Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Machine Head - The Burning Red (1999)

I don't know what could possibly possess a band to spend years listening to and touring on an album like The More Things Change and then come to decision that they need to do this again...but that seems to be the motivation behind Machine Head's third full-length The Burning Red. If there's one difference here it's that the guys are clearly trying to sound a lot more like Korn than they already did, so you can bet the chug-laden hip hop influences are being cranked up to the extent that even Diabolus in Musica might be embarrassed to be found in its company. Full disclosure, as I've said before, I don't actually have a problem with the idea itself of mixing rap music with heavy riffing, it's just so rarely that I've heard it done well. If I do, it'll have my respect. Most of the nu metal bands who flirt with the idea take more of a rhythmic influence from that hybrid, with the bouncy beats, lyrical attitude, bass lines and guitar tricks that are attempting to emulate record scratching or other stylistic translations.

Korn had already worn us out on that with their first 2-3 albums and Machine Head doesn't seem to accomplish much more than that several years later. So if you're truly enamored with Life is Peachy or Roots, get on with your bad self, but I think The Burning Red is notably worse than either of them. Robb does try his hand at rapping in the actual lyrical delivery, as in "Desire to Fire", and that comes off just as goofy as you'd imagine, you can just picture in your mind the hand movements he'd be making as he was bouncing along in the studio. I'm not saying he's the worst at it that I've ever heard, but once it surges into that lame chorus groove which sounds as if it's just been replicated off the last album, it just becomes too unintentionally hilarious. Add to that the monotonous crooning he adds to try and keep it all in the radio realm during the age of Creed and Alice in Chains, and we're in for one dumb fuck of an album. But it doesn't stop there, because that's basically the formula for almost the ENTIRE experience...dull churning nu metal guitars, rapped out pissed off lyrics, funkier or dissonant guitar lines and almost no ability whatsoever to turn in an interesting chorus. I mean come on, even Linkin fucking Park can deliver on the chorus, the best Robb Flynn and the bros here can accomplish is to sound like Limp Bizkit's steroid-addled cousin...or like a Jonathan Davis with far less personality and equally dumb lyrics.

When this formula IS abandoned, it's to go even further into post-grunge woozy commercial 90s heavy rock territory with the 'emotional' parts like the verses in "Silver", which just sound like some drunk guys trying to get their Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Silverchair on. The lyrics once again come off like some distraught middle schooler who really wants you to know all the pain and castigation he's been through BUT HE IS STRONG AND DON'T FUCK WITH HIM...as long as it sounds personal, has no capacity to engage anyone with genuine intellectual depth, and rhymes, let's pay ball. They read like the lyrics Fred Durst would have come up with if he was doing an audition for Hatebreed or Madball before they jettisoned him from the rehearsal space moments later. You could literally punch Durst in over Flynn on "Exhale the Vile" and not know the difference. Give me any lyrics about Satan, Vikings, motorcycles or B-movie bloodbaths any day over this nonsense! The cover art sucks. The cover SONG sucks..."Message in a Bottle", how original...Excel did a great version of that a whole decade before this lazy and laughable execution. Maybe when you were in Vio-lence and actually had an ounce of talent, you should have paid more attention to the other thrash bands from your State?

Verdict: Epic Fail [2/10]


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Machine Head - Take My Scars EP (1997)

Why does Japan get all the nice things? Alright, the adjective 'nice' is debatable when discussing any of Machine Head's garbage, but the point stands that in decades of musical obsession I've run across loads of albums and singles that are fattened up for sale over there. Granted, they pay a higher price than we do on a lot of these goods, but even for something as lowly as this EP you're getting a lot more content. Really, Take My Scars is more of a single, featuring the titular track off The More Things Change and then a B-side cover, a couple of demo tracks (oh boy!); but the Japanese edition also includes nearly a half hour of live material. Now, I couldn't tell you for the life of me who this would be for...I know the band was and likely remains within the 'Nu Metal Top 10', but was there really a huge market for copious maxi-singles from bands like Korn, Sepultura or Machine Head?

I've made my opinion on "Take My Scars" clear, it's a crappy nu-metal jam that sounds like it was strung together from the first few notes that popped up during a jam session, boring chords that do nothing other than emulate a primal hip hop groove with a little hardcore anger. That track is here in both a studio and live incarnation, and doesn't sound less awkward in either. I think the big draw on this would be the cover of Nirvana's "Negative Creep", which plays it pretty close to the original only adds a little fatter guitar tone. Robb's vocals are lower pitched than Cobain's, but he throws in a lot of wild screaming that almost make me wish he would just do that more often in his own band. In fact when listening to this it sounded a lot like another of the Seattle grunge bands, Tad, who I enjoy, covering Nirvana, and that alone makes it superior to all of Machine Head's original material here. The two demo tracks sound awful, nothing more than rougher cuts of what you hear on the radio and they don't improve anything except having that bridge to a more live atmosphere.

The five live cuts are from the band's limited two-album run at the time, and in terms of recording they do sound alright, provided you're already a fan of sub-mediocre music. It does sound a little messier, more pissed off and the hardcore parts on cuts like "Blood for Blood" sound even more hardcore and heavy in this context, so there is that to say for it. Of course if you aren't tracking down this very version of the EP then you won't hear those at all. Ultimate, Take My Scars isn't a product I'd recommend to anyone, but then again in general I wouldn't recommend any of their stuff, at least not for a big chunk of their career...let's explore further and hear if there are any diamonds in the rough.

