Sunday, February 28, 2021

Rage - Invisible Horizons EP (1989)

"Invisible Horizons" is hands down one of my favorite Rage tunes ever, and in a just world it would have been one of the hugest metal hits of 1989, so it makes a lot of sense to me that it would see some sort of single release. I found the side-angled, solar sailing version of the Soundchaser here on the cover to be a curious choice, but I was in love with this mascot since Perfect Man before it, and again that steampunk/sci-fi aesthetic really jogged my teenage imagination, although it probably didn't have to do with a lot of their music (a couple lyrics, sure). Now this is another of those limited, short releases which history has now rendered entirely redundant; you can get the two tracks that weren't on the original Secrets in a Weird World on later versions of that album, but I'm kind of/sort of going through these Rage releases in the formats I originally encountered them so I get a little extra space here to speak of those B-sides.

I could go more into the title track when I cover its full-length album, but this is just a glorious cut with some low-down, mean and intense riffs that escalate into Peavy's climactic, anthem-like chorus lines. He was in full form back then and could hit every note necessary, and by the time this dropped he had even managed to shape his pitch to something a little less uncouth and shrieky (although I was a fan of that too). I remember first hearing this track on the local University radio show in advance of getting my own cassette copy of Secrets and I was utterly fucking blown away, and the song still rules today. This lived up to all the mastery they displayed on Perfect Man, but in a way that I found would be even more accessible to those who thought that album was over the top. And not to mention that breakdown groove at around 2:20 which sets up the killer lead. Again, as I'm visiting this I just can't believe that music like this didn't catapult Rage into the top echelons of heavy/power metal fame at the close of the 80s. The band was every bit as infectious as Iron Maiden, Helloween, and Judas Priest of the time, and in terms of the musicianship you could argue they had even more finesse.

The other tunes have no chance to live up to that, but they're still quite decent, "Lost Side of the World" being the one that I believe was tacked onto the original CD release as a bonus track. It's a moody, sweeping piece with some nice leads, maybe too many leads, but I feel like some of the progressions in the tune had sort of been done better on other Rage tracks and you can see why the band and/or producer found it to be filler. "Law and Order" is the more fun of the B-sides, definitely giving off more of an Execution Guaranteed or Perfect Man vibe with the frilly shrieking vocals and gang shouts, especially when he breaks deeper into that wild chorus. Still not a top flight track in their discography, but I'll crave listening to it once in awhile, lots of fast bass lines in there and some nice, slicing riffs and another cool solo from Manni. On the whole, though, despite the amazingness of the title track, this is just another glorified maxi-single without too much to recommend. You just don't need it these days as you can hear the extras on a more substantial product for your dollar. For a year or so it scratched a bit of an itch for more Rage, but today it just seems like another record label attempt to scrap together a couple more bucks for a vinyl and CD.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Friday, February 26, 2021

Rage - Live from the Vault EP (1997)

The third in my series of Victor Records import EPs from Rage, Live from the Vault is a fairly early example of a commercial performance gone to retail (in Japan), and it's honestly not so shabby despite the fact that it's a mere 30 minutes in length. This one's not going to give you the comprehensive experience that From the Cradle to the Stage would give years later, but as an example of them being able to put their fans' money where their mouths are, it will suffice. For a lot of Rage fans, these mid-90s were the peak of the band's powers, as they had strong support from records like Black in Mind and End of All Days, so it's not too surprising that this is the era of material which they are largely catering to, a bit of a bummer for me since I'm more into their 80s run, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

The energy is definitely there, the band chugging along through tracks like "Sent by the Devil" and "The Price of War", favorites of the era, but all of the melody and rock & roll pizazz is also clear through the guitars. It's not some perfect soundboard recording, so you might hear a lead being a bit subdued, or Peavy a little too loud here or there, but it does its job as a genuine performance, and the crowd really seems into it, jumping in on the chorus parts for "Higher Than the Sky". The bass and drums are fine, and Wagner's vocals are decent although we're already entering that phase in which he's only rarely screaming or pitching high, but he still sounds like that rough around the edges blue collar metal god that we all love.

I think it helps that they're in their native Germany in front of an audience that is most knowing of their material, but clearly their Japanese fans must be wild about them too considering all these collectible sorts of releases that hit the market, par for the course for 90s power metal. I do like all these songs, and the cover of "Motorbreath" is fun enough to close this set, although I can imagine this might have only been a partial set or something and you'd think they would close on one of their classic originals like "Don't Fear the Winter", "Waiting for the Moon" or "Time Waits for No One." Sometimes the band doesn't always put its best feet forward but again this is all a matter of opinion, and if you were desperate for a live recording after their first decade, this one is acceptable, if not necessarily worth the price of admission.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Rage - Higher Than the Sky EP (1996)

Another of the Japanese-only Rage rarities put out through Victor Records was this Higher Than the Sky EP, which was similar to Refuge in that it contained a pretty popular album track and then a couple of cover tunes. In this case, the covers were taken from a pair of tribute albums that the Germans contributed to for the respective artists, but they've also fattened this one up with a couple cuts that their fans in Japan might not have heard from other version of the Black in Mind album overseas. So there's an attempt at putting together some value here, like with a lot of Japanese releases, but as usual since this time there's been some other, massive remastered version where you can get all this material and a lot more, really dating this EP as a product. In this case it's the very recent Dr. Bones Lethal Recordings reissue of End of All Days with a TON of content added to it across two discs. I simply cover some of these EPs or maxis in their earlier incarnations because 1) I'm a scrub and only own the original full-length album without all the bells and whistles and 2) when I get to covering End of All Days I'll focus on that core album.

As natural as it is for a group like this one to tackle Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, it's almost too much of an obvious choice, especially for "The Trooper". When Rage is covering The Troggs or The Police they're making some level of transformation to those tunes which brings them more into the metal fold, and it's a little more interesting to hear. Their rendition of "The Trooper" is played very straight, and while entirely competent it's just as forgettable as so many other attempts at the original. On the other hand, the slightly beefier "Jawbreaker" has a real nice production to it, and it's cool to hear this one taken on with the rougher vocals....but everything here is awesome...the guitar tone, etc. Again, super loyal but quite well done for what it is...I'd actually listen to this version occasionally even if craving the Priest one. My first time hearing this EP was also my first exposure to the originals "Forgive But Don't Forget" and "Tie the Rope", the former a pretty plodding but dynamic track with a nice pre-chorus hook and riff that lead into an equally memorable chugged out chorus; the latter more energetic and pretty much thrashing along throughout, but somewhat mediocre.

The production on those bonus tracks isn't all that great, but it works, and certain instruments like when the wah wah comes in on the lead in "Tie the Rope" are pretty ace. Overall I can see why they wouldn't make the cut for a final album although they could compete with some of the weaker cuts on those mid 90s Rage efforts. All told though, Higher in the Sky is these days a collectors-only affair which the rest of us can just experience on a better product, but if you needed to pad out the years with the already prolific 90s Rage and throw more money then, like Refuge, this one used its space wisely. Apart from the "Jawbreaker" cover though there is nothing here I care that much to revisit.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Monday, February 22, 2021

Rage - Refuge EP (1994)

The song "Refuge" is a bit of a foreshadowing since that's the name Peavy Wagner would take on later to reunite with Manni Schmidt and Chris Efthimiadas, playing music which assumedly is in the direction of where they would have gone if Rage itself hadn't shifted its lineup. The title track is one of the finer pieces on The Missing Link, a riffy, perky and memorable update to their 80s style, although produced a bit dryly as I felt a number of their 90s albums were. However, that sterility doesn't bleed into the actual music so much, it's a track that at the time would be worthy of a single, which is more or less what this Japan-only EP represents. The remainder of the content on this is a trio of cover tracks; and if we're being real, that's the only reason anyone would have been tracking it down...with the remastered 2002 Noise reissue of the full-length Missing Link album, this is essentially useless, since the covers are ported over there.

