Friday, October 30, 2020

Cradle of Filth - Midian (2000)

Midian was the second album in a row where I felt Cradle was dropping the smutty Gothic vampire Wordsworth mentality to explore some more compelling concepts that fit their musical style pretty well. I'm not saying that there isn't still a bit of that libertine sizzle in there, or that the delivery of the lyrics or the instruments had changed terribly much from efforts like Dusk and Her Embrace or Cruelty and the Beast, but I can't think of many bands that, from their inception, were pretty much destined to pay tribute to their countryman writer Clive Barker than this one. If the album title didn't give it away, he was a huge influence on this, with a healthy helping of Lovecraft for good measure. The cover artwork on this might not be their sexiest or highest quality photography; the creature looks a little cheesy as does the figure up in the purple clouds, but at least it has some detail to it and a nice color scheme that differentiated it from their others, with their awesome logo just at home as on any other of their releases.

What isn't in any question for me is the quality of the writing here, because SPOILER ALERT, Midian is my favorite album of their nearly three-decade career to date. The compositions are rich in variety, with a salvo of riffs in every track that instantly stamped me as memorable. This also has to be one of their best incorporations of pianos, synthesizers and ethereal female vocals that work in lockstep with the metal instruments, never coming across quite like a gimmick but rather a stew of components that would seem mandatory to create such a paean to the horror material which inspired them. I think the production also holds up quite well, especially at higher volumes, despite everything going on I can hear all the little guitar zips, every percussive strike, all the panoply of schizoid Dani Filth vocals and the numerous guest vocalists like Sarah Jezebel Deva and Mika Lindberg. Having Pinhead himself narrate on three of the tracks could have proven goofy if handled incorrectly, but instead he gives us a tone like the deepest lines of his iconic Cenobite and it blends right in. And while Cradle of Filth by this period was already a target of mockery for the black metal gatekeepers, before they seemed to magically reclaim acceptance in the late 'Oughts, Midian was sure as shit more creepy and evil sounding than a lot of the other bland purist third wave black metal spewing forth from Europe and the States by the turn of the century.

But it's the SONGs, the songs that draw me back to this one time and time again, and I've made it a habit that I listen to this one every October, a staple to go alongside the first five King Diamond discs, the first two Danzigs, Keeper of the Seven Keys, you know the drill. It's a perfect haunted house sort of sound, only more like a haunted labyrinth with unknowable Escher-like dimensions. "Her Ghost in the Fog" is one of top Cradle tracks, with its snake-charmer rhythms that range between warm and chilling, excellent flow of keyboards and some of the best Dani vocals ever which maniacally shift between throaty whispers, petulant sneers and guttural shadows. "Cthulhu Dawn" is one of their most impressive, charging nocturnal black metal pieces with great tremolo guitar lines and an almost weirdly Wagnerian vibe to the synthesizers, plus some of the more spooky female vocal harmonies they've ever used behind the surging verses which still have Filth plastered all over them. When it breaks into that high speed organ bit and the guitar melodies burn back in I swear I felt like I was in a tryst with with Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee simultaneously. There is no track I would toss out of this..."Death Magick for Adepts", the more brutal "Lord Abortion", the thundering "Tortured Soul Asylum", even the purely instrumental synth piece "Creatures That Kissed in Cold Mirrors" is fucking Tales of the Crypt-level wonderful.

That the lyrics absolutely rule is no surprise, that's been the case for almost everything they've put out, even their most mediocre records like Midian's followup Damnation and a Day can be fun to read through; Filth puts more thought and time into composing these than almost anyone in the entire genre, and even if the guy could be teased for having the presence of a Gremlin tearing up the display shelves at a Hot Topic, I would probably just buy books of his lyrics alone, even if no songs were written to accompany them. A Byron to counter the twerk generation, as fluent in penny dreadfuls and occult lexicons as he is those most acclaimed Major British Dead Guys. Midian really puts the third-time charm in their most pivotal streak of records beginning with Dusk and Her Embrace, and for the life of me, even though I've enjoyed their last decade or so of albums from Godspeed to Cryptoriana, I can't tell you with a straight face that they've ever surpassed or progressed beyond what is written here. All mere permutations on peak Filth, platitudes for the appreciators of their perverse pantomimes. Jesus, now I'm beginning to sound a lot like this motherfucker, put a stake in me.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (Dawn discovered her there)

