding. Garm (aka Kristoffer Rygg) provided the nasty black metal snarls here, and it's one of my favorite of his performances, alongside the older, harsher Ulver material, with some wicked, mocking higher pitches he throws into some of his lines to give them a lot of personality as opposed to other new black metal vocalists arriving at the time who were taking that style and transforming it into something banal and monotonous. His burly chanting was also important in how it would set up I.C.S. Vortex's style going forward, and how a lot of other bands would also approach their own vocals. Infernus, later of Gorgoroth, played some awesome bass grooves on this album that also deserve mention, as this was another difference between this band and a lot of its peers. Ivar of Enslaved contributed keyboards, which could vary from the pompous pianos and martial orchestration of the instrumental "Tanker mot tind (Kvelding)" to the eerier, woodwind pads laid out over some of the darker metallic fare.

There is a point near the midst of this album where it just becomes one of my favorite things ever, so much that the earlier tunes (including that aforementioned instrumental) seem a little trite by comparison. I'm speaking of the "Krigsttev"/"Dauden"/"Grimskalle trell" trifecta which is among the most immersive, varied and impressive Borknagar material. Somber and soaring, sullen and powerful, an impressive send-up to that 1988-90 Bathory influence. This brilliance subsides a little with the following instrumental, "Nord naagauk", and that's a complaint I might have with the album in general...half of the ten tracks are instrumental, and while they sound thematic, some of the background sampling sounds too shoddy, and the composition feels a bit sporadic, too busy to balance against the surging metal tracks. I also found the rhythm guitar tone on the album a little grainy in its saturation, which was probably my earliest obstacle. These days I don't mind it so much, and it does work well to contrast the more broad, glorious synthesizers and clean vocals, but I think with the debut in general you could tell there were a few production kinks to work out. Apart from those quips, though, this is still a timeless sort of experience, one that will row you over swell in a cold storm if you just lose yourself to its mesmerizing show of force, whether you speak its language or not.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Sons of a Wanted Man - Kenoma (2020)

Les Acteurs de l'Ombre must have the market cornered for Euro bands that combine elements of black metal, post-metal and sludge into coherent, unified sounds, and Sons of a Wanted Man is their latest export, a Belgian band which does this seamlessly on their debut full-length Kenoma. In fact, this cross hybridization feels so natural in their hands that I no longer care where one of the genres begins and ends, just that it's all being battered over my head in an emotional, earnest outpouring of snarls, chords, fat bass lines and intense drumming. That's not to say I'm entirely impressed with this record, in fact I was zoning out a number of times due to what I consider excessive song lengths with a lot of predictable patterns, but Kenoma is a respectable package at least.

I can't stress enough how much the element of surprise is important to me when I'm hearing a new record, perhaps not as much in very traditional metal styles, but certainly when I've got a band in a newer medium that gels as well as this one. To that extent, I found a lot of the chord progressions throughout this fairly familiar, though they're heavily saturated with a full bodied distortion, and a ton of searing passion in the rasped, black metallic vocals. Even where the band will just let the guitars trudge along by themselves, like in the depths of the title track, it becomes a little too redundant, expected and patience-draining. That's not to say these choices are bad, but there's just so little to actually snag my ear as I'm passing through. In a lot of cases, the band will shift between these mid-paced, driving chord sections redolent of stuff like Katatonia, and blasted black metal mode, but otherwise the mood of the sequences doesn't really change around so much with the tempos, it's all a wearying gray that, like many shoegaze or blackgaze artists, attempts to compensate with a wall of force in the guitars and beats, and that doesn't always translate into memorable compositions, though it's certainly pleasant and consistent.

Now, occasionally they'll throw something over the top, some slight touch of dissonance created in the churning chords or the melodic shadows cast by the upper strings, and that creates immersion for me, but so many of the bottom end rhythm riffs on this record are just bleak and void of interest, such as the chugging at the heart of "Serpentine", where the same note is beaten to death (fortunately this is one of the shorter pieces). In other times, you'll get just a little bit of the unexpected like the drifty, dreamy vocals in "Canine Devotion", and that definitely helps to flesh out the experience. If you're seeking out something like a Slowdive or Hum balanced against black and sludge, I think you could do far worse than Sons of a Wanted Man. The murky production of the guitars is quite honest and raw, the lyrics have a nice philosophical, pleading style akin to intellectual hardcore, and the cover art and packaging is tremendous. Musically, it's solid, especially if you don't mind some familiarity with the basic building blocks, but I can tell from this that there's plenty of potential territory to grow into in terms of including more off-the-beaten-path melodic riffs or chords, or atmospheric passes that have a little more hypnotic effect that is crucial for this mix.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, February 3, 2020

Monolithe - Okta Khora (2020)

As with some of their prior experiments, French doom majesties Monolithe like to meddle with the uniform math of their song constructs here. There are eight tracks on the CD, all at 4 or 8 minutes in length, although once you join the "Otra Khora" and "Ignite the Heavens" two-parters, all of them are 8 minutes. One has to admire the nerve these guys have in trying to make this all work...does it end up that some tunes are needlessly repetitive, and others cut off before their time? Or are they just so damn skilled as songwriters that they can effortlessly pull this off? I actually feel that the gimmick doesn't always work the best here, with some of the cuts not ending all that wonderfully, the set times a constraint, but it's a small mar on what is otherwise a magnificent record.