But not so back in 1994, and what we're dealing with are serviceable if not trailblazing renditions that do their best to adapt the originals into the Rage canon. The Police's "Truth Hits Everybody" is turned into a punkier, driving force which is kept metal by Peavy's pitch, and though it's exceedingly simplistic I do dig the little lead flourishes Manni throws onto it. With "I Can't Control Myself", you get one of your favorite (or my favorite) Troggs' tunes beefed up, and I swear I'd heard this done before in a metal context but I'm not sure who by or if I'm just remembering this particular cover. Lastly, they offer up a classy choice of The Mission's "Beyond the Pale", something a lot more unexpected as it hails from one of my favorite English Gothic rock bands, a painfully underrated one. The German trio doesn't quite sink this one into the net quite as well, perhaps because it just isn't one they can crank up to their style and pace so much, but it does still convey a measure of the original's mood and at the very least I can appreciate their good taste. The bass sounds good, the soothing vocal harmonies, it's certainly a competent paean to The Mission's Children album, just wouldn't seem to be as fun to insert into a live set as the other two here.

Basically, here the Japanese fans and metal importers of the 90s were getting a bit of a treat that the rest of us plebeians wouldn't enjoy for a good chunk of the following decade, but if you did then it was probably pleasant enough to have, and it does add a little more value to the Missing Link remaster.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Blurr Thrower - Les voûtes (2021)

If you had told me 25 years ago that black metal album covers would be simple pictures of flowers like you'd see in any home/gardening rag, I'd probably have laughed at you. But it's a testament to the genre's ability to adapt itself into new aesthetic spaces which has helped it endure for me, and once we hit the pink-scape of Sunbather or the blooming fields of Bloem, there is really no turning back, and I'm alright with this. Now, don't get me wrong, I might not be a gatekeeper or purist of the form, but I love my spikes, leather and snow-capped mountains and pines as much as the next ice-demon, yet I love following the fundamentals of the music: haunting, melancholy, desperation, extremity and evil into new environments and a band like Blurr Thrower does just that.

On disc, they're picking up right where their 2018 EP Les avatars du vide left off, with some spacious, atmospheric black metal that hinges on both the traditional and post- fields. While the four tracks here have been truncated from the sprawling lengths of that release's two cuts, you're still looking at some largely swollen pieces, two of which cap the 12-minute mark. The actual style is unsurprisingly similar, with floods of fast-paced savagery that are dominated with sustained rasping and dissonant waves of higher-pitched melodic guitars that often captivate with a sort of post-punk, nearly droning mentality, although the overall effect here is one of warm light permeating your being, and doesn't come off as particularly hostile despite the genre in which the band plays. There isn't a large degree of variation in some of the riffs, they're sort of just flitting along on the same strings and tones, and unfortunately that makes the longer tracks here like "Cachot" a bit monotonous, with only occasional breaks in the action before the surging begins again.

That most of the tracks take on a similar pacing doesn't help, but to their credit, a few of the tunes manage to out-riff the others...for example, "Germes Vermeils" is a more passionate, hooky piece than "Cachot", and the wholly ambient short tune "Fanes" is a calming and welcoming interlude that does manage to get itself grimy in the final few moments where the sinister guitars and snarl break out. The vocals through the whole album are definitely of the suicidal old Varg variety, and that won't be to the taste of all, but I think they certainly fit to the music well enough. The drums are tinny and have a nice hiss to them which also matches the guitar tone, but really this is first and foremost about those guitar streams, the screams, and the atmosphere of the spaces between them, and that's the only trick to what Blurr Thrower are putting to tape. This is a decent follow-up when I'm in the mood, and if you do appreciate ambient/black metal shifts then it holds some appeal, but I think even in this limited, airy space the French project has risen to, there is some room for more variety in the future.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Rage - In Vain - Rage in Acoustic EP (1998)

And because the three relatively useless versions of the In Vain EP were not enough, there was this fourth version, Rage in Acoustic, which was put out almost simultaneously through another imprint. This one does probably stand out if only because it does feature some genuine acoustic interpretations of the Germans' tracks, but I have to ask...was there really an audience who requested this, or was it just another component of Peavy spreading the band's wings as he did with the Lingua Mortis orchestra material? There was clearly an audience witnessing these live acoustic performances, I can assume by the clapping, and that's because these tracks are actually quite well done. In fact, I like the material here a little more than the live bonuses on the other In Vain EPs and perhaps even more than the Lingua Mortis album, but it's unfortunately scant.

The sound quality here is quite good, with the acoustic guitars and pianos just glittering in the mix...if it's really live, it was captured exquisitely. They'll add in a few swelling strings and such for drama, but the real treat here is how Wagner actually sounds great singing these. I know I've been critical of some of his performances on the older Lingua Mortis, but here he sounds like a minstrel plying his trade over a pretty sweet band of troubadours, and the trio of "Turn the Page", "Incomplete" and "Immortal Sin" definitely deliver on the promise of what a Rage acoustic outing should be. The cover of The Beatles' yesterday fits in well enough with the originals, but I don't know that I needed it and I think it's on one of the other In Vain EPs already, as is the title track. Far better would it have been had they just stretched this one out into a full-length of adaptations like the three in the middle, and then this would have been an excellent and surprising effort. As it stands, Rage in Acoustic certainly has more value than the other trilogy of releases in this series, and its proof positive they can pull this off, but it's too short to recommend hunting down.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Rage - In Vain EP (1998)

The In Vain EP is part follow-up to the 1996 Lingua Mortis album, which featured the Germans playing alongside the Symphonic Orchestra Prague, and it features for my money a slightly better integration of the metal instruments and the sweeping bombast and dark overtures that come with that territory. There are actually three different editions of this one featuring three track-lists, starting with this "In Vain" orchestra version, and then usually a couple of live originals complemented by a cover tune. Personally I found this a bit foolish when you consider that you could have compressed them all down for a release that was under an hour, but I guess they were trying to push some sort of collectivity, and when you consider how prolific Rage had been through the 80s and 90s I guess such collectors might've existed.

At any rate, the vocals are still a bit disappointing here...he's better in the mix against the strings, drums and horns, but he still seems to strain a little with the longer notes, and he's doing it at higher registers here which can get a little awkward. The orchestra itself simmers, turning a lot of the subtleties of the metal originals into these harsher, Wagnerian swell-ups, and even in the calmer moments of "In Vain" itself it does sound quite lovely. Similar to Lingua Mortis, this has somewhat more of a live feeling to it and it's not your super polished studio attempt, but that actually gives it an organic feel that I quite liked. The live material on some of these EPs actually sounds half-decent, with the band having fun as it storms through "Higher than the Sky" and its cover of Metallica's "Motorbreath". That said, none of this is really a draw unto itself on such a short-form release.

