Sunday, May 31, 2020

Prong - Ruining Lives (2014)

The ground Prong gained with their 2012 'return to form' Carved in Stone was theirs to lose, and while Ruining Lives doesn't quite reach the same heights as its predecessor, it follows its example pretty closely, but actually intensifies the formula with some even more charged up aggression and speed. That doesn't translate into better songs, necessarily, but the audience would at least be snapping its fingers and necks throughout the majority of its 42 minute barrage. The eye impaled on the fork might have returned, but don't expect any return to the more industrialized, laid back grooves of the mid 90s Cleansing era, this is through and through a thrasher with just a few more of those catchy rock-oriented chorus parts here, but it by no means leans on them as much as the heaviness.

The lineup was stabilized from the prior effort, but there are a few production differences, for instance this one has a more caustic sound to the guitars which makes it hit a lot harder, perhaps a small nod back to the days of Force Fed, but nowhere near as brash, raw and atmospheric. The playing is dextrous and intense, the leads come flying at you like birds of prey crashing to the earth to snatch something up in their talons. Victor's guitars sound like he had somehow reversed his aging process, or maybe just showing us that he wasn't always lighting up the frets and whipping the hair around as he always could have been. This does occasion get Prong lost in the shuffle of other, more rapid fire thrash bands sprouting up at the time, but there's still enough here that sounds distinctly like this band that you they never scratch their identity. A few of the harder hitting, double bass driven progressions can be a little predictable, and this album has a higher ratio of forgettable riff patterns than the one before it, to the point that a lot of the tracks that relied heavier on breaks with the bass guitars ("Absence of Light") automatically sink their hooks in more because it stands out from the more exhausting heaviness around it.

There's still a degree of nuance and creativity happening where it can, and the vocals carve straight through you. In this particular mix they almost sound more futuristic, especially when he's layering down some backing tracks for himself, the limited melodic dynamics he spits out are very effective against the brickwork of the drums and rhythm guitars. I do think Campos got drowned out a bit here, you can hear the presence of the bass but it's just not competing at the level needed against these guitars, and seems like it just shadows them too much, except on a track like "Self Will Not Riot" where they get a little bit funkier and pop out more. Not a ton of tracks on this one that I ever find myself whistling when not in the presence of the album itself, but I found "Remove, Separate Self", "The Book of Life" and the others I mentioned in the review to be its strongest, and then of the rest you're at least getting some genuine fury like the opening combo of "Turnover" and "The Barriers". Not Prong's finest hour, perhaps, but still a damn sight better than Scorpio Rising, and at least it gave me confidence that Carved in Stone wasn't some late-stage positive fluke in their career.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Prong - Carved Into Stone (2012)

After 16 years of nothing consequential happening, I admit I had pretty much discounted Prong from ever mattering to me again. I could always enjoy the first decade of material they released and ignore the rest, but Tommy Victor and his latest round of recruits Alexei Rodriguez and Tony Campos had other plans, recording and releasing their best material in all those years. Carved Into Stone is partly a return to the energized thrash roots of Force Fed, but it brings along all the lessons the band learned after that in terms of production, and also some of the post-hardcore and groove metal influences, though the industrialized phase of the band had largely been phased out by this point (not entirely, see below). This record might not have all of their catchiest or best written tracks, but damn if it isn't a consistent and effective affirmation of most of the band's strengths leading up to it, and as far as I'm concerned this remains the band's benchmark for the 21st century; the formula they've been trying to maintain ever since.

Kicking off with what is arguably the band's purest thrash joint since 1990, "Eternal Heat", the trio plays in total lockstep, furious clips of Victor's thrashing guitars emphasized heavily by the drums and low end of the bass to create a flailing, punching entity that is easy to get excited about. As far as riff construction, there are tons of callbacks here to progressions from Beg to Differ, Cleansing and Prove You Wrong, even if they're not complete copies. Sticking with what's safe, perhaps, but doing so with a fury. Tommy's vocals sound so much better on this album than the two before it that it's almost like he had emerged from some sort of rehab. A lot of that has to do with the production, which sounds great with the backing tracks, and while even his melodic side retains that urban toughness you'd expect, it's the best he's sounded. You still get some of the grunting chorus parts, but they sound a lot more controlled and complementary to the music than they did on the unfortunate Scorpio Rising. The leads are also more energized and memorable here than on nearly anything else they'd ever come up with, and the whole affair is pure professionalism, and not at all to the detriment of the level of aggression they're meting out.

Also vital to the album is that they keep a lot of the very catchy choruses with the melodic chord patterns and slightly cleaner, more emotional vocals, "Revenge...Best Served Cold" being one that comes right to mind, a tune that would have fit right in on any of their 1991-1996 material. "State of Rebellion" is another highlight, and this one's one of the scarce love letters to their industrial side with those pumping bass lines in the verses and the creepy, shrill electronics in the background that make it sound like you're trying to solve a Scooby Doo mystery from the middle of a mosh pit. I can't even think of a truly weak tune on the album...even "Subtract" with its bland verse groove riffs is accented by a great chorus and skillful vocal delivery. The lyrics are quite good, some of the best they've had through their career, and even the cover art, while still staying simple, is at least less of an eyesore than the couple albums before it. I was thoroughly satisfied with this album when it showed up, and still break it out for regular rotations almost as often as I do the first five.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, May 29, 2020

Sinister Haze - Laid Low in the Dust of Death (2016)

The first thing that struck me about Laid Low in the Dust of Death is just how live and loose the production feels, almost as if the band had just plugged in, come up with a few basic stoner doom grooves and then let the tape spin. That's not to say it lacks any structure, just that it's so dependent on these simple repetitions that most of the groups in this niche could probably wing it. The goal here is to put the listeners into a bong swirling trance, let them just hook onto the patterns that their mind surely already knows if they're listening to a deep underground outfit like this one, and then let the smoke and nostalgia onward. I guess you could compare it to something like Sleep's Jerusalem (aka Dopesmoker) only in smaller chunks and with the caveat that the album is comprised of numerous songs, though they often sound a lot alike. For someone who actually finds that album as boring as dick, like I do, an effort like Laid Low automatically fights an uphill battle...

It gets a few meters up the slope before it stalls out, because there are some elements I do enjoy about it. I think the album sounds like it looks, proof of its own concept. I like the cover artwork, I love the band's name, and I think that stylistically they live up to that, only I wish they could do it with a little more musicality. The vocals are quite interesting and passionate, full of flaws as the guy fleshes out a limited middle range, but still evoking some passion and personality. Obviously a singer like Ozzy would be the starting reference point, but I felt a lot of other 60s and 70s fuzz and psychedelic rock creeping in there. Extremely bluesy, with some strained lines for heavy emphasis and also occasional effects that help it drift in step with the musical aesthetic. Another highlight is the lead guitar, which is constantly buzzing off into these trippy and tormented electrics which provided for me most of the real escape I'm hoping for on an effort like this one. The rhythm guitar riffs are quite generic in terms of chord progressions, but not unpleasant, and there are a few moments where they pick up and get a little jammier, with the drums grooving just a fraction harder. The bass tone is very thick and present, but also doesn't do much creative except anchor down the guitars, and match step with the acoustic, crashing drums that thunder below without any unexpected twists or turns.

This is the sort of album where, if you were to approach expecting nothing else but rudimentary, slow stoner rock played with a little more friction when it self-intensifies, you'd get what you bargained for, but I can't help feeling that about 50% more creativity would have gone a long way towards a more memorable experience. This would probably be best applied to the rhythm section, throwing us an off-center beat through the grooves. Maybe up the percussion used in the kit, go more tribal at points, add some fat bass lines that curve away a little further from the primary chords of the tracks. That might detract a little from the sporadic nature of laying out all these samey rhythms and creating a consistent hypnosis throughout the album, but in terms of potential musical value it would make up the difference. As it stands, Laid Low in the Dust of Death is rather tedious, barely more than what the doctor ordered, and if you've already heard any dozen of the other albums in this heavily saturated field then it's just the bare minimum of effectiveness.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Severed Limbs - Sores Galore (2018)

Severed Limbs is another of the Rogga Johansson solo projects where he's tackling some microverse of death metal influence by his lonesome without an established collaboration, and I think this one gets a severed leg up on some of his others in that it more closely resembles OSDM from the States more so than the total Swedish sound he often champions with a number of his higher profile bands like Paganizer or Revolting. Don't get me wrong, you'll still heat a bit of the similar tone and simplistic songwriting he can churn out faster than some individual scenes, but this one doesn't sound too much like it's trying to be any one individual or grouping of bands local to him. There was clearly a tongue in cheek sort of slasher/gore concept running through the earlier efforts In Each Scenario You Die and Collector of Limbs, but that's 'transcended' more into pure morbid horror worship here with titles like "Crushed by the Droid", "The Surface Waits the Hunter", "The Clock Says Devouring Frenzy" or "Submerged in the Sewers".