Verdict: Fail [2.25/10]


Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Machine Head - The More Things Change... (1997)

Where Burn My Eyes sounded like it might have at least been extracted from some fossilized metal DNA of integrity somewhere along the path of its inception, The More Things Change... is little more than a giant, blubbery surrender to the most vapid and idiotic nu metal trends of the 90s, and revisiting this sophomore was admittedly both hilarious and embarrassing as I tried to scrape the dregs of the barrel and find anything, just ONE thing positive I could actually say about it. This is basically a mix of the first two Korn albums, Sepultura's Roots, and a little of the Biohazard and Sick of It All influence returning from the debut, manifest though the least shitty riffs found here, in tunes like "Stuck a Nerve", if only because bland hardcore riffs are far less obnoxious than the alternative Robb Flynn is providing us.

I suppose the production is fine for what it is, Adam Duce's bass tone standing out here against the churning, boring chords and the occasional higher pitched, primitive droning guitars which are used to add at least some other sort of dimension to the material beyond just the grooves. And these are absolute rubbish nu metal riffs, which took next to no time whatsoever to conceive as they merely bounce back and forth between maybe 2-3 chords max. The band does reach out to create a few added dynamics as in "Down to None" with its dissonant guitars over a slower groove, but even there the results are little more than ennui as they can't ever seem to capitalize on a less throwaway riff with anything explosive or interesting. "Take My Scars" is a prime example of how bad this is with its mindless, lazy chords, and how Flynn tries to inject some mid-ranged doped up Alice in Chains style vocal to create a contrast or chorus to the roiling nothing below. The Rage Against the Machine guitar 'scratches' and angry hip hop vocals are also hilariously lame. The lead guitar, as basic as it is, almost seems out of place for trying to be too ambitious to what this album is all about, the cheapest cashing in on the LCD of metal music.

Now I'm not opposed to really basic riffing structures, grooves or breakdowns if they're written well enough, hell I'm a pretty big fan of Helmet records like Meantime and Betty, which are likely also influences that rubbed off on some this mid-90s Machine Head era. But these guys just lack any trace of personality, it's as if you stripped down the already-basic ideas of nu metal, took away any of the goofy costumes or vocal gimmicks of the more visible bands in that scene, and came up with a generic blueprint on which to teach grade schoolers how to jump da fuc up with their wallet chains flailing around. The cover font, lazy, the cover artwork, pretty typical stuff that looks like half the proto metalcore records I used to have in the early 90s, and the lyrics are about of trite garbage like "So c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, we gotta wake up!" Are you also down with the sickness? As a general rule, the more atmospheric the album gets, where it doesn't rely 100% on the dumb nu metal bounce parts, the material becomes ever more tolerable, as in "Blood of the Zodiac", which is tucked away at the end of the track list with its eerie intro, primal pensiveness and bluesy, sad solos. It's hard to believe this ISN'T the worst album in the band's catalog. Can it get much worse? Hold Robb's beer.

Verdict: Fail [3.75/10]


Sunday, June 21, 2020

Machine Head - Burn My Eyes (1994)

Machine Head is a bad band which becomes even more tragic for me when I look at what some of its members had accomplished years before its creation. That's not to say that Burn My Eyes is in any way the Californians' career nadir, far from it, but when I compare even this earlier effort to the first two Vio-lence albums that Rob Flynn played on it becomes instantly disappointing how much the guy absolutely sold the fuck out to whatever was trendy during the 90s. To be part of such kinetic, vicious, nearly flawless thrash metal like Eternal Nightmare, fully capable of causing the mullets to frenzy about and moshing to naturally erupt without the need for cheap breakdowns, and then later start up a band for which banal tribal tattoo mosh culture was the entire impetus to exist just comes across as depressing. Perhaps he was burned out with the diminishing success of his alma mater, who themselves were decreasing in quality as the changes in popular culture demoralized the second and lower tier thrash acts to try their hands at a more mall-accessible brand of heaviness, but virtually every effort I've heard from this band has felt like a dull slap in the face with a side of stale, bruised beef.

To be fair, Burn My Eyes is at least someone in touch with its thrashing foundations. Flynn and crew were unquestionably listening to bands like Biohazard and Pantera, probably also closely following the path that Brazilians Sepultura were taking, and this debut feels like someone had packed, beaten and kneaded those flavors into a rough thrash taffy by the pier. The focus is clearly on making big dumb grooves to hold the tougher audience elements' attention span, hip hop with chords and chugs, but then the band lacked the NYHC street cred, or the overbearing personality of Phil Anselmo's vocals, or Dimebag's ability to compose such sticky riffs. Burn My Eyes gets some credit for me though in how Machine Head manages to balance off its dynamics and give the meatheadedness some atmosphere. Part of this is accomplished by having such strongly produced drums, they really thunder around here and make even the more primal and predictable riffs stir the blood more than I'd have otherwise expected. Adam Duce's bass-lines sound pretty good throughout the album, thick as a brick. The shouted vocals are also well mixed to tap into the caveman genes, and they do occasionally manage to alternate some other tempos into the 'jump da fuc up' riffs which are probably the money shots the band and Roadrunner were counting on. There's also a little tendency to incorporate some mechanical higher pitched guitar lines in to flesh out the groove, I'm occasionally reminded of Prong circa 1990-1994, although Tommy Victor was far better at writing good music.

