Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Holiday Hack-fest, 2021

 


Off for the Holidays doing family stuff! Will return in January for more reviews, including a few more discographies I'd like to polish off. Best to you and yours however you celebrate or anti-celebrate or whatever! - autothrall

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Picture - Every Story Needs Another Picture (1986)

I was hardly any hesher hunk to take advantage of the 80s hair metal sex and fashion, I was too young and dweeby at the time (and the latter does remain an apt description for me now), but something within me always stirs, partly from attraction and partly from laughter, at all these smutty old album covers. She's got a picture...of the band Picture...and she's stalking some private eye dude down the steamy city street in nylons, high heels and leather skirt. And it's on Backdoor records! If you used this as a cover today, I'd still think you were awesome, but there was something so sleazy and entertaining about it back in the day, and I like the color scheme and it strangely sort of mirrors the colors of their better known, more evil looking 1983 album Eternal Dark.

These Dutchmen are best known for that early 80s batch of records, at the crossroads between NWOBHM style heavy metal and more mainstream hard rock, which put them on trajectory for a level of international renown that they sadly didn't ever quite achieve. It's kind of cool to have a couple Picture albums around if you're showing off your old vinyl collection, but even then it's not a group I ever see a lot of people having discussions over. Every Story Needs Another Picture was already the group's sixth album, and it certainly seemed too timid in a year that was producing records like Master of Puppets, Somewhere in Time and Reign in Blood, but listening back on this one now with a fresh appreciation, it was actually a bit more busy and developed than some of their earlier, more straightforward stuff, and it has the sort of authentic 80s atmosphere to it that a lot of bands today fall over themselves trying to emulate. This album effectively sounds as it looks, something you'd chase into the urban nightscape, blaring out of the open windows of your Corvette or Trans Am or whatever was popular to drive in Holland at the time.

The guitars have a heavy foundation of hard rock and blues to them, sometimes using effects as you'd expect from a group like The Dire Straits on their ginormous hit, or ZZ Top, but just as often you've got a traditional feel that reminds me a lot of Whitesnake throughout the 80s. There are some synths here to give it that radio appeal, but also a lot of organs and such which also summon up some Uriah Heep or Deep Purple references. I'd venture that tunes like "Burning for Your Love" even leap off into a mix of mildly prog rock influences with the keyboard lead,s mixed with AOR arena rock for the predictable but functional verse guitar riffs. Vocalist Bert Heerink, who had taken over for Pete Lovell on the previous year's Traitor, has a nice, slicing high pitched voice which is smooth at encompassing all the melodies required over this material. The album does suffer from some softer rock anthems like "Stay With Me" or dull rockers like "She Was Made for Lovin'", but where they get a little more bombastic and intense like the first track "Battle Cruiser" and its cool opening choirs, or "Moving Down the Line", it's quite good stuff..."You Took My Money, You Took My Pride" and "Stand Back for the People in Charge" are also quite fun, the latter even with hints of Boston or Zebra in it.

I just wish there were more ambition here. I think if you like group such as Lion or Dokken, there is a chunk of this album worth your time, and a kernel of their sound was trying to go a little bit further than just the mundane butt-rock that they were undoubtedly pressured towards at the time, because it was either write some giant radio or hair metal hits, or get utterly fucking trampled by the heavier strains of the genre that were hitting in full-force by that time. Every Story Needs Another Picture does not accomplish either of those ends, but as an artifact of the 80s it's not bad if you have a soft nostalgia for AOR or lighter metal that really treads the line.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

https://www.pictureband.nl/

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Sonja - Nylon Nights/Wanting Me Dead (2018)

Melissa Moore is best known for her work in more extreme metal acts like Absu (as Vis Crom) Rumpelstiltskin Grind and XXX Maniak, and in particular I really enjoyed her writing and playing on the 2011 album Abzu. But if I'm being quite honest, and if these two tracks are a reliable measuring stick, I think she's found her calling with this retro heavy metal act Sonja, which has only produced this single to date, but goddamn is this excellent material. It's the sort of riffy, memorable and exciting heavy metal which is, yes, largely a throwback to the 80s style, but like some of the better bands doing that today, also feels like it is actually taking that style forward into the future rather than relying entirely on aesthetics of the past. The two tracks here are so well done that I've been slavering for a full-length ever since...

The vocals are excellent, higher pitched without being screamy, and echoing with resonance in both the studio and emotional departments. I guess a good comparison would be Canada's Cauldron, in how she uses sustain and notation, but she's just a fraction or two higher. There also hooks for days going on in these cuts, especially "Nylon Nights", and I love that springy, organic tone she uses, which is one thing that absolutely sets this apart from a lot of the more direct 80s imitator bands. When she's just diving into those guitars in the bridges it feels so fresh and adventurous even if technically it's not novel. It's almost like High Spirits if you really ramped up the memorable and pounding on the guitar. And it doesn't hurt that she's got Grzesiek 'Gunslut' Czapla of Woe laying down the beats, and ex-Tombs bassist Ben Brand with some bass lines that anchor the tone of those vocals and guitars perfectly. Fantastic stuff that fans of Haunt, Traveler, Night Demon, Pounder, Enforcer, Spell and the bands I already named should track down this instant. If they'd put out an entire full-length of this quality in 2018 it might have made my AOTY.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

https://www.facebook.com/Sonjabooking/

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Powerwolf - Best of the Blessed (2020)

I adore me some Powerwolf, but the last 5-10 years of the band's career have been littered with stuff you might consider cash grabs, from the number of live offerings, limited edition or otherwise, to all the other stuff like deluxe multi-disc versions of all their albums, covers album, orchestral versions, and so forth. Some of these, like The Symphony of Sin, Metallum Nostrum, and The Metal Mass - Live, make for pretty good products, but even then I'd have to say the band is laying it on thick, perhaps victims of their own productivity or maybe they just really need the cash?! Or maybe some of these weren't really the band's ideas. At any rate, Best of the Blessed is the 'greatest hits' package you just knew was coming, and at the very least it offers a pretty good amount of content, depending entirely on the version you buy.

And by that I mean, avoid the standard single disc edition entirely, because it's not a good value at all. 16 tracks, about half of which are re-recordings that do little more than bring some of the tunes off the first three records 'up to code', and I'll tell you, they didn't sound that bad in the first place, at least not to the degree that I'd ever imagine the band wanting to redo them in less than 30-40 years' time. It's not that the new editions of "Saturday Satan", "Resurrection by Erection" and "Kiss of the Cobra King" are bad...as I've said numerous times, Powerwolf is highly professional, but nonetheless, this one feels unnecessary. Maybe that professionalism is a double-edged sword...a great collection would have included a bunch of rarities, things we haven't heard, maybe a couple brand new tunes, but perhaps the band is so consistent they just don't have much left on the cutting room floor to offer. Anyway, if you're a fan of the Germans then you've already got all of this. The cover art is quite good, I like how it uses the various cover wolfs, and it comes with a nice booklet, but the musical content of the core compilation here is nothing to write home about. Not a total ripoff, since they put in a little work doing the new versions, but unneeded by any but their most devout audience.

Where it becomes a more interesting proposition is if you get the 2CD or 3CD earbook or mediabook which includes either one or two live offerings...we've already covered stuff like The Metal Mass - Live, and a lot of this stuff does seem redundant to that and their other, less impressive live albums, but at least there are a few different tracks here, and the sound quality is up to par. Plopping down the cash for all of this at once, rather than just some repressed tunes and re-recordings seems the far superior bargain. That said, this sort of thing really leads to exhaustion with a band, they seem like they're really milking it all dry. I get that they always love offering up these deluxe products, to give the fans something substantial, and you're by no means required to buy it all, but I think it's time they focused in on some killer new Lupus Dei-quality material and less on the assembly line.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (for the 3CD version), Fail [3.5/10] for the one CD.

https://www.powerwolf.net/

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Powerwolf - The Symphony of Sin (2020)

The Symphony of Sin is such a pompous and over-the-top idea that you wonder why Powerwolf didn't pull it off any sooner. Okay, so it's not their first attempt, they did a couple orchestral versions as bonus tracks for Preachers of the Night, but not this well, and not to this extent. Clearly the sweep and dynamic range of their material has had a heavy imprint from opera and classical influences, ever since the earlier albums, and now the German ghouls and lycanthropes get to live it. And like so much of their output, it's carried out with a professionalism that is far beyond what you'd have expected they could accomplish...an adaptation of The Sacrament of Sin that, for my money, is just about as potent in this medium as it is was with the electrical guitars and thundering drums.

