Saturday, July 25, 2020

Horde Casket - Melted Together (2020)

I think brutal death metal has to be one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult sub-genre from which to standout. There's such a mechanical demand for some of the musical tropes common to the niche, and bands like Horde Casket do their best to fill these in, and if I were judging simply by a checklist, then I'd stay they fill in or obliterate a whole lot of those boxes. Ridiculous blast beats are all over the place, as well as hyper chugging and dextrous little hand exercise riffs that must clearly tax the players' tendons after a rehearsal session or live set. The vocals are their normal mix of harsh guttural and harsher rasp, in the tradition of your Carcasses and Deicides, and the overall momentum of the album is utterly fucking relentless with a slightly noisy mix that is like to give you a headache if you're just not attuned to what you're normally going to get out of the genre.

The issue at hand is that, with all of the obvious physical temerity and extremity that they are pouring into this release, it almost entirely fails to stick. There might be a few tricks up their sleeves like the walls of wailing guitars they bleed over the thrust of "Nocturnal Transformation", or the broken chugs below the inhuman blasting of "Disease of the Deceased", but it's usually just business as usual from a band that has always hovered between average (Bloodfiends, Landscape of Cadavers) and decent (Xenopocalypse, Slab of Infinite Butchery). I like the frenzied pacing of the leads, they always give the music an added sense of death metal escapism, and if you like the choppy slamming rhythm guitars matched up against non-stop pounding drums, there will be moments for you to get your dance on. There are some really great growl placements here that resonate, but just not consistently, and across all departments, Horde Casket doesn't lag behind much of the competition, but this is assuming you only want the methodical brutal death metal...

I honestly think the band could slow down or de-escalate itself once in awhile to create a greater dynamic punch to it, maybe throw in a less discordant whipping lead guitar, or make a crunchy groove riff that is actually catchy, where the listeners will get hooked to the chord patterns. Like so much of the brutal death metal, this one looks so bad-ass with its cover art, song titles, the band's name has always been pretty cool, but I fear that this stuff has become so commonplace that it just lacks a genuinely evil punch due to its mathematical commitments. If you are mining the rosters of Sevared, Pathologically Explicit, New Standard Elite and Unique Leader and like most of what you hear, then Horde Casket is unquestionably worthy of your time, but this one didn't leave me with much to remember afterwards other than the bruises.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Machine Head - Bloodstone & Diamonds (2014)

Bloodstone & Diamonds is not an album that abandons all the common sense, critical praise and good will that Machine Head had suddenly developed with The Blackening and Unto the Locust, but it's a solid step backwards in terms of quality, somewhat of a 'dumbing down' that shows the band for whatever reason missed what they were doing beforehand. You've still got a few outbreaks of the more agile, thrash-inspired riffing and some exciting lead sequences, but this one goes for grooves and accessibility a little more than the albums leading to it, and some of the aforementioned faster breaks aren't really interesting. I think if I were to condense it all down to about 3-4 tracks you'd have a worthwhile followup to Unto the Locust, but it's padded out with some songs that don't exactly leave any impression on me.

The catchier tracks like "Now We Do" and "Killers & Kings" are wisely staggered on the frontside of the album, the former a groover reminiscent of Through the Ashes of Empires era but with the add-on of some symphonic strings, and the latter a a thrashing 90s-style pounder with a couple frilly little riffs in there to keep it feeling busy. I also dug the melody at the beginning of "Ghosts Will Haunt My Bones", but that one kind lapses into the nu metal with rock chorus stuff that I was never a fan of in this band's hands, even if Robb's voice sounds half-decent on the more atmospheric, emo moments where he's festooned with little melodies. After that I find it hard to remember much of anything... "Sail Into the Black" is a pretty atmospheric track with some creepy little piano sounds and an epic length to it that eventually surges into giant rolling double bass grooves, but I feel like the harder hitting parts don't live up to the beginning; and "Beneath the Silt" is another track with some potential even though it's got a dirty chuggy nu groove beneath it, I kind of like the psychedelic filtering on the vocals, and again he's got some good singing parts on that and deserves a little credit.

The instrumentation is fine, with another of the band's stronger drum showings when they hit those grooves, and a lot of subtle percussive builds during a lot of the atmospheric parts of which there are probably more here than any other Machine Head record. Bass sounds good, production on the guitars is just the perfect contrast of heaviness and melody, and while Flynn is still doing a lot of the Phil Anselmo style tough guy grunts and growls, he's clearly improved all around. I also think that lyrically this might be the peak for the group, the lines seem fairly well thought out compared to some of the garbage on the disc to follow. The last third of the album is partly a waste of time, with the soft ballad "Damage Inside", the throwaway sample track "Imaginal Cells", and the other songs back there doing a mix of the Korn-like nu metal vocals with a few thrash parts to try and smooth them out, but all told Bloodstone & Diamonds isn't a complete dropping of the ball, it's still much better than anything the band had put out prior to 2007, and if you were a fan of the two previous albums then you might have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Maybe for the last time...

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Rabid Beast - Rabid Beast EP (2020)

Rabid Beast is the metal passion project defined, a pairing of longtime thrash fans who have made their way in other styles, but could not forever resist the siren call of a prime inspiration, and thus decided to do something about it. In this case, it's the duo of Paul Gillis and Eric Bauer, who have played together before in Chicago's brutal Morgue Supplier, which might explain how they work in such lockstep across four of the most intense thrash tunes you're going to hear in 2020, and a pretty nifty cover to boot. The Rabid Beast EP presents us with around 24 minutes of what is sadly lacking in most of the re-thrash of the last few decades, or even the releases of many of the genre stalwarts, that is, the ability to sound and act absolutely psychotic and capture it on tape.