Sores Galore sounds like it was built upon the foundations of early Death and Obituary, with a dash of Bolt Thrower, Grave or Autopsy thrown in the mix. You've got those huge, evil chords you might remember from Cause of Death, but the creepy tremolo picked guitars are more Scream Bloody Gore or Leprosy. However, added to that is the sheen of muscle that is clearly descended from thrash and then carried forward by slower, groovier death metal bands. The rhythm guitar tone is quite good here, clear and powerful but has a nice crisp edge to it, and where the leads arrive they keep an appreciable contrast, even though they're brief and not too flashy. His growls here are also well done, more so than in his other projects like Humanity Delete, because they've got just the right amount of reverb to them, and they don't feel like a typical blunt guttural he'd use elsewhere. They maintain an aura of evil around them and have a little bit of T.G. Warrior hmph buried within, in fact there are even a couple riff breaks where I was reminded slightly of Celtic Frost but that would make sense as Obituary's better, early works were also clearly descended from them. The drums and bass here are functional but never stand out on their own, which is unfortunate since a few of the groovier riffs could have used some more interesting low end lines to make them catchier.

This is likely the sort of album of which you can predict nearly every chord pattern, but despite that it maintains an air of timelessness purely through the choice of notes and how those vocals and the whole mix of the album sounds great. I've been rummaging through a lot of Rogga's projects lately to see if I've missed anything, and I'd have to say this album does standout as one of the cooler ones and just a fraction distinctive from several of the others. That's not to say Sores Galore is great, but if you want a dependable dose of late 80s/early 90s style death metal, this one could have you nodding your head as you crank it out your speakers. Also really dig the cover artwork.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Humanity Delete - Fuck Forever Off (2016)

I'm assuming that Rogga Johansson initially intended his dozens of death metal projects to mirror certain individual traits of the many influences in the genre he was weaned on, but the problem with having such a prolific body of work is that the sounds of these bands all tend to bleed into one another to the degree that they become entirely indistinct. As the years continue to roll by, and his catalog becomes deeper still, this grows even more tedious. If you had plunked Fuck Forever Off down in front of me and told me it was the latest Paganizer, or Megascavenger, Revolting, or Ribspreader, I might not know the difference without the actual logo staring at me. Surely there are a few microscopic variations, in both production and composition, but largely any changes come with what personnel he's lined up to work with.

For Humanity Delete, one of his true solo projects, there really aren't's just Rogga alone doing what he's done many times before, and while that's often been good enough, here it just isn't anything of interest. This particular outlet started out with more of a death/grind sound, as I can recall from the middling debut Never Ending Nightmares in 2012, but much as Bolt Thrower evolved from that style, so too does Humanity Delete. The sound manifesting here is more of a straight to the face, slower and groovier variety of death metal which to me felt like a mix of early Grave, Dismember and Bolt Thrower. Spongy, thick Swedish tone, lots of chugging, some grooves, perhaps even some of the death & roll influence his countrymen pioneered. Leads happen at appropriate times but are largely ineffectual. The vocal style is a very dull guttural which is near impossible to distinguish from so many other efforts he's been a part of, and the rhythm section is adequate, with potent drums and bass that sounds thick but usually doesn't deviate too far from what the rhythm guitar track is playing. I think the production is overall well handled, it does give a modicum of depth and atmosphere to the material despite its blandness.

Don't mistake that I think Fuck Forever Off is in anyway incompetent, it's just painfully average. I actually look up to Rogga a lot, it takes some serious dedication to constantly produce albums like this one, this man loves this genre as much or more than any other individual on our planet, and he's got plenty that I'll still break out from time to time. But I don't think I could count more than three riffs on this entire 31 minute experience that I had any real desire to listen through more than once. Tone and style are 100% legit, but the music is just uninspiring whether it's plodding along on tank tracks or breaking out into a faster progression. The Joe Petagno artwork is cool, and as usual Rogga has a bunch of cool song titles like "Lairhunter", "The Hatchet Cleaves the Night" and "Flesh Panzer", but the music simply doesn't do much to evoke the concepts into something that will really fire up your imagination like the early death metal acts that this one venerates did in the 80s and 90s.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Prong - Power of the Damn Mixxxer (2009)

It's weird that anyone would feel that an average album like Power of the Damager would necessitate an album full of electro industrial remix tracks, but perhaps the band felt like they had strained a bit too much of that sound out of the album and wanted to toss the fans of records like Cleansing and Rude Awakening, or themselves, or the hypothetical industrial metal-based portion of their audience, a bone. Bring on a bunch of the band's friends from groups like Pitchshifter, Anthrax, Dope and even The Dillinger Escape Plan to tweak the knobs and see what they can do with this material, after all it was a partly forgettable experience to begin with, and perhaps this sort of collaborative experiment to bring out some sort of qualities in it we hadn't heard before...

I won't go that far in dubbing it a success, but what I can say is that Power of the Damn MiXXXer is at least far better than the atrocious Whose Fist Is This Anyway? remix EP from back in 1992. The mixers involved here seemed to give the tunes a good listen and try and extract the riffs, vocals and grooves into something almost dance-worthy that made sense. Granted, was anyone asking for an hour of industrial dance remixes from a band that had seen better days about 15 years before? Was a bargain bin KMFDM necessary when you could still enjoy (or endure) the real thing? Probably not, and this remains one of the more useless outings in the Prong canon, but there's no question that it was put together with some degree of care, with each of the original tracks being given its own shot at shining in this alternate format, and "The Banishment" getting two versions. Some of them feel like pretty generic rave beats with thrash guitars applied to them, but you do still get a little of the vague emotional impact from the choruses of the originals, even with those rhythmic differences.

One other thing I appreciated was that, having had problems with the production on Power of the Damager, a lot of that has vaporized here, as the guitars are given more cutting mixes, and in particular Tommy Victor's vocals actually sound far better here. A lot of the other things they added in like synth lines or industrial pulses are quite cut & dry, generic and don't show a lot of creativity if you've explored the techno or industrial genres yourself, but they'll do in a pinch. A few tunes like the title track get an even bigger evolution which almost feels like J.G. Thirlwell got to them, as in the original tune is abstracted more and its ideas translated more into the noisier synths and beats. This isn't necessarily a sign of higher quality, but at least Prong didn't want this all arranged to evoke too much monotony, you're getting a decent dynamic range, for instance the jungle mix of "Pure Ether" with the filtered, robotic vocals, quite a stretch from the original or even its neighbors here, but not ultimately that effective. So in the end, respectable, but I wouldn't say any of these were going to distract me from the better Prong efforts or any other EBM/industrial or electronica that I frequent.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Monday, May 25, 2020

Prong - Power of the Damager (2007)

Power of the Damager is by no means one of the highlights of the Prong discography, and it's nowhere near as distinct as the albums they were churning out through the 90s, but compared to Scorpio Rising before it, I had the sense that a metro commuter rail which had nearly fallen off its tracks had suddenly righted itself and then proceeded to the next station with few casualties. This album might best be described as the band's return to thrash, although it doesn't abandon any of the influences that had shaped Victor's songwriting in the previous decade. Another way to look at it is that's it quite similar to a record like Cleansing, only with most of the industrial bells & whistles removed for a more straightforward, street brawl structure that would more closely resemble how it was going to feel at a live event. Stylistically, also directly sets up the streak of albums to follow it, thankfully an era in which the group would get its groove back and no longer teeter on the brink of embarrassment.