In fact, although it does have the sort of Wagnerian menace that you equate with a lot of metal, if I hadn't already heard the 'heavy' version, I'd have thought much of this was written for this very context. Attila's obviously a natural, and the choir does well to support his voice as well as give a similar impression to when the band is using one of its own gang choruses. You want screams or ethereal female vocals to break out? They do in "Demons are a Girl's Best Friend". The horns are brazen, the keys, organs and pipes all sound truly resilient, as if you're hearing this while traversing some haunted fortress in a modern-day Castlevania sequel. Percussion gives it a theatrical, exotic flare and barbaric seriousness worthy of Basil Poledouris. To its credit, even at its most glorious, it still maintains the superficial sense of darkness which fuels most of their better material, and it's done to such a degree here that you wonder if these fellas had a more promising career in opera?!

Maybe that's too far, but The Symphony of Sin is quite a lot of fun. If you're bored of all this sort of orchestration, it's not about to change your mind. I sometimes get a mixed opinion on it, like the new Blind Guardian Twilight Orchestra album, which is nowhere as good at this. But what makes this release valuable is just how you can feel the currents of these particular tunes shift into new dimensions that are equally valuable to the metal versions. I was also a little impressed that they did it for this entire album, and focused in on that rather than assembling a 'greatest hits' through their career, which might not have gelled so well. This is also another release which the band originally included on a multi-CD deluxe set, which I missed out on, but it's since been given its own treatment.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

https://www.powerwolf.net/

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Powerwolf - Metallum Nostrum (2019)

I touched a little on this material when I was reviewing the Powerwolf full-length Blessed & Possessed that it was originally attached to, a whole disc of covers that added most of the value if you were lucky enough to grab the deluxe version of that album, which I thought was otherwise one of their weaker studio efforts which was starting to just sound redundant to what they'd already released. But I wanted to come back around to Metallum Nostrum, especially as its got its own release that can be picked up by anyone who missed out the first time around, and because it's developed into one of my go-to cover albums by a power metal band, standing proudly aside Hammerfall's Masterpieces from 2008.

Powerwolf is a band I really enjoy for both the quality of much of their output, as well as the blend of Gothic horror and sacrilegious snark that stands out as so unique among the rest of the German heavy/power metal field. They're basically the Universal Monsters of the scene, and listening through Metallum Nostrum they pretty much lay bare the sorts of influences you would have expected them to cultivate into what they've become. I've come to believe that just about every choice here was well-considered and makes for something that can naturally help pad out their sets when in need of a cover that will fit snugly with their originals. From the power metal of their countrymen Running Wild's "Consquistadores" and double coverage of Judas Priest's Painkiller with "Night Crawler" and "Touch of Evil", you can tell where a lot of the propulsion of their style originated, and then from others like "The Evil That Men Do", Ozzy's "Shot in the Dark" or Sabbath's "Headless Cross", they're touching on a lot of the classics without just picking the most obvious hits, and its much appreciated.

Something like Amon Amarth is a little more far afield, and yet they once again took this one and turned it into Powerwolf proper with all the pomp and majesty you equate with their own material. Most of this stuff is just glittering with the moonlit pipe organ tones they use fluently, and Attila does a fantastic job at maintaining his own vocal identity rather than just clinging to all the other bands. "Edge of Thorns" is a sore spot for me since I'm just not a fan of those first few Zak-fronted Savatage discs, but I can totally understand how these guys would be a fan of that, and although it's the weakest tune for me, I think I like it with Attila singing a little more these days. The production is just all-out here, there might be some points where it's a little blander than on their own albums, but a lot more went into this than just taking the piss in their garage with some covers and its a fun collection that stacks up well with the rest of their catalog.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.powerwolf.net/

Monday, November 15, 2021

Powerwolf - The Sacrament of Sin (2018)

There was nothing inherently 'wrong' with Blessed & Possessed, the band's previous album, but it felt like a clear case of diminishing returns, Powerwolf writing more or less the same types of songs with only an arbitrary amount of variation. Plenty of fodder for the live sets, where most of these fist pumping horror-tinged power metal anthems can tend to run into one another, but just not a lot that was standing out in my mind even a half hours listening to it. Its follow-up, The Sacrament of Sin, doesn't exactly thrust the band back into the thundering graces of their first three albums, which for me remain the pinnacle in terms of songwriting ideas and truly catchy hooks and choruses, but there is something slightly more subdued and mature about this one that just ever slow slightly gets the Transylvanian express back on the tracks.

If you still want your mug-swinging, organ hymnal critiques of the Church of the past, you know the naughty Christians that hunt all those benevolent critters like vampires, werewolves and witches, and catching a lot of innocents in the crossfire, then you've got a tune like "Killers with the Cross" which is basically like Sabaton, the Haunted House edition, and it's not the only case here. "Demons Are a Girl's Best Friend" is probably one of the breakout singles here, a little naughty but busting out a nice chorus flow that surely gets a lot of folks singing along at the shows. There's also the big, sweeping "Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone", which is more of a lighter flicker, operatic escalation wrapped in power ballad aesthetics; it just comes across as the band spreading its (gargoyle) wings to try something marginally different, and that one also hits a satisfying chorus. The title track, "Fist by Fist (Sacralize or Strike)" and "Nightside of Siberia" are also a couple of favorites here which give a steady ass kicking even if they're not quite so memorable as some of the amazing things they've written in the past. The latter has a little melodic chugging pattern similar to Amon Amarth's stuff, ironic since Powerwolf covers one of their tracks on Metallum Nostrum. It works.

Production and performance are at the same high standard the band always sets for itself...even though this is not the 'classical' version of this album, it still gives that impression with a lot of the bombast created through the backing vocals, organs and synthesizers, all accompanied by simpler, driving guitars that make the band sound like its constantly on the march. Attila stretches himself pretty far with a couple of the howls here, and he's not doing anything too unique in terms of advancing or innovating his style, but the guy just sounds good whether the band is hammering away behind him or he's belting out some pompous lines to the accompaniment of only the organs or choir. In the end we're talking about an album which doesn't stand out too far above the rest, but matches up with Preachers of the Night or Blood of the Saints, dependable and slightly more inspired than Blessed & Possessed, but not much. And full disclosure: I actually think The Symphony of Sin is quite a lot better than this, you might be swapping out the metal, but those orchestrated versions are just more interesting, and alternatingly dark and glorious. Compared to that surprise, this sacrament feels a mite insipid.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

https://www.powerwolf.net/

Friday, November 12, 2021

Powerwolf - Preaching at the Breeze (2017)

Preachers at the Breeze seems like an act of pure redundancy after The Metal Mass - Live from the year before, with the caveat that this one I believe was technically recorded BEFORE the other, at the Summer Breeze Open Air in Germany the same year (2015). I don't know if there's a huge market for Powerwolf live albums with a following similar to Dave Matthews Band, Grateful Dead or Primus where you've got rabid fans that want recordings of every show the band performs, but that's doubtful since these Germans aren't really known to improv or structure their sets drastically different than one another. As such, this feels like a total waste, especially on the heels of that great live package the year before, and several others they had put out through magazines or limited editions or whatnot.

I also think this one sounds a little rougher than The Metal Mass - Live. Perhaps that was due to the festival atmosphere, the far bigger and louder crowd, but while you can pick out the 'highs' on this album like the pipe organs and Attila's voice quite well, the guitars seem a little murkier. Overall, I would be satisfied if there wasn't a better option. The set list is also practically identical for both albums, with only 1-2 exceptions, like this one has a slightly different intro and is lacking two of the tracks from that later set. Makes sense, since the list is from the same stretch of months in the band's history and it wasn't likely to change much, but it just makes you wonder why this needed to really exist in any capacity. If you're actually on the prowl for one of the Germans' live packages, this one certainly isn't bad, but spend the money on The Metal Mass - Live if you're seeking after an audio live album you can play in your car. I think this also might come with a limited edition of Blessed & Possessed, so if you're getting this, that album, AND the covers album, it's more worth your while. There's something to be said for consistency, and at the very least they show it here in terms of production qualities and packaging.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

https://www.powerwolf.net/

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Powerwolf - The Metal Mass - Live (2016)

Powerwolf has so many deluxe double disc releases of their albums that this probably wasn't their first rodeo with a proper 'live' effort; I know they had one that came with a Metal Hammer magazine, but at least for me, this was my first experience hearing these loveable Saarland spook-metallers on a full live recording, and I expected they'd give it as much effort as they seem to do anything else. This was right around the time I had started to lose a little interest in their studio material, not because I thought any of it was bad, just that I thought they were feeling a little redundant with both the writing, the cover art choices, etc. That ghost ship would eventually right itself, as I've enjoyed The Sacrament of Sin more than Blessed & Possessed, but at least hearing it live would possess some novelty.