The foundation here is very meaty, mute-heavy, forceful thrashing which has a richness to it that reminds me slightly of another Chicago thrash act, the legendary ZnöWhite, in particular their criminally underrated 1998 album Act of God. But there are also traces of Devastation's Idolatry; or Destruction's muscular riffing, old and new, with a little bit of a clinical melodic edge ingrained in there that you might trace back to Release from Agony or Pestilence's death/thrash debut Malleus Maleficarum. Though the focus is on momentum and heaviness, there are some dynamic, textural, dissonant patterns which emerge from the more straightforward riffing to even remind me a bit of some of Voivod's later 80s experimentation. A lot of my favorite things, of course, and the riff set here is truly devastating, lots to hook you in tunes like "Decline into Disorder", "First Among Equals" and "Green Room is Red". I found the lead guitars a little less consistent, they're fast and furious, spastic and crazy, but while they really stood out in "Green Room is Red" or the great shredding in Infernal Majesty's "Overlord", I found them a bit flimsier in "Decline into Disorder" where they couldn't really match the intensity beneath.

In addition to that chopping, powerful rhythm guitar tone, the other standout here would be the vocal style of Mr. Gillis. Like in Morgue Supplier, or his other group Drug Honkey, he goes above and beyond to create something that is at once familiar and over-the-top unnerving. He uses both the force and frailty of intonation to manifest a tormented hybrid of splatter-thrash and Germanic precision, one that you can never get too comfortable with because he might hurl some crazy ass, unpredictable lines at you that go further out than even that description. The benefit here is that this is something YOU WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER. Cookie cutter thrash vokills from bands like Evile or Warbringer are competent enough, sure, but the reason I'm always going to turn towards a Rabid Beast, or Sweden's Antichrist, or Germany's Vulture instead, is because they sound absolutely sick today, they'll sound sick tomorrow, and they will sound sick in 20 years. It's the same reason vintage Tom Araya, Bruce Corbitt and Jeff Becerra still stand out now, they capitalize on and weaponize the flaws and imperfections of the human voice to create a sense of genuine danger.

The rhythm section here is as tight as necessary, and the lyrics range from thoughtful and relevant ("First Among Equals" or "Decline into Disorder") to outright hilarious ("Green Room is Red"). The cover track here is performed with more intensity than the original while managing to seamlessly absorb it into the Rabid Beast sound. Very little to criticize here, this is easily one of the better new thrash EPs I've heard this year alongside Voices by Belgium's Schizophrenia, vicious and sincere, and I highly recommend getting in on the ground for the whirlwind it will inevitably kick up.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Machine Head - Unto the Locust (2011)

Unto the Locust takes the thrashing energy and ambition that the Machine Head crew resurrected from their earlier years as musicians onto The Blackening, and then ramps up it a notch by armoring it with a more modern sensibility and an obvious increase in overall heaviness. I wouldn't stay that there is as great a stylistic disparity here as between the two albums before it, or between Through the Ashes of Empires and Supercharger, but this is far from a repeat of their 2007 surprise. Tempos, dynamics, and riff patterns are explored more interestingly, and I'd say that the thrash riffs in particular, on tunes like "I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)" and "Be Still and Know", are more nuanced and memorable than those from the previous album, even if it set a sort of standard to follow.

Most improved for me on this album would be the vocals, which are more often given multi tracks or harmonies that strengthen them far more than just listening to Robb's delivery before. This is most felt in the chorus parts to tunes like "Be Still and Know" which are genuinely catchy, but you'll often hear this being done on various verses, so the distribution keeps an added intensity throughout the lion's share of the 49 minutes of material. Though you're still hearing a couple of grooves here or there, Unto the Locus really strives to maintain an air of respectability, and I could honestly say this one might impress fans into groups like Nevermore or Savage Messiah, even if they've had no interest in anything Machine Head had gotten up to before. It's not terribly technical, but it's hard hitting, half-intelligent and interesting. Other little nuances I heard hear were similar to bands like the French groove juggernaut Gojira, at least in some of the vocal delivery and picking patterns, or even Strapping Young Lad in how the vocals carry or the post-modern thrash atmosphere. You can also clearly hear a huge melodic Swedish death metal influence on tunes like "This is the End", and it's honestly not unwelcome because it's performed with the surging testosterone that fuels a lot of the better efforts from a Soilwork or Dark Tranquillity.

This was the best drumming Dave McClain (ex-Sacred Reich) had done on any of the Machine Head albums during his tenure, thundering and muscular and definitely making as much a statement as almost anything else on the record. The bass is solid and gives the heaviness much of its weight, and the lead guitar supply on this is simply inexhaustible, it's the most melodic album they've put out, but without losing the ballast it desperately needs to keep its groove-oriented audience in their seats, or out of their seats, kicking each other on the rump and flailing their inebriated limbs about. There are a few weirder progressive experiments like "Darkness Within", and you can get the impression that they were expanding themselves to see what would stick, not succeeding 100% of the time, but as an album emerging upon the popular metal landscape of 2011 I think this is probably the one most suited to its times, with the most weaponry to help the band compete with their often far younger peers in the groove, thrash and metalcore niches.

The lyrics are still a sore point, especially on tracks like "Who We Are" or "This is the End" which have all the artistry and cliche parades of angry teens, but let's face it, the overwhelming of majority is like this and those who accepted and enjoyed Machine Head's earlier material are not going to care one way or the other. Hardly embarrassing, just showing little to no thought as the lyricist just pulls the most obvious and basic images from the mind to the page. Otherwise, this is the best album in the Machine Head catalog, or the most 'worthy', still hovering below greatness, but a galaxy beyond some of the turds they've committed to tape before it. Not that this is in any way some mandatory band to experience, but if we reduced their career down to The Blackening, Unto the Locust and Machine F**king Head Live, it wouldn't belong in a dumpster. Of course, that's not the whole story, that's not reality, but 2007-2012 was clearly their peak and I can't formulate too much negative to say about it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, July 20, 2020

Machine Head - The Blackening (2007)

For all the ire I've cast upon Machine Head's recording history, there's no question that the band has been a successful venture, with plenty of profitable touring, media attention, and record sales, even well before Robb Flynn started letting a lot of sparks fly across his social media and interviews. Despite all the returns on investment, I'd like to pretend that, in the four years after Through the Ashes of Empires, when the band was throwing this album together, they came to realization that 'this was how it should always have been'. If The Blackening were the lead-in for the band's career, then it all might have made a lot more sense. I'm not saying this is a 'great' record, but it's certainly a decent one, brilliant by comparison to the long stretch of earsores the band had previously manifest. It's the first studio album that actually deserves even the hype wave they ever surfed in on.