I mean if you just got out the gym back in the mid 90s, grabbed a copy of this over at Tower Records and had a little testosterone left to channel, I can imagine that the gut punching duo of the singles "Davidian" and "Old" would have been the best thing ever! Unless of course that you already had been listening to metal music for any length of time before that and realized that the aggression in the medium doesn't always need to be so tailor fit toward its most shallow instincts. Flynn tries to spin a lot of the tough guy sustain on his vocal lines, but he's just never had the bravado of Anselmo, or perhaps it's that he was lacking the Southern accent that put Phil over the top. He actually sounds like he's half-way between THAT Phil, and another Phil, Rind of Sacred Reich. The rappy vocals on songs like "A Thousand Lies" were mirroring Biohazard, but in that case lack some of the goofier beefcake charm of those topless, chiseled Brooklyn brutes; and a few of the cleaner lines seem like they lack confidence, as in "None But My Own" where they sound sort of drugged and dopey. Guitars grooves here like the breakdown in "None but My Own" sound like they're just doing their best to mimic stuff from A Vulgur Display of Power, although I'll cut some slack in that the very structure, mechanistic patterns seem to live up to their namesake.

The lyrics are far from the worst I've read from a lot of the groove metal bands of the 90s, but still just a combination of pretty obvious cliches about personal suffering and strengthening with some topical remnants of the 80s thrash that the band grew out of. The cover artwork is awful; is this weird blurred out guy copulating with the person in front him, or is that supposed to be the same dude head banging hard and being caught in various positions of the act? Whatever the answer, bro, it definitely makes me want to burn out my own eyes, so I can't blame Machine Head for false advertising there.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]


Thursday, June 18, 2020

Bait - Revelation of the Pure (2020)

Bait is another in a succession of European bands to blend together the ideas of post-metal, hardcore and sludge into a forceful, cohesive sound, not really allowing any one of the primary influences to overpower the others. While a number of similar acts seem just upon the precipice of making the hybrid memorable, this band won me over almost immediately with its dark, dynamic sense of rhythm, enormous and effective production values and seamless integration of atmosphere and aggression. Revelation of the Pure is an impressive showcase of rage and melancholy which feels like you've been run right up against a reef of bared emotions and then before you even get the chance to straighten yourself out it starts tossing you around on its stormy surface until you're boneless.

Floods of haunted, mournful chords charge along over this thick, pumping bass tone which often gives off the impressive of an evil, more muscular Fugazi if it were soaked in angrier hardcore. The wall of sound created by the guitar not only anchors you with those heavy low-end chords but also with these ceaseless streams of atmospheric, higher distorted notes which just fleshed out their style so much that I found it hypnotizing. The drummer is a powerhouse, with perfect fills and kicks that keep it all from lapsing into chaos, and pair him up with that bass, some of the more dissonant riffing and the vocalist's energetic mesh of hardcore barks and black metal rasps and this will totally mow you down. I'd almost liken it to the more interesting, unique metalcore bands of old like Coalesce, Botch, or Keelhaul, only viewed through that darker lens where the post-black influences are just as important to how the songs are woven. Tracks like "Lightbringer" and the title cut had right on the edge of my seat, I had to hold myself back from moving, which might have looked really silly all alone in my small office, but this band...just...has it. I admit that I've not always been highly receptive to a lot of this style of material sent to me by labels like Les Acteurs de l'Ombre, but this one just nailed me to the cross and left me hanging there in a dazed, bloody, bruised stupor.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Bog Wizard - From the Mire (2020)

When an album starts off with a sample from the good old Moral Panic era of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, you know it's dialing my number, and yet the hits keep on coming throughout the first Bog Wizard full-length record, an effort that attempts to not only serve as a paean to the trio's fantastical die-rolling inspirations, but also to live up to the band's handle, the title, and the wonderful comic book-like cover artwork. From the Mire sounds like a slow journey through a wilderness sump, slowing down the movement rate of the party considerably and snuffing out your light sources while swarming you with insects, reptiles, and things danker still. It's an exceedingly simple record which goes all in on volume and bong-swill atmosphere, and takes its time to club the listener into submission. But hey, when you're stoned and tied to the tracks, it doesn't matter so much if the train's coming slower...it's still going to roll over you.

As with a lot of comparable bands, the key here is just to lull you in with some enormous, Sabbath-school groove and the hazy vocal patterns, but Bog Wizard isn't afraid to interchange their multi tracked hippie death chants with more extreme growls and snarls, and the latter don't really sound bad at all; in fact I wouldn't have scoffed at having more of them, as you'll hear in "Shapeshifter" where they sound ferocious and have an incredible sustain on some of the lines. That said, the cleaner vocals certainly fit in better with monolithic cuts like "City in the Mountain" or their lumbering ode to that unkillable mountain of teeth, claws and flesh known as the "Tarrasque". The guitars are minimalistic, chunky and heavy, a good counter to the more atmospheric effect of the vocals, although I wasn't a huge fan of their production, which was a bit too thick and syrupy on the heavier parts, with the bass getting a bit in the way of the rhythm guitar. It reminded me a little of some of Bongripper's material, in fact the sound overall reminds me of them, only there's a major difference in theme, whereas one is more focused on the drugs and suffering, this trio has the more structured traits of traditional epic doom, and for a DM and player like me, more compelling lyrical themes.

There's also a greater dynamic range across the substantial track-list, from proggier psychedelic escapism like the instrumental "Gnarled Cane", to the use of clean guitars and atmospheric leads throughout that prevent any sort of repetitive ennui from setting in. "The Orange Goblin" is another one which is different, almost a sludgy post-hardcore vibe to the riffs which are a little faster than usual and work well with the nastier vocals. Alas, it didn't turn out to be a cover of that band's eponymous tune on Frequencies from Planet Ten, but I like to think it's some sort of spiritual nod. I found the drums throughout pretty solid, although as with the guitars, the mix isn't quite rounded out yet, the snares in particular were a little thin and felt weak against the guitars, and some of the lower pitched drums also got lost at times. There's a little padding later on in the track list, I liked the idea of the "Fireside" instrumental more than its execution, and the howling ambient short "(And Stay Out)" seemed unnecessary. One other gripe is that they also front loaded one of the least interesting tunes in "Submission in Defiance", it chugs along ala Cathedral but there really isn't a terribly strong riff in there. Cuts like "The Wizard in the Bog", "Tarrasque" or the massive "Swamp Golem" are much more effective and really brought me into the album...