Spoiler: it does, but at the same time, the band has an insanely professional sound here which is not a far cry from how they sound in the studio. Attila's voice soars here with all its Romanian bombast, the guy is no joke...he's not the highest pitched or most versatile, but he's got a burly tone that just takes command of the audience and he doesn't really fuck up, hardly, at all. Some might consider that a bit of a weakness, since they want to hear the more 'real' attack on stage, but in a European scene whose power and Gothic metal bands are so honed in on polish and presentation, what I'm hearing from these Germans has to place them right at the top of the pile. The guitars and organs sound awesome, the drums have a nice slap to them which sounds especially good when they're doing the marching beats alongside the operatic arrangements, and I've rarely heard such a smooth mix of the audience cheering...it almost sounds too good to be true. Doesn't hurt that it's also being recorded on their home turf, so you can hear Dorn speaking to them in German between tunes and even that sounds just about perfect!

The set list is definitely where it misses out a little, almost entirely ignoring my favorite album Lupus Dei other than the title track...but no "In Blood We Trust", "When the Moon Shines Red", "Mother Mary is a Bird of Prey" or "We Take it from the Living", tunes I'd figure would be staples. I don't think the debut makes it on here at all, but Bible of the Beast through Blessed & Possessed are all covered well enough if you dig those, and they do such a flawless job representing that stuff that it's hard to hold a grudge...they were probably just tired of the earlier material, and much of the band's popularity picked up in the 2010s as they had built a solid live presence for tours and festivals. This is quite a good live effort, and Powerwolf has proven that they do not screw around, whether it be their studio output, cover songs album, live performances, or even the more recent symphonic version of The Sacrament of Sin. They believe in themselves, and spare no expense or effort to succeed, and as silly as they can seem with their ghoulish stage makeup, they demand respect and they've got mine. I still haven't tried out their board game though, Armata Strigoi...that will be the ultimate test...

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

https://www.powerwolf.net/

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Beast in Black - From Hell With Love (2019)

Although its formula isn't a far transition from that of the debut Berserker, From Hell With Love doesn't take more than a track or two to prove that it's already a better album than the debut. It starts off on a very strong footing with a full on arena rager, and then doesn't really let up as it cycles into its hybrid of chorus-grabbing power metal, synthesizer-heavy AOR and just the ever-so-slight breezes of proggier climes. This is all about those dressing up those enormous sing-a-long style choruses with competent riffing, lavish but tightly controlled avenues for shredding, and keyboards all over the place that play second fiddle to nobody, which becomes obvious as soon as the titular second track erupts.

Another curiosity is how they use a lot of the electric drum fills that seem like they're spun off the same 80s pop influences that the synths draw upon, they do such a great job of meshing that all together with the big chords and ever-improving performance of Yannis, who sounds on this album as if he's already cracked the all-time ranks of European power metal royalty. From Hell With Love is a veritable hit machine, and while it's apt to annoy anyone for the same reasons other groups like Sabaton would, it's honestly better crafted. As someone who was reared on a lot of hard rock at the same time I was delving into all the heavier, more evil and obscure metal, I can find an appreciation here because Beast in Black won't let me think any other way. 'This kicks ass...but it's soooo lame...but it's still kicking my ass. What is wrong with me?' I mean I'll be honest in that I don't really care for a lot of Anton's earlier band Battle Beast, I find myself nodding off at a lot of their riffs on the last couple albums...the singer's hot, but so what? 

I've got no such opportunity on this album, because it demands attention at every curve, from the throwback synth tones that should have stopped being cool 35 years ago, to the elevating chorus progressions and the way it just revels in all its cheesiness and does not give a fuck. There are a couple moments where it might go a little too far, like the track "Oceandeep" where it seems to be channeling a bit too much Nightwish, but at least the first five tracks in a row thoroughly rile up the hackles on my ghost-mullet, and it does later recover with scorchers like "Unlimited Sin", or "True Believer" which once again goes for this outrageous 80s synth wave sound and then just layers on the butt rock, or "This is War" which reminds us that metal is still with Beast in Black and we've got nothing much to worry about...they were just kinda sorta testing our limits.

They've also got some cool covers on here, having the audacity to throw some roiling synths into "Killed by Death" by Our Lord Lemmy and friends, while keeping the vocals kind of nasty. "No Easy Way Out" from Rocky IV is probably more obvious, I mean the whole band's sound is meant to sound something like that, so why not pay it back? Add the sexy sword & sorcery cover art, the massive modern production and it's just a fun banger to spin as you cruise the city streets, but maybe keep the windows up since you don't want those friends who think you only listen to Pissgrave and Teitanblood to catch you.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

https://beastinblack.com/

Friday, November 5, 2021

Aorlhac - Pierres brûlées (2021)

One of the most textured and engaging acts of the Medieval black metal scene coming largely from France, Aorlhac hit a new summit with their 2018 album L'esprit des vents, which I admit to listening the fuck out of in the ensuing years. There was a natural electricity to experience what they might put out next, and having spun Pierres brûlées for about a month now, I'm happy to say it's a worthwhile successor, even if it does not quite blow me away or evolve their sound nearly as much as they'd obviously done in the midst of that 2010-2018 period. It might not seek such soaring heights, but it's a damned dense, reliable effort which can once again transport the listener through its interpretation of traditional black metal techniques centuries in to the past and make the themes and style fit together seamlessly.

The style is heavily characterized by steadily blasting tracks with highly melodic arrangements of rhythm guitar, which are frankly a better fit for the lyrical themes and exploration of history than the more evil and diabolic passages we tend to equate with the genre; and this is an exception I tend to take when a band can create such a formidable gestalt of concept and style. There's a a never-ending cycle of desperation created through the riffing, and while a lot of the note progressions are splayed out in patterns that can be somewhat predictable within the niche, they just work so wonderfully alongside the blend of howled clean vocals and dirtier rasps. This record is like a flood of emotions from someone dying of a sword wound, a windy ascension of pain and majesty which goes so fast that it takes flight. That's not to say that the band doesn't have its moments where they break down into a more moderate pace with lots of kick drums and darker, harsher vocals, but it's this high temp that they will generally be associated with. I do really appreciate when they try more rhythmic variation, like the eerie intro to "Nos hameaux désespérés", and I feel the acoustic material like the "Averses sur Peyre-Arse" interlude is damn near mandatory to help break up the faster flow from any monotony.

Aorhlac might still not reach the top tier of distinct, musically adventurous French black metal acts like Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord or the ever controversial Peste Noire, but there's certainly an identity and fluidity of musical expression here which solidifies them as one of the contenders in that scene, and of all the strains of metal music I feel like this is just the best married to the idea of exploring the past. I'll not lie and say that this trio couldn't use a little more variation, perhaps even more acoustics or folksy passages to help flesh out the authenticity of their themes, but they are nonetheless a fantastic band and this one sits just below L'esprit des vents in overall strength.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

https://aorlhac.bandcamp.com/

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Inebrious Incarnate - Abstemious Genocide (2021)

The prospect of a brutal death metal alternative to the Teutonic alcohol thrashers Tankard is a fun one, because the suds must flow across all genres of carnage, and it's one that knee-slappingly named Inebrious Incarnate seems to embrace, with what must be one of the most fun and outrageous album covers you've seen all year. Reading that some of these blokes were also members of Unfathomable Ruination kind of keyed me in the musical content was going to be no laughing matter, and it's not, but a tautly executed array of face-punching riffs that sit well within their parent style but also show no shyness towards including the occasionally more grinding edge, or maybe even a bit of aggressive, technical thrashing like on the opening title track.

The production is really bright and pugilistic, the rhythm guitars have all the chugging force you'd need to offset the squeals or spikes of technicality, but there's also a nice boxy tone to it which doesn't ever feel too terribly over-dubbed or polished like a lot of albums in this niche can feel. The major influences I can feel through this 37-minute drubbing are perhaps Suffocation, George Fisher-era Cannibal Corpse, and Cryptopsy, but sometimes they go for a total knuckle dragging slowdown mugging ala Devourment, or even some clinical death/thrash chops that are reminiscent of Dutch staples like Prostitute Disfigurement or Pestilence. The vocals are cast in a genre-typical guttural bark mixed with snarls circa Napalm Death, but it flexes really well with the rhythmic variation and he gets a nice sustain over some of the ends of his lines which hovers ominously over the much busier music flashing beneath. The drums are so frothy and fun that the kit sounds like its about to explode out of the recording like the beer glass through the entrail-spilling torso on the cover, but there's still a great level of control, lots of fills being thrown around there, grooves that stick.