I didn't even care for some of the covers like the Stones' "Paint it, Black" which I'd just heard too many times by that point in the mid-90s to really care when it wasn't the original. Ultimately this entire idea and release were drivel...from the kind of dull picture of the wolf's face which is then filtered to a different color for the various versions of the EP, and the really limited content. If you just took this version of the title track, through on the rest of the live songs and covers into one recording, I'd still find it mediocre and there is little chance in hell I'd have paid to import all the copies. It seems like a lazy way to cop a couple bucks from the band's audience which were all far better spent on the Rage studio albums or much of the rest of the burgeoning European power/heavy metal scene of the 90s. Skip it.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Rage - Lingua Mortis (1996)

Though trips to the symphonic well would become more common in the band's later years, Lingua Mortis was kind of a novelty at its release in the 90s and marked a potential new direction for a band that was likely already looking for some new tricks. In fact, the very idea of hiring some orchestra musicians for a heavy metal studio recording alongside a band that was hardly a household name was pretty new in general. You had a handful of acts like Therion who were already exploring this ground, but for a longstanding power/speed metal act like this one it was fresh territory. However, considering that Rage already incorporated some violins, contrabass and cello on certain Black in Mind tracks the year prior, one would hardly consider it a surprise, more of a statement that 'this is happening' and the band wanted to explore this side of their influences without being dragged down by the 'metal first' component...

...and yet, the metal is still present, in a somewhat slovenly and subdued way, meaning that the bulk of it is just used to prop up some of the darkness and moodiness within these converted tracks. Lingua Mortis is somewhat of a raw recording, in that the band's core rock instruments and Wagner's vocals don't sound so seamless alongside the orchestration. The guitars for "In a Nameless Time", for example, are a bit rough if you're going into this with some expectation of high studio gloss, but if you're more interested in how it all comes across live, they're adequate. Wagner's vocals, while largely on point with the 90s studio output, can also get a little too grimy, especially when he's sustaining a lower, angrier tone, and there a couple lines where he almost seems to fall on his face. It's almost a shame that they didn't just keep the whole affair instrumental, maybe keep the guitars, bass and rock drums and have more of Peavy's vocals be interpreted by a choir, because where this works best is as an atmospheric, eerie overture of cuts like the aforementioned "In a Nameless Time" or "Alive but Dead", the latter of which just doesn't sound that great with him adding in the singing alongside the pianos and almost sounds like someone is playing the music on a tape recorder while the conductor does his thing.

One of the other centerpieces here is a "Medley" which includes snippets of tracks like "Black in Mind" and "Sent by the Devil", recorded similar to the previous tracks with the orchestra and band in check, and then around these are arranged little vignettes like a purely symphonic moment of "Don't Fear the Winter" or "Firestorm". This is a giant mess, I can understand the idea being that with a limited amount of budget they can't really get a lot of hits onto this, but I'd have rather they let one or two of those smaller bits be played out in full. Again, the idea of MERGING these two forms here just hasn't hit its peak potential and that really drags down the effort as a whole. I actually like the orchestra side of this one quite a lot, but then the quartet of Peavy, Seven, Spiros and Chris sort of steps in its own ambition and gets its boots muddied. Not a total write-off, of course, because this is a learning step for how they'd work rather well within the medium in the future, and eventually and briefly spin it off into its own entity, but this one remains a curiosity for me more than anything else.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Friday, February 12, 2021

Jours Pâles - Éclosion (2021)

Jours Pâles is a new project from Aorlhac's Spellbound, and was born out of another group called Asphodèle, whose 2019 debut provided the new group's moniker. That was a tasteful, solid example of melancholic post-black metal, which has evolved here into something a little more distinct while keeping a few of the former's atmospheric traits. He's assembled an international lineup here including James Sloan of Uada, and Christian Larsson, who played with some depressive Swedish BM groups like Shining and Apati, and the resulting product is quite a professional and seasoned sounding effort which distinguishes itself from Spellbound's other bands in structure. This is more accessible than what I'm used to hearing from his material, but still bleak and moody enough to appease any naysayers to its more polished production.

A lot of the riffing patterns here remind me quite a lot of late 90s-early 00s direction taken by the Greek veterans Rotting Christ, with a series of flowing, simplistic riffs that weren't without some degree of bite, and the dreary, openness of the sound mixed with the sustained rasping is redolent of the way a lot of the Swedish bands like Tribulation, In Solitude or even Katatonia evolved their own sound into their last (or latest) forms. The riffs vary between the abovementioned, choppier rhythms and then some which are more of a barrage of driving power chords festooned in higher picked melodies, the latter of which is definitely from the Katatonia school. The bass has an excellent groove and tone to it through the album, and the drumming is also very good. They also use a lot of cleaner guitars as well as other atmospheric embellishments like somber keyboard tones to accent the heavier riffs, and the pacing throughout the album is predominantly a mid-paced surge which is most commonly associated with these very sad and emotive visions of harsher Gothic-tinged metal. That's not to say they won't pick up the thunder a little in the drumming once in awhile ("Suivant l'astre", etc), but just blasting away would betray the entire point of this sound.

There is a bit of a treat here within "Éclamé", which features soothing, ethereal female vocals and an escalation of synthesizers before just throttling you with the emotive growls and some of the more driving licks on the album, and in some other places they throw a few more evil or dissonant guitar phrases at you to keep you guessing and prevent the affair from becoming too tired or one-note. I do feel that there are a number of tunes here which start off quite promising, with a great selection of riffs, but then don't exactly capitalize on this once it comes to a you arrive at just a measured, expected place instead of the more eloquent, melodic epiphany you might be hoping for, but in general Éclosion is just such a tightly realized debut that it's difficult to overlook the potential that seeps from every pore of its downtrodden, mournful sound. Certainly one that fans of Rapture, earlier 90s Katatonia and the heavier post-black metal acts will want to listen to for themselves, and Florian aka Spellbound has built up quite a personal discography, so if you like this you'll also want to track down the Asphodèle album, or maybe even the Medieval black metal of his mainstay Aorlhac, whose L'esprit des vents is fantastic.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Rage - Speak of the Dead (2006)

Speak of the Dead, Mike Terrana's final studio full-length within the ranks of Rage, is an album that comes with the up-front hurdle that is the "Suite Lingua Mortis", an 8-track metal orchestra. The trio once again explores those symphonic elements it has adopted through its 'Lingua Mortis' phase, which they would eventually spin off into its own project to return this core band back to the metals. Obviously a love for classical music, shared between Wagner and Smolski, was a huge part of why this had been welded onto the steel framework of the band's speed/power metal foundations, but I can't help but wonder if some bands were ultimately trying to emulate a little of the success that a group like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra achieved with its covers of Christmas carols, etc, after the dwindling returns of Savatage (who, for my money, in their 1983-1989 prime, were vastly superior to anything TSO has done).

At any rate, while the "Suite Lingua Mortis" is expertly produced, dramatic and well-scripted in terms of how it shifts between its classical moments and the harder metal bite, there was a very generic feel to it that ultimately turned me off a little and had me craving the more routinely metal content that occupies the latter half of this disc. I have no idea if Peavy is descended from THE Wagner, THAT Wagner, but a lot of the orchestral maneuvers remind me quite a lot of the old Valkyrie rider, if a bit more timid in their scope. Don't get me wrong, the conductor does a great job fusing it together, and in particular I laud the level-headedness of the production which reminds me of the Scorpion's great symphonic album Moment of Glory, but apart from a few cool Peavy vocal lines and guitar licks, this first 25-ish minutes of Speak of the Dead is just not that memorable unless I'm specifically in the mood for that sort of thing. Even Victor, for whom this style is bread and butter, sounds a little too constrained by what's going on with the strings, horns, and so forth, and thus his rhythms and chord selections are a bit dry, and the leads predictable and bland alongside the rest of the instrumentation.