This one comes out swinging, with a pair of punchy thrashers which actually deliver a small dose of NYHC in their chord constructions, while maintaining the pinches and squeals Tommy is so fond of embellishing his meatier riffs with. They could have opened up a Biohazard gig easily with some of this stuff. The guitars have this really processed, pugilistic feel to them which sound potent, but also can muddle up the rest of the mix. That's actually one of the areas where this one falls short, I just don't love how it sounds, perhaps a bit too bulky and I don't always love how the vocals and guitars drown out the little background melodies or even the drums. Also, there are a couple dumb grooves in tunes like "3rd Option" which by 2007 felt really passe even by meathead mallcore or nu metal standards around the turn of the century. Fortunately these are pretty scarce, and many of the riffs do deliver a modicum of thrashing entertainment, but I feel like a better production on the guitars would have made several of them shine a lot brighter. The rhythm section is as solid as always, but they do have to contend with that bludgeoning as well as a lot of Tommy's angrier brute vocals which have clearly rubbed off a little from Scorpio Rising, just not as awkwardly.

There's an EP worth of decent Prong material here, in particular "Pure Ether" and "Worst of It" which focus more on the balance of heaviness with catchier, melodic chord patterns that remind me of stuff they were doing on Rude Awakening or Cleansing that I liked. These aren't also without production issues, for example Victor's vocals on "Worst of It" sound almost like a badly mixed Mike Muir, but musically they get their point across and I enjoy the blend of thrash and post-hardcore elements. A few others also deliver, but on the whole I think you could erase half this material from existence and nobody would really miss it, possibly not even the band. However, I don't mean to imply that it's at all terrible, whereas Scorpio Rising made me cringe a whole lot just to get at the painfully few tasty bits, this one sees them in regular rotation, only they aren't being served well by the production choices or the weirdly 'blunt' cover artwork. See what I did there?

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Prong - Scorpio Rising (2003)

I don't think there's any question that Prong was already flirting with groove and nu metal on their 90s albums like Cleansing or Rude Awakening, and they were possibly even an influence on a few of the bands in that style; but Scorpio Rising was the first unfortunate instance in which they themselves started to adopt the style to the point where it felt intrusive and distracting, like they were trying to bring on some of those more modern influence and in the process dumbing down their own unique aesthetics. This was not as shocking, or as awful as, say, Diabolus in Musica, because Tommy Victor and friends eased us into this evolution It's not quite the disaster that some of the bigger metal bands ran into as they were trying to court an even more mainstream audience, but it IS bad, the worst Prong album in the discography and remains awkward to listen to even today.

The riffs here are mostly big, dumb groove metal riffs, not the first they've written, but they don't really stand out as other than flexing some muscle in a niche that had already gotten annoying and tired even by the early 21st century. They still have some nods to their industrial/thrash era as in "All Knowing Force", but even then those aren't as good as "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck" and a few come across as just bad Ministry wannabe progressions. The bass playing is still quite pumping and fun, but when you haven't really got any good riffs to play under it also eventually dips into the inevitable mediocrity. The drumming is fine in that groovy hip hop style with some occasional industrial programming embellishments, but by far the biggest offender on the album are the vocals of Tommy Victor. Sure, they still sound like he always has, but he adds in these over the top gorilla grunts to his already gruff style and it ends up sounding too moronic to take seriously. On a track like "Embrace the Depth" he's back to himself and it doesn't sound so bad, he can surge into one of those catchier chorus parts, but there are other times here where I nearly had to shut off the album it was just so goofy sounding. A few of his howls even sound like an angrier, burlier Glen Danzig, so it seems like the other, bigger bands Victor had played with (or would play with) rubbed off here, and the lyrics are largely awful...

I can't completely decimate this album, because about 30-40% of it sounds like the band did in the decade prior, but apart from a few of those splashes of more warm, melodic chords, the bass lines and a few of the chorus vocals, this is just weak. The better songs like "Assurances" and "Out of This Realm" are wedged pretty deeply into the album, but they wouldn't be enough to save it even if they were the first two in the track list. Maybe it was all that time off, Tommy was just trying to rekindle the flames of what Prong was prior, but mix in a few flavors of the week, a process that clearly worked in the previous decade but just falls apart here. At its best, Scorpio Rising is just lazily copying previous material, but at its worst it's unintentionally hilarious. Not the sort of career nadir I'd want to run over with my car like Load or Virtual XI, but this album just seems so unnecessary in retrospect, since they've done a pretty decent job with most of their other output. Even the cover artwork on this one left something to be desired. Is that a skeleton with a beetle head wielding a scythe? What the fuck does that have to do with anything?

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Prong - 100% Live (2002)

When Prong re-emerged after a five year hiatus, the longest yet in the band's career, they did so with their first full-length live album. This wasn't the first time they'd given us the uncut experience, as they had a Peel Sessions EP and another rare live EP that I've never actually had my hands on; but 16 years into their existence seems like a respectable time to produce such a product and one would assume this would be handled professionally, especially since they had such a great run into and through the 90s. Well, 100% Live, cultivated from a couple gigs in the Midwest, certainly sounds decent enough in terms of its mix and even the song selection, but I don't know that it was necessarily arranged to have a lot of impact on the listener, to give him/her that same rush of seeing Tommy and company on a stage.

What I mean is that the track listing here, as presented to the fan, seems a bit too mellow up front, where you'd expect them to start off with some ragers and then get a little more dynamic as the sets progressed. "Rude Awakening" is an awesome song but it's a little too subdued to kick off a set from a band built on thrash, and then after that they launch into a chuggy tune called "Initiation" which was entirely new to us (they'd later change the name for Scorpio Rising), though it did build to a decent chorus that would have felt at home on the two studio albums before it, some nice bass lines from ex-Lizzy Borden player Brian Perry (who would not appear on any of the studio material). Proceeding into "Broken Peace", a track that doesn't quite work as well within the organic live environment as it did in the studio, there's a real sense that the band is kind of phoning it on or taking it a little too easy, not because they're cocking it all up but because of how they structured this. Even when they take on a more aggressive tune like "Another Worldly Device" it feels a little sluggish, the one real exception being "Disbelief" when they reach straight back to their roots and go hardcore wild, or "Cut-Rate" from fact there's just a chunk of material near the end of the live album that seems more driven and ferocious than the rest and it stands out too much, including the finale, "Unconditional".

I think you can also notice small production differences in some of the material which is always the risk when you're not just pulling it from a single source, and even though the wilder closing tracks might seem less cleanly produced, they're so much more fun. Don't get me wrong, I like almost all the songs on this album in their studio incarnations, but the whole industrial/groove arsenal in their sound has never seemed to come across live as well as the classics which sound awesome. All told, 100% Live is certainly not a bad representation of their chops, but it just seems inconsistent in the context of a record that's you'd think was supposed to thrill the audience at their return. A better arrangement of the tracks would have done wonders for this one, as it stands I'll just be sticking to their studio works because there's not much reason to revisit this.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Friday, May 22, 2020

Prong - Rude Awakening (1996)

Rude Awakening was another of those heavily divisive albums of the 90s, by a band that was constantly reinvigorating itself by layering in more influences than the hardcore punk and thrash which fueled it so heavily in the decade before. After a somewhat successful LP with Cleansing, they decided to shift further into their electronic fetish, and the result was an album incorporating everything from industrial embellishments, hip hop beats, bouncy groove metal riffs that mirrored some of the burgeoning nu metal of the day, and even some moody alternative rock which would structure some of Victor's vocal stylings and how the band would assembled its verse and chorus structures. Like its predecessor, it somehow managed to make all of this work, to fuse it onto the urban rusted framework that has always supported the group's atmosphere and lyrical disposition, and evoke a timelessness that pervades the stylistic migration of their first five full-lengths.