In fact Inebrous Incarnate tries to pack in as much as they can into the space of these 3-minute-and-change tracks without ever going disgustingly showy or wanky. What thrilled me the most was how they manage to pack their chugs and breakdowns with a more roiling, busy structure before hitting all the pinches and squeals, it keeps the record rhythmically entertaining rather than something too dull that you've heard before. That's not to say they're strikingly original, and this does rely somewhat on the hilarious lyrical alcoholic novelty of tracks like "Hair of the Cerberus", "Double Liver Destroyer" and "Moonshine Supremacy" to stand apart, and the fact that this is way more in the 'fun lane' than just the usual gore-soaked paeans to serial killer streaks. A fun full-length debut with lots of 'fuck yes' moments in the churning, choppy rhythmic attack, well suited to tearing up your living room or rehearsal studio while on your latest bender. Team these guys up with Cannabis Corpse for a bill of punishing substance-abuse mosh excess.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

https://inebriousincarnate.bandcamp.com/releases

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Beast in Black - Berserker (2017)

While his previous band Battle Beast continues to drift into an almost pure popular arena metal outlet, playing generic, unchallenging riffs with a few more intricate dressings, relying heavily on the charismatic vocalist's stage presence and delivery, it seemed like Anton Kabanen wanted to head back into more ambitious territory. No surprise then that Beast in Black comes out firing with a more decidedly heavier Euro power metal vibe that lines up a little more with where his alma mater was once headed. Don't get me wrong, this is still a band that plays it safe with a sound that primes them for the stage with other popular groups like Sabaton, Epica, Nightwish and Hammerfall, but you cannot really question the drive and effort that's gone into album, no matter the level of cheese it ever strives for. Well crafted, anthemic tunes will catch you every time, and nobody can accuse Berserker of lacking such.

Anton was sharp enough to once again hook up with a monstrous vocalist in Yannis Papadopoulos from Greece, who has that loud, frilly, powerful range but can also dish out a little angst and anger when he's staying in his mids or lower. He seems like someone complete aware of the emotion and spectacle that these 21st century power metal albums require as they attempt to almost out-accessible one another, but thankfully these guys aren't as cringeworthy as something like Gloryhammer. Sure, the cover model for this album looks like the planeswalker Ajani from Magic the Gathering, and some of the lyrics and titles can feel a bit generic, but I don't get the impression from listening through this that the band is trying too intentionally to come off as ironic or silly. They write massive material that draws equally from their Euro power peers and then a whole host of old 80s AOR and dad rock. You can hear the traces of stuff like Survivor, Europe and so forth, with those big old keyboard tones driving or emphasizing a lot of the action, but they get a little more meaty and musical when they go full-bore metal, and they also manage to pull off those softer, more sensitive moments like the verses of "Born Again" without getting too awkward.

The band does its best when firing on as hard as they can, with tracks like "Zodd the Immortal" and "The Fifth Angel", Yannis adding a lot of character there and every beat, riff and even keyboard feeling mighty. I don't imagine the festival crowds overseas finding it hard to fist pump their beers, because everything is well in place. Great leads that are both flashy and catchy, obviously holding just back from the precipice of over-indulgent excess. The only real drawback to this album for me was the fact that I feel like it should be so much more memorable than it is...while I'm actually listening to it I get the impression these are songs I'll have fun with for quite some time, and yet between exposures I seem to forget much about it. But if you pick me up and we're listening to this in the car, I'll let my hair down...the phantom hair...because all of mine is now hanging from the front of my face, and I'll sing along and smile. There are definitely a few things that hit you from out of left field, like how "Crazy, Mad, Insane" has those throbbing synth parts that sound like an 80s synth pop tune by Dead or Alive, and while this is the sort of overtly polished and pop-market-friendly I sometimes wish to scoff at, I think this absolutely crushes the entire Battle Beast catalog and it's a big step up for its architect.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

https://beastinblack.com/

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Pharaoh - The Powers That Be (2021)

Upon first hearing Pharaoh's latest opus this summer, I remember thinking that based on its riffing strength alone, it was one of the strongest releases of the year, and after several more months I hold to that perspective. As with the Pennsylvanians' progressive power masterpiece Be Gone in 2008, arguably one of my favorite melodic metal records to ever hail from the States, this is not and has never been an act that rested on any of its genre's laurels. There is no predicting what riff is going to follow the next, this is one of the few groups of its kind that feels as if its treading new ground rather than attempting to emulate Dream Theater, or the flowery, trite Euro power anthems, or the sort of generic screeching throwbacks you'll hear in KK Downing's new band. The ground level is not nostalgia, but innovation.

Sure, internally there are similarities in production and riff patterns across this band's own discography, it's Matt Johnsen's sandbox after all, but even there you can tell they're pulling out all the stops to create new progressions. This is arguably the band's most technical outing, with a gajillion melodic riffs hitting you in each track, the vast majority of which are well-structured and would be impressive even if you turned the rest of the band off in the mix...only you'll never want to do that, because Chris Black's drumming is just intense across this thing, fills all over yet complementing the rhythm guitars, and Chris Kerns' bass-lines are also formidable, and really lock down that lower end so Johnsen's playing can just shimmer all over the place. The leads are tasteful, occasionally flirting with a shredding velocity but never beyond the point where they complement the rest of the instrumentation. There are some cleaner guitars, as used in the folksy "Waiting to Drown" or the intro to "When the World Was Mine", but these didn't quite excite me as much as the electrics, although they do function alongside the moodier vocal style Aymar uses in the former.

Speaking of which, Tim's voice didn't quite score with me the first few listens through this one, for some reason I thought he'd lost a little steam from Be Gone or Bury the Light, but now going back through it I realize I was just being foolish, he sounds perfectly fine and continues to possess one of the more unique voices in USPM, or really metal at large. He's like a David Wayne, an Udo or a Flemming Rasmussen (on the earlier Artillery records); he's just got this burlier, angry edge to his intonations that in no way diminishes their melodic impact. You can just instantly place the voice once you hear it. All of this is captured in a super clean mix which isn't terribly different than the last two albums, but allows all of the players some distinction from one another without feeling insanely polished and neutered. To some degree this feels like Be Gone: Advanced Class, an album that is nearly as catchy, but even more proficient, and while it might not just have instantly ingrained itself into my ears, it's extremely rewarding, highly re-listenable and propels Pharaoh even further into a class of its own.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

https://pharaohmetal.bandcamp.com/

Hegemon - Sidereus Nuncius (2021)

While they might not have made a large splash beyond the immediate French black metal scene, Hegemon have actually been at this for a quarter century now. Their last two albums (their third and fourth respective full-lengths) dropped on the Season of Mist Underground imprint, and now they've transferred to the Let Acteurs de L'Ombre Productions roster where they could not be any more at home. This is yet another act which takes a heavy lesson from traditional black metal formulas of the Scandinavian sects, and then adds just a spin of their own personality and dissonance atop of it to keep it form becoming too derivative or repetitious, and the beautifully packaged, desolate Sidereus Nuncius just clobbers the listener with despair that often teeters upon a dangerous knife-edge.

The overall riff-set here might not be the catchiest or most interesting you've heard from a scene which produced luminaries like Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, but it's really tortured and robust, with a lot of swells of ambience in the backdrop that beautifully align with the menacing guitars and ever raging blast beats and incredibly potent double kick drum sequences, with some great sounding crashes on top of hte percussion. To an extent, the way some of the material here roils with the touches of more memorable dissonance actually reminds me a lot of what some of the forerunners of the Icelandic scene are doing, like a Sinmara, Slidhr, Svartidauði or Misþyrming, only many miles to the South. Controlled bursts of chaos incarnate occasionally break for a mild sense of melodic surging, and though they don't often paint with the broadest of brushes for their riffing palette, the songs are kept tight in the 4-6 minute range so they simply cannot suffer from the tedious repetition that some of their peers might succumb to. They certainly play around with the formula enough, through guitars, synthesizers, and a darkly charismatic vocal presence which raves, barks, snarls and whispers to a maximum, manic effect.