Once we get to "No Fear", we get more into the Rage I wanna hear, and it just keeps getting better after that, with a couple of dirt-digging, heavier punching cuts that are still laden with the melodic affectations we had already heard through the earlier tunes. That's not to say this last batch of cuts are exemplary in their canon at large, but something like "Full Moon" or the title track finale is for me the highlight of the album rather than the classical suite. Terrana is a living storm on a number of these tracks, but even then it seems like they're holding him back a bit. Victor starts to flex his chops a lot more on this latter portion of the record, but he's not always coming up with the catchiest little bits as he does on some of the other albums during his tenure. Peavy still has a little range and he really thrives in the mid-highs but non-screaming zone, especially when he's got some decent backing vocals. All told, Speak of the Dead is an effort I remember liking a lot more when it arrived, but the years haven't been drawing me back to it other than a couple of the heavier tunes. It's solid, fairly ambitious, and I certainly wouldn't ask someone to shut it off if we were listening to it on a drive, but just doesn't offer me a lot of what Rage hadn't and hasn't done better elsewhere.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, February 8, 2021

Rage - Carved in Stone (2008)

For its first few moments of keyboard orchestration accompanying the guitars, Carved in Stone comes across like a spiritual successor to the Ghosts album, and in truth I heard a few melodic nods to those tunes a number of times throughout the album. However, this is an effort much more steeped in the ever increasing guitar theatrics of the talented Mr. Victor Smolski, who manages to balance off his finesse fairly well with the songwriting, using his prowess with a lot of fills and busy rhythm licks that actually serve to make song progressions more interesting than they might have been if they were left more...plain. This is far from the most memorable of Rage's output, but it's a typically strong affair which does attempt a few new riff ideas. More importantly, while Peavy is not as his shrieking heights, he does have a decent sustain when he ups his pitch a little here...much of his performance is still the gritty, lower growl, but there's a breath of vitality erupting on certain songs that hints at an earnest youthfulness.

Musically this is still the lower-end driven sort of power metal that Rage had been performing since the 90s, with the slightly thrash/groove undertones in that occupy a lot of verse and bridge sections. The bass lines are thick and pounding, and there's a spirited, hard-hitting Hilgers performance, all of which makes for a great sandbox through which Smolski can just go wild. He keeps it well under control, don't get me wrong, but hurls a lot of fine squeals, harmonies and wailing micro-leads at us that are entertaining. I've said it before, but Victor is like the Ozzy guitarist that never was...he has the flash and technique of all of Osbourne's famed axemen (Rhoads, Lee, Wylde), all rolled up into one person with the added onus that he's got a more neo-classical shredder leaning to, and there just came a point in this band's career when he started OWNING the material. That's not to diminish the recognizable traits of Wagner's vocals and the fact that those two are as mighty a rhythm fusion as you're going to get, but it's always Smolki who is punching through the stratosphere and providing us with a 'new' feel to the material, very evident in a track like "Gentle Murders" where he lets loose with some wild patterns and a great self-dueling solo that is threaded with these technical little muted picked lines that are fantastic.

The band can certainly simplify, as it does with the slightly dumber groove metal of "Open My Grave", and these are probably my least favorite moments on Carved in Stone, although even this one does turn into a slightly dreamy, jazzy pre-chorus where it instantly improves. There are no tracks here which entirely lack for good moments...even the woozy acoustics that introduce "Without You" erupt into this blazing, groovy Sabbath-like rhythm and then just amazing guitar theatrics throughout. I know I keep coming back to it, but this is really an album which wouldn't suffer so much if I were simply watching Victor jam it all out in preparation at a rehearsal room; he's such an entertaining player and you never quite know where he's going next, even if you're familiar with his overall bag of tricks. If it stumbles, it never does for long, and the worst I can say for this one is that it blends in a lot with other recordings in their 21st century catalogue so that it doesn't really approach a landmark. But I dig most of it.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Rage - Live in Poland (2020)

While this is far from a mandatory acquisition for any Rage fan, I think it's important to put Live in Poland into its proper context: this is, as far as I can find, a digital-only release taking from a few years prior, near the beginning of the Peavy/Marco/Lucky lineup and obviously some point before The Devil Strikes Again had dropped. The cover art is obviously a reference to that album, but other than "My Way", the advance single, this is a set culled from the band's earlier records like Black in Mind, Unity, and so forth. It could be forgiven as a bit of a warm-up for the trio, since they'd only been together for a matter of months and didn't quite have the history and confidence between them that they would later, or that Wagner would have had alongside a Mike Terrana and Victor Smolski. It's also released through Peavy's own Dr. Bones Lethal Recordings, which he was using to put out a bunch of re-released studio efforts, and really just meant as an added way to support the band for a couple dollars.

Having clarified's not so good. Live in Poland has a fairly clean production, with an emphasis far more on the slickness of the instruments, and it lacks a lot of energy and crowd energy, even though you can hear some cheers and clapping around some of the tunes. It's not that the tunes are played without the proper competence, but they just seem to lack some vitality, especially harder hitters like "Down", and it almost feels as if its a rehearsal jam where the band's not going out of its way to get too crazy. Of course a lot of this is just due to the mixing and so forth, for all I know the show was utterly bonkers, but I don't feel like that translated so well onto the recording. Lastly, the vocals are a bit shaky and inconsistent, fine in some spots but in others, especially some chorus parts the delivery is just not Wagner's best. The drums sound pretty clear, and the guitars, the bass lines thud along but don't stand out that much, and things like keyboard samples are fine. Volume isn't so much an issue, and even the leads are pulled off effectively, but it all just doesn't come together as a kickass live experience like their 2004 double-album From the Cradle to the Stage: 20th Anniversary which certainly brought the goods.

The set choices are fine...I always think it's strange they don't include a lot more early material since for me that's by far the best period for the band, maybe Peavy is self-conscious about having a more limited vocal range, or the band is firmly stuck in the style they started to explore in the mid 90s, but at least they've got "Don't Fear the Winter". "Black in Mind", "End of All Days", "Back in Time", and "Down" are all pretty good staples. "My Way" also sounds decent, and it's probably the most accurate tune they've got here since it's one they'd written together for the upcoming album. Ultimately though this isn't a live experience I think many are going to turn towards over the studio output or the previous live album I mentioned, so it's kind of an uninspired dud, although not particularly terrible, and not really meant to be some huge production, maybe just a bonus for fans stuck at home in the COVID-verse.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Rage - Wings of Rage (2020)

As a bit of a horror connoisseur myself, I can appreciate that some of the themes on Wings of Rage tip in that direction. The Stan Decker cover art is pretty awesome, maybe my favorite they'd used in a very long time, and I was fairly excited to the degree I was when Grave Digger had their album The Grave Digger based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. You'd expect the theming from more extreme metal genres like thrash, death and black metal, but the 80s were so heavily saturated with heavy metal bands covering the subject, and it stirs up such nostalgia, that I love it when more modern evolutions of that style revisit it. I've got my shelves stocked with CDs by Wolf, Powerwolf, THEM, and I'm happy to have Rage added to that crew...not that it's the band's first flirtation with that theme, but probably the most thorough.