I absolutely loved the production on this one; whereas Cleansing was a bit more level instrumentally, this one is heavily saturated, fatter and really grooves along hard. Paul Vincent Raven provided the bass guitars for the second time, and his tone is awesome, these rumbling bass-lines which always enhanced all of Tommy's drudging, basic chug-laden riffs, and his more interesting squeals, pinches, melodic chords and other trickery that created such a well-rounded, exploratory sound. The drums feel a lot more electronic this time around, basically a blend of Ted Parsons steady mechanistic style and some actual programming, but as someone who was also playing around in an industrial band in the mid to late 90s I really enjoyed how it all came out. Sure, some of these beats are mighty basic, but when you listen closely you can hear all of these little beeps and gleeps and percussion effects that keep them interesting even when a few of Tommy's duller chug riffs are playing over them. At times this album feels like some dudes picked up a basic drum machine, pressed the pre-sets for some trip hop beats and then just let their imaginations splash all over that, and while it might seem crude or 'boring' to some, it forced Victor and company into creating some catchy riffs and vocal lines to help entrance the listener.

The vocals are the same blunt street-ready philosophy we'd always gotten, perhaps flirting a little bit more with rap or poetry in a couple of the verses but not too distanced from where they were on the 1994 album. I have to say the first three tracks on this remain some of my favorites in their catalog, from the jerky, slamming "Controller" that sounded like an industrialized Chaos A.D. outtake, through the insanely groovy and subversive "Caprice" and its adorable electronic melodies, to the more mellow, catchy, pop-like title track. Sure, it had a fairly awful spur-of-the-moment rockstar video courtesy of Rob Zombie, which does not at all represent the song's message, the album, or the band, but I'll try not to hold that against it since I've been listening to this one for almost a quarter century now and never gotten tired of it. These cuts do overshadow a few of the other tunes, to be honest, but even the weaker, less interesting tunes have some addicting vocal lines or effects which take my fingers off the skip button, and there are some deep, hypnotic grooves in cuts like "Without Hope" and "Slicing"; or a slight spin back to robotic thrash metal with "Mansruin", a tune likely to please that 90s industrial metal audience weaned on "Stigmata", "Ultra" and "Jesus Built My Hotrod". No surprise really that Tommy would go on to play with Ministry himself for awhile as Raven did.

It would be easy to write off Rude Awakening for the variety of influences tainting the band's original thrash concept, or because of its unfortunately parallels to the bad metal trends of its day, but it comes together really well, simplistic but engaging and memorable, almost like a automated factory version of Helmet, who were also trending hard at the time (and rightly so). Another of my favorite Prong albums, even long after its novelty had worn off, and I'm always happy to break it down off the shelf and go exploring through it again. Sadly, this would be the last album before the band would go on a sizable hiatus, before returning with something less creative and/or interesting, but in the interim Victor got to play with Ministry, and even Danzig, where he remains today in a more lucrative role.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (there is no kindness to waste)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Satans Taint - Destruction Ritual (2019)

If the cover to Destruction Ritual is any indicator, Gustafson wasn't about to deviate far from the Satans Taint debut album, possibly diving a little further into the generic Viking theme pasted on to the project, or at least its artwork and typography. This was a slightly higher profile album than the first, since it seemed to get a limited CD release through the rekindled Megaforce imprint, and Bobby decided to work with a couple of the same musicians, so I went into this expecting some cohesion and improvements. Unfortunately, there is still a bit of the stylistic inconsistency and disconnect that dominated its predecessor, with the two vocalists flipping back and forth between a higher pitched, almost Joey Belladonna style vocal with Halford screams and then the harsher, biting THRASH vocals. Neither of these guys is a slouch for his respective style, mind you, but the album just never seems to settle into anything and it almost constantly feels more like a 'recording project'.

To me, the first track here "Sumbel" was a decent power/thrash style song and I wouldn't have been put out if the whole album continued along this thread, but as soon as it launches into the meatier thrash of "Sorry You Were Ever Born" I was already feeling that thread unravel. It's not a terrible song, but wants very badly to be 90s-00s Overkill with a different vocalist. The keyboards in the chorus were a surprise, but they too feel at odds with the rest of the track. And then, to capitalize on its downward spiral, it launches into an awful, Pantera-like groove metal track, and there are a number of others which also fit this bill, immediately turning me off; don't get me wrong, I'm not some hater for the original, but unfortunately so many of their bar-level knockoffs are less than compelling and can't really match the attitude. Amusingly enough, there's a "Skullkrusher II" track here which mirrors the doom vibe of the Overkill original, from Bobby's last studio album with the band, and it's actually a half-decent one which is better than most of the other songs you'll find here, not unlike how "Gothic Serpent" stood out on the debut. Had Satans Taint been a doom metal band with the same singer, I think you'd hear a lot more about it, because it's fairly tight...

Instead, we get a lot more of the ho-hum Viking thrash, which isn't lacking for some energy and keeps a pretty professional style, but just feels like a lot of other throwaway 'modern' thrash circa the later 90s or early 00s when it wasn't exactly taboo to return to the form, but bands still peppered it with a lotta unwelcome groove metal elements from the past decade. Rhythm section is solid over the course of the album, and Bobby's tone has that same saturated bite you remember from the 80s, only a fraction more modernized, like Germany's Destruction through the last 20 years. It actually sounds great when an actual decent riff happens, but they are in scarce supply throughout Destruction Ritual and a lot of the banal chugging is just sleep-inducing. In fact a lot of these riffs would have cured insomnia back in the 80s. I know I'm being harsh here, but this sophomore is yet another record which doesn't play to its strengths. It's poundingly heavy, but fleshed out with too many effortless filler rhythm guitars. Bobby's a very good guitarist, hell he played on my favorite Overkill album Taking Over, but this just doesn't have that magic. I did read somewhere that he recently started playing with Vio-lence, and his tone and style are an amazing fit for their style, especially Eternal Nightmare and Oppressing the Masses, so I'm a lot more hopeful for what might come of that. Destruction Ritual isn't awful by any means, but I found it a small step below even Axe to the Head of My Enemies.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Nebular Moon - ...of Dreams and Magic (1999)

Much like a religious fanatic who starts speaking in tongues, I find myself becoming possessed whenever I have the hint of some metal band in my brain whose material I've owned or listened to before, but that I suddenly can't remember in name. I think I've heard so many tens of thousands of records in this genre over these last four decades that I've started to develop gaps in the gray matter, and I often find myself paralyzed until I can figure it out. Praise be to the INTERNET, for all its social media horrors and other negatives, that it can be a useful aide for my particular condition. It was the sophomore album of Germany's Nebular Moon during my latest episode, which I remember acquiring at a local import shop along with a whole pile of Century Media, Invasion Records, Head Not Found, No Fashion and Last Episode releases. Four of those labels are now apparently defunct, have been for some time, and I find that truly saddening, since they were such reliable hosts to a lot of lesser known but worthwhile black and melodic death metal bands developing over that decade.

Perhaps Nebular Moon were not among the most inspiring or distinct of those rosters, but since my mind went through the somersaults of remembering this record I figure I'd damn well write about it so that its existence sticks with me forevermore, since its music obviously doesn't. I feel that I've never entirely explored the German scene, so prolific from that point until now in the black metal medium (as with others), but I don't know that this quintet ever really stood out among it. What we have here is basic, competent black and death metal, probably leaning more to the former, often played slowly and miserably in melodic doom territory, and then dowsed in synthesizers which accordingly provide for most of the emotion and atmosphere that wells up over its 40 minute run-time. That's not to say that there aren't a decent variety of riffs being played, but I found a lot of them pretty limp and uninteresting, switching between stock chord progressions that underlie the synthesizers, tinnier melodic lines, and some tremolo picked sequences which don't really conjure up the hellish-ness the album could use. The vocals are a crude snarl, often accented with some guttural backups, solemn choirs, screams and others which seem bent upon giving the album a more Gothic/black metal appeal which it never quite achieves. The drums are alright but they're not given a hell of a lot of great music to play along with so they are reduced to mere functionality.