But that's the key, they DID bring me into the album, and while there is certainly some tweaking to be done, further room for growth in production and the layout of the tracks, I enjoyed the blend of crushing riffs, chant-like vocals, growling, marshland molasses pacing and fantasy themes. Fans of Witch Mountain, Dopethrone, Belzebong, Windhand, Acid Witch and Demon Lung might want to get these guys on the radar and track their sinking steps through the muddy slough of doom.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Prong - Zero Days (2017)

Zero Days frontloads what I believe to be its least compelling track, "However It May Ends", one of the heavier here to be sure, with a big brute Biohazard groove and some stock thrashing passages, but even there you can tell they're trying to round it out really well with a cool, melodic chord pattern behind the pre-chorus. That's not to forgive a lot of the vapid, boring chugging that fuels it, but I doubt too many people would hear this opener and feel like the band is in any way lacking an energy far beyond its years, even if you cannot stand the somewhat lackluster creativity of the riffs. While this is a symptom of a few tracks on the disc, I'm happy to say that overall this is the best of the albums since Carved Into Stone, and the effort that went both the production and variation is more than apparent.

Like X - No Absolutes before it, Zero Days plays like a sort of career retrospective packed into a singular experience that is streamlined through the loud, punchy production. You've got a lot of material here that is pretty much pure thrash, weighted by walls of dense palm muted riffs that are likely trying to keep it heavier and relevant with a lot of the popular styles of the 21st century. A lot of attention to detail is given to the lead guitars, and there are even obscure little tributes I noticed in a few of the songs. For instance, in the title track, there's a point where you're getting these hyper picked, dingy little guitar rhythms behind the bridge which remind me a whole lot of the tone and style on Force Fed. Some of the note progressions and structure of "Rulers of the Collective" feels a LOT like "Rude Awakening", almost as if they took that track and just remade parts of it, tucked it away on the latter half of this album to see if any of us were paying attention. These are probably too subtle details for many to pick out, but I just wanted to reiterate how cognizant this record is of the stuff Prong had written before it.

That said, they do try new patterns, catchy chorus parts we've not heard before like in "The Whispers", a cut that partly feels like it would have been a natural on Cleansing. "Interbeing" is one of my favorites, opening with a very Testament style thrash riff and delivering on some of Tommy's most interesting and almost robotic sounding vocals, with a pre-chorus and chorus that really paid off. "Divide and Conquer" is another fresh-feeling track with some nice bass effects, and a bit of a Helmet feel only through that more mechanical Prong lens...again, another very strong chorus which wouldn't be out of place on the alt rock radio. New bassist Mike Longworth fit in smoothly with a huge tone and plenty of moody lines that enhanced the tracks, primarily in the verses, although he would soon be replaced by Jason Christopher's return the following year. The lyrics are solid, Victor turning in the consummate professional performance all around, as he should with the massive level of experience he's got writing and touring in some pretty huge bands. Arturo Cruz, who ironically would be leaving himself after this, also has a flawless contribution, drumming that can flex with whatever style Prong is cycling through at any given instant, and emphasizing the groove and heaviness, even where it feels the most generic. And that's about my only real complaint, some of the heavier riffs here are just too bland, been there, done that, even predictably djenty in "Compulsive Future Projection"...and everything else just deserved better. But it's still a good album if you're willing to embrace its broad appeal.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Friday, June 12, 2020

Grave Circles - Tome II (2020)

Grave Circles' full-length debut Tome II is an exemplar on how well-placed and plotted atmospherics can transform what might otherwise be considered a bare-bones black metal recording into something far more memorable and transcendent. A sequel to the Ukrainians' 2017 Tome I EP, they've conjured up seven tracks in 43 minutes which convey an extremely consistent stylistic pattern, but possess just enough dynamic variation and range that the entire package seems bleakly satisfactory. With so much of their sound still rooted in convention, it would be incorrect to apply them a tag like 'progressive black metal', but instead they embellish the grim core of the medium with a few welcome and unexpected ideas or instruments that only expand the compositional quality.

Oblique, churning black metal with driving percussion is permeated with dissonant thrash riffing passages that lend it some balance and clarity, as well as a number of forays into cleaner, haunting guitar repetitions which manage to maintain the nearly depressive mood. Brass instruments are successfully implemented into the tracks "Predominance" and "Abstract Life, Abstract Death", and rather than giving off a jazzier or big-band aesthetic, they feel like esoteric, brooding architecture that works so well with the pitch darkness of the metal. The drumming is well fit to the rest, restrained for the more eerily soothing sequences with the clean guitars, but shifting into tribal, thundering grooves or blast beats where called for. Deep choirs often ramp up the haunting somnolence, while there will occasionally be some break where a more melodic tremolo picked black metal land will elevate the musical landscape an octave above its morbid foundations. The bass is dim and dingy and does not often stand apart from the guitars, but it lends a thicker texture to the simple, primordial patterns of chords and a little added punch to those more thrash-minded rhythm guitars.