Unfortunately, Wings of Rage just doesn't start off on the best footing, as the sort of silly narrative growling Peavy delivers throughout the opener "True" is a little awkward. The chorus does make up for that a little, with a good melody in it, but even that seems derivative of other tracks they've delivered in the past. There's a good lead in there, but the riffs aren't the most inspiring I've heard from Marco. This does improve elsewhere, with some more creativity on tunes like "Let Them Rest in Peace" or the slower, crawling "Wings of Rage" which has almost like a Wagnerian (haw haw) vibe to it from how the synths are placed behind the guitars. Overall, though, I found this was probably my least favorite in terms of guitars, of the three albums during the Marco Rodriguez 'tenure', because spoiler, this is to be his last studio album in the band. There's a solid EP's worth of material here to mark his passing, but I'd sooner turn a new listener towards Seasons of the Black or The Devil Strikes Again to check out his playing.

The production in general here isn't my favorite, in fact; it's all punchy and modern and sufficiently supports the slightly more theatrical feel to the songs with the keys and such, but in particular I just didn't love the vocals. He's flexing the same range as he has in the last 20 years, perhaps even scaling up just a bit higher on average, but there's just something in there that seems to lose the edge, or maybe 'bite' in this case, that he had on his lower range on other recent albums. He also seems like he's just on the brink of shifting off the intended key on a few lines. Maybe this was intentional but it just isn't his best, and that awkwardness becomes even more pronounced on the ballad "Shine a Light", which is a mediocre track to begin with, but throw his underwhelming performance on there and it's rubbish. I'm not a fan that ever needed Rage to write these sorts of tunes to begin with, it might have worked on Ghosts a few times, but that's fairly anomalous in their catalogue. The re-recording of "Higher than the Sky", titled "HTTS 2.0" on this album, is rather a dud as well. This album was mixed by the band itself, specifically Marco, and maybe that's part of the issue, but it's clear to me that the album looks better than it sounds, and other than a few tracks it's not one I've felt like spinning much since it dropped.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Rage - Seasons of the Black (2017)

Seasons of the Black arrives about one year after The Devil Strikes Again, and it arrives blazing with some of Marco's most technical, impressive riffing that almost seems like a turn back towards some of the records on which Smolski had something to prove. The level of axemanship across the entirety of this album is indeed a little more flashy than its predecessor, but thankfully that doesn't hinder the quality or ever make it seem like he's running off with the songs, because the other members match it up with some tight skin-bashing and Peavy's maintaining of the more aggressive stance his vocals have had to take since his range has narrowed over the decades. The album has plenty of range, from whiplash-inducing power/speed metal tracks to more moderately paced, swagger metal anthems like "Blackened Karma".

They definitely go for some moody chorus structures, where Peavy does stretch his voice up a little and applies some decent backing tracks to give it the more choir-like effect you'll often hear from bands like Blind Guardian, only on the more subdued level. The mix throughout the record is fantastic, all of the little clinical details of Marco's playing are prominent without ever drowning out the more steadfast and workmanlike rhythm section, and I honestly think Wagner's vocals sound really pretty good in their more grimy and splatter-sounding pitch. Sometimes this comes at the cost of a few lyric lines sounding silly, like in the amusing "Septic Bite", but am I really going to complain about a band writing a tune about a fucking T-Rex? I think one other complaint I can lodge here is that the acoustic guitar parts sound really wimpy and not at all catchy, for instance the "Gaia" intro to 'The Tragedy of Man' suite which occupies tracks 8-11 here, it's just underwhelming; fortunately they compensate with a great melody to kick off "Justify" directly after that, one of the better tunes on the whole affair, which wouldn't have felt out of place on Reflections of a Shadow if Peavy had included a few higher screams.

Normally I don't glom onto bonus tracks all that much, but they've recorded five tracks here from Avenger's Prayer of Steel and I have to admit they sound quite good and offered a significant increase to the value of the album for me. Yes, Wagner can't sing quite like he did back then, but he gives it a go to make them sound like laudable modern adaptations, and musically they kick a lot of ass being sucked through the time-streams into a contemporary context. In fact, riff for riff I prefer these tunes to the new originals on Seasons of the Black, even if I might still reach for the original 1985 album if I was given a choice between the two. Some people won't care much about this, and be more interested in just the newer stuff, and that's certainly fair, but I just though their inclusion fleshed out the experience and made it more worth my time, rather than just doing a full re-recording album like a lot of bands try. Don't get me wrong, there's already a good 50 minutes of new material, they didn't HAVE to tack these on, but I'm happy they did.

All told, it's a solid nowadays Rage album on its own, especially when you consider they put it together in just about a year after the last; but that added 25 minutes kicks it just a little bit more squarely into the goal. The Peavy/Marco/Lucky lineup holds its own against the band's formidable three-piece rosters of the past, and if you've been a fan of their 90s era or beyond I think there are at least a few cuts you'll enjoy, and maybe also the celebratory introduction to their earlier era if that's new to you.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Rage - The Devil Strikes Again (2016)

Although the advance track "My Way" hardly struck gold with me, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Devil Strikes Again is just a down to earth, honest heavy metal album, going for a certain level of grit and aggression which not have been novel in the band's already lengthy history, but is performed with an amount of 'no fucks given' here that I rather admired. I think this is one of the better Rage albums in terms of how it balances Peavy's more restrained mid-range vocals with the meaty, heavier music. There are still plenty of Euro-anthem based progressions throughout a number of the tunes, but they all feel really grounded and never biting off too much more than they could chew, which might have been an issue if you weren't into Smolski's high flying theatrics on some of his later albums within the fold.

Marco and Lucky ably prove themselves here, the former with his capable riff set and great leads, the latter with an even more driving performance than what I expected from the My Way EP. Most of the tracks have a formidable balance of power and catchiness, and cuts like "Back on Track", "The Final Curtain" or "Ocean Full of Tears" recall the 90s Rage which is a favorite for many in their audience, while dipping some tendrils even further in the past. For example, I can even hear a few direct traces of the 80s material so beloved to me on Perfect Man or Secrets in a Weird World. Granted, Peavy's almost gone monotonous with his delivery...but for the same reason I love Lemmy, a super-limited front man, I've grown to appreciate the level of passion this guy puts into each line, even when he can't give me the age-old shrieking I crave from his yesteryears. The choruses are still well-built, and he layers into the backing vocals perfectly. I also love the little flashes of the speedy old Rage in "Spirits of the Night", and they even throw out a few tunes that take me completely by surprise like "The Dark Side of the Sun", with that amazing opening riff section which almost felt like Golden Age Artillery...thundering, melodic semi technical power/thrash metal!

More of that, please. Granted, the album is nowhere near as heavy as it looks...the skull and maggots crawling about on the cover? The title? Nah, but much more than the last 5-6 albums before it, The Devil Strikes Again sounds like a band reining itself in to create a consistent experience that marries the thrash, speed and power metal influences that defined their earlier eras. The only piece here that I feel I can skip over is "My Way", and that's hardly a terrible track, it just doesn't have those great hooks waiting for me around the corner like its neighbors. Once more we've got a German power trio which can live up to its name, and if this is only the first foray for these three...what'll the future hold?