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Deceased - Behind the Mourner's Veil EP (2001)

King Fowley and Deceased are no strangers to paying tribute to the influences that got them where they are, and on numerous occasions released entire albums with a considerable number of cover tunes. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if, by this time, they had recorded more covers than origins...between Zombie Hymns (2002), Rotten to the Core (2004) and the most recent Rotten to the Core Part 2: The Nightmare Continues (2020). The earliest I had heard from them was probably the "Voivod" cover from The 13th Frightened Souls EP, and then this little EP Behind the Mourner's Veil which was cool as it mixed exclusive new tracks with a handful of covers from recognizable names like D.R.I., Tankard, and Anthrax, which wouldn't surprise anyone as sources of inspiration for the horror death/thrashers whose aesthetics have always been so mired in the rougher, filthier aggressive metal of the 80s.

The new tunes are ragers, although I can understand why the band felt they'd probably be better spent here than on one of the full-length records like Supernatural Addiction or As the Weird Travel On. "It's Alive" and "The Mausoleum" both contain many of the band's hallmarks, charging thrash/speed metal laden with traditional heavy metal melodies and an occasional foray into the faster elements of primordial death, in particular with King's vocals. They're well-developed headbanger tracks, not as righteously catchy as some of the material on the couple proper albums before them, but certainly enough to help tide one over for the next. More dynamic would be the 10 minute closer "Victims of the Masterplan" which is lyrically based on the West Memphis Three saga, and divided into a 4-part metallic narrative which for me had most of the best original riffs on the EP and a bit more of a dynamic spread than the openers. Especially I liked the moody breakdown with the samples which really kind of put this all into perspective, I mean that was a horrifying fucking situation for the victims and also for the accused, one that I don't think we've collectively shaken off as Americans. Child killings are traumatizing for me, but Deceased actually tackle this with an inquisitive respect, even at the risk of creating an unbalanced tone against the sillier originals and covers.

The covers themselves are decent, but a tune like Tankard's "Zombie Attack" is so great to begin with that it's difficult to live up to. King and crew make it even more murky sounding and throw on some more death metal growls, but otherwise play it fairly straightforward. "Reaganomics" is over in a flash of course so something like this pick is more to score a few points. On the other hand, I actually really dug their version of Anthrax' "Deathriders", in fact I might listen to it more than the original, this more aggressive style suits the riffing and lyrics well, although they still throw a few screams in there too. Same with their version of "New Age of Total Warfare" from British speed/thrashers Warfare, I'd probably reach for this before the original, it just sounds that awesome. All told though, you're getting almost a half-hour of material here, cool cover art, and really their best release while you waited it out in the 5-year stretch between Supernatural Addiction and As the Weird Travel On. Not as formidable as most of their full-length albums but some quality fan service nonetheless.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Ozzy Osbourne - Bark at the Moon (1983)

It's as much of a tradition for me to break out the first five Ozzy albums every Halloween season as it is to bust out my collection of King Diamond, Mercyful Fate, Deceased, Rob Zombie and other champions of the metal macabre. Not that Osbourne uses the horror genre as a particular focus in most of his lyrics, but clearly his feats of stage legend back in the prime of his solo career were focused around the shock-rock variety, and the cover art and aesthetics of a number of the songs clearly fit into the creepy category. Now, I'm a fan of the Randy Rhoads era just like the next guy. Like most of you, I thought he was a talent cut down well before his prime, and would have loved to hear what he could come up with through an extended career. But having said that, I've always been drawn more to the material Osbourne wrote with his next two guitarists, Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde, at least up until Zakk's debut on No Rest for the Wicked, which, perhaps heretically, is my favorite of his solo efforts. But if I were to hand out a silver medal it would be a tough choice between tidier, accessible The Ultimate Sin and this 1983 effort Bark at the Moon.