I don't want to be a complete downer on this one, because there are a few points, like in the songs "Schwanengesang", "Awakening in Black Thorns", or "Beyond the Sky" where I'd occasionally get swept into what they were doing, largely because I have a soft spot for this style when its played well, or played at all. Considering how much atmospheric black metal would continue to (and still continues) to take off these days, it seems like ...of Dreams and Magic is just one of those many albums that a handful of the style's practitioners might have heard and taken a small amount of collective inspiration from. When it all hits its stride, and you have those decrepit rasps alongside a shimmering synth line and a decent guitar pattern, and then it all erupts into a black metal charge, I do feel a little of ye olde excitement. I also love the cover artwork, the band's logo, and the general mood of what they were attempting, but they really only pull it off for about half the album. The lyrics are a bit of a mixed bag of laughable Gothic metal stereotypes: 'I desire her body, which is fine like a lotus bloom'. 'And the voice of silence started to cry', 'My skin awaits your aching kiss on my neck'. By laughable I mean borderline hilarious, but during the age in question I suppose they were pretty standard attempts at the whole Cradle of Filth shtick.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Monday, May 18, 2020

Satans Taint - Axe to the Head of My Enemies (2017)

Gotta be honest...I don't know what Satan has to do with Vikings, so the name itself of former Overkill guitarist Bobby Gustafson's solo project already bears a bit of incongruence with the title font, symbology and lyrics that adorn it. This was excusable back in the day, I mean 'Elizabeth Bathory' doesn't have much to do with the Vikings either but I was 100% okay when Quorthon went down that path in the late 80s. I suppose we could assume that 'Satans Taint' could be a Christian perspective on what fueled their Scandinavian assailants, so I'm willing to look past it, but then I become distracted again because I don't know if the 'Taint' refers to the influence upon their black hearts or the devil's package. It all matters little to the musical content, just throwing it out there that it was a bit off-putting right up front, and I'm probably also being a bit of a dick...and maybe not for the last time as I cover these solo efforts.

Axe to the Head of My Enemies starts off quite well, with some deep synthesized choirs brooding over some melodies before Bobby's trademark thrashing begins. You can definitely trace a line from his work in Overkill straight to how some of these songs are composed, as they often riff back and forth between mid-paced neck jerking rhythms and faster charges, reminiscent of a meatier version of those 80s albums he participated on like Under the Influence or The Years of Decay. The guitars are heavily distorted to really churn out a mosh-worthy thrash tone, but still pretty clear, even a bit of a clinical feel to them when he breaks out into some more melodic note progressions that reminded me of groups like Germany's Paradox in a few spots. Vocally, his two guests use a pretty harsh style, nasty and quite good for the style, which they round out with some growling, often full-bodied like a Chuck Billy as they bark out the chorus to the opener "Asatru". In other areas like "Killing Spree" you can tell they're going for a Bobby Blitz like formula where you've got a heightened, energetic series of lines that stand out with that same frenzied energy, although they're obviously not nearly as striking as his former singer. All in all, I'd say the vocals are handled well enough considering their disparate styles.

But then the album sort of shits the bed with another Overkill parallel, the groove metal of "He Who Wore the Crown" which is similar to the slower, Sabbath-like material his alma mater also started to explore right around the time Bobby exited that band. I guess if you really enjoy banal bluesy metal in the vein of Black Label Society this might interest you, but I find it dull as a board, with no new twists on the riffing to make it memorable. The vocals do still sound solid, but Satans Taint is no Trouble, I'm a' leave it there. Unfortunately this kind of swagger infects a little bit more of the taint than I'd have liked. "Gothic Serpent", where he channels Solitude Aeternus and Candlemass, is actually a decent tune. He also dips his mead horn into the death metal realm a little in "Gutpile" and "Battle of Bravalla", where the guitar tone sounds good, and there's nothing necessarily wrong, but it further dilutes the focus of the album, almost like Gustafson is just trying his hand at a number of styles to see what sticks. He's not at all 'bad' at any of them, but there are some really weak, boring tracks here like "All Out War" which feel like dumb tough guy death/thrash metal, predictable chugging riffs, and they sort of diminish their neighbors. There are a few guests loaning lead guitars here, including James Murphy, but most of them are forgettable.

I think there was probably a decent EP of consistent material here..."Asatru", "Battle of Bravalla", the instrumental and "The Hammer of the Cross" which could have thrived as more of a thrash variation on the Amon Amarth 'Vikings for Beginners' aesthetic; and also I thought "Gothic Serpent" was a good avenue to explore, but I don't think this debut quite gelled for me overall. It's an independent release, so it's quite likely this was a feeler to gauge reactions before settling on a more particular sound, but I'm not not hearing a lot of memorable content beyond its mere competence. Axe to the Head of My Enemies seems a little half-formed, but not lacking for some professionalism.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Vallenfyre - Fear Those Who Fear Him (2017)

With A Fragile King, Gregor Mackintosh and company really seemed to be onto something, a blend of Swedish old school death metal with his melancholic Paradise Lost style guitar lines mixed in, but they seemed to slightly mutate away from that for the underwhelming sophomore Splinters. That record had a dirtier mix courtesy of Converge's Kurt Ballou, similar to other bands he had worked with (Trap Them, Black Breath, All Pigs Must Die, etc), and while that might have given it a little more savagery and street cred, it was the music itself which was increasingly lackluster and ultimately unmemorable. Three years later they would return to Kurt to record Fear Those Who Fear Him, an album which barks up much the same tree, but reaches an even lower branch.

This album definitely plays up the most of the three to its Swedish influences, and sadly becomes a pretty faceless affair at a time when there are just so many B- and C-tier acts who have oversaturated the niche to the degree it almost doesn't feel that heavy anymore. Sure, I'm an eternal advocate for the style, but it relies so heavily on atmosphere and QUALITY riff writing, which so many lack, and I find that a good number of the tracks here are just punctual, boring bursts of energy which have no redeeming riffs whatsoever. I feel as if the band could have just written 20 of these tunes and put out a deathgrind album for Nasum fans, only not remotely as good. For these sorts of 2-minute numbers, it doesn't seem like much effort was put into the guitars at all, just falling back on the production and tone for all its CRUSHING HEAVINESS which would mean a whole lot more to me if it was done by delivering some decent music. Cuts like "Kill All Your Masters" and "Nihilist" don't capitalize on anything but the barking vocals and d-beat fused aggression, maybe you'll get a wiry, spastic little lead but that's about all the surprise you can expect.

Where this album slows down a bit, as in "An Apathetic Grave" or "The Merciless Tide", and Gregor gets more into his doom comfort zone, is where I was able to wrench out any enjoyment of the sound. Not because these are exceptional tunes, but once in a while you got an attempt at one of those sad melodies, and the tone of the guitars is more of a benefit to those dreary chords. Mid-paced rockers like "Amongst the Filth" are also slightly better than the blitz tracks, but I'll maintain that I can't recall a single memorable rhythm guitar track through the entire album at any pace, just a whole lot of 'get it done' stuff that could be churned out almost instantaneously by musicians like this with little preparation. The drums sound heavy as hell, the whole album does, and you might get a little death metal break which feels so raw and old school and evil, but then the next tune will be some rubbish that wasn't even worth putting on tape. I'd say there's a passable 15 minute EP here, built largely of the longer doom tunes, which is unfortunately mired in mediocrity, and a production aesthetic which serves the aforementioned acts a lot better than it serves Vallenfyre. I don't imagine the band itself was much interested since they dissolved not long after this one dropped.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Darxon - Killed in Action (1984)

An album like Killed in Action is always an interesting one to approach because it's a veritable dead end...a black hole on the heavy metal landscape. Sure, the Germans would go on to produce another couple albums and an EP, and various members through its  active years would move on to other groups like Bonfire or U.D.O., but you just never hear anyone talking about Darxon at all. Heck, I've even had conversations specifically about unknown Teutonic traditional metal of the 80s and this group wasn't brought up. After spinning the album for myself, I think it's reasonable, as these guys were certainly not achieving anything that wasn't already available in spades by the middle of the decade in which it was released, just total straightforward heavy metal, molded almost entirely from its influences without a ton of personality of its own. I don't even know where the name came from, it sounds like some 8-bit import arcade shoot 'em up from Japan, or some generic evil wizard from a failed fantasy novel around the same era.