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, January 29, 2021

Rage - My Way EP (2016)

The My Way Ep was released early in 2016 as both an advanced single for The Devil Strikes Again, and a presumed 'warmup' for Peavy's new power trio lineup with newcomers Marco Rodriguez and Vassilios Maniatopoulos. In a way it could be seen as a rebuilding of the band, not that Wagner has ever had much trouble choosing the right replacements for his roster but it can't always be easy to find that cohesion. This is one area in which I can say that the material here is a success, because the three play together seamlessly, so that it doesn't feel as if a beat had even been skipped. In particular I liked Marco's lead guitars, he's obviously not as maniacally gifted as Victor Smolki but he's got some chops and he executes his solos well so that they're often the most standout parts of the songs he's performing on. Drummer 'Lucky' is also pretty damn solid, maybe a bit more organic sounding with his rhythmic hammering than his last few predecessors.

So the lineup works, but the material on this EP leaves a lot to be desired. "My Way" is quite bland for a single, sounding a lot like the band's 90s material circa Black in Mind, but just not that memorable in terms of riff choices or chorus vocals. The first heavy guitar rhythm in the pre-verse sounds a lot like a sped up "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and I found that distracted, and while it seems like it's really going to pick up with the little acoustic segues and the more melodic chords it just doesn't ever hit a climactic point like so many of their earlier songs used to. This is also available in Spanish on the butt end of the EP, "Apuesto a Ganar", which isn't that unusual since Rage often includes non-English tracks on a lot of their short releases and bonus material, they've always cultivated a pretty international appeal. This might even sound better with the Spanish lyrics but it's just not enough to save the song from being rather average.

Rounding out the release, of course we've got to have some re-recordings of classic tracks with the new lineup. Both of these are from 1995's Black in Mind, which does make some sense since that's the sound they'd really be shooting for on The Devil Strikes Again. Neither of them really excels past the original incarnation. Perhaps they have a little more force behind them, which is easy to do when you've got the old version to compete with, but as more than a curiosity as to how the new lineup will sound in the live setting (competent, for sure), they don't have any value for me. I am well versed in the titular "Black in Mind" but "Sent by the Devil" was one I'd forgotten about, although it's not a bad tune either. For overall value this one just doesn't offer much, you can get "My Way" on the ensuing album, and unless you REALLY want to experience those re-recordings in a studio with this particular lineup, they don't offer anything too exciting beyond the knowledge that, hey, these new guys can play those old songs. It just doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in me when the actual NEW track is so average.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Rage - 21 (2012)

I quite liked the "House Wins" intro to this album, it's little more than a few sampled voices describing the mechanics of a card game that ties in with the title, but the backing ambience has a surprisingly Rage-like feel to it that seems as if it's just going to barrel into the most epic of proper heavy tracks. That's not exactly what happens with "Twenty One", but it's definitely a solid cut with a good amount of heft to it, and the flashy breaks of Strings to a Web are somewhat subdued here in favor of some straightforward, driving aggression. In fact, I think while Smolski still takes flight as the guitar hero, he's balanced so much better against the rhythm section here...the material just feels meatier and has some more emotional punch to it as well, with Wagner adding some good old anthemic German heavy metal choruses here...

His voice isn't at the height of his younger years, but he stretches it a little more and it sounds as smooth as its going to. The songs have a good range here from bludgeoning low end power metal to a few more showy hard rock tunes where Smolski spikes up the punch with his effortless solos. You'll notice that Peavy does use a LOT of harsher vocals here, which sound a bit processed and goofy but they obviously thought they were cool enough to use multiple times, and I don't mind even if it doesn't really achieve the end goal of being able to rub shoulders with all the younger, heavier thrash or death metal bands. The real strengths here are the instrumental performances and production, the guitars are nice and heavy, the bass doesn't do much interesting but it feels a little weightier than it did on the prior album, and Hilgers drums are just a powerhouse, if you had any doubts about his ability to replace some of his predecessors they should by this point have all been quelled.

Ultimately 21 sounds like a heavier 21st century counterpart to earlier 90s records like Black in Mind or End of All Days, the punchier, cubicle thrash meets Euro power metal. All three of these guys 'showed up', stomped around for nearly an hour, and put out another ten tunes which mesh seamlessly into their sizeable legacy without totally standing out. It's another of those Rage albums which I can get fully immersed in while listening in my car, but even 8-9 years later there aren't a bunch of chorus hooks or riffs that I can pick out a lineup of their last two decades of material. It's great to hear them firing off such energy so deep into their career, and while some might be bittersweet that this was Victor Smolski's final studio full-length within the band ranks, it's a further testament that he stepped in there and helped define a whole new era for this underappreciated veteran, and himself blossom into a guitar hero with the style and versatility that can keep him on the map with future projects...he's almost like a gestalt of all Ozzy's guitar gods and their particular quirks, but with the added heavy interest in the neo-classical.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, January 25, 2021

Rage - Strings to a Web (2010)

Strings to a Web arrives with a lot of technical finesse and modern studio gloss, thanks to Victor Smolski using the album as a sort of expose for his capacities as a performer. I mean, if you've got it, flaunt it, and this man clearly has it, but occasionally it seems like that level of flash is being committed to a rather hollow exercise, that every nook and cranny of some of these songs is to be filled up with some little fill lick that demonstrates the dexterity and ability without really enhancing the actual power of the track. Fortunately, it's not a total deal breaker across the entire album, because the guy comes up with a lot of of really cool progressions in there that also keep the listener's attention when the meat of the song might not. His rhythm guitar tracks are also fairly complex, so that the album overall feels like a more complex Unity, with all of the classic 90s motifs of their sound in place...the sort of warm, metropolitan vibe to their writing, the lack of higher pitched Peavy vocals which had been a sad state for quite some time leading up to this.

That said, when it comes to his lower range, Wagner sounds quite good in the mix, he's captured so clearly that you can make out all the grit under the syllables. Hilgers drumming here is no joke either, lots of detail to his fills and even just when he's laying out a simple rock beat below Smolski's bag of tricks. Strings to a Web exhibits a fairly wide range of tempos and dynamics, drawing upon all the influences of thrash, speed and power metal that had characterized the band's ascent through the prior decades. The songs are well written, even if there's a tendency to go a little overboard, and really the only thing they suffer from is not having those extremely catchy guitar and vocal hooks which were what drew me to the band in the first place in the 80s. Instead, this is a showier, arguably more progressive band keeping itself affixed to its contemporaries...say what you will, but this sounds like a Rage album coming out in the year 2010 and a band that hasn't yet run out of ideas, even if some of the feel of the vocals and riffs on this does recall a lot of Soundchaser, Unity, Missing Link, XIII etc, while adding just a fraction more hustle.