Sidereus Nuncius is clearly a product of experience and well worth checking out if you're out combing the black metal underground of Europe for acts that can deliver a seasoned, menacing assault. I spent a good amount of the time listening to this glancing over my shoulder or facing some other sort of internal trepidation and nervousness because Hegemon fundamentally understands that black metal is meant as an evil, oppressive art form, and like many of the best of the tradition, this record embraces that threatening nature to create a dark trip which never outstays its welcome, and yet has a lot of intricacy from the spikes of diabolic blasting, to the sublime groove of the bass lines, tasteful cleaner guitars, et all. It's not the most unique thing you'll ever hear, granted, but will make for a great spin on the grayer days of the upcoming winter months.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://hegemon666.bandcamp.com/

Monday, November 1, 2021

RüYYn - RüYYn EP (2021)

The cover artwork for French RüYYn's eponymous EP is the sort I am a sucker for: a windswept, wintry landscape with the hint of some dark, ominous, possibly empty structure in the backdrop, partly covered by the dunes of blowing snow, with a figure struggling through the storm. This is instantly evocative (one hopes) of the sound the act is pursuing, and whatever else I might say about this Roman-numerated track list, there is absolutely no false advertising. The half hour of material here sounds like you are increasingly being buried in the winter drift, or whatever trials and despair and emotions it is serving as a stand-in for. The mix on this material is also quite strong, typical for the Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions stable, there is a stark professionalism to the sound that one expects from far better situated acts.

The primary issue I ran into here was that many of the chord patterns, in both the surging storm-like blast sequences and some of the slower passages, were rather mundane and predictable. Now this was a double edged sword, because while in the moment they don't really evoke anything interesting beyond what is needed to sound like the EP looks, they also make the few standout sections stand out even further, like when that melody breaks out in the depths of track "I", a dreamy, almost post-black rush of catchiness that one probably wishes there were more of. Also, there are some nice, dissonant riffs that occasionally offset some of the prime chord patterns, but not as much intricacy on the whole that these tunes could probably have held. The influences are all straight on the sleeves...Mayhem, Bathory, maybe a bit of the simpler Immortal or Marduk stuff, though the slight nuances I've mentioned do differentiate this slightly. This is also the work of a single musician, Romain Paulet, and he's certainly as efficient with the thundering beats as he is with the guitar and the rasping vocals.

So RüYYn is stable introduction to the project, and if you're dreaming of blinding white winds, ice-scraped skin and utter desolation, this will make for a reliable soundtrack, if not a terribly interesting one. The DigiPak packaging is gorgeous, the production exactly what is required, the intensity and energy is not lacking, it simply deserves a little more variation within the compositions themselves, more riffs to stick in you ears and create a proper hibernal haunting to accompany the imagery. But I can't be too hard on it, this is an act only started THIS very year, so if you look at this as sort of a demo offering, there's probably not much that can't be accomplished with a little more effort, since the technical side of things is already at a proficient level of delivery.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

https://ruyyn.bandcamp.com/releases

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Count Raven - The Sixth Storm (2021)

Twelve years have passed since the release of Mammons War, the last record from Sabbath-worshipping Swedes Count Raven, and for my money probably the best record they'd ever released. It had a more brazen, bright, slightly modern sound than earlier cult classics like Storm Warning and Destruction of the Void, but the concept was much the same, a quality continuity for a style that sadly the originators hadn't been peddling in quite some time (with the exception of 13). Big, catchy, traditional doom metal riffing, great vocals in that mocking, melodic, demonic Osbourne style that for me is like breathing air at this point; the memorable but mildly flawed execution that will creep me out more than most of the band's potential successors ever have, even the most distinct among them like the late Eric Wagner, or Messiah Marcolin.

In contrast to its predecessor, The Sixth Storm is somewhat of a dingier affair, darker and more evil, a  revitalization of their old style from the first half of the 90s. The guitar tone is certainly bulkier and more modern than it was those 30 years ago, and it's not entirely produced to go full retro, but definitely the vibes being spilled out here are more raw and mournful, a direct descendent to the Black Sabbath debut with a riffing profile that is slightly more airy and melodic, as we hear from the graceful leads in tunes like "The Curse". The tracks churn and groove along and it's all quite leaden and sublime, with laid back vocal lines that fully encapsulate what was so compelling about checking out those old 70s doom gods. The drums lay out strong if simple beats with some nice added fills that help add just a slight dimension of extra business to the solid, dependable rhythm guitars. Another parallel they have to their primary influence the inclusion of a more atmospheric, ambient vocal track in "Heaven's Door", which is clearly a little nod to "Planet Caravan" only with more shimmery organ/synth tones and just gives the listener a great place to trip out or relax in between the more oblique, drudging tracks.

Now for some, I realize that Count Raven might seem a little close to their forebears, but there are some slight instances of adding their own touches which I appreciated, like the creepy little synth lines they add to "The Ending", or the riffing on "The Giver and the Taker" which at some times sounded a little like an old chuggy Alice in Chains number with the difference in vocals, which for the record I really liked in that tune with the higher pitch going. There's also not a stinker among this entire lot, the first track might not be the strongest, and the closer "Goodbye" is a little much; but once you're hitting the titles I've mentioned above, or the epics "Baltic Storm" and "Oden", you'll be in full on appreciation mode for a band that, frankly, I hope we can hear from more often, because they are hands down one of the best to carry this torch forward. I hope that last tune isn't foreshadowing! They were always one of the most natural and familiar successor to the gods of doom, and the absent years haven't done them one ounce of disservice judging by what I hear on The Sixth Storm.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.facebook.com/countravendoom

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Fluids - Ignorance Exalted EP (2020)

It was somewhere in that 2019-2020 range when word about this band really began to blow up my feeds. Maggot Stomp was a (rightfully) hot new label at the time, known for producing gruesome and catchy old school caveman death metal, and Fluids was one of its most hyped acts, at least in my recollection. So I gave the debut Exploitative Practices a spin, and just wasn't feeling it quite so much as I was Vomit Forth or Sanguisugabogg, but there was at least something tangibly grotesque and repulsive enough about it that I can understand the attraction. As you can already tell from the disgusting collage artwork that you'll not soon (or ever) unsee, there's a bit of a throwback here to vintage Carcass, only what results is more akin to the style that New York butcher squad Mortician popularized through their career.

Ignorance Exalted is pretty much par for that entrails-splatter course. Essentially you've got deathgrind slowed and reduced to its most primal urges...slow, chugging rhythms, hightly distorted over programmed drums that are just as ugly and raw. The vocals are a monotonous blur of gutturals which serve as this massive, ominous shadow over the grime created behind the super distorted blend of beats and chords. There is nowhere near anything resembling a catchy riff on this album, and so once again it begs that Mortician comparison, because for all the fun that band brings, it's not one you listen to for a couple tunes that are going to stick out in your head, but rather that overall effect of crushing sickness which gives you both a genuine feeling of dread and a bellyful of ironic laughter. I think the small difference here is that Fluids uses more of an industrial/electronic influence here on cuts like "Quartered", and they don't stick to the same sample parameters that those Will and Roger are so fond of. So this gets a more bizarrely urban and apocalyptic vibe to it, and sometimes the percussion is even kind of funny by its own right.

It's heavy as fuck, there is no debate on that, but I did find myself getting really bored because of the lack of anything interesting happening in the rhythm guitars. Even if the vocals might come across as generic, they're still very monstrous and effective, and I wish some of the riffs churning along below them would better catch my attention, rather than just seeming like the first patterns that come to mind. If the band transitions into blasting, it feels too stark and sudden and thus doesn't transition too successfully at all other than in the most rigid and modular fashion. There's also a gimmick with the song titling where they just use the past of some verb common to the brutal death metal and grind lexicon..."Capped", "Smothered", "Chunked", "Coerced", you get the drift; it's amusing for the first couple times, but then the commitment to the practice just doesn't seem to yield anything amazing. There are certainly some fun bits, like that messy lead in "Chunked" that I wasn't really expecting, and I think there's a TON of potential if they could keep this immensely oppressive sound and then write some earworm riffs to complement it, but I just don't know that I'm there yet.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

https://fluids666.bandcamp.com/releases

Monday, October 25, 2021

Root - The Temple in the Underworld (1992)

One of the best examples of parallel evolution in the black metal genre I can think of. While the Scandinavians were doing their thing, the Greeks were doing their thing, and Root was doing its thing, an immediately identifiable blend of thrash, heavy metal and occult black aesthetics that has to this day not really been rivaled or emulated. Big Boss and crew have one of the most spotless discographies in the field...perhaps not every album achieving masterpiece status, but there are few that I can't sit through and admire. Coming somewhere near the top of that pile for me is 1992's The Temple in the Underworld, a measured, creepy and ritualistic album which retains its freshness almost three decades after the fact. A band that was always a bit hard to track down in that most productive of eras, but with the Dark Magic of the Internet, none can now escape their gravitational pull...and why would any want to?