The vocalist here, Baal, is actually the current drummer for infamous black metal outfit Peste Noire, so there is one French connection, along with Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions, the label which is giving this its proper CD and vinyl releases for 2020. His timbre ranges from a gravelly and effective rasp to a more guttural intonation, and I definitely loved the painful sustain he'd put on some of his higher pitched lines, which were borderline DSBM. Combine that with the horrifically grim art and layout of the attractive digipak, or the lightless pessimism of the lyrics, which fucked me up several times as I was reading through and listening, and you might get the impression that this album would fall rather solidly into that niche of black metal. But Tome II has less of a raw, distant, frostbitten or knifing, sound to it, and more like an immediate murkiness that is creeping upon you from the black soil and cracked bedrock, so I wouldn't quite place it into that category, but more as a go-between for those who like their candles snuffed out but to later survive the experience. Either way, a strong and recommended release for those with a diet of dread and hopelessness.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]


Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Prong - X - No Absolutes (2016)

The tenth Prong full-length once again revisits the bands hardcore thrashing roots, drawing a lot of parallels to their early offerings like Primitive Origins and Force Fed, with the caveat that they've kept on board the modern production choices that defined a lot of their other 21st century recordings. It's arguably got one of the better studio sounds they've every pulled off, at least for the ears of a contemporary audience used to the clarity and loudness rather than the rough edges that outlines a lot of thrash records back in the 80s. X - No Absolutes has its moments, but ultimately I found the album a little frustrating in just how many of the tracks were so close to being great, but just didn't have quite enough of a catchy riff-set or chorus to totally stick with me; it's an album I 'like', but one that could have easily been a 'love' with some further tweaking.

Now, while I stand behind my earlier statement that this was a band going for a more stripped down and straightforward flashback to their formative style, that's not to say they completely abandon the steps they've taken along the way. You'll still traces of the groove metal of the lame Scorpio Rising on a few cuts like "Without Words", although it's more effective and better-written, butting up against the more uptempo crossover/street thrash a la "Sense of Ease", or "Cut and Dry" which brings back a bit of that mechanical oomph that structured records like Beg to Differ. They also still use a lot of the more melodic chorus parts in tunes like the titular "No Absolutes" with a pretty decent harmony. A lot of focus goes onto the lead guitars throughout the album, and while few of them are really what I'd describe as a show-stopper, they're all competent and effective in their respective tracks. Tommy's voice sounds fantastic and distinct as it almost always does, effortlessly channeling both the urban bluntness and the more occasional melodic phrasings that keep it interesting. The rhythm section of Cruz and Christopher keeps it all locked pretty tightly, although I'd almost never say the drums or bass are ever features of this record.

The one side they don't really touch much here is the industrial/electronic stuff, but instead there are a few tunes deeper in the track list like "Belief System" or "In Spite of Hindrances", where they're trying something slightly different, like a dramatic, choppy, heavy alt radio rock. I can see how these might turn some of the audience off, but I can't say they sound all that bad in this context, even if these are far from my favorite tunes on the album. Prong is never going to be Linkin Park or Sum 41, but I'm hardly offended when they do a decent job with the more accessible fare, and it's at least better written than what, say, Kreator was coming up with on Endorama. I just think it's sort of tucked away where few people are ever going to explore it, and when run against some of the harder hitting cuts on the album like "Sense of Ease" or "Worth Pursuing" it might create too much of a disparity. X - No Absolutes might actually feel like the 'matured' Prong, still loyal to some degree to what burst them up through the manholes onto the scene in the later 80s, but produced for ears that have spent the ensuing decades listening to rock radio. The brashness and venom have been drained out of the sound, but they still sound very much themselves, and this album is about on the level with its predecessor Ruining Lives when all is said and done.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Monday, June 8, 2020

Crypt - Stick to Your Guts (1987)

Imagine it's the 80s and you've landed the name Crypt for your band. You're smack dab in the center of a budding Canadian scene which is producing a wide range from traditional heavy and speed metal gods like Anvil and Exciter to thrashing standouts like Voivod, Razor and Sacrifice. What is your next move? Well, you release your one and only full-length album on vinyl, maybe a few hundred people check it out, and then you disappear and languish away in total obscurity until one day your rare record gets a reprint from a European label that specializes in such things. That seems to be the story for these Quebecois heshers, but when we dig down and examine the music they recorded, there's no real reason that they should have earned such little attention other than the fact that the genre was quite heavily saturated at the time...at least what we'd consider 'saturated' in that day's standards, today there are likely more metal albums released in certain months than in all of 1987.

If Stick to Your Guts was any indicator, Crypt was a fairly competent act that might have suffered from redundancy with other, more exciting bands of their era. The style here is one that might be primarily mirroring USPM acts like Helstar, Liege Lord, or Lȧȧz Rockit, at least how those acts sounded on their earlier albums. You've got a mix of very straightforward heavy metal tracks like "Castaways" and "Darker Than Hell", with basic riffing patterns and predictable choruses, and then a couple tunes which show a slightly darker and more complex side, and are coincidentally far, far better than the stock metal that the band falls back on. I'm talking about "Metallust Fever", which almost sounds like it could have fit pretty well on Burning Star, with great riffs and one of the better vocal performances on the album. He's got a kind of tough guy street metal mid-ranged inflection that he alters between screams, some of which sound cheesy throughout the album, but occasionally hit you hard like Tyrant from Jag Panzer, another group with some stylistic parallels to this one. At other points he definitely channels some of Bruce Dickinson's intonations.