The "Empty Hollow" suite dominates the middle of the album, five tracks which incorporate some of the symphonics that they'd been using up to this point with their 'Lingua Mortis' concepts, and here there are some parts which recall the album Ghosts, only with the more technical guitar-slinging. Some of this is quite good, especially the track "Empty Hollow" itself or the shredding title track. But then they throw a pair of softer, moody pieces in there like "Connected" which didn't resonate much with me. Some of the most interesting tunes come after this section of the disc, like "Saviour of the Dead" with its groovier low-end riffs that at first seem a little cheesy but morph into some really catchy bits with Peavy using some low vocal effects. But they'll also throw out another weak ballad like "Through Ages" in amongst the more raging (haw haw) numbers. All told, it's a solid if not entirely consistent album which is a good flex of the chops but doesn't succeed in transforming them into the level of earworms that I had long associated with the band. I'll spin it to be impressed once in awhile but there aren't many playlist-worthy tunes among its 55 minutes of style-slightly-over-substance. The spidery Soundchaser on the cover is also a fun pairing with the album title.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Les Chants de Nihil - Le Tyran et l'esthète (2021)

Le Tyran et l'esthète is the fourth full-length album for another French hopeful, and one that definitely has its ducks in a row in terms of sleek production and instrumental finesse. Largely traditional black metal of the North European variety, there are just enough complementary ideas to keep Les Chants de Nihil from seeming overly reliant on retreading the same ground that has already been churned into mud. This isn't as esoteric or unique an effort as some of the band's better known peers, but I can assure you that there some progressions or unexpected moments which await you around the corners of this album that instantly elevate it beyond just your average, well-intentioned blasterpiece; clearly the sounds of a seasoned group which has been paying attention to its medium at large.

The cover painting is quite good here, and actually by the vocalist/guitarist Jerry himself. This rush of cavalry and infantry towards a frothing shoreline well represents the storming, surging sound when the band is firing on all cylinders. Effortless blasting, frenetic tremolo-picked note patterns which can bleed out melodies reminiscent of Scandinavian greats, but add to that just a small hue of warmer, more textured chords that wouldn't be out of place on one of Enslaved's more proggy, atmospheric albums these last ten years. The mix to this album is excellently balanced, with a lot of depth between the foremost melodies, harsh rasping vocals, and soothing, sailing chord patterns, especially where the album slows down to a more moderate gait like the lapping of waves against some hull. They creative very emotive inclines amidst the roiling aggression, but where I get most surprised are spots like the depths of "L'adoration de la Terre" where they almost take on a Voivod-like oddness, or Ode aux résignés which has this gradual move towards the rushing tempos and lets its bass playing groove along to carve out a lot of its momentum.

The black metal vocals are somewhat standard in style, although tempered by the French accent and quite resolute, but they will mix these up with some somber choirs or other bits to prevent any monotonous approach, and frankly for what they are the guy gets appropriately sinister and bombastic. Again, it is another actual member of the band who steps up for a double-shift, 'Mist', who does the recording, and it sounds absolutely clear and lethal. I see a promising studio for this guy, not only within his own projects but with other striving acts who hear this. While, broken down to its many components, you might not find many of the riffs or songs to be super memorable on their own, it's another sum package which is entirely competent, occasionally interesting and certain to pique the interest of a cross-section of fans into medieval or pagan black. Detailed, driven, worth checking out.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Rage - Gib dich nie auf EP (2009)

Gib dich nie auf (aka "Never Give Up") is a little enhanced EP of some odds and ends, largely consisting of material from when André Hilgers had taken over the drums from Mike Terrana. The image of the Rage trio as a sort of metal Mount Rushmore is a bit goofy, but then again it wouldn't be of much benefit to put more work into a release that seems hastily thrown together in a year between two full-length efforts, Carved in Stone and Strings to a Web. These sorts of things are usually more miss than hit, and this one isn't much to write home about, but there are a couple rarities on here that you may or may not have had exposure to depending on which versions of their albums you bought or listened to, since they've long been one of those bands of importance to which their labels ascribe a bit of an assembly line productivity.

"Never Surrender" and the titular "Gib dich nie auf" are the same track in two languages, and for some reason I've just always preferred my actual power and heavy metal in English. Don't get me wrong, I don't share the aversion to the harsh German tongue as many others, in fact I find it kind of sexy, but just not with these particular forms of metal. Anyway this one's a bit of a rager, with some flashy licks that almost remind me of some of Ozzy's guitarists, especially Zakk Wylde, and it definitely catches the attention with a solid shift from the verses to a simpler, more epic chorus. "Vollmond" is the other German number here, originally released as "Full Moon" on an earlier album with Terrana on drums. Once again, I highly recommend the English version, it's another solid track. These are joined by "Terrified", the band's contribution to the Nuclear Blast compilation Into the Light, which I don't have...and don't really want if this is an example. The chuggy parts are a bit boring and the whole thing feels a little muddy, although not entirely void of that Rage personality with the vocals/chorus.

Add to that the orchestral edition of "Lord of the Flies" from Carved in Stone, which doesn't do much for me...I mean it works, but I find myself drawn more to the core metallic elements of the band, except maybe the bridge which gets a magical vibe with some sparser percussion and less intrusive strings. "Home" is a piece from one of Smolski's solo records, but I guess with Wagner's vocals added. It's a symphonic tune with some tasty little acoustic guitars that transform into some leads...ends up a lot less goofy that it seems like it's going to be. The video components are just as scattershot, from a live version of "Refuge" at Wacken to a Smolski guitar seminar...really, the whole thing feels like it's just hashed together to assemble some sort of coherent product...and it's not terribly worthwhile save for "Never Surrender". Maybe if you can get this in the little box set with Carved in Stone it's a decent bonus, but on its own it's not too inspiring.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Monday, January 18, 2021

Rage - From the Cradle to the Stage: 20th Anniversary (2004)

As prolific as they've been through the decades, from lineup to lineup, one thing we can say for Rage is that they've never been the sort to deluge fans with a ton of audio-only live material every couple of years. Maybe a couple of bonus tracks here or there, but when they really go for such a product, they make sure it's something substantial, like their 2015 box set The Refuge Years, which contains a number of live CDs in addition to the remastered run of albums with their classic late 80s-90s power trio roster of Wagner, Schmidt and Efthimidias. They had also put out a handful of videos through the years, one of which was released as a counterpart to this particular double-album, From the Cradle to the Stage, a 20th anniversary of the band's foundation as Avenger, that includes a good selection of material covering much of their career.

This of course features their SECOND impressive power trio lineup, Wagner joined by seasoned skin pounder Mike Terrana and sleek guitar hero Victor Smolski, and it was coming hot off two of their better albums in some time, Unity (2002) and Soundchaser (2003) which had been the most excited I was for their material since the dawn of the 90s. It was recorded in Germany and features well over two hours of material, with a number of old favorites and other tracks that were running current to their tours. The performances of this lineup do a lot to 'package' the earlier material up to their 21st century aesthetics, so it sounds fairly consistent in the hands of this lineup. Peavy had lost some of his shrieking range through the 90s, so by the time this came out he certainly can't approach the older tunes with the same level of fanatical pitch, however when tackling a "Suicide" or "Invisible Horizons", he manages to make it work with the slightly less adventurous, limited range, and he can still go higher occasionally. The important thing is that the wild personality he generates with his voice is still here in spades.

Otherwise, the band sounds ferocious. The bass is thick enough and fluid, Terrana beats his kit like it tried to burn down his house and run off with his wife, and Smolski sounds just fantastic, with his frenetic, dizzying leads and even capturing a lot of the old flashy squeals and tricks of his forebears from the 80s. The guy is just fucking nuts, and as much as Peavy has always been good at picking his six-string slingers, it makes me really wish he was still with the band this last decade. Even in spots when I feel myself wishing there was a tight rhythm player to enforce the power of their material on the live, Smolski's penchant for flair totally fills that void. As for the production, it's quite clear, you get a healthy helping of the audience balanced against the guitars and percussion, while Wagner's howling still manages to sit right on top, even if by this point it might have been the weakest link in the band's entire execution. Terrana and Smolski both have extensive solo tracks which are a lot of fun, and you get a great balance of being hit like a truck on most tracks, or even enjoying some of their lighter, more sensitive material like "Back in Time" from their Ghosts rock opera album.