Doomy, expressive and inventive, The Temple in the Underworld thrives off its measured paces and big hooks, not to mention the enormous vocals of the incomparable Jiří Valter. Although he possesses some similar characteristics to the other notable black metal frontmen of his age, somewhere between a rasp and a guttural growl, he packs a lot more force behind his intonation, and when he hits the cleaner tones it just has this bombastic, masculine aura which feels like a stone giant howling down from the hillsides. But the guitars on this album are every bit his equal, with unique melodic lines in tracks like "Aposiopesis" and "Casilda's Song" that have a strangely uplifting vibe contrasted against the more freakish, wavy chants and whispers that Valter weaves between his more aggressive barks. Or how about that doomy, weirdo intro riff to "The Wall", swaying along like the morbid candlelight you always imagined this band would use in some ritual jam session. These Czechs sound like they developed their entire schtick in the cellars of some forgotten East European castle ruin, as part of some sonic cult that was hellbent on summoning denizens of the abyss through unique metallic compositions...and they STILL sound that way.

The album is clearer and larger sounding than its predecessors in The Revelation and Hell Symphony, with a richness and brightness to the guitar tone that marries well to the thundering kick drums which throttle along below most of the album's more intense moments. But they also dabble in ambience or their own take on 'dungeon synth' with a cut like "The Solitude" which is beautifully textured and quite unexpected, or the purely choir-based "Voices from..." which starts out timid until Valter just belts out this harrowing harmony that you can just feel humming at you from the dungeons. Acoustics are tastefully used, usually as intros to several of the tunes, but they contrast beautifully against the huge crunch of the guitars in a piece like "Message". This album is simply towering in all areas...maybe the bass doesn't do much of its own adventuring, but it sure sounds good throbbing along beneath the amazing guitars. Even among Root's own catalogue, this one is an anomaly of balanced dread and majesty, and there's not much I'd change about it. Maybe the full acoustic track "My Name..." goes on a little long for what it is...I enjoy some of the Big Boss ballads, but other than the vocals this one doesn't have much going for it. Otherwise, this shit is astonishing, one of the better albums in all of metal in 1992 and hasn't lost an inkling of its potency since.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (the shadows lengthen)

http://rootan.net/

Friday, October 22, 2021

Blue Holocaust - Twitch of the Death Nerve (2004)

I'd like to point out that giallos and other niches within the medium of cult horror films are known for possessing unique, chilling and quirky scores that really tend to stick with the viewer or listener and help them identify nostalgia for that period and style. As well-intentioned as many extreme metal bands are, and there's no questioning their great taste in the underground or the extremes of cinema, I feel that a lot of the basics of a style like grind or goregrind simply do a disservice to such themes since they come across as puerile and spastic bursts of generic riffs that are played fast simply because they can be. Sure, both of these things have 'extremity' in common, but the one doesn't really reproduce the palpitating dread and shock of the other, no matter how many samples you add, or how much your lyrics stick to the script.

The Blue Holocaust full-length debut Twitch of the Death Nerve suffers heavily from this. Basically there is or isn't some sample of distress from a giallo/slasher film, and then a subsequent eruption into about 30-60 additional seconds of insanely noisy chugging, hoarse distorted snarling and growling, and whirring beats that have no musical value whatsoever. And then it happens over, and over again, across 32 tracks in 37 minutes. Sore Throat or Scum without the humor or envelope-pushing of their day. Now I understand that this is a one-man effort, so I'm a fraction more forgiving than if it was a full band equally devoid of any real ideas, but it still sounds pretty awful, even in terms of just seeking a purely caustic and visceral experience. There is not a single riff of any distinction anywhere to be had, and I'm simply not one that can ironically look past that fact and heap empty praises on the material when it has nothing otherwise to compensate. One could very easily write a few hundred tracks like this by plugging in and pressing 'record', offering up some basic programming and just hacking out anything that automatically filters out to your fingers on the guitar strings. I've seen it lauded as 'extreme' or 'sickening', but it's not at all beyond the cover pastiche and the musician's taste in film.

There are single guitar passages off Scream Bloody Gore from 17 years earlier that are more evil and extreme than anything Twitch of the Death Nerve has to offer. Mortician occupies the same style, but at least actually sounds heavy and oppressive. This is only about as menacing as obnoxious radio static. Even the song titles are generally just taken directly from the films to which this album pays homage. "Deep Red", "Black Belly of the Tarantula", "All the Colors of the Dark", "Four Velvet Flies", "A Lizard in a Woman's Skin"...even the title track. I've seen them all, and they all possess a haunting vibe that none of this music does. I will give a little credit that the lyrics themselves, while pretty standard for the brutal death or goregrind niches, are more elaborate than the music, so I think even they get a disservice here. I kind of dig the logo, and that collage of murdered women on the cover gave me the impression this might actually sound evil, but it doesn't...it's dull distorted noise at high velocity, spastic paeans to themes it doesn't ever earn. That being said, there's a second album which was put out much more recently (2018) called Flesh for the Cannibal God. It's not a far cry from this one in terms of style and substance, but it's considerably more effective and utterly leaves this material in the gutter.

Verdict: Fail [3/10]

https://blueholocaust.bandcamp.com/

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Cradle of Filth - Cryptoriana - The Seductiveness of Decay (2017)

Hammer of the Witches in 2015 was a pivotal album for Cradle of Filth in that it garnered them a lot of the respect they had been missing since the 90s...for some of the prospective audience, maybe the respect they had always been missing. I enjoyed that one myself, not that it sounded much different than what they had already being steering towards since they 'righted the ship' in 2008 with Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder, but because I've always been a fan of the immense amount of detail and effort they put into the entire 'package' of their albums, and Hammer was no exception. Its successor, Cryptoriana - The Seductiveness of Decay furthered all that goodwill, even if it didn't generate quite the same level of buzz, and I'm going to admit that I like this one every bit as much as its predecessor, and appreciate that it's a sliver more atmospheric.

Insanely well-produced, Gothic black metal which is never shy on ambition, the album surges open with the thrilling, operatic "Exquisite Torments Await" and then never lets you free from its talons as you traverse its depths of vampiric myth and horror. In terms of orchestration and melody, I think this one does surpass the 4-5 albums prior to it. They very tastefully implement the choirs here seamlessly alongside blast beats and other bombastic swells of strings, horns, and other aural artifacts that populate their ceaseless Transylvanian/Victorian horror mindset. The guitars blaze along with plenty of riffing and technicality, sometimes bold enough to stand above the rest of the considerable arsenal, but just as often blending into the overall arrangement and structure...the point is, even if you're paying more attention to the eerie, angelic voices off in the distance, there's still a tasty little lick or lead that can impress you if you'll just isolate it, and as with previous albums the riffs themselves blend in a lot of heavy metal which you could trace directly back to NWOBHM gods like Iron Maiden, only sped up and amplified and thrust into the context of the darkness and narrative that this band alone seems to spawn.

It's big budget...lascivious Hammer Horror vibes translated into the cinematography of Dracula Untold or the Underworld series. Only with a little more substance than mere special effects and Gothic posturing by the attractive leads. Dani Filth plays his role as Snarling Laureate with aplomb, spitting out lines like 'She was the game, sublime' or 'The planchette is promissory' with a sanguine vigor between impish black metal rasps and his more death-metal-Martin-Walkyier guttural whispers and barks. There is no weakest link here. Marthus has become insane in his time with the band, just as adept as his formerly predecessors on the kit, and the fact that he's also so much involved in the synthesizers and general orchestration of the disc is critical. Guitarists Ashok and Shaw, who when you think about it sound like a pair of diabolic London occult detectives, work in perfect tandem, even where their tones are slightly thinned against the operatic backdrop. Lindsay might sound a little too committedly corny on a few of her vocal lines, which has long been a slight fault in the band, but she's certainly a little easier to take seriously than some of her own forebears.

It's not always the catchiest affair, and does suffer from a lazier or uninspired section in a couple of the tracks, but the amount of work Cradle put into this is unquestionable, and I'll always admire bands like this, proverbial shock rockers or visual artists who aim for a more imaginative package than your average four guys in black t-shirts at the bar. Not that there's anything wrong with them, mind you, but I've long enjoyed a good spectacle and these Brits rarely squander the opportunity to deliver us one.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.cradleoffilth.com/

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Ill Bill/Ghoul EP (2018)

I have not kept up with the horror rap or 'horrorcore' subgenre of hip hop since the concept was introduced to me by groups like Flatlinerz or the Gravediggaz back in the 90s, so artists like Necro or Ill Bill have been entirely off my radar, until I saw this amusing idea for a split between the latter and Creepsylvania's death/thrash champions Ghoul. It's not the sort of team up you experience every day, and the hope for me was that the two acts would integrate one another's styles and make this splattery looking collectible a memorable trip to gory excess and some streetwise badassery, but the fact is that couldn't be further from the truth...this is just two entirely different groups doing their own thing with little regard for how it matches up as a product with the other, and the result is all too lopsided and obviously not in the favor of the rapper...