You really can't go wrong with any of his material during that 80s era, in which he firmly established that he'd be able to succeed outside of the Black Sabbath camp, bringing his familiar vocal style to a more contemporary set of metal and hard rock tracks which were arguably more arena-ready than his unshakeable alma mater. When I look at the lineup he had on this particular album, there was almost no chance I wasn't going to like it. Lee's six-stringing talent ranged from slick, explosive speed/heavy metal licks as in the title track or "Rock 'n' Roll Rebel" to the more caged, dramatic, bluesy feel he'd incorporate into a piece like "You're No Different" where he's almost playing second fiddle to Don Airey's keyboards. It doesn't hurt that Airey himself is a legend whose loaned out his talents to more memorable bands than you could count, or that Ozzy also had another rock god Tommy Aldridge on the drums, or Bob Daisley, formerly of fucking Rainbow (among others) on the bass. This record came armed and ready, and for my money, despite the tragedy of Rhoads' passing and the other troubles the band had gone through since the 1981 sophomore Diary of a Madman, it totally delivered on its promise.

The title track is probably in my top 3-5 of the Ozzy solo career, with ease, Lee's tasty playing leading the way for some of Osbourne's great verses. I mean once the Prince of Darkness cackles  after that first chorus, if you weren't into this well... Other highlights here included "You're No Different" with its woozy, epic pace and super 80s proggy key pads, or tunes like "Centre of Eternity" and "Rock 'n' Roll Rebel" which were just awesome as hell heavy metal for a 9 year old to experience on his dingy old record player. I absolutely LOVED Jake's tone, it was just such a  commanding and dominant force alongside Ozzy's voice, and you can clearly hear how it set up a lot of what Zakk would emulate a couple albums later, with the exciting, expressive squeals or flash put into every riff. "So Tired" is probably my least favorite cut on the disc, but even then it's definitely a catchy, dramatic big band style of ballad which channels Elton John or the Beatles and I can't say I ever feel I need to skip it when I'm playing through the album. And right after that he rights the ship immediately another cool pair of harder cuts, "Waiting for Darkness" a nice foreshadow for the sound on The Ultimate Sin.

Everything on this album sounds wonderful to me almost 40 years later, and I even appreciate some of the cheesier sounding synth lines which are unquestionably its most dated aspect. The lyrics are great, a few keyed in to the horror genre, but they were especially impressive to the younger me, and the cover photograph of the shaggy Ozz-wolf just perfectly captures this time and this content: we're going to be heavy, we're going to get dark, but we're going to have fun. And I did. And I'm still doing just that.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (living in a lunar spell)

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Burial Ground/Grave Wax/Severed Limbs/Crospy Maniac - Four Paths to Horror (2015)

Four Paths to Horror is a 12 track split CD featuring four bands, three of which are projects from prolific death metal gurus Kam Lee, Rogga Johansson and Patrick Bruss, who combined must make up a not insignificant portion of death metal releases these last two decades. The idea of course is that all of these groups have a heavy lyrical bent on the horror genre, something that can probably also be said for the wealth of that trio's constituent bands. That is truly the connecting ligament on this release, because individual, while there are comparable traits between the acts, they often approach their genre with different production values and songwriting quality, and while that's not always an unwelcome factor on a split recording, it sometimes works to the detriment here because the level of professionalism seems highly inconsistent.