But none of that is to say Killed in Action is all that bad for an obscure debut. It gets the job done as long as you're expectations are little more than a standard set of energetic, rocking riffs that carefully straddle the border between cheesy hair metal and bad ass street chops. Vocalist Massimo de Matteis, who was with the group through all their recorded output (as far as I can tell), had a mildly distinct voice which felt like a fusion between the Scorpions' Klaus Meine and some of David Coverdale's higher pitched, emotive crooning, with a bit of an earlier Biff Byford Saxon attitude. Lots of blues in his intonations, not without some flaws but definitely putting some effort in. The guitars are super basic amalgamations of 70s Judas Priest, some Accept and maybe even a little old Van Halen for good measure, but almost unanimously lacking in the catchy department unless you're a true die hard who simply finds comfort and enjoyment out of this style. Admittedly, I do sometimes fall into that much as I hoo and ha about progression and uniqueness, I've still got a steel heart for this sort of thing and did not much mind my listens through the record so that I could talk about it.

Rhythm-wise, there's not much to brag about the merely adequate bass lines and beats, they don't generate a lot of power other than keeping time and filling out the bottom end of the mix just enough so that you'll notice it's all happening. The leads on the album are also pretty barebones and not quite different than what you'd find on a lot of throwaway glam metal albums around the same time. I did notice that whenever Darxon tried to get heavier, or a little faster, they seemed like they could have been more exciting, for instance the closer "Stormbringer" with its vintage Saxon vibe; but then the band always seemed to check itself and ensure that what they were playing was fairly inoffensive, standard fare that might make it onto the radio. I'll give a few extra points for having tracks called "Simile of Evil" and "Holy Macho" (what?!?), and some sort of Yeti or Wendigo thing scowling at me from the cover, but Killed in Action is appreciably average by every sort of metric I can apply to it. That said, if you DO scour the backwaters of metal history for low-rent heavy metal I don't think this would take a piss in your ears, it's at least got the fundamentals down. I don't know if this is around in any official format today, it was released several times on vinyl but other than that you might need to grab a download or a bootleg.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Friday, May 15, 2020

Prong - Cleansing (1994)

I don't think you could listen through albums like Beg to Differ and Prove You Wrong and NOT think Tommy Victor had a fascination with industrial or electronic music. While those were organic thrash manifestations for the most part, there was clearly an undercurrent of clinical, machine-like riffing, beats and production which made an album like Cleansing almost inevitable. But it's not until this 1994 effort that Prong embarked on a more even split between its thrashing roots and the electronic experimentation; I'm of course excluding the remix EP from a couple years prior which was an abomination. What I'm most impressed with, is that rather than merely aping the flavors of the day, such as Ministry, who were enjoying massive success due to Psalm 69 and steady touring, they made something of their own out of this stylistic crossbreeding. Not to say that there aren't a couple riffs here, as in "Whose Fist is This Anyway?", which Alain Jourgensen might have penned himself, but this one manages to stand out and even outlive a lot of other US industrial rock bands why fell by the wayside somewhere around the late 90s when emo and nu-metal started to bifurcate their projected audiences.

What really surprises me is just how laid back this record is. Similar to Beg to Differ it's exceedingly simple and subliminal in how it's constructed. While there are programmed beats occasionally, they were still leaning on Ted Parsons for the actual drumming, and he sets up a well-produced set of grooves here that give all the guitars, samples, and pluggy little bass-lines room to work upon the listener's expectations. The rhythm guitars are extremely minimal patterns, but even where they feel familiar there is something refreshing about how they serve the overall aesthetic of the album. The tone is punchy and processed, but works equally well whether Victor is cycling through some of his basic palm mutings or the more expressive, dissonant, often warm open chords that are used to detail out some of the verses and choruses. Tracks like "Another Worldly Device" and "Cut-Rate" are still heavily rooted in the thrash we'd come to expect, but the band really stretches itself out with things like the funky guitar line in "Broken Peace" or "Not of This Earth", which twists a riff similar to "Hell If I Could" from Prove You Wrong into something that almost sounds like a darker Jane's Addiction. Another interesting piece was "Home Rule" which reminded me a lot of Voivod with its jarring, wonderful chord progressions and the swerving bass grooves.

Of course, this is all brought into the Prong stable by Tommy Victor's blunt voice, which connects this all to their greater body of work, and fits in really well with the mechanistic blueprints whether he's going straight at the mic or putting a little industrial filtering on their. What further thrusts this into that genre is the liberal use of sampling that sits just behind the main instruments and vocals, almost as if its afraid to truly intrude, but loud enough to matter when categorizing Cleansing. There are political/authoritarian rants, crowd chants, and machine noises in there, all adding to the sonic palette without detracting or distracting. I can't actually pick out a weak track in the bunch...perhaps there are a couple overly repetitive passages on the album, or a few groove metal licks that are a little too generic in retrospect, but this one manages to fill out nearly an entire hour and maintain its consistency and immersion, all the way to the catchy but mellowed thrashing throughout "Test". I've mentioned that the album felt 'laid back' to me, but I don't want that to imply that it lacks energy; it's aggression is simply focused on the robotic nature of its rhythms, the tautness of the lower end guitars that is counterbalanced by the delicious processed open chords which appear later.

Even within this small microcosm of Prong's sound there is a good dynamic balance which leaves me with a fulfilling impression for one of my favorite albums in their whole 30+ year history. This was also the hottest I think the band had ever been thanks largely to the MTV video rotation for "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck", which was also lampooned on Beavis & Butt-head. And deservedly so...this was a still a band hungry to explore what it could achieve, never balking at stretching its parameters and as a result we've got about a decade of quality albums which build upon their predecessors in interesting ways. For me, the streak didn't end here.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (all the spaces between bleed)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Prong - Whose Fist is This Anyway? EP (1992)

This EP always struck me as a rather strange, unfortunate sort of experiment, the main reasons being that 1) the track "Whose Fist is This Anyway?" isn't even present, though it would appear a couple years later on the Cleansing album. I suppose they could have just thought it was a clever title and then one that deserved to be used for more than just a largely throwaway label-filler release like this one, but in retrospect anyone encountering that album first would probably be confused when they were tracking this down from the limited catalog Prong had available at the time. 2) I just don't think industrial/dance remixes of tracks off Prove You Wrong was bound to work out all that well, and this sort of thing could have waited, again for Cleansing, of which the material feels a lot more adjacent to being techno-fied, industrialized and otherwise fucked with.

What's more, this is just bad...this is possibly the worst release in the entire Prong discography. The electro mixes are almost all awful, with few changes other than clanging and banging and annoyance that people would have only thought made for good industrial music in the early 90s. Okay, to be fair, sometimes they did, but the strength of Prong is the riffs, vocals and energy and it just doesn't benefit a track like "Prove You Wrong" or "Hell If I Could" to be fragmented off and repurposed like this. The latter is particularly bad, a series of boring beats and bass-lines that suddenly morphs into the proper guitar riffs and some heavily filtered vocals. Granted, that vocal effect might have been cool in the original tune, but here it just feels like a bunch of buttons are being pressed, and that's one of the critical flaws...'What would this part sound like if we added this effect?' is fun for dicking around in the studio with your buds, but later turning it into a commercial release in some wishful attempt to align with the KDMFMs and Ministry's of the world just isn't effective here. And ALL the alternate mixes of their original songs here are laughable at best, like the miserable 'Safety Mix' of "Irrelevant Thoughts", a song I happened to like a lot. And there are TWO mixes of "Prove You Wrong" which both suck...

Interestingly, they also remix their Stranglers' cover "Get a Grip (On Yourself)" so now it sounds like total nonsense, and then they add a cover of The Music Machine's "Talk Talk", which might be the best tune on here only by the process of elimination, but is otherwise mediocre enough that I'm happy they didn't soil Prove You Wrong by including it. They turn the song into a bouncing bore that doesn't do much justice to the original and certainly isn't interesting in context to the great material I enjoyed from Prong throughout the 90s. So basically this entire release is useless musically, a waste of 26 minutes. The cover image is kind of interesting, I like how they split the 'prong' icon into the three circles, but that's the most memorable thing about it. I enjoy the first five Prong albums a lot but this was a very unfortunate misstep which at one point had me dreading what might come after Prove You Wrong. Luckily, that turned out a LOT fucking better than I thought.