Ill Bill's track (featuring 'Goretex', and really, every fucking hip hop track these days has to be a 'feature' of some sort) is basically a mix of El-P sounding lyrical flow with beats and atmosphere that sounds a lot like the Wu-Tang Clan. It starts out with a pretty cool sample, and the production also seems like it'll be decent, but after about a moment it loses its luster and the rhyming just feels repetitive. It does sort of give off a horror in tha hood vibe with the synthesizers and effects, but the lyrics don't really hone in on the subject all that much and so one wonders why nobody told him to make it a little scarier. On the other hand, Ghoul's contribution, "Splatterthrash 2: Thrash Damage", is quite an excellent and explosive tune with a lot of energy behind it, a good sense for melody and I'd run it up against any single song on their most recent album Dungeon Bastards. Gang shouts, thrashing, jerking rhythms and the tune utterly beats the rap into a bloody pulp and it's not even funny. You'd might as well thrown a Boyz II Men track on the A-side and it would have the same effect. 

Really, to make this work you'd have needed a pretty sinister sounding rap artist with a heavier cut, and maybe even some samples from Ghoul riffs or whatever. I appreciate that the two acts are friends or just mutual admirers and wanted to show their love for horror and splatter but it just feels like a gimmick. If this was a 7" with two great new Ghoul tracks I would have liked it infinitely more, but as it stands I can really only award most of the points here to the Creepsylvanians and hope that they'll toss this tune on the next full-length as a bonus track so most people can experience it in a superior environment.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

http://www.creepsylvania.com/
https://illbill.bandcamp.com/

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Necrophagia - Holocausto de la Morte (1998)

Holocausto de la Morte was kind of a big deal since it saw Killjoy and Necrophagia resurrected from the dead, and although it carries many hallmarks from their 80s thrash-tempered material, this was really the dawn of the peculiar, minimalistic and evil death metal style that this band will forever foremost be known for. It's also interesting for me because it's a good example of an album I had little fondness for when I received the promo for an old paper zine back in those late 90s, but as I listen with what I hope to be fresh, well-aged ears, I can garner a little more appreciation for what the guys were trying here. In terms of its place in 'horror metal', while its far from a novel example by this date, I think the almost constant use of samples and themes here makes it one of the first things I think of when those two terms are joined together.

The formula: extremely basic, crisp thrashing rhythms alternated with Hellhammer-style grooves, never sounding they took more than a few minutes to conceive, but slathered with personality due to the guts gargling vocal presence of Mr. Killjoy. I mean this guy literally sounds like he's chewing on a rodent as he intonates these lyrics...a rat or squirrel being gnashed in his teeth, his tongue flicking about it to make sure the words make it to the microphone with somewhat proper pronunciation. It's the kind of comical you might have first experienced with John Tardy or Chris Reifert, only arguably taken to a further extreme. And yet, I admit it's one of the most endearing and compelling components of this band. The riffs are also engaging despite how crude they come across, especially when they're drowned in all the morbid chants and samples and narrative that gives you a drugged out effect. Remember that movie I Drink Your Blood with all the evil hippies? This album sounds like you could layer it in as an alternative soundtrack to that and it would function perfectly. It's got a kitsch quality about it like bad, bloody, cult special effects and styrofoam graveyards and as I type these ridiculous things I realize it's one of the high points for me.

The production is also really loud and easy to follow consider what an evil atmosphere it is attending. The guitars and vocals always stand out, the former shifting between their doomed lopes, My First Thrash Riff 101 or even a little more creative dissonance. The bass sounds good, but doesn't do much other than hold up those rhythm guitars with a plumpness. The drums dwell in a simple rock format, almost like Danzig, but once again that is what this requires...nothing too technical to force its way past the rest. All the eerie segues and chants seem as if they're almost randomly placed into tracks like "The Cross Burns Black", but once you're attuned to what sort of experience you're going to get, they work. The band will also launch into a mid-paced blasting on tunes like "Deep Inside, I Plant the Devil's Seed", and I did feel that some of the riffs there felt like bland grind, but at least its worth it to hear Killjoy go even further over the top of the sepulcher than he normally does. All in all, though, it's fairly catchy, and while it requires a certain frame of mind for me to even want to put this in for a spin, I'll openly admit it's grown into a go-to album when I need my fix of the late Mr. Pucci's morbid hijinks. Whatever you might think of his music, and I don't think too highly of much of it, the guy was a one-of-a-fucking-kind splatter metal icon.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

https://www.facebook.com/NecrophagiaOfficial

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Transilvania - Of Sleep and Death (2021)

I'm a massive whore for blackened speed and thrash metal, and I make no apologies for that, nor should any be necessary, whether we're dealing with the most rudimentary Venom worship or bands that can elevate the sinister vibes of that hybrid to the next level. From all appearances, the Austrian act Transilvania seems to fall into this latter category, with some classical and classy-looking, creepy artwork which doesn't seem too typical for the niche, and a perhaps more varied approach to writing than those who usually blaze along with their (welcome) combinations of Seven Churches, Bathory, Welcome to Hell and Show No Mercy. The actual music here, upon experience, feels a little more like the purely traditional black metal once penned by Quorthon and his Scandinavian peers of the rawer persuasion decades ago, but there are a handful of more overtly thrash inserts here to keep it a fraction more diverse than it might have been.

Of Sleep and Death is certainly one for the conventional fan of vampiric, un-fucks-giving European black metal with its nasty edge and no sense of contrasted warmth or comfort. It's almost as if you devolved a band like Watain back a step to their earlier or mid-career material, but sent their mindset back a few centuries from its shock rock Satanism. And I mean that as a compliment to both parties, but you get the point...brash, dire melodic onslaughts of tremolo picked patterns or slightly dissonant chords that are accompanied by thundering kick-work and blasts that never border on the ridiculous, but ensure that there is this constant, oppressive sensation of being present at some East European war during the 15h century. The vocals are a nice, nasty rasp with some heft to it so it's a little deeper than the snarlier black metal bands, and he'll often throw in some manlier, hoarse shouts that help inflict some further personality. Once in awhile the way the bass roils around and some of the more playful melodies erupt in a tune such as "Hekateion", or the galloping title track, it's almost like a vicious take on a folksy influence, giving me a hint of the great Slovakians Malokarpatan, but this stuff is unremittingly savage in all cases.

Nowhere is this obscenely catchy or distinct, to be honest, since it stands so firm on the vile shoulders of its first wave black and thrash influences, but I think it benefits from the slightly unhinged production which prevents the drumming or the blood-drenched guitars from sounding too neutered or polished. I think fans of those first two Bathory albums who might seek such a style with a slight bit more focus and balanced mix will absolutely devour this one, but the ghoulish sincerity and belligerent mood might also sate fans of the Medieval black metal scene so strong in France, or really anyone who worships old Marduk, Dark Funeral, and their ilk. A keyboard or two is well implemented to help the listener meld into its cold castle walls of torture. There's a timelessness about it, much like some of its lyrical subject matter, which equally rewards with repeated listens, and it's something you could see as a modern cult classic to mirror the days in which this style sounded reckless and dangerous and totally malevolent to whoever it may concern.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.facebook.com/transilvaniaaustria/?fref=ts

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Cannibal Corpse - Violence Unimagined (2021)

Cannibal Corpse is one of those acts whose audience seems to always fluctuate between static appreciation and stagnant indifference, so it's curious to see the raised level of buzz concerning their first full-length proper with Erik Rutan on-board as a full-time guitarist and writer. A lot of the chatter revolves around the different sound he brings to the band, and I'll admit that there's one area in which he certainly contributes to a mildly different experience, but I think ultimately Violence Unimagined falls right in line with the style has been exploring since Corpsegrinder joined the band for Vile, and it's one that some might continue to find samey and repetitious in terms of its riffing portfolio, and that others like myself will just continue to admire with each seasoned recording...this is not a band that really ever makes mistakes or half-asses anything, there have been a few albums that don't quite past muster, but Violence Unimagined is not among them.