The major issue here is that a song like "Metallust Fever" is so vastly superior to so much of the other material that the album can grow disappointing after that ends... Sure, a few numbers try, like "Wings of Omen" with its pumping Iron Maiden bass-lines or "Die Sister Die", which feels like some lost 1980-1981 gem from either the NWOBHM or L.A. scene, and has some atmospheric, interesting cleaner guitars which wouldn't be out of place on an earlier Fates Warning prog metal effort. "Reich Master" is another fun jam with some cool leads and a nice, dark aggression to it despite the traditional triplet picking it cruises along with. But I'd say the quality is very uneven, a few of the tracks could have been discarded and replaced with more stuff like those I just listed and this could have become a cult classic with ease. Another complaint here is that, while the guitars and bass are generally quite good, even adventurous, on some of the tunes the entire rhythm section just sort of blends together into an indistinct punching force. The rhythm guitar tone is kind of boxed in throughout, but thankfully it still sounds decent in balance against those bass lines. The drums are a little poppy sounding and detract from the heavier riffs, but they get the job done. As a general rule, the heavier, darker and more ambitious the Crypt tune, the better, and despite the album's several inconsistencies in production and songwriting, I've enjoyed more than I didn't. I think this is a rarity which might hold some appeal for fans of genuine old USPM, especially that which cops a lot of DNA from Maiden.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Konkhra - The Freakshow EP (1999)

As Konkhra maneuvered through the 90s, they started weaving a lot more groove and direct rock & roll influence into their sound, not unlike other European bands Gorefest, Entombed, Desultory, and so forth. While some of them were able to successfully meld the styles together, at least after some growing pains, these Danes struggled to make much of a dent. Albums like Spit or Swallow and Weed Out the Weak continued to get progressively dumber, and I'd say The Freakshow EP might have been the lowest point for them, although the Come Down Cold full-length also features some of the tracks here and others like them, so that was arguably the more substantial crisis than a throwaway short-player like this one.

Essentially this is bluesy hard rock & roll with a lot of similarities to Black Label Society, or Pantera's later 90s material, and it definitely tries to ape a lot of the swagger of the latter. Guitars are pretty standard stoner rock fare, with wah wah pedal sprinkled on liberally. The riffs are far from the worst, and there are some leads or flashes of melody throughout that aren't bad for 90s alt metal, but it's the vocals mixed with the music that really kill it for me. Gone are the gutturals and snarls, having been replaced by a 'hwaaaaaahhh' 'yeaaaaah' gravelly pitch which is just nowhere near as cool. I mean maybe if Anders Lundemark was playing in a low down dirty raw blues band and tried belting out these sorts of vocals it might actually sound pretty good, but here it's just goofy, and even if you can believe it emits more passion or character than just the cookie cutter growls of yesteryear, I'd argue that character sounds like a morbidly obsese Phil Anselmo about to go coronary, or someone doing a bad L-G Petrov impression while cocked out of his mind at the corner bar.

Although the music isn't terrible, just tune in to the two covers of "Prowler" and "Orgasmatron" to see how vapid the original compositions are by comparison. Hell, the latter tune has barely anything going on with it, and never has, but it's still better written than Konkhra's new originals, and the vocals sound pretty horrible trying to ape Lemmy with that lower, creepier register, which lazily lopes alongside the zipping, bluesy leads and super primitive chord repetitions. Musically the tunes are played pretty close to the belt, but there are better covers of them and these certainly don't tack on much value to what is a pretty lame release altogether. Even divisive death 'n' roll records like Swallow the Snake, Soul Survivor, or Vermin's Millennium Ride are far superior to this one. And I don't want you to think I just look down on this hybrid of sounds, hell I enjoy every album Entombed has ever made except the two in 1997-1998 (which just took the rock thing too far), but Konkhra's contribution to the niche were weaksauce.

Verdict: Fail [4.25/10]


Saturday, June 6, 2020

Konkhra - The Facelift EP (1994)

After Sexual Affective Disorder, Konkhra decided to ditch the freaky death metal artwork and enlighten us to their fetish for beautiful women with handguns, first turning the firearm upon the audience (The Facelift EP), and then back upon herself (Spit or Swallow). Very clever, I see what you did there, blokes. When it comes down to the songwriting, however, The Facelift is quite in line with the album before it, only it feels like a fire has been lit beneath the Danes as they seem to opt for a more uptempo and energetic approach to the bludgeoning death metal. I mean this did come out before Slaughter of the Soul, and it's nowhere near on the level of quality writing as an album like that, but it feels like a band similarly possessed of wanting to mete out more exciting fare than what they'd been getting up to before it.

And at four tracks and 14 and a half minutes, you probably want to keep this material concise and engaging just because you don't have much space to experiment. Konkhra launches "Drowning (Dead Dreaming") and "Facelift" itself straight at you, two ragers that feel like they've been picked and accelerated from the crop of tunes embodying Sexual Affective Disorder. Definitely a little bit of D-beat-like fury propelling them, especially the title track, but affixed with a lot of the brutal low end chugging guitars which feel punishing and nihilistic for their lack of any real melodic value. There are some leads here, and as usual they're a bit too flimsy, however I will give some credit that I was able to better hear them than on the two prior releases and it's a step in the right direction. The drums are agile and effective, while the bass has this great, fat tone warbling along under the oppressive palm muting which is probably the best it had sounded so far. The vocals are still decent in either the guttural or snarl intonations, but oftentimes I felt like they were just bobbing along on the sea of highly destructive chugging which creates such a percussive blitz that nothing can compete.