Verdict: Fail [2.25/10]

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Prong - Prove You Wrong (1991)

Prove You Wrong is one of those really unique records of that early 90s period which I didn't take to at first, apart from a couple tracks, but later started to grow on me (like Kreator's Renewal), to the extent that now I put it on almost the same level as Beg to Differ, which was an album that a lot more thrashers I know paid attention to. I encountered a nearly unanimous disregard or disappointment towards this one composed to the two albums sandwiching it, probably because the sophomore was their big label debut right, in before the thrash genre started to wane, and Cleansing was carried on the success of "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck". At any rate, this one actually sounds better to me now then when I first heard it, so whatever production choices were made have really stood the test of time, whereas Beg to Differ does seem a little less potent mix-wise than I remembered in my youth, not that it really dulls the music, but Prove You Wrong is louder, bolder, and more organic.

This is also a very transitional record, with feelers to both the band's thrash past, and the industrial, alternative and groove metal that would dominate the remainder of their 90s output. Hell, even the cover here, with its great sculptures of the band's iconography, reminded me a lot of what a lot of alt rock/Lollapalooza types were using back in these days. Troy Gregory of Flotsam & Jetsam stepped in to replace the departing Mike Kirkland, and while it might not be a prevailing opinion, I thought Troy's tone here hit a little harder...the bass lines were always fairly thick, but here they're quite corpulent and it stands out more. In fact, the production on the bass is one of my favorite elements to this one, it's perfect. The drums and some of the rhythm guitar riffing patterns here aren't a far cry from Beg to Differ, with a focus on very simplistic, memorable, mechanical progressions. There is no lacking for energy, with the opening volley of the tribal, pounding "Irrelevant Thoughts" and the more traditional thrashing of the excellent "Unconditional". Victor was continuing to grow more confident in his vocal abilities, so the slightly higher pitched lines from the prior album were growing even more developed and melodic when he'd hit a chorus here, and his presence is pretty seamless whether the trio was thrashing out hard or experimenting more with the title track, which has almost as much in common with a band like Primus as Prong.

As great as "Unconditional" is, most of my favorites on this one come in the middle; "Hell If I Could" with its eerie, dissonant verse riffing and fat bass lines during the choppy chorus; and "Torn Between" with that amazing groove riff. "Brainwave" is another highly, one of the more taut thrashing bits and one that might have fit the most with the material off the first two full-lengths. The later chunk of the album remains solid but it doesn't quite live up to some of the material before it, despite their honest attempt at a cover of The Stranglers' "Get a Grip (On Yourself)". There are no bad tracks, but had it ended with "Brainwave" or the instrumental "Territorial Rites" it would feel more consistent overall, and this is why I hold a fraction below Beg to Differ even though there are aspects of this disc that are much stronger. I have to say I find this underrated, I know I've seen people complain that it was too groovy, almost a proto form of nu-metal in places, or that the album feels rushed, but apart from 7-8 minutes of bloat I just can't agree with that. It's another unique, forward-thinking effort. Prong could have written a grunge album or started crossing over into death metal like a lot of other thrash bands of the era, but instead did something altogether different, and this wasn't at all the last time.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (uninvited with open arms)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Prong - Beg to Differ (1990)

If Force Fed had a vibe that channeled the filth, detritus, and decay of dense urban existence, on a street or subterranean level, then Beg to Differ was quite the opposite, with a polished, corporate, clinical feel to it that was quite a slap in the face when I first heard it. Not to say that the two albums don't share the same thrashing DNA, but apart from the few connecting tissues like Tommy Victor's vocals and a few of the guitar patterns with his patented pinch and squeal, they could have been two different bands and I would have been none the wiser. This was yet another example of how Prong really felt out its first decade with some steady shifts in style and production, while somehow maintaining its core attitude; a band that was able to modernize itself through changing times without in my opinion really dumbing itself down too much...unless you thought it was all dumb to begin with, then touche.

Guided by its iconic Pushead image, this record marked the band's major label signing to Epic, which likely had something to do with the cleaning up of their sound. This one's slick and accessible, rather than rollicking in the grating, grimy crunch and atmosphere of its predecessor. I reckon this was considered a bit of a 'thinking man's' thrash album at the time, at least among other fans I knew, not because it was highly technical or challenging, but because it honed in on a stricter sense of groove and rhythm, almost subliminal patterns emerging through the compartmental thrashing in tunes like the title track, and its extremely simple but effective riffing; the mellow chugs of "Your Fear" which lift into that great little guitar lick behind Tommy's vocals in the verses; the great "Intermenstrual, D.S.B" which at times reminded me the most of an instrumental that would have fit right in with Force Fed if only it were noisier; or the almost mantra-inducing creep of "Prime Cut", which is one of my favorite tracks in the band's catalog. In addition to his really interesting guitars, Victor also expands himself here as a vocalist with some more subdued whispers, a slightly more melodic tint to his inflection, although there are plenty of the good old grunts here to maintain the aggression.

There are still some fist-pumping thrash anthems here, like the opener "For Dear Life", but even there this new direction is apparent in some of the vocalizations and rhythmic choices. The other 2/3rds of the tiro, Kirkland and Parsons, sounded great here also, again...not too flashily proficient, but the solid bass tone and almost tribal fills and rhythms make the perfect accompaniment to the thin punch of the guitar tone and the bluntness of the vocals. A couple of transitions here or there feel a bit jarring and just seem like a rush to get a new riff going, but honestly the whole album is consistent in that there's rarely a track where some progression didn't get my lustrous teenage locks flailing around in the air, and I still feel the push and pull of its mechanisms in follically challenged geezerhood. The lyrics and minimalist but insightful, often abstracting away from their subject matter where other Eastern Seaboard thrashers of this age were hitting things right on the nose (you don't accuse Nuclear Assault or Overkill of any subtlety). In truth Beg to Differ is just as distinct as the debut, if not quite as excellent, and it's still a great example of a band trying to write its own language out of a musical trend; not to the extent of a Voivod, but certainly in that ballpark of distinctiveness. It's also the establishing shot for their more mechanical albums to come through the 90s.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (be true to our grudges)

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Scintilla Project - The Hybrid (2014)

The Hybrid is one of those 'music inspired by the motion picture' albums which was meant to accompany a film without actually featuring music from the film. The film went under the same title, although it was also known as Scintilla, a sci-fi horror flick that I've actually seen before, but remember little about, apart from the alien hybrids having these really freaky eyes that gave me at least one nightmare not long after viewing it. So it's possible a track or two from this might have popped up in the movie and I can't remember. at any rate, why I'm writing about this is because the spearheads behind this were drummer Lionel Hicks, prolific drummer and the producer on the film, and none other than Biff Byford, the mighty vocalist of legends Saxon, and I whom I believe was at some time a resident in Huddersfield, where the film was shot. They're joined by a host of other British veterans like Gizz Butt of the English Dogs and producer/Sabbat-slinger Andy Sneap, to name a couple.

I was kind of crossing my fingers for some of epic spin on the Saxon sound, and though I'm not always satisfied with the results, that's exactly what this is, an album that transports Byford's blue collar, distinct presence onto the bridge of a rock opera-like vessel, where he capably takes the helm. No big surprise, since his vocal style has always translated well to whatever minor mutations his mainstay has made throughout their extensive career...the AOR sounds they strove for in the 80s, or the more power metal leanings the band has taken on for several of their records in the last couple decades. At times I was reminded of something like Ayreon, only without the large cast of singers. Mid paced crunchy metal anthems dressed up by a lot of orchestration and proggy synthesizers that help elevate the album towards the higher concepts of its subject matter. I guess if you can imagine Biff fronting a group like Celesty or Vanden Plas, you're in the right ballpark. There are a couple notably heavier moments where the guitars get a little more intense, but most of the chords and chugging patterns here exist largely to thrust the orchestrated momentum forward and create a foundation for his voice, which is easily the star of the show.