First off you have Americans Cropsy Maniac blasting through four tracks and six minutes of Carcass spawned deathgrind, starting off with some samples to their namesake slasher and then just bludgeoning you at high capacity with only a few hints at tossing in some background guitar melody or something that could actually make the tunes mildly more interesting. It doesn't quite work, and though I could say these guys are the most energetic on the split, they also gave me the least return. Belgium's Burial Ground, a group that has existed almost entirely on the demo/split level thus far, dishes up some crude but evil old school death metal that I thought was quite cool, almost like a mix of Autopsy's raw and grotesque punk-death form and the more structural Germans Morgoth on their earlier recordings. The riffs didn't always stick with me so well, but I can at least say I experienced some fond flashbacks for that late 80s/early 90s era, they had some curious quirks like a loud bass tone and even some narrative on their paean to "Last House on the Left". Fans of old Autopsy, Asphyx, and the like might wanna track them down, I believe they've got a compilation out that might have all their split material.

Even uglier is Kam Lee's Grave Wax, who have an even cruder and uglier style than anyone else on the split, and though Lee's vocal effects are cranked up to almost caricature level, these tunes were also quite fun, almost as if you were listening to them live but Lee was too high on the mixing board thanks to some zealous dweeb sound guy that wanted to fuck with the knobs. However, just like Burial Ground, these are actually fun, especially "Transmuting Techno-Terror". Ugly, inspired, no fucks given death metal. And bringing up the tail end of the recording are two tracks from Rogga Johansson's Severed Limbs, a decent project with a chunkier Swedish sound, although not just an emulation of Entombed or Dismember, but a more American style to the riffs, simply dowsed in that familiar production. These are two of the stronger cuts on the whole thing, and like his album Sores Galore that I reviewed earlier in the year, if you dig his other groups like Paganizer or Revolting you are likely gonna enjoy this stuff also. It's not a project he puts much importance in but certainly a worthy one.

In all honesty, I would have dug the Grave Wax, Burial Ground and Severed Limbs contributions as their own individual mCD/EP releases, or at least maybe just a 2-way split from the first two. Cropsy Maniac's inclusion here felt a bit stylistically disparate from the others beyond also belonging to the death metal genre in some way or form, you might have more fun checking out one of their own recordings; and the production across the bands lends to an uneven sort of experience, which I'm not terribly fond of on split recordings, but if you love all the piling on of the retro death metal these last decades then I think there are certainly enough highlights that it just squeaks by on the quality meter.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Sulphur Aeon - Gateway to the Antisphere (2015)

As fond as I've grown for the older school death metal aesthetics that initially won me over to the genre in the 80s, and the acts that today continue to refine and redux those specific traits, there's something to be said for a band that doesn't strictly rest on the laurels of its genre. Sulphur Aeon is one such band, and within the span of a single decade has risen to stand alongside groups with three times the lifespan behind them; a new bastion of production, professionalism, and style which has become a thing unto itself. That's not to say you can't trace individual components of the Germans' sound back to some of the usual suspects, but it's how they intertwine elements of classic and brutal death metal, black metal, and even melodic death into a daunting, unified whole that gives them a near limitless arsenal of weaponry at their disposal.

Perhaps less distinct is that they tackle the popular subject of cosmic horror, the Lovecraft Mythos in particular, but they've definitely got a focus on the more post-apocalyptic approach vector. The Old Ones have already arrived, their cataclysmic destruction being wrought upon both mankind and nature itself, or at least this is what is captured in the songwriting. Their extraordinary debut Swallowed by the Ocean's Tide definitely had the aquatic/R'lyeh vibe going for it, but here, like the Ola Larsson cover artwork splendidly depicts, they're stretching their tentacles between sea and stars. Musically, it doesn't diverge a great deal from its predecessor, but Gateway to the Antisphere certainly plays around with a greater range of dynamics, from slower, roiling, rumbling atmospheric rhythms to thundering blast sequences which put them right on the same level of finesse as veteran groups like Behemoth, Septic Flesh, Morbid Angel, Nile and Vader which could all be considered peers in terms of skirting the sweeping, epic parameters of death metal's entire potential. Tracks like "Calls from Below" or "He is the Gate" lay it on thick, there is constantly something interesting going on...Daniel Dickmann's frenetic bricklaying, sheens of melodies in the guitars that contain both elements of Eastern influence and beyond, Martin's guttural dominance and sustained growls that mange to have just enough personality where he doesn't feel generic.