Yes, you might hear a little bit of the Hate Eternal and Ripping Corpse bleed into Cannibal's forceful, thrash-inspired brutality, but I'd have to say that if not for some of his spurious leads, which bear a degree of distinction in the death metal community, most wouldn't really be able to glean a difference. And that's because, for all the time Erik has spent producing, touring and helping out with this band, he's gotten a complete grasp of what they're all about, and by no means is he out to step on any toes. This is business as usual, with the one exception that you might find a few of the rhythm guitar patterns a little more clinical, and the leads here to just be more epically fleshed and rounded out. He and Barrett remain just as synced as Rob was with Pat, but occasionally you get a dissonant, weirder, bouncier or atmospheric riff that feels more akin to what Erik would insert into his mainstay. But with Alex and Paul plugging and battering along beneath them, and George giving plastering his trademark, agile, syllabic guttural attack on top, you could probably mix and match some of these tunes in with anything from Kill to A Skeletal Domain to Gore Obsessed and be none the wiser, other than  perhaps a few production details.

And I have no problem with that whatsoever, because this band remains the posterchild for the planned, professional death metal assault which I can depend on year in, year out. Vince Locke's gruesome cover artwork is just as edge-worthy as its ever been, and the band supports that with loads of riff-intensive maiming and bludgeoning which I promise will never put you to sleep. There are some slight variations as always within the actual guitar structures, but all fall within a similar lexicon to what you've heard from the band post-The Bleeding, with just enough freshness to keep this one engaging even if you had been a little plagued with redundant feelings for some of its more recent predecessors. Now I'm not going to say this one has a load of absolutely unforgettable riffs; many are just permutations of their predictable, punishing backlog, but the chugging and feral thrashing that has clung with the band since its origins blend into some eerie tremolo picked patterns that will put you in carnage heaven. Paul's performance here is monstrous, the fills intensifying everything around them, and you don't need yet another of my reminders of how Alex is one of the best ever...I don't know that this style works without his swift and malevolent anchoring presence below the hacking higher pitched axes.

Persistence pays off again, and much of this material is set-ready to blend in with their other 100+ choice cuts dating back to the mid-90s. I did find the production a little dry, and like I said there isn't really a particular hit single here which stands out for me far above its surroundings, but rather the whole 43-minute experience had me shit-kicking my office and experiencing daymares of rending flesh, horrifying killers and apocalypses brought to you by the undead. And that earns my money. Every. Single. Time.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

http://www.cannibalcorpse.net/

Monday, October 4, 2021

Autopsy vs. Bloodbath EP (2017)

Beyond the fact that the Autopsy vs. Bloodbath split automatically warrants attention for featuring a pair of the genre's hottest commodities, gruesome US legends Autopsy and Swedish all-star retro-death masters Bloodbath, there's a bit more of a gimmick to this 7" in than might first appear. The Californians are covering one of their own member's old bands, also called Bloodbath, and the Swedes are covering the opening track "Blood Bath" off the debut album To the Gory End by the UK veteran death metallers Cancer. It's quick, it's silly, and it's more than likely to be soaked in viscera and rack up the cost of more than a few body bags in the process, and to be frank I rather like this kind of 'creative' vision for a collectors' item, rather than just a band pressing a couple tunes off an album onto 7" for shits and giggles...a practice that has thankfully become scarcer now that sales of vinyl are back in full swing.

Danny Coralles had been with Autopsy for pretty much all its full-length albums and the the vast majority of the band's history, so it's cool to them throwing up a cover for one of his early demo bands, and this one is taken from that Bloodbath's initial 1986 demo Fuck Society. As you might guess it's gnarly, fast-paced crossover thrash but now being given that additional splatter effect from Chris's vocals which probably give it a little more personality than it deserves, because the music for "Fuck You!!!" itself is bog standard and predictable in the rhythm department, with a nice, wild lead attached that is its only saving grace. It's also not quite living up to the horror/slasher elements hinted at by the cover, but this is balanced out by the far cooler Cancer cover by the Swedes and 'Old Nick' Holmes, which is meatier, morbid and ominous in a way that the original only brushed upon. In fact I enjoyed the "Blood Bath" cover more than anything off the band's most recent album of originals, The Arrow of Satan is Drawn. It's dumb, bludgeoning, evil with the little synthesizers, and Nick's voice sounds good and ugly and really drives it through the cemetery ditch.

But that's all there is to it...under six minutes of material, pressed by Peaceville and sent out to the rabid legions of fans, who will probably leave it in the sleeves and plastic as a curiosity to rummage through, and rarely will anyone listen to it. What I personally got out of this is that I'd love to hear Bloodbath record an entire album of old death metal covers, especially if they keep them from the lesser tier acts out of Europe and the US. This one sounds great and I'd urge every fan of the band to at least check it out streaming online somewhere. The cover image is pretty cool too, with that retro slasher vibe but I just don't know that Autopsy's choice even tunes into much thematically, and that gives a slight imbalance to the whole product for me, although I understand how it works into the 'joke' of the release.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

http://www.bloodbath.biz/
https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100050176223094

Friday, October 1, 2021

Mercyful Fate - Time (1994)

While I don't take exception to records like Into the Unknown or 9, which manage to channel most of Mercyful Fate's positive qualities, it's 1994 and Time which delineates the border for me between the Danes' 'timeless' (oh boy, I did not plan that) works, and those that really don't strike much of a chord with me when I'm scanning through the albums I wanna upload to my iPhone or whatnot. While it holds nothing on my unholy trinity of Don't Break the Oath, Melissa and In the Shadows, it is the last album that I can listen to entirely without ever really needing to skip any weaker tracks, the last one chronologically which I feel an urge to actually experience in sum. It just manages to maintain that sinister air of mystery that surrounded the band (and King's solo career) through the 80s, and for all intensive purposes it sounds like a record which belongs to that era...rather than being smack dab in the middle of a decade in which a group like this one only managed to thrive off its legacy rather than any new string of cult classic material.

Structurally, it's not a far cry from In the Shadows, in that it relies so heavily on mid-paced songs and extremely melodic, almost anthemic vocal lines from King, but at the same time it's both smoother and less ambitious. The lyrics still convey the themes of mysticism and horror, from the familiar ground of "Witches' Dance" which wouldn't have felt out of place on King Diamond's The Eye, to "The Mad Arab" which is a direct tribute to H.P. Lovecraft's recurring Abdul Alhazred. Diamond sounds perfect here as he shifts between his ghostly falsettos and impish lower pitches, in fact he throws a lot of the 'character' into his performance that many would probably equate more with his solo band, and I think of the whole Fate canon this is likely the greatest aesthetic 'crossover' between the two. Nary a tune passes without some memorable vocal passage, and it doubles down on how you take a listen to an album like Dead Again, or the pathetic The Graveyard and wonder where all this magic disappeared to in such a short time? Time might not have all the band's hits, but it is surely determined to make itself memorable throughout the 47 minute duration and it largely succeeds.

Another real strength here is how with these largely mid-tempo tunes the Denner/Shermann duo can lay into all manner of their great, groovy riffs, as well as the mildly progressive bent they often take with their riffs, just so that they eclipse the utter simplicity of audience expectations. Lots of great, doomy moments here with the drums shuffling along like graveyard creepers as King emits some exotic and pained vocal narration, and like In the Shadows before it, or the first decade of solo albums, the entire affair seems like its just focused on the listener experiencing this one in some mental moonlight, haunted landscape, tower or manor if the real thing isn't available. The title track with its organs and freakish harmonized lullaby vocals seems like it might have stepped out of a session for Them or Conspiracy, down to how it just sails right into those dreamy guitar melodies and chorus. Synthesizers, wah-wah and other effects are thrown in tastefully, and although I didn't have the same problem with the drums on its predecessor that some seemed to, I think Snow Shaw's beats here might prove a little more durable and evenly mixed to support the guitars and vocals. Sharlee's bass is perfectly supportive and steps away just as often as it needs to, with a great tone that hovers right above the kick.

The contrast between the lucid vocals and dirty riffs of "Mirror", unforgettable anthems like opener "Nightmare Be Thy Name" and "Witches' Dance"...this one just never quits playing to its strengths, and it's still a pleasure to experience 27 years later. Like many of his solo efforts, this one's also a perfect Halloween listen, and was released in that very month upon arrival. It's 'classy' of course, this one isn't about the blood and guts but the evergreen themes of Gothic, occult or even cosmic horror that will still send a chill down your spine at any age, regardless of the melodic breezes on which they are carried. It may not be a masterpiece, but it's great, and it STAYS great. At the risk of broken record status, I have to reiterate how these first four Mercyful Fate full-lengths, along with the first 5-6 King Diamond represent one of the most enduring bodies of work in my whole music collection. Seasonal or otherwise, they don't seem to age a day to when I first came across them from the raw, ripe ages of 10-20 years old. I cannot thank King and both his crews enough for the countless hours of enjoyment and escape they've written. Even my idiosyncratic Country lovin' big city significant other has fallen under these spells.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (prayer in unknown tongue)

https://mercyfulfatecoven.com/