"Warzone" gets a little slower, but just as chug-heavy, with some sections where you can really hear that bass guitar come out on its own. This one is meant for brawls to break out at gigs, so to that degree it's effective, although obviously less exciting than the others. Lastly you get a 'live' version of "Basic Facts of Life", which sounds almost too perfect, and here you can even makeout the little lead guitar effects even more, which are pretty cool to balance off against the bass and drum grooves. This is another utter mosh-fest, almost with the street hardcore backbone to it, and to be honest was my favorite track here, although it's all really primitive, caveman aggression. Again, like with Sexual Affective Disorder, this isn't one I'm going to recommend based on good licks or songs that will become your favorite in the death metal medium, and possibly not recommend at all, but if you do really like the basics delivered with pounding, crushing force, you could do much worse.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]


Friday, June 5, 2020

Konkhra - Sexual Affective Disorder (1993)

Sexual Affective Disorder was not about to transform Konkhra into your new favorite death metal band of the early 90s, but it's clearly a more coherent and effective effort than the Stranded EP before it, transforming the Danes into an outfit slightly more deserving of your respect. The style isn't much changed, as it's still among that class of older death metal which wears its thrash influences on its sleeve, but here even that takes on a more oppressive vibe as it is performed with a concussive, clinical force. While the EP at times felt sloppily or hastily assembled, the songwriting here is more taut and brutal, neither the most technical or nuanced among a broad field of European candidates, but not taking any prisoners. Also, who could forget that strange cover, by noteworthy Danish artist Michael Kvium, with its the twisted knots erupting forth from this creepy's psyche? Simpler than what other bands were using, but quite uncomfortable nonetheless!

To me this album most feels like a hybrid of Dutch bands with the first few Cannibal Corpse albums of the Chris Barnes era. Aggressive thrash rhythms intensified with blasting drums and a thick as fuck, saturated tone. Sometimes that is to the album's detriment, as the non-pummeling guitar lines are far too overwhelmed by the central rhythmic battery. The leads, which are nothing special to begin with, just sound like insects buzzing past your ears. However, you won't really have too much time to mourn the loss since the record will keep kicking and slamming you in the chest with its destructive low end. The drum performance here is far tighter, and the riffs flow fairly well into one another, and even though they're not supremely catchy, they at least always feel exciting, like they are right on the edge of being more memorable but just never got that final push in the writing phase. A few brutal death techniques like pinches and squeals are also incorporated, though once again they can be drowned out a little by the bludgeoning impacts of the instruments honed almost entirely in on how this material is going to come across in a mosh pit.

Vocals also sound a little better, still a mix of the visceral snarls and lower growls, but there is better sustain on some of the lines, it just sounds more bloodthirsty and dangerous. I could swear there are even a couple cases where they belch out this really deep guttural and it's hilarious. Though the use of dynamics is far from perfect in the structure of the songs, it's a lot better than the prior release, and there are some really intense moments here like in "Evilution (Exordium Expired)" where they are just firing on all cylinders and those guitars and drums and growls just punch you the fuck out. I mean if this album had...better leads, or a better mix on the leads, and just a few catchier overall riffs, I feel this easily could have been one of the cult death metal albums everyone kept worshiping for so many years later. It's just not quite there...but it aspires to be, and for that reason I'd probably rate this as one of the better albums in their whole catalog. If you're into early Sinister, Gorefest, Cannibal Corpse or Malevolent Creation then this is one you might want to visit if you haven't already heard it. Despite the production failures, its got a crushing confidence about it.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Thursday, June 4, 2020

Konkhra - Stranded EP (1992)

I can remember a time when Konkhra was poised to be one of the Danish representatives to that class of European death metal bands that broke out fairly big in the 90s...Hypocrisy, At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity, Dismember, Entombed, and so forth. The band has endured for 30 years, with a few notable gaps in productiveness, but they haven't quite reached the same level of stardom as so many of those peers that would go on to labels like Earache, Nuclear Blast and Century Media. I fault it partly to the fact that their sound seemed to my ears to drag in a little bit of blander groove metal influence as the decade rolled on, not distastefully so, but enough that they were kind of straddled for a spell between the realms of the more death metal diehard audience and the tribal mosh krews.

However, during their formative years, Konkhra was in fact a more formally death metal outfit, as you might be able to tell from the first few covers to their releases. Stranded was their first 'pro' release after a couple demos, a six-track EP of churning, chugging low end death metal with the exchange of guttural and snarl inflections that were made popular by Carcass and Deicide, although the Danes don't quite sound the same in terms of how they put their vocal lines together, and even add in a few bits like some spoken word alongside the roiling riffs. I can certainly hear a bit of Chuck or Martin van Drunen in some of the growls, but then others go with the deeper guttural. There's a sort of confusing, chaotic underbelly to this release which I actually quite dig, only it's let down by a pretty bland set of guitar progressions which just don't ever seem to manifest in the memorable riffs that were the hallmarks of so many of the groups we celebrate from the era. Several are informed by thrash chugging that collapses into sloppy tremolo picked parts, but while the spirit is there the songs simply aren't.