Gateway to the Antisphere feels like the aural accompaniment to a plane larger than this or any other, one of controlled primordial chaos machinated by minds older than the universe. A symphony of punishment and suffering. It's not the creeping dread and despair you might expect from a Lovecraft story, but the end-state of having the gates of reality blown apart and all humanity put to knee before its new masters that they cannot comprehend. It's not insanely complex when it comes to individual compositions, but once you weave this all together it's just a magnificent devastating force that maintains a fair degree of musicality amidst all of its violence. All told, I didn't think this one quite as catchy as the debut, but more balanced in tempo and presentation and thus nearly on the same level due to such well-roundedness. The lyrics are good, the packaging impressive, and there's really no expense spared to create a formidable sophomore that is worth every penny. Fans of the aforementioned bands, or others like Mithras and Heaving Earth, should make this one mandatory to at least check out, and really anyone into any mixed concentration of extreme metal and cosmic horror should follow suit.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (scolding summonings at night)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Morgul - All Dead Here... (2005)

All Dead Here... might not turn out to be the final Morgul album, but it was the last before a 15-year absence that continues to the day that I'm writing this, and also an effort with furthered emphasized and explored the aesthetics that Jack D. Ripper had begun to incorporate around the time of his third (and best) effort The Horror Grandeur. This is more or less a Gothic/black metal hybrid, a fairly far cry from his earlier outings which were more true to their Scandinavian peers in sound. Morgul had developed into a band that ran more of a parallel with Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Hecate Enthroned or groups of that ilk, or if I'm going to be most specific, the Norse supergroup Kovenant, which I got a few flashbacks to as I was revisiting this one, especially in some of Jack's more impish, playful vocal lines in tunes like "The Need to Kill". Or the Finns Gloomy Grim, who for a number of albums had a style eerily similar to this one, to the point that I feel safe saying fans of one with almost assuredly get a kick out of the other.

Basically there's a bedrock of lush orchestration created with synthesizers, sometimes used, as in "Intro, The Mask of Sanity" to create a classic horror feel with some carnival-like keys and well timed strikes of percussion. The beats through the album are a mix of purely industrial/techno and then a few heavier ones more akin to its extreme metal origins. The rhythm guitars involve a lot of very simple, chugging and/or thrashing riff progressions which are semi-moshable, but not all that exciting if you were to take them out of the context that they're serving as anchors of aggression for the airier synth tones or Ripper's schizoid exchanges of black metal snarls, deeper gutturals and more acidic narrative cleans. This is often the most drugged out sounding album he's done, perhaps going a little overboard to the extent of self-caricature with the vocals alone, but then again some of the audience might have felt he'd been doing this since the two albums before. Every now and then you'll get this really fun overlap of these ideas, like the rolling chugs in the title track that are balanced off against the eerie strings, but the fact is that even by 2005's standards a lot of the lower end riffs on this album had been beaten to death.

The guitar tone is well produced though, and even though the vocals are often a little overbearing, most of the instrumentation is well balanced for the 21st century Gothic metal audience who will probably most appreciate this. The compositions are consistent to the point that you feel as if you could pluck a part out of one song, toss it into another and few would be the wiser. I personally enjoyed the guitars most when they were branching off into a harmony or some Eastern sounding passage, it made the album feel like it belonged in the soundtrack to some modern Mummy movie with all the lurching aggression. Tracks like "Shackled" and "Empty" have a great deal of potential that simply isn't realized when they devolve into some of the more rudimentary rhythm guitars. The lyrics here are focused more on generic concepts of death, pain and isolation, so it's not too detailed with horror theming. Although I'd hesitate to call All Dead Here... bad at all, it just doesn't really evolve or improve upon the style he had going on The Horror Grandeur or Sketch of Supposed Murder, it's not terribly inspired, and I can understand why he'd want to give the project a lengthy rest afterward. It's the least of the Morgul efforts, but there was an audience for this sort of sound if you were into stuff like the Napalm Records roster of that day and age.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, October 12, 2020