I wasn't even aware that Biff was a big sci-fi fan, although I know there have been a few tunes in his repertoire (like "Metalhead") which played with such subjects; but I'm glad he is, because he does sound quite fantastic here like he usually does, with a lot of great sustained lines and more melody inherent to his grainy, unique pitch than one might think. A track like "Angels" uses his voice as well as anything I've ever heard, sounding awesome against the beats and symphonics. John (Yannis) K of Biomechanical and Balance of Power performs the synths and keeps quite busy here; they're well integrated in the mix and applied with taste, even when they're almost completely carrying the music as they do in "Some Nightmare", one of the most glorious tracks of the lot, he manages not to overdo it, and when the lead guitars slice in they take over as they should. The production is totally pro here, highly polished without leeching away the power from the metal instruments at the core. There is one Saxon tune present, "No Rest for the Wicked" from Call to Arms, all synthed out here so that it fits in with the rest of the material.

It's a solid record, provided you don't mind hearing one of the NWOBHM's brightest singing on an album that is more dramatic, grandiose and accessible than those of his mainstay. It's almost a shame that we're unlikely to ever get more of this, or that it seemed to turn out a mere vanity project that didn't make many ripples, even among the Saxon fanbase. A few tunes are blander than others, and when it comes to guitar riffs, there aren't many that stand out, since they're generally so basic and foundational. Also, the feel of these tunes doesn't quite reflect the sci-fi/horror vibe of the film as much as the lyrics might, but that's just a matter of my own interpretation.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Massemord - Ekstremist EP (2020)

A lot of the details for this new Ekstremist EP from the Massemord international lineup seem familiar from the previous album Luciferi Imperium. Cool looking guy on the black & white cover wielding a firearm, this time a different firearm, against a woodland backdrop, potentially from the same photo shoot, but at a different angle. It makes sense, since this is included with that. And I believe the musical content of this six-track recording mirrors that sense of marginal departure from what came directly before it. This is barking up the exact same true, pure Scandinavian black metal assault with few bells and whistles, excess atmospheric dressings or any real sense of identity that you might be able to pick out of a lineup with so many similar releases across the last 25-30 years that you've been enjoying (or not enjoying the style).

But once more, I didn't care about any of that as I was getting my face hammered in by the material. Ekstremist, as its title might imply, is more intense than its predecessor, with a faster double header to open the album in "Behead the Prophet" and "Enslaved by Darkness". The material here still reminds me of Carpathian Forest, whether its blasting away, or especially the potent mid-paced numbers like the early verses of "The Chosen Ones", but the majority of the EP is fast and loud and a lot of fun, in particular "Ekstremist" with its thrashy, evil breakdown, impulsive, mean rhythm guitars, and a great lead section, not to mention gruesome rasped mentions of "Satan...." which will have you smiling ear to wicked ear and trying to keep your serpent tongue from lolling out of your mouth. It's all mixed loudly and brashly and doesn't give a damn, and in my opinion the experience is better for it.

The only downside is that the last two tracks are demo versions of pieces off the previous album, "Serpent" and "Chaos Within You", and for me this felt like a bit of filler, as they don't noticeably enhance the quality of the demo overall and seem a little redundant despite the differences in their production. Not a big deal, especially if you're getting it all in the same package anyway, but I did think the first four tunes were superior and gave me a much harder kick in the nethers. Overall, what I said about Luciferi Imperium still applies...if you haven't had enough of the originators in this style, if you can pull your attention away from the various progressions and evolutions that other artists have undergone, or if you think all of that should be melted to slag anyway, then there might be a place for nowadays Massemord in your collection. I think there's room for it all, and I think the energy and passion these guys obviously have for such a straightforward style shines through.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Massemord - Luciferi Imperium (2019)

Initially, the Norwegian Massemord wasn't a band I spent much time hunting down, partially because of their general obscurity and probably also because I was more enamored with what I had heard of the Polish band with the same name. Through the years, as I've gone back to revisit their backlog, I've grown to appreciate a few of their records, particularly the 2003 full-length debut Skogen kaller; some well-written, appreciably enough atmospheric black metal. A couple countries and lineups later, the group is still out there, ready to make whatever statement a black metal band can with a cool pic of a battle jacketed hesher in a humble amount of corpse paint and a pistol pointed straight in your fucking face.

And I have to say, the charms and wiles of Luciferi Imperium are just as direct...slower to mid paced black metal which is just as true to its own history as it is to a lot of what some purists demand from the genre, with few to no outside influences or cross-pollination. Sometime's that enough, and as I crank up the album though my PC speakers, the mix of melancholic and evil chord patterns and the raw, wartorn rasp of Sicarius help carry this one towards appreciation. There's little sense of nuance or surprised through any of the tracks, nor are there any sorts of riffs that you won't have heard a thousand times in the past if you've ever deep-dived into this genre, but the album is dynamic and humble enough that I didn't really feel the loss. The beats can get a little brazen and loud, like some of the percussive breaks in "Inri", but the rest of the mix is level and effective at making you feel like you're being stalked through the woodland by such a maniac. I especially like the vocals on this, the slightly sloppy syllabic delivery really drives the whole thing home as a love letter to its medium.

I've probably got hundreds or thousands of these mid-list black metal records lying around in my CD piles or promo folders, but there's just something timeless about the style, that when performed to a degree of competence, doesn't fail me. There were stretches of the album where it felt too creatively dry to hold my attention, but then I readjusted expectations and got drawn back into its riff patterns. The album doesn't really ever threaten to bore you since it's barely over a half-hour in length. If I were to make a more specific comparison, it reminds me of Carpathian Forest circa 1998-2003, but not quite as memorable in either the guitars, drums or vocal departments. It's definitely better than a couple of the other Massemord records in the past, though I think the debut still has the most appeal. Those who aren't already settled in with their old 90s black metal records from this scene might at least catch a whiff of semi-stale nostalgia, burning wood for the past when music like this was considered dangerous and exciting...although the compositions themselves aren't terribly so.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Prong - Peel Sessions EP (1989)

Once upon a time, The Peel Sessions was like an MTV Unplugged, only for cool people, featuring cooler bands, and not unplugged. John Peel was an eclectic English radio host who would promote all manner of underground musical genres by having bands perform a quartet of tracks live on the air, and a good number of these were turned into commercial products. This has actually become quite a popular premise in the age of YouTube, with several radio channels or online shows hosting lots of varied bands in comfortable little studio settings and giving fans a free, concise show. Back in the early extreme metal scene, names like Carcass, Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror were part of this, and the Peel Sessions arguably helped grind and deathgrind reach some of its highest visibility...or audibility ever, during the late 80s and 90s. Prong was an interesting case as one of the few US bands to be broadcast, naturally it tended towards the British bands who were more local to the radio channel itself.

The trio's choices leaned heavily on Force Fed, their most recent album at that time, with "Decay" and "Senseless Abuse" represented, while Primitive Origins is present through "In My Veins". The final selection was pretty interesting, "Defiant", which would be the B-side on the "For Dear Life" single to promote the forthcoming Beg to Differ. It's a passable tune, one can see why it wasn't rhythmically interesting enough to make the album itself, but what really surprises me the most is how it sort of set the tone for all the material here, which comes off cleaner and tighter than you'd expect from the band's first two official releases. On the one hand, it shows Tommy Victor and crew were quite proficient and professional in the live arena even at this point, and on the other that the direction of their material would be using a punchier, more polished guitar tone. Although the songs sound fine in this context, I do admit that they lost a bit of their edge and volatility for me, but then again live sounds offer differ for many bands; there's simply a small chance that you'll always be able to reproduce the studio conditions in either a live venue or live broadcast.

I do think the bass line suffer here a little, drowned out by the snap of the drums, that pugilistic guitar tone and the Victor's McGruff the Crime Dog vocals, but otherwise it all sounds pretty smooth, the playing nearly perfect to the studio recordings. I doubt I'd ever go to grab this when I prefer the more uncouth Force Fed versions of the songs, but it's cool to hear "Defiant" as I have never owned the single it appeared on. This is another of those releases which has been out of print now for going on 30 years, and so today it serves largely as a collector's item and tribute to Peel's legacy of having on great bands which he saw something in, many of which have gone on to steady or illustrious careers despite having little to no coverage in more mainstream access media outside their genres. It was a little more exciting when it came out, I remember grabbing all the cassette versions of these when I could find them, but few of them had anything I didn't already own from the bands on their albums.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]