There are some weird noises flushed through some of the material here, like in "Stranded" itself, or "Deathwish", which I couldn't quite figure out as either some sort of badly mixed lead guitars or special effects. The tracks occasionally grow a little more coherent as the EP progresses, like "Lustration of the Need", but even then you're just not getting top shelf riffing. There are a few other highlights like the magma flow of the bass in "Spread Around", and I almost felt like one or two of the riffs in that one were going to deliver, but sadly the ideas here just weren't all that brazen, bold or interesting even by 1992 standards. Compare this to something like Invocator's Excursion Demise, which had come out the year before, and was a lot more thrash-oriented, but this material can't even hold a candle to that. So Konkhra was off to a cluttered, rough start with Stranded, a product of its time that doesn't hold up with the possible exception of the murky core that generates nostalgia for old basement and garage death metal demos when the medium was a lot more 'innocent'. But, like many things with age, this band will only get better before it gets worse.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Prong - Age of Defiance EP (2019)

Age of Defiance is, I'm assuming, a teaser for whatever the band is to release as a follow-up to 2017's full-length Zero Days, paired up with a trio of live cuts from a German club date back in the middle of this last decade. I was immediately taken with the dense sound they pulled off in the studio, whether they're banging out heavier chords or chugging along this one sounds like what we might have expected of a modern Prong in the 21st century, and yet it manages not to lose the subtleties created by the warmer melodic chords and Victor's voice. A full-length album with punch like this is going to turn a lot of heads and work wonders towards the trio's relevance movement forward into yet another decade, but at the same time I'm not going to say that these are necessarily their best songs.

Essentially you're getting a microcosm of many of the band's evolutionary shifts all in one package. There are still plenty of basic thrashing guitars, especially in "End of Sanity", though they were rather bland riff-wise, reminding me there of maybe Testament. The vocals are great with all the backups, and the chorus chords tend to be the more interesting parts of the songs, with some nice lead guitars to flesh them out. The rhythm section sounds great in this mix, the drums thunder along and though the bass doesn't do much of its own thing, it's thick enough to be noticed against the meat of those guitars. I think "Age of Defiance" itself is the better of the two new tunes, largely because of that melodic airiness created through the guitars in contrast to the churning, chuggy lows. It doesn't sound unlike a track from the Cleansing era, there are even some small electronic flourishes, and just a very satisfying chorus even if the verses feel underwhelming outside of their production. I think these work well enough as a sampling of what the next album could sound like, I just hope Tommy has stocked up some better, more varied riffs to go with the excellent vocal performances.

The live cuts sound alright, perhaps not as good as on the 100% Live album, but the tones sound pretty thick and effective on "Rude Awakening", "Another Worldly Device", and "Cut Rate", the latter two kicking some butt like they used to. It's interesting that all three of those tunes are from that 1994-1996 era, maybe Prong is telling us that those styles will be the focus in the near future, or perhaps I'm just reading too much into it. At any rate, while these lives don't disappoint, they will never be a reason for me to spin this, I'd rather have had more originals, so they're not exactly a huge value, though they do work well aesthetically with the new material. We'll have to hear where it all goes from this point, but if nothing else Age of Defiance reveals that Prong could potentially put out a more substantial, killer sounding disc, and the tracks at least have some seeds of memorable ideas.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]


Monday, June 1, 2020

Prong - Songs from the Black Hole (2015)

Songs from the Black Hole is not the first instance of Prong dishing out a few cover tunes, they've done a few before like "Get a Grip On Yourself" by The Stranglers back on Prove You Wrong in '91, but here the entire focus is on selecting, performing, and producing a professional series of covers from an eclectic range of influences. Considering the range of styles Tommy Victor and company have cycled through as they evolved the sound of this and, I thought this might prove a fairly interesting tribute, and at least as far as the track selection I wasn't wrong. They draw pretty heavily on some of their hardcore, punk and post-hardcore faves, which makes sense since their earlier thrash records totally emerged from the primacy of the NYHC, and as also might be expected you get a few cases of industrial or Gothic rock which clearly rubbed off on records like Cleansing and Rude Awakening.

They certainly have good taste, and the sound here is about as clean cut and polished as any in their career, at least on the level with Carved in Stone, even on the nastier punk and hardcore tracks they pick like "Doomsday" from Discharge and  "The Bars" by Black Flag. They're a natural at these, and Victor's voice sounds pretty good channeling all the proto-hardcore rage, so even if they sound slicker and less nasty than the originals they're totally energy-charged and fun to listen through. I thought the rendition of "Vision Thing" by Sisters of Mercy was rather bland, or rather it just felt too close to the original and not terribly Prong-i-fied, but on a similar note Killing Joke's "Seeing Red" is really excellent, as their cover of "Give Me the Cure" from Fugazi. Bad Brains' "Banned in D.C." will give you another swift kick in the ass, and they manage to twist the Butthole Surfers' "Goofy's Concern" into something fun. I think the one that they most successfully transform into a Prong number here is the Adolescents' "Kids of the Black Hole", and along with "Seeing Red" it was one of my faves on the album, just sounds like something they could have put on one of their own albums in the mid to late 90s before the hiatus.

The track that is most out side their box though is Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer", which is still played with a lot of the drab bluesy abandon you might expect from the original, although they do electrify it a bit more. I'm not actually a big fan of the tune or Young in general, so I constantly just felt like ending the album with track #9, but Prong definitely does a respectable job of it. And that's really the selling point here, diehards who want to hear where some of the band's inspiration hails from will be treated to well structured, well produced material that largely shines a light on such influences. Maybe a few of these are outliers and don't factor much into the regular Prong sound, but Discharge, Black Flag, and Bad Brains clearly did in their formation, and Butthole Surfers and Killing Joke would inform a little of their evolution in the 90s. Would I ever recommend this over their original albums? Not a chance...in fact, despite the level of care they obviously put into this, I do get a little bored with some of it, and if I do spin Songs from the Black Hole I'm headed straight for just 2-3 of the tunes. If you're new to the band you really want the first five albums, or maybe Carved in Stone. I don't even know that I'd recommend it to Prong fans unless they really want to hear this voice over someone else's material. But I don't have a lot of negative to say, on a technical level it's a solid product as far as these cover anthologies go.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]