Crépuscule d'Hiver - Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres (2020)

France has had a strong developing Medieval black metal undercurrent for several years now, perhaps not as popular or as its more avantgarde genre frontrunners like Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Noir, but just as worthwhile to check out if you have any fancy for the atmospherics of earlier centuries, dark castles and idyllic landscapes. I've spoken on about groups like Aorlhac, Darkenhöld and Véhémence in the past, and now we've got the debut from an equally effective project called Crépuscule d'Hiver, which if my fading junior high knowledge of French isn't mistaken, translates to something like 'Winter Twilight'. A handful of you might be familiar with a dungeon synth act known as Gargoylium, and this is from the same individual, who carries over a lot of aesthetics from that and blends it rather seamlessly with his black metal influences to create an album I found just about perfect for this Autumn season and the Winter that awaits just beyond...

The aim here is create haunting, Romantic landscapes that evokes flashbacks to Gothic horror as well as the mid-90s European black metal that Stuurm no doubt listened to, and Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres is directly on target. Synthesizers are used to incorporate instrumental tones both Medieval and angelic, from brass and strings to organs and feminine choirs which are tastefully implemented to never drown out the darker visions being manifest through the beats, guitars and harsh raspy vocals. A lot of the more purely dungeon synth-like passages draw comparisons to the masters Summoning, but never to a degree of direct duplication, and where the flights of tremolo picked distorted passages and chords explode, they sound quite different than how the Austrian duo writes their own. Lots of melancholic harmonies and female vocals are mixed in to create this elegant sense of sadness and seduction, and the bass-lines churn wistfully below with just the right measure of thickness and groove. There's a good range of dynamic balance to most of the tracks, no endlessly cycling, dull repetitions but something fresh and new waiting around every corner of this antiquated, phantom-infested citadel that Stuurm conjures up in each of the lengthier tracks.

And let's face it, apart from the pair or shorter dungeon synth vignettes, these are some swollen tunes, ranging from about 8 and a half minutes to the 20+ minute title track. To the greatest credit of this album, I was never bored even for a moment: the musical arrangements perfectly mirror the excellent, spectral packaging of the CD and I felt as if I was lost for the full 70 minutes in this idealized nether-realm of cold stone, anguished spirits and elusive majesty. The riff-sets might not be perfectly unique in terms of this genre, but they felt as if they were trying something you simply don't hear on any newsprint necro record you encounter, and they're blissfully garbed in the more Gothic tones and instruments. For a group comprised of just one individual, I was extremely impressed, and while some listeners might find a couple flaws in the mix of the percussion or other nitpicks, the sum of Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres is nothing shy of magnificence that I'd readily recommend to anyone who enjoys either of the genres that birthed it.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Friday, October 9, 2020

Wooden Stake - A Feast of Virgin Souls (2015)

Another of many projects within the extended Razorback family to cross over members, Wooden Stake revolves around Vanessa Alucarda of Howling, Scaremaker, Orloff, and Surgikill, among many other acts. She was partnered up with the prolific Wayne 'Elektrokutioner' Sarantopoulos for the earlier album Dungeon Prayers & Tombyard Serenades and several other splits and EPs, but here is joined by her fellow Vaultwraith maniac William Warlaw for this sophomore effort, which somewhat steps away from the death/doom of previous outings for a focus leaning more on the latter half of that pairing. She still uses harsher snarls and growls fairly often, but the guitars themselves are written more with a mix of mournful traditional doom and heavy metal aesthetics in mind, a nice complement to the Gothic horror ritualism and occult themes within the lyrics.