It's evident immediately in "Clenching the Fists of Dissent" that a part of this turnaround is that Robb finally remembered he was a thrasher. In fact, he and Phil Demmel, who also plays here, were part of one of the greatest West Coast thrash albums ever crafted in Vio-lence's Eternal Nightmare, and you can clearly hear that sort of riffing influence being integrated up against the band's nu/groove stylings. Funny enough, when you throw in some neck-jerking, mid-to-fast paced thrash riffs before that moshpit focus group breakdown, it all feels more effective due to the powerful contrasts. I'm not saying that the band's lowbrow riffing fare suddenly becomes more interesting on its own, because there are plenty of effortless, lamentable grooves here, but The Blackening assaults you right up front with the competent upbeat thrash, walls of wailing leads and lots of other guitar atmospheres that dress up even its most mundane moments. That bridge riff feels a lot like something Metallica would have used on Master of Puppets if they were more into gang shouts, and there's just no questioning that this presentation is a more musically ambitious and rich experience regardless of what flaws it carries forward from their garbage daze.

Don't get me wrong here, this isn't a conscious fuck-you turnabout album which ignores the past; you're still getting a big chunk of Pantera worship, but I heard all manner of influences going into this one, from the Mike Muir-like 'emo' vocals of "Beautiful Morning", to the Tool-like structure of groove built into the verses of "Now I Lay Thee Down". You've still got a healthy heaping of those masculine radio rock chorus parts dominating the 'hard rock' channels since the mid-to-late 90s, but even there Flynn manages to string together some slightly more memorable lines and melodies than what you might expect from earlier records. His aggressive barks and roars are still heavily rooted in that whole Phil Anselmo/Skinlab/Pissing Razors style with a dash of generic metalcore angst, and they're for me one of the weaker parts of the album, outshined in almost every instance by the music itself, but I'd happily have this invade my earspace above nonsense like Supercharger or The Burning Red. The musicianship is by far the strongest they'd managed up to this point, and even though there are still a good percentage of pretty dull riffs that hold it back, you'll be surprised by some of the things that pop up.

A couple of the tracks are pretty long by their standards, such as "Clenching the Fists of Dissent" or "Wolves", but I'd say they actually offer enough dynamic range within these to pad them out without lapsing into boring repetition, and perhaps more importantly, that good old thrashing spirit just keeps rearing its head enough, as if its an anchor that's holding the entire process together, and at this point in their game they couldn't have chosen a better focus point. A lot of the lyrics are pretty weak, but at least they don't come off overly goofy in conjunction with terrible music. I also liked the cover art aesthetics, the stark simplicity of the logo font with some classic religious imagery, preferable to all of the choices they made prior to Through the Ashes of Empires at least. Now The Blackening is not an album I'd pick out of a lineup of other material in my thrash (or limited groove metal) library, but if someone were cranking this in the car I wouldn't cover my ears or make a stinky face, I can give some credit where it is due and if this was the sort of passion for the craft they had been meting out since 1994 then I'd never have had cause for complaint. But can they keep it up?

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Machine Head - Catharsis (2018)

While on some level Catharsis pretended to continue the increased level of musical proficiency and effectiveness Machine Head had begun to achieve with a few of the albums before it, on almost every other level it's a dumpster fire. When I first put this record in, I got the impression that it was some group of 14 year old metalcore kids who had picked up a copy of The Blackening and decided to pay it tribute along with with a little Killswitch Engage and maybe a handful of their favorite melodeath bands. The cover art looks exactly like something they would think of. The lyrics are beyond dumb, puerile translations of whatever Robb could look up on the news to become outraged that morning, and the music, while fast and often fairly adept in technicality alone, rings hollow on almost all fronts and is immediately forgettable. Whatever steps towards maturity and memorability the Californians had taken with their material starting the previous decade seemed to have now been sidelined for what is worth little more than soulless dreck. I bet Nuclear Blast was pretty thrilled when their lucrative new contract shat this one on their second outing.

For whatever reason, Machine Head seemed to bring back a little too much of the pure nu metal nonsense on cuts like the titular "Catharsis"? No matter how much you try to dress it up with that emotional soft pop side, once that groove comes out I feel like I'm stuck in a room full of dead air and ideas that were never that interesting the first time this band failed at them. The Pantera influence is also here in full force once again, and it's even funnier when they mix in their rap metal stuff as with the track "California Bleeding", one of the dumbest fucking songs I've heard while writing this blog, which no dirty rock & roll chorus is going to save. Other songs like "Triple Beam" are just dumb pandering grooves with bad hip hoppy verses and then tasteless early 00s alt rock chorus parts which the band must think is going to help them sell records. And maybe that's what happened, and I'm a grumpy old dude who is out of the loop, but personally I've never met anyone with a single positive thing to say about Catharsis. One other irritant here is that the band clearly had a hard on for the pop-infused hardcore & metalcore we were hearing out of both the US & UK 5-10 years ago, and you can tell by the light synth touches they throw into cuts like "Catharsis" and "Kaleidoscope". Say what you will about those bands, they pulled it off better than this one can.