This is one dramatic, unique band which perfectly melds the power of melodic guttural-driven doom with more graceful, airy passages that often consistent of cleaner guitars plucking along as they ebb and flow forth from the more distorted chord passages and endlessly beautiful multi-tier harmonies, some of which are more traditional for metal but others almost serve like an ambient, cloudy layer that hovers above it all. There are a few freeform, jazzy influences wrought through the saxophone, but the whole record feels like these repeated rays of lights piercing a foggy, hazy firmament, like a more metallic parallel to some of Pink Floyd's mellow, atmospheric 80s material. There's a near constant sense of elevation through some of the tunes, like "Ignite the Heavens (Part 1)", where it gives the listener the impression he or she has escaped gravity and is floating upwards, floor by floor parallel to some high rise building. It's a bit spotty and messy, especially how the transitions are clipped between certain tracks, but when you're actually embraced in the midst of one of this band's songs there is simply no denying the dazzling array they cast between fits of hope and melancholy.

I'm not a big proponent for all the cleaner vocals, they can get a little warbly or awkward, but they're thankfully not legion throughout this, and the death growl is perfectly placed to add some ballast to the lighter material. Tracks like "The Great Debate" are, well, monolithic, steady and weighted just right to keep the listener engaged even if they move almost entirely at the same pace. There's always some new hint of light, melody or eeriness about any corner of the compositions, a stray melodic note you didn't pick up, a shimmering, radiant atmospheric effect in the backdrop which constantly moves the music in more dimensions than it would have if they used less tracking. It's powerful, poignant, and a record that, like the previous Nebula Septem, which is trying to forge forward in a subgenre that often relies too much on the same old formulas or tricks. There are few if any other groups out there which sound a whole lot like this one, and while there are some stylistic similarities throughout their own discography, each album feels like a statement, an adventure all to itself. Hard to pull off so much character in a catalog that was once dominated by Roman numerated tracks or album titles, but Monolithe succeeds with room to spare.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Exumer - Hostile Defiance (2019)

I had heard quite a number of good things about this latest album from Exumer, or at the very least the idea that the band was really holding it together during this new phase of their career, far more ambitious and productive than ever they were during the first two records in the 80s. I can say upon hearing Hostile Defiance that this is, to an extent, true. The loud, brick-like production on this record is arguably the best of their career, the style is unapologetic early thrash with no real diversions into attempting anything out of the ordinary, and yet there is a good deal of emphasis placed on the songwriting to keep the contents of the album diversified and consistently engaging, like the better thrash albums of the 80s often did. This is no banal, pizza thrashing from Exumer, but their most punchy and studied album to its day, and if the parameters for your own enjoyment of this genre are simply that it sounds good and makes your head bang, then stuff like this is your bread and butter.

Unfortunately, for myself, there's not nearly enough of an impact in terms of the riffing patterns, the vocals or the overall personality of the album. If you just described to me the average German thrash style of the 80s, this would check off all the boxes except for the one that makes me want to listen through it again. The way these guys lay out the guitar patterns is just really basic stuff you've heard from a hundred other bands, getting the job done without excelling, creating few sequences of notes that last longer in the memory than it takes to listen through them on the CD. They do a good job of affixing some competent lead guitars or smaller melodic patterns to help each of the tracks seem full and fulfilling, but I think the entire record of the 42 minutes of the album blew right past me without a single rhythm guitar part ever demanding that I play it back immediately. The mid-paced stuff is basically just Exodus 101, maybe cruising along appreciably in "Dust Eater" when the solo breaks out, but otherwise it just sounds like a paraphrased "Toxic Waltz". The faster tracks like "King's End" definitely have a nice crunchy thrust to them, sometimes swerving into power/thrash territory with Artillery-like riffs, but even when they burst out the melancholic sounding harmony for the chorus part it just doesn't hit that money shot you're expecting.

Drums are particularly peppy here, and sound great, while the bass just plods along with the rhythm guitar line, forgiven to an extent since Mem V. Stein is also handling the vocals, which still sound like a mix of stuff like Vendetta, Tankard, Slayer and Defiance, a pinched anger that sounds angry and nasally enough, and is often laden with some nice reverb and effects for emphasis, but just doesn't inspire as much as the thrash greats do. Structurally, I think this is a fairly solid album, it delivers the full package you're seeking if you want second tier 80s thrash done in 2019, with the exception of having really memorable songs or even parts of songs that you've already got sitting around your music collection in droves. It's far from rubbish, but even with the interesting choice of cover songs added in, for Scorpion's "He's a Woman, She's a Man" and Entombed's "Supposed to Rot", both rendered appreciably into Exumer's pure thrash style, this album just doesn't give me any more than the basic nutritional content I can get from the average, competent thrashing. Even the title feels very bland and obvious, like they just threw two words together that fit the bill. I mean I guess at least is isn't Peaceful Defiance. I can't even evaluate it more highly than The Raging Tides, because while it might have stronger production, I wouldn't say there was anything else that stood above its predecessor.  I don't want to sound too down on the thing. Sure, it's good enough, but I want great.

Verdict: Win [7/10]