If you couldn't tell by the lascivious cover artwork, A Feast of Virgin Souls kind of plays out like an X-rated alternate to a Hammer Horror flick: slow and steadily paced, not terribly action-oriented, with a lavish colorful palette for suffering. Atmosphere is established early on with the bass and synth-driven into "Dead Winter Resurrection" before you are introduced to the reverb-soaked, eerie doom riffing which traces its lineage back to stuff like Candlemass or Pentagram, with a few more Trouble-like groove riffs here or there. The beats are sufficient to create a genuine momentum along with a couple fills, but it's really Wardlaw's guitars and Vanessa's vocals that make this experience. I'm more accustomed to hearing her snarls or growls, which are here in abundance, but generally as a complement to her cleans, which are actually pretty good. In fact, they wouldn't be out of place in trendier groups like a Witch Mountain or Windhand, only Wooden Stake specializes far more in despair and lamentation than the more stoner-heavy vibes from those. In tracks like "Alzbeta: The Devil's Bitch", they actually sound quite effective being matched up with her sustained snarling.

Occasionally this record creates a hypnotic effect with a beat plodding along while William nails you with some of those good old bendy Sabbath notes (also in "Alzbeta") and Vanessa creates a sort of vampiric narration below. Quite evil and cool, but this record is also pretty effective when they veer a little more towards the group's death/doom origins on "Cross-Scalded Flesh". There are few songs that fall behind any others, with highlights coming in the title track, "Hanging from the Inverted Cross" and the finale "Curse of the Cauldron Countess", all stuff that would appeal to a lot of doom and horror fans if this band could ever get on their radars. The lyrics are likewise well written. The one weakness here is probably in the ability of the band to transition, they'll come in with a single pattern or tempo in mind, and offer you some variation, but it always feels uninteresting in its execution. They could also experiment a little more with the atmospherics, maybe some more organs, flutes and so forth could really help flesh this out. But A Feast of Virgin Souls is unquestionably catchy despite this roughness about its edges. I think with busier, organic drumming and maybe some more oversight and editing into how the tunes are structured, you could have a killer band.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Ghoul - Dungeon Bastards (2016)

It would be remiss of me to discuss Dungeon Bastards without first mentioning what fun packaging the CD comes with. Not only is the rear cover a mock-up of an old Dungeons & Dragons module, but the center of the fold-out is also a ridiculous roll & move board game complete with rules and everything, simultaneously helping flesh out some of the worldbuilding for their whole Creepsylvania schtick. The lyrics within are accompanied by an adventure narrative which ties the whole thing together as a concept album for all their Ghoulunatics to enjoy. As silly as it all might seem, few bands put such effort together for a product that can be appreciated well beyond just its listening capacity, and top that all off with some great comic-like artwork by Mark Richards of Heavy Hand Illustrations, and what is arguably the best of the band's album productions to date, and you've got the band's strongest attempt yet at breaking through into the wider metal audience...

On the other hand, despite all Ghoul has going for them this time, the songs themselves aren't quite so memorable as the packaging, or at least they don't start off the lineup of tracks here on the strongest of footing. This is still the same grab-bag of grind, thrash and death metal they've been serving up since the beginning of their mystery project, and it's more exciting than Transmission Zero before it, but the riffs don't always land with me, not because they're badly written or unfit, but just because a lot of the note patterns are just familiar to myself or others who have explored these sub-genres before. They still punch pretty hard thanks to the excellent, level production values that provide equal impact for the drums, guitars, and multiple vocal styles, but it isn't until "Dungeon Bastards" itself, or their fan anthem "Ghoulunatics" that I'm running into some riffs that really stick out to me, both well balanced attacks of their grinding guitars, fast-paced percussive battery, gang shouts and some really nice little metal leads, especially in the latter. I feel like these would have been better to kick off the whole album rather than "Bringer of War", not that it's bad but just suffers from some of the blander riff selections.