Of course, Robb had to spread his bleeding & beaten wings a little further here with "Behind a Mask" or "Bastards", which sound like some dopey acoustic track Aaron Lewis of Staind would right...but what the latter grows into, some weird anthemic fusion of The Dropkick Murphys and the Beatles, in which Robb tries to embrace minorities into the Machine Head fanbase while dropping sarcastic slurs at them, is the sappiest 'what the fuck' moment I've probably heard from any of these high profile nu metal bands. 'NO NO NO, NO NO FUCK NO, NO NO NO!' Do you want a Machine F**king Head High Five for your pedestrian protest anthem? 'GET YOUR MIDDLE FINGERS IN THE AIR AND SING, THEY CAN'T IGNORE US ANYMORE.' Reading these lyrics makes me feel like I'm in the midst of the rave scene in that Matrix sequel, only with worse music and surrounded by a bunch of edgy caricatures of cartoon PSAs with their capes flapping around in Robb's posterior wind. I'm all for people expressing social and political opinions that they feel strongly about, don't get me wrong, but try to do it with a little tact and nuance rather than overt cliches, condescension and reductionist stereotypes that do nobody any good.

To be fair there are other themes here being tackled with more personal, less obnoxious lyrics, but even then you're guaranteed to have some extremely weak musical idea fouling up whatever rare catchy bit they might have accidentally stumbled upon. There is approximately one song here, "Heavy Lies the Crown", which would actually be a half-decent mid-paced Swedish melodeath tune if it didn't have Robb's vocals or lyrics anywhere near it. The production is fine, the boys can still play, but ultimately, Catharsis is just one goofy, convoluted mess that feels half Midlife Crisis and half I Wrote These Songs in My Garage While Inhaling Carbon Monoxide Because I'm Too High to Realize That I Left the Engine Running. It is, for my wallet, the worst Machine Head studio album, and I'd rather have all my body hair peeled off with masking tape while being forced to endure The Burning Red and Supercharger before ever listening to it again.

Verdict: Epic Fail [1.25/10]

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Machine Head - Machine F**king Head live (2012)

Nearly a decade after Hellalive, and a not unreasonable amount of time to wait for a band thrust so far into the spotlight, Robb Flynn and his Machine Head released a slightly more elaborate follow-up live effort over 2 CDs. While its predecessor was no slouch at 80 minutes of content, this is over 100 and allows the band to draw upon a bigger pool of material, including some from the two albums before this, critical darlings in many circles, which had seriously increased the band's stock even among the disbelievers who justifiably loathed almost everything they had released up to that point. In fact this is quite up to date for the year it came out, devoting fully five of its 15 selections to tunes from 2011's Unto the Locust, an album that only had seven songs to begin with...

Add in the trifecta of "Beautiful Morning", "Aesthetics of Hate" and "Halo" from The Blackening and you have more than half of an experience which might skew well above the suck line. Burn My Eyes, the debut and least shitty of their first five albums, has a pair of tracks in "Old" and "Davidian" which grants a little more stabilization. I think Overkill kind of saturated the market on the ol' F-bomb emphasis with Fuck You and Then Some, but I'm sure some fraction of the Machine Head market does appreciate the stripped honesty of Machine F**king Head Live! Like if I'm getting off the late shift at the meatpacking plant the night before, sleeping in late and then starting my boozing early, you're damn right when Robb Flynn and friends enter the stage with pyrotechnical wizardry and lots of chugging I'm a holler "MACHINE FUCKING HEAD!" at the top of my lung capacity. To boot, this album was a slight surprise in how honestly it captured the group's sound, in a more raw form than I expected...without too much polish anywhere, lots of crowd noise that can occasionally even compete with the instruments, and a solid and substantial performance.

If you were at this performance and felt its energy and sincerity, you'd probably be aboard the train, at least for a couple hours, because they knock it out of the park. At least the UK fans at Manchester Central seemed to think so. The more metallic, musical material from the albums leading straight up to this glows in venue, with great dual harmonies, melodic chorus parts, thundering, precise drums, surging thrash breaks and a nice bass tone giving everything that much more punch. The leads as in "Be Still and Know" are a lot of fun here and the band sounds so much more on point than anything I've forced myself to endure through the 90s or earlier half of the 00s. Some form of professional and passionate equilibrium had been achieved through all its trials and tribulations and that reflects right back out through the product to the fans. As much as I don't like their bouncier nu metal material, just being in the presence of better tunes here almost makes it more tolerable, so I could listen through a jam like "The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears" or "Old" without needing to turn it off. Ultimately I think this is one of the top three Machine Head releases, and even though it's not one I'd ever personally break out with all of the gajillion options available to me by bands I tend to enjoy, I could fully understand why any would sing its praise. It crushes Hellalive both in the stronger selection of songs and the aural impact it leaves. They showed up, they gave a shit, they performed well, you got what you paid for, and for at least the couple years leading to this, they mattered.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, July 17, 2020

Destruction - Born to Thrash (2020)

Destruction's live offerings have been a series of diminishing returns for me. The first, Live Without Sense, was excellent, one of my favorite live albums of the 80s, and one that I probably listened through just as much as any of their studio outings, at least for a few years after it came out. Later recordings like Alive Devastation and The Curse of the Antichrist - Live in Agony were nothing to necessarily scoff at, but comparatively didn't excite me enough to keep on revisiting them when I was instead in the grips of so much other new metal, or couldn't really be pulled away from their 2001 opus The Antichrist which to me is still marvelous. Born to Thrash is a pretty humble 10-tracker from a band that could just as easily produce a 2-3 disc set, but the idea I think is to get back to basics and so we've got material that was recorded at a single gig, the Party San 2019 fest from their home country, where I'd like to fantasize thrash metal is like the morning newspaper, only several Germans I've spoken to say that instead it's all bad techno and probably know more about that than I do, but please refrain from screaming with your keyboard until this review is done.

The track list is pretty well distributed between oldies that everyone in the audience will love ("Total Desaster", "Curse the Gods", "Mad Butcher", etc), a couple of their early 21st Century hard hitters, namely "Nailed to the Cross" and "Thrash Till Death" from my fave mentioned above, and then they give you some more current material in "Born to Perish" and "Betrayal" from their most recent studio album, Born to Perish, which was pretty good. It's a crowd pleaser set with just a few reminders that 'Hey we still exist and hit the studio fairly often!'; and when you're in front of a huge festival crowd you're going to go for maximum impact, which I think these choices pull off for the most part. Now, maybe coming at this record as a fan of 35 years who owns all the band's studio CDs other than the embarrassing Neo-Destruction years, I could make an argument that if I'm expected to plunk down $10-15 for this that I'd appreciate a more elaborate package, maybe getting the chance to hear a few discs worth of their lesser known tracks in the live setting would heat me up a little more, but that's not going to spin the wheels of commerce for most potential buyers or ping the label's green light.

This is the two-axe-attack Destruction with Mike and Damir delivering an appreciable crunch, and their dextrous playing and the spurious leads all sound pretty good, but perhaps not as beefy as I'd like, just a grade too low when sent up against the driving beats of skin veteran Randy Black. The bass thumps along well enough but I feel like it could also have come out in the mix just a little more for the perfect balance. Schmier's vocals still sound as uncouth and savage as he's always been known for, perhaps even a little wilder here than on some other performances I've heard, and that might or might not be the result of his aging pipes, but it still sounds like a thrash metal band ought ta be, and he has great stage presence even in audio-only form as he's introducing cuts like "Mad Butcher". The reverb and effects on his vocals are great, especially when he has to pitch out one of his screams, and they help it seem more psychotic and memorable. All in all, a very workmanlike, effortless set from guys that have been this so long that they should probably be able to juts plug amps into their veins and the songs would still play with no other instruments. It's a good live album, not trumping Live Without Sense, and not likely to draw me away from their studio work, but dependable.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Machine Head - The Black Procession EP (2011)

The Black Procession is a special issue 10" vinyl with three live tracks taken from the two studio albums before it, recording during their 2010 tour of the same name. One could probably forgive the scantness of its content, since like many Record Day releases, Machine Head probably just wanted to have something packaged up fresh for fans; a lot of these things are directly meant for the collectors' market, and here they chose to just sift through a couple tapes of their recent performances and make it easy. I do like how the cover artwork is consistent with The Blackening's classic, minimalist style, and two of the tracks are taken from the first of their albums I'd actually consider decent, but that's really all that I can say positive about the EP.

Though they don't sound terrible, the live mix here is a bit raw and suppressed, I felt like I was hearing it muffled through a tent at a festival...maybe if I was standing BEHIND the tent and they were on the other sides moshing it up with the crowd. You can still make out most of the instruments, but a lot of them just don't sound good. The vocals are not the best, but the backing vocals sound absolutely horrible. The leads are also kind of cheesy sounding and don't have the same impact that they do on the studio releases. Of the three tracks, "Bite the Bullet" probably comes off the most even, but since I don't like that song it's hardly some saving grace. And to be honest, the others don't do much justice to their own studio incarnations, so this is literally just some EP you'd want to file away in your record bin if you solely value its existence as a product that you can throw money at and add to another pile of similar products just to say you did.

And then when you end up having to switch houses, apartments, dorm rooms this all becomes a big fat burden to load up onto grandma's truck with all your rare wax and DJ equipment. That may or may not be true for you and your situation, but what is definitely true is this is a complete waste of time, even if it's just 17 minutes and change.

Verdict: Fail [2.25/10]

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Autumn's Ashes - Eulogy EP (2020)

Autumn's Ashes is a collaboration between two New England musicians, Dan Saillant of Annihilus Mundi and Rick Lowell of Blacksoul Seraphim, backed by a host of guest musicians, and what I found most compelling about it is how it brings the strengths and versatility of those other projects into a broader sea of influence from which it draws its ideas. You've got a mix here of traditional, trudging Gothic metal riffing within some progressive death/doom structures, and then some graceful, mildly symphonic aesthetics which are created largely through the pianos. The band is not above incorporating some minimalist acoustics for atmosphere, shifting between a number of vocal styles, or adding in some proper lead guitars for yet another potential dimension to their sound.

Musically, I thought the material was consistent, with moody, driving guitars that gave me the impression I was living in these bleak, natural landscapes like the one depicted through the cover art;  maybe a gleam of sunlight off the frost or lake-ice surrounding me, in a way reminiscent of groups like the mighty Amorphis during their Elegy-and-beyond era, or Draconian, or perhaps Anathema during their sparser, acoustic moments. The pianos pile on a lot of melody to the steady guitars of "Vanished", which has a nice pickup pace for the lead and bridge, and "Reason" is a 9 minute progressive doom beast which had a few hints of Dutch death metallers Phlebotomized, where you couldn't exactly guess what was coming around any corner, and were once again treated with an eerie effect in how the spectral pianos interact with the low end guitars. The mix is fairly decent for something essentially demo-level, at the very least you can hear the bass, drums, guitars, keys and vocals distinctly from one another even if it overall comes across a little murky. I had mixed feelings on the instrumental pieces. "Down the Road" was pleasant with its pianos and synth pads, but I don't think it set up "Vanished" quite well enough, whereas the resilient organ piece "Up the Stream" was well done but perhaps a little too brazen for its placement on the EP.

Vocally, I think Eulogy has its share of ups and downs. The gutturals are fantastic, with a lot of punch and ugliness to them that sounds awesome when the guitars are chugging along below. Haydee Irizarry of Boston's Aversed provides some silky, cleaner vocals to the closing track "Shutter" and they created a hazy, compelling contrast to the heaviness. It's the clean male vocals on "Vanished" and "Reason" that I wasn't entirely sold on. I like the crooning, desolate style they're going for, reminiscent of groups like Yearning, and some lines are delivered better than others, but occasionally they felt like they lacked confidence. There were points in "Reason" where they got a little awkward, especially where the higher pitched screams came in behind them, or how some of the trailing off at the end of the verse lines wavered in fluidity. "Vanished" fares better overall, but considering that these two tracks were the first metallic one-two combo on the album, that might be an area to flesh out better for future releases, with more power and presence.

I've said it before, but Gothic doom and death is all too rare in my neck of the woods, so it's a treat to hear a band like this or Blacksoul Seraphim giving it a go. Autumn's Ashes has a lot of potential, especially as a conduit for the autumnal or wintry nostalgia I have for this place in a metal context. There's a strong arsenal of weaponry built in here with the drums, gutturals, guitars and pianos. The intro and interlude pieces are fine, but don't really add much to the proper heavy material, and the melodic vocals are something to work on, but otherwise this is some solid ground to build off.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Formaldehyde - Cemetery Devourment EP (2020)

Formaldehyde is a brutal Oklahoma death metal band which put out a few demos in the later 90s and then disappeared, only to return over 20 years later with some new blood in the lineup courtesy of Horde Casket, a band I've covered before, and will again soon with their forthcoming album. You can tell merely by looking at it that this is going to be some visceral, gore soaked, heavy shit, and I assure you that you will not be Rick Rolled, but that this is in fact as visceral, gory and brutal as the last half dozen slasher movies you watched which put a good portion of their humble budgets into some practical, sickening special effects. Whether or not that translates into memorable songwriting is up for debate, but if you're into this for the bloodspray only, I'm sure Cemetery Devourment will provide you with a little bit of entertainment.

The obvious comparison here is Mortician, not only because they include a cover of "Defiler of the Dead" at the end of the EP, but because there is a similarity to Will Rahmer's nihilistic guttural. The judicious use of horror samples here is a little overwrought since some of them go for two minutes or more, and aren't even that appealing at setting up the violent music that follows them. There is also a massive bass presence, not just in the plunking of the strings but the way the thick tone just hangs over the edge of the music so satisfyingly. But otherwise, there are a few differences with the New York goremasters, in that Formaldehyde doesn't come off quite as mechanical sounding or grindy. This is low-slung neanderthal death metal which comes at you with blasting precision or slows down into some of the thickest palm mutes and grooves I've heard the last few months. There are a couple spots that reminded me of groups like Ingested, only this band doesn't have any of the obvious deathcore connections, but just in how rich those chugs come across and how the production on them alone can bring a sick comfort to the listener even if the note choices are average.

As for the Mortician cover, it's fine...I mean half of the two-something minutes is a sample, but I doubt the originators would be dissatisfied with hearing a band pay them humble tribute. What I really want to hear from a band like this is just more musical, interesting riffs. KEEP those sick gutturals, keep the brutality, but just write riffs that pop off the background a little better. Maybe some virulent melodies, dissonant atmospheric chords, or a little more deviation between the blasts and chunky grooves. Bands like Katalepsy, Disentomb and others have proven that a little ambition can go a LONG way at this end of the extremity spectrum. Also, while I don't mind the samples, dial them back a little and make choices that are a little more sinister than just trying to relay us the sounds of carnage for most of their runtime. Those issues aside, Cemetery Devourment isn't all that bad for coming after a two-decade hiatus. It's got a cool looking cover, logo, total commitment to barbarity, and isn't the worst way to kill 20 minutes. They sound like they're having fun, and if you go in with the right expectations, there's a possibility you will too.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Monday, July 13, 2020

Machine Head - Through the Ashes of Empires (2003)

Before you've even heard a note of Through the Ashes of Empire you can already tell that some important change has been made. The title of the album is probably the best they've had, and the cover art leaves a more lasting impression with its haunting photographic effect. Perhaps some maturity has settled into this band, which had clearly not been struggling financially, but had been creatively bankrupt from the offset. After sitting through the actual content of the album, I'd concede that it's more thorough and ambitious than anything the band had released prior, with more of an ear for detail and at least some effort expended in assembling the songs together, tabulating a few more complex ideas than we'd heard from Robb Flynn across this project's backlog. All of this might seem like I'm setting up Machine Head for some glowing praise, but I assure you, I do not actually like Through the Ashes of Empire. It's not a good album, it's not even acceptable, but it's surely less shitty than the three leading up to it between 1997-2001.

Machine Head drops some of the nu metal influence (I said 'some', not all) and comes to the decision that it really misses sounding like the band it was originally created to sound like. Yes, Through the Ashes of Empires is a Pantera wannabe about 60-70% of the time. The guitar tone, and the way a lot of the riffs are structured sound like Dimebag left them on the cutting room floor during the Vulgar Display of Power sessions, with a few spare lines of other members' cocaine. Flynn's harsher vocals sound a hell of a lot like Anselmo, excepting for a different regional accent that lends a difference in natural intonation. This isn't to say that the Californians had suddenly dumped their other influences; you still get some of those childish, angry Jonathan Davis buildups, you get a lot of those ditzy little organic hip hop/Korn influences like the weird guitars in "Left Unfinished". There are some lead sequences which sound a lot like they're trying to pull a Kirk Hammett from the Black Album era, and there are still a WHOLE lot of shitty bro chorus parts which are still trying to tap into that good old All-American contemporary hard rock zeitgeist that bands like Godsmack, Creed, Silverchair, Fighters and Nickelback appeal to, or nowadays Five Finger Death Punch...

But the Pantera similarities definitely distract away from the rest, and so Through the Ashes of Empires feels like another album that was trying to be a composite of heavy music trends, playing it safe with some of the big names' inspiration entwined into the songwriting, and it just feels like they were trying to win over whatever 'metal' audience was left that looks no further than Pantera or Black Label Society when they're browsing through the record store for some new HARD SHIT. It's all dressed up pretty enough...there are lots of pinch harmonics thrown around to give the riffs a sense they have more dimension to them, or a few faster thrash parts that go more for a Cowboys From Hell vibe than Far Beyond Driven. I'd even say a few of the cooler moments on the album were some of the more unexpected, clean guitars that sadly cede to more boring groove metal riffs, or when they step outside a little further with "Elegy", which starts off with a chugging doom/sludge vibe and some more hypnotic, wasted vocals before also ruining itself. There were compulsions behind some of the ideas that end up here which were probably strong to begin with, but Robb and the boys just can't seem to stick the landing on any of them.

The lyrics are about 80% awful cliches about emotional disenfranchisement and other social issues, that like most rock is supposed to sound genuinely angry and connect with the day-to-day struggles of the mainstream rock crowd that expects little more from it, plenty of F-bombs added to create just the right blast radius of pedestrian rage. A lot of the clean chorus parts here are pretty elaborate, he was trying to stretch himself as a singer, so why then are so few of them even remotely catchy? I mean, I'll give Machine Head that this one doesn't sound so phoned-in as The More Things Change... or Supercharger, but why can't I remember a single song 15 minutes later? It's a whole lot of effort dumped into just not enough. There are single riffs on Vulgar Display of Power that are better than this entire album. There are single Vio-lence songs better than Machine Head's entire discography for that matter, but how the mighty have fallen. In the interest of fairness, I think if this had just been the album they put out after Burn My Eyes, a lot of cringe material could have been avoided, and it would seem a sensible evolution there, but that still doesn't make it an album I'd ever listen to again if I weren't committing to giving their catalog another chance.

Could it be a sign of better things to come?

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Machine Head - Hellalive (2003)

Machine Head's first proper live album came about a decade into their career, more time than some superstars wait for sure, so one can't really hold their feet to the fire for wanting to get a substantial studio backlog behind them before trying to sell such a product. It features a pretty even distribution of material from the four albums they'd put out before it, but that just means almost all of it is going to be really, really bad. You've got your 'crowd pleasers' like "Old", "Ten Ton Hammer", "Take My Scars", and...okay, I'm sorry, I just can't keep a straight face while trying to type this sentence. Let's cut to the chase: Hellalive is a terrible live album, but it's terrible for its content, not AS a live album, if that makes any sense.

Technically, it's passable in most respects. The guitars and vocals are pretty level, and sound at least as good if not better than their studio counterparts on many riffs. They go for a more straightforward sound on stage, you can still make out some of the guitar effects and subtleties of the studio work but it hits much more like a blunt object. Although Robb is trying to represent the range of trite emotions he brings to the studio, he's a little dumbed down on the delivery through this set and that's actually a good thing. Apart from whisking off into some of his clean-cut jock chorus parts, he doesn't sound as laughable as he's done on a few of the albums. Then again, some of the drifty, dreamy melodic mouth breathing he does on tunes like "The Blood, The Sweat, the Tears" sounds a little dopey and it's on a part like that where you can hear more effects on the voices. The bass isn't quite as fat on stage here, so the tunes do lose a little bit of depth, but the drums make up for it with a little more fiery energy beneath them.

It's not a pure proper live set because a few songs are yanked from a second date in Germany and added here or substituted for the UK gig, but a lot of live albums do this and its all for presenting to the fans who want a more seamless listening experience and maybe cutting out a few awkward flaws. As live records go, this one does a fair representation for the band, I cannot imagine a longtime fan of Machine Head in 2003 putting this in the car stereo and feeling let down. They pound on you with a lot of their cheesy groove metal songs and leave enough space to get their emo on too. But I simply cannot reconcile with this shitty music, because I do not enjoy what I'm listening to. Is this a better experience than Supercharger, The Burning Red, or the More Things Change...? Yes. Does it bring hte pain? The siccness? If you're 11, yes. Is it worth checking out when there are literally tens of thousands of better albums and better bands across every niche of the metal spectrum? Hard no.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Machine Head - Supercharger (2001)

There's about a minute in the first proper song here, "Bulldozer", after the pointless and uninteresting "Declaration" intro has ended, where Machine Head breaks into what sounds like it could have been a half-tolerable thrash/hardcore riff section, and I'd love to say that it almost fooled me into thinking I might be in for a sea change from the two miserable full-length albums previous. But I gotta level with ya, I don't fucking trust this band at ALL to write anything of quality, so sure enough, within seconds, that same song unraveled into an unkempt amalgamation of Korn, Rage Against the Machine, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and God Hates Us All era Slayer that reassures me that Supercharger is in no danger of breaking the stink-streak that preceded it.

I could say a couple positive things about the production. The way the guitars and vocals here are produced is a little bit more edgy and cutting than the last album, and Robb is settling into his multiple vocal stylings a little more with each album. Unfortunately, all of those stylings are really lame even by 2001 standards. His rapping has gotten a little more dextrous and sounds like an actual attempt at rap, perhaps, but then it's all about laying on the angst and the nu-metal rage, once again a mid-90s Jonathan Davis with far less personality, or a try-hard Mike Patton, and both the lyrical content and delivery feel shallow. What's worse, he's obviously going for those cliche radio rock chorus tones and patterns that feel like he's trying to get Machine Head recruited for an 'Army of One' ad on TV, like they're trying to peddle themselves as my friendly local neighborhood Godsmack, a band that I must apologize for my neck of the woods (Southern NH/Northern MA) ever producing to plague your ears. But, be real, it's not as if Flynn's goofiness is any better.

The annoying vocals would be one thing, but the vast majority of riffs here are just pathetic, yet again bouncing back and forth between a couple chords that require no imagination whatsoever, just to cling to the grooves that the fat bass tone is laying out, which sound good studio-wise, but are really just as awful once you dissect them. I'd say Supercharger is slightly more technical and dynamic than The Burning Red; you will come across a couple riffs that have a genuine energy flowing to them, and they use a lot more guitar effects like wah-wah sounds all over the place to make this sound like much more of an organized mess, but any attempt at validity is ruined by the shitty commercial radio vocals and the obnoxious pandering that this album constantly gets into. This is 'metal' by numbers, the lowest common denominator kind, trying to cash in on the audiences of emotional rock and angry wallet-chain Lollapaloser mosh. Any time any rhythmic maneuver comes close to engaging my brain, it's almost instantly shat upon by a quick morph into the tedium that I've described above.

It's very clear that Machine Head were trying to follow the Korn trajectory around the turn of the century, with a lot more soft atmospheric parts contrasting against bleaker emotional outbursts, and Robb was also trying to get a decisive, pointed delivery to his chorus parts that David of Disturbed always had ("Only the Names" is a textbook example of all this). But that's the problem, we already had those bands, and this one did absolutely nothing as well as any of them. Not that I'm asking you to listen to them instead, I could probably count the number of metal albums I enjoy on a single hand with a missing thumb, but this is just more also-ran rubbish that time will swallow up, even the fans of Machine Head's earlier output don't seem so enamored with this one, and it doesn't take a degree to understand why.

Verdict: Fail [2.25/10]

Monday, July 6, 2020

Machine Head - Year of the Dragon EP (2000)

Here's another Machine Head EP which was released in a few territories, presumably to sate the demand for more recorded live material and rare 'demos' that I can't imagine anyone actually ever having asked for in there lives. That said, it's possible that even Robb and the band didn't give a shit about this, that it was some sort of record label promotion to keep them on the shelves at the shops, or in radio rotation, or whatever crappy music industry justification for wasting natural resources on dumb material products. But unlike the Take My Scars EP, which had a mediocre Nirvana cover on it, Year of the Dragon has no curiosities whatsoever, just churning out the most generic short-playing fan cash-in possible, with one demo track that might make it a collector's item for collectors of trash.

"The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears" is the 'single' here, and it's presented in both its lame studio rendition, and one of the three live tracks that were recorded in Connecticut in 1999. It's following up after 3-4 other singles from The Burning Red album and one they put out for the Heavy Metal 2000 movie, which honestly baffles me, that any of the material could be considered good enough for air play... I mean, I don't know how anything by New Kids On the Block was ever considered quality, but they wrote better songs than these. At least I'm assuming...I wouldn't know much about that ::as he hides his copy of Hangin' Tough where you'll never find it:: The live songs are among the worst possible, between "The Blood, The Sweat, The Tears" and the awful "Desire to Fire" which is just possibly the most cringeworthy track Machine Head has ever produced in their mostly miserable catalog. "From This Day" isn't much better, it literally sounds like Limp Bizkit with a slightly heavier groove where he tries to do commercial rock vocals for the emerging Nickelback crowd.

The live tunes aren't recorded quite as well as those from the prior EP, but I suppose they are loud and brash and not as badly mixes as some I've encountered. So I'll give it a point for that, since I can't justify any of the musical value whatsoever except maybe the little 'HEY SLAYER GUYZ' riff that comes up late in "From This Day". "New Resistance" is the demo track closing out the EP, and I have no idea if this was something which was later reworked, but it's a horrible track that sounds like it belonged on The Burning Red or whatever Disturbed was writing at the time, there's a little bit of David Draiman in the vocals on that one but then again this wouldn't be the only case of that, the difference is that Disturbed has had the gall on a number of occasions to create memorably annoying songs, whereas Machine Head throughout the 90s just opted for the latter half of that equation.

Verdict: Epic Fail [1/10]

Friday, July 3, 2020

Dauþuz - Grubenfall 1727 EP (2020)

Dauþuz is one of Germany's finest active black metal bands, and most fascinating, if not so much in the musical construction than in the historical and folkloric focus of the lyrics. When I saw the title to this new EP, I thought it sounded familiar, and indeed it's named for a track off their 2016 debut In finstrer teufe which has been lengthened and reworked for this release. In fact, two of the three tracks here are re-recordings, but the nearly 20 minute finale is an epic new track which really serves as the centerpiece, and although I don't mind hearing new takes on previously released material, it is this closing epic which actually gives the EP enough value that it would be worth tracking down if you've enjoyed their other stuff.

"Grubenfall 1727" itself has been given an addition couple minutes of acoustic build with some subtle clean vocals, almost a later Viking-era Bathory feel, and personally I think this improves upon the original...although the transition to the black metal surge is a little abrupt, it works well to give a little balance to a powerful track. Dauþuz creates emotional if traditional melodic black metal with some simple note and chord patterns that prove timeless in their hands, and an excellent interchange of a harsher rasp and then a more suicidal, higher pitched alternative which is just awesome. The guitars are monstrous, captured raw but potent and really throwing me back to an early 90s mental space. "Kerker der Ewigkeit" is the other re-run, and although I think I like the balance of the mix here I feel like it's the least changed, in fact the vocals sounded a little more savage on the original and I might stick with that. "Die letzte Fahrt" is the main attraction, and begins with more clean guitars dusted with some of the crazier suicidal vocals, then surges through a number of mid-paced glorious sections; while there is plenty of repetition there, I never found myself board at the tune's enormous length, because the duo of Aragonyth S. and Syderyth G. is just so good at what it does...

Overall you get a very Blood Fire Death feel here, not nearly as legendary, but for a bunch of tunes about mining in ancient Germany it'll do in a pinch. The production aspires across the three tracks as they know how to apply just the perfect level of atmosphere created through the soaring chorus parts or the guitar tone, and when they cut out for those nastier rasps, percussive breaks and melodies it is pure atavistic power. That said, with some of this material being retread I don't know that I'd attribute it with the same amount of value as their great EP Des Zwerges Fluch, which had more and better tracks on it. In fact, if you're just checking out the band for the first time, you'll want to head straight for that one, or their sophomore full-length Die Grubenmähre, or last year's Monvmentvm. And then if you've enjoyed all that, this is worth checking out for sure. A reliable and immersive black metal band that I'll continue to follow thanks to their vision and consistency.

Verdict: Win [7/10]