This was really my first exposure to a full-fledged Rage live recording, after being a fan for a decade and a half, and while it has a few vocal flaws, it's just a damn solid experience with the band coming off just as enthusiastic with the tunes from all their eras to that date. One of the better Teutonic power metal live offerings I've got lying around the place, especially because they've always had such a different sound than so many of their peers.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, January 15, 2021

Rage - Execution Guaranteed (1987)

Nearly synonymous in quality with its predecessor, Execution Guaranteed expands upon the creative riffing and quirky ideas at the expensive of maybe going a bit over the top in just a few sections. Just not enough to mar the experience, because like Reign of Fear or all their other output in the 80s, this is an album which feels as fresh and 'new' to me in 2021 as it did when I was a teenager. Perhaps it's because there simply aren't any other bands to come along which have sounded to me quite like what Peavy accomplished, and this thing is just loaded with riffs to fucking die for, still straddling the borders between power and speed and thrash metal, heavy hitting but laden will plenty of melody and finesse. Perhaps it's also that awesome if cheesy cover art with a skeletal gangster, strapped with a tommy gun, and it's kind of the swan song before the band would implement its awesome 'Soundchaser' mascot.

There was one lineup change here, Rudy Graf stepping into the second guitar spot, but even though they're still not in what I'd consider the ultimate Rage formation, I have few if any complaints about any of the musicianship. Swarthy, heavy guitar tones, power drumming, well executed, varied leads, and Wagner's steady bass lines, which are felt slightly less than on the debut. There are a few spots where the snare drum seems a bit too tinny or clappy, but it's a minor gripe when everything else sounds so loud and fantastic. As with the prior album the band has no quips about adding in some keyboards or effects like in the middle of "Deadly Error", or the video game samples that open "Mental Decay", they add a lot of personality. The riffs are all over the place from the tasteful melodic speed metal flurries that would heavily characterize their following two albums, or the crisp low-end chugging which is anything but generic. While Wagner's vocals aren't far from Reign of Fear, I do feel there is a bit more focus on their production which can occasionally make them stand out...he's got such a unique personality between the higher pitched screams and howls and the more gritty mid-range, and it does take some getting used to...but fuck, so doesn't King Diamond.

Nobody can fault his chorus lines, though, delivered amazingly on thundering anthems like "Before the Storm" or the immortally catchy "Hatred", which also features some workmanlike heavy/thrash riffs that remind me of Testament's The Ritual, only five years earlier! They've really mastered the art of the slower track, too, whereas "The Scaffold" bonus track left something to be desired on the debut, "Streetwolf" has no such problems, an atmospheric masterpiece that winds up to the escalating scream of the title with some eerie, clinical muted melodies. You can just imagine walking the misty concrete jungle apocalypse of a fictional, dystopian 80s action movie with this one playing in the background. But in every instance the band is hustling, from the scathing opener "Down by Law" to the finale "When You are Dead" this is also one fun-as-fuck, rousing record that is never far from my mind when I'm appreciating all those unsung Noise Records classics. The cherry on top is that they would keep on getting better...

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (controlling the trade)

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Rage - Reign of Fear (1986)

Although the full-length Avenger record album, Prayers of Steel, was enjoyable, it wasn't until Peavy Wagner and company had undergone the name change to Rage that they strung together one of my favorite metal recording streaks of the 80s (spoiler alert!); one that I listened to with nearly the same reverence as the Golden Eras of Metallica, King Diamond, Coroner, Voivod and other favorites of that period. There are a number of camps within this band's fandom, some prioritizing the era that they were first exposed to the Germans' music, others attracted to the particular studio aesthetics of their more polished, measured mid-period of the 90s, their handful of conceptual 'rock opera' style efforts, or even the most modern sounding of their output. While I enjoy a few albums or songs from all of these epochs, none has come even close to this early run of Noise Records classics, full of shrieking abandon, raw ideas and aggressive, memorable riffing that was a creative fusion of thrash, speed and the budding European power metal sound.

Even as far back as this 'debut', the band was writing rhythm guitars that sounded like nothing else out there...not because they were a massive stylistic departure from the parameters established by genre staples like Judas Priest or Accept, but they were just really imaginative and epic, while retaining an almost workmanlike, steel-mill execution due to the rough yet clear mix of the vocals and instruments. This was a sound which could hang with the heavier edge of the NWOBHM, or some of the emergent thrash and speed metal from both their native Germany and North America. A dark atmosphere is imprinted as soon as you lay eyes upon the blue-tinted cover ninja, and maintained through the structure and savagery of the lyrics and riffing. Since this was the same lineup as on Prayers of Steel, certainly there is some carry-over of those elements from before, but Reign of Fear is just a step beyond, an album I've admired since my first spin as a young teenager, but only come to appreciate even more in the wake of their even more impressive output yet to arrive.

The focal point is the vocal point: Wagner's hoarse, wavering, accented intonation was a treasure at the time. From a lot of his more recent material, it'd be hard to imagine he once had a range like this, but for years the Rage catalog was replete with Halford like screaming that was a great contrast for that blue collar anger in his mid toned barking, and he could use it to great purpose in the song choruses, although this particular album isn't quite where he would flaunt that the most. Cuts like "Hand of Glory" or the opener "Scared to Death" are fine examples of him going off the hinges while still keeping it catchy and slightly under control. That he's also a great bass player is of no small consequence, the faster tracks on this album keep him busy, or the power thumping of a mid-paced fist-raiser like "Raw Energy", where he once again is using those screams to maximum potency.

There's a lot of dynamic range in the track list here, from the outright blazers to the aforementioned arena stompers, to the ambitious if flawed track "The Scaffold" which is 9 minutes long, with acoustics leading up to a slower, melancholic 'epic metal' track that you might almost expect out of a band like Manowar. "Machinery" is pretty much an all out speed/thrash attack, with some infectious fucking riffs. The guitars have just the right level of rusted steel strength, whether splayed out with open chords or exploring the more agile patterns; the leads shift between moody and sporadic, but all sound just awesome seated within their respective riff-sets. The legendary Jörg Michael's drums are powerful, splashy, benefiting highly from the reverb-washed mix. The band was also trying to level itself up with the inclusion of some synthesizers, as in the opening march to "Scared to Death", or the timpani and other percussion visited in that swollen bonus track I mentioned above.

The lyrics can oftentimes come off a bit weird or cheesy, like the sleazy sex anthem "Chaste Flesh", but who am I kidding, the dorky 13 year old virgin me absolutely fucking loved all of this, as it helped his balls drop...and for the most part, it...still does?! Reign of Fear is an album that has aged so well for me...or maybe it's more appropriate to say it hasn't aged at all. While not my favorite in their catalogue, there is just no possibility of me putting together any Rage playlist without including half of the gems on here..."Echoes of Evil", "Suicide"...of the nine core album tracks, there are none that I dislike. "The Scaffold" has its ups