Thankfully, on the whole, the Ghoul personality shines through the whole affair, with the interchange of carnal rasps, thuggish gutturals and even some rhyming spoken bits that remind me a little of stuff like GWAR's manager in how they interplay with the rest of the chaos. The musicianship is on point, especially in how they balance out their tempo shifting and the pace of the album overall, and if you're down with this sort of 'funhouse' spin on the Carcass styles circa 1989-1993, or Ghoul's own sister acts Exhumed and Impaled, or Exodus or Vio-lence style thrashing on Fabulous Disaster or Eternal Nightmare and beyond, this is structurally on par with just about any of that. But apart from the actual mix of the album, with its wonderfully chunky guitars and effortlessly consistent rhythm section, there aren't really as many new ideas within the music itself as there are for the cover artwork. Superficially this exceeds its predecessors on all fronts, but it's the trifecta of We Came for the Dead, Maniaxe and Splatterthrash where they hit their peak charm, so I'm still more likely to pull those out of the cauldron whenever I need my fix of these four hooded freaks. Having said that, you can still have a blast with Dungeon Bastards cruising around with your bros on Halloween night, ganja and silly string in hand, aiming to misbehave.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (taking names, then stomping asses)

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Impaler - One Nation Under Ground (2000)

With all the rage over nasty speed metal acts like Midnight over the last decade, it's a little surprising that Minnesota's Impaler wallows in such relative obscurity. Not that they're entirely unknown or unapproachable, they've got a pretty decent internet presence and continue to record and play gigs even after decades; but their love of horror flicks, wrestling, their mesh of speed, heavy metal, and punk, and the cinematic gore and camp of their stage shows seems like it's a concoction that should have appealed to a far wider audience, especially as they've just been doing it for so long and never really turned from their path. Maybe they don't write the most impressive licks, but they've got the heart and sincerity in spades, a speed metal institution forever destined to sit below the radar.

One Nation Under Ground was their fifth full-length album released through the now-defunct Root of All Evil Records, and while the production had come a ways from their earlier efforts like If We Had Brains ...We'd Be Dangerous or Rise of the Mutants, the style is roughly the same. Simplistic rock & roll riffs played with metallic energy and slathered in Bill Lindsey's signature splatter-punk vocals, which can range from a more meaty bark to something more petulant and punky, with lots of gang shouts thrown in there for good measure. The way he exaggerates his style with that grimy, constipated edge almost reminds me of Alice Cooper, one of his biggest influences, as enforced by the presence of a "Teenage Frankenstein" cover which is second-to-last on the album. The drums have a great tone to them, the bass and rhythm guitar are fairly clean in the mix, but manage to catch a little bit of that infectious punk vibe you'll recall from a lot of your faves in the 80s. There are plenty of lead guitars, too, usually with more of a bluesy, reckless hard rock feel to them, fitting to the rhythm riffs but not too memorable on their own.

There are 15 tracks here, almost all weighing in at around 2-3 minutes, with just a couple that go longer, like the darker, doomier sounding "Under the Dirt". Occasionally they'll incorporate a spoken sample, or some special effects like the bell and howl you hear in the depths of "Dead as a Doornail", to keep you on the page with their horror influences. Once in awhile the riffs can get a little bit more thrashy as in "Call of the Wild", but the majority of them are more rooted in punk and straight hard rock; almost all of them do feel as if you've heard them elsewhere, even by the standards of 20 years ago. Thankfully, the production makes up for this a little, the instruments and vocals sound brash and bright and energized. I guess my other complaint would be one that I'd apply to a lot of horror-punk, psychobilly or horror-influenced metal in that the musical choices themselves rarely evoke the more evil and dark side of the genre. There's nothing creepy ever happening outside of those aforementioned samples, effects or Lindey's gruesome vocals, the tunes could use a little more dissonance, atmosphere or 'evil' note selections to make them stand out...

...but again, I've had this issue since the Misfits. It doesn't make the music bad at all, but it's more like attending a Halloween party with your family, bobbing for apples, carving a pumpkin and having a good cheer rather than getting chased through an abandoned, dilapidated asylum by a serial killer or supernatural entity. The lyrics are fun enough for what you get, tributes to old or campy horror flicks and they even have a nod to Bill's love of wrestling entertainment with "Cage Match Tragedy". The Alice Cooper cover is pretty decent, and the material is consistent over the 41 minutes, but it just doesn't stick with me for long after I'm finished. It seems mostly built to go along easily with their live shows with all the blood, guts and debauchery that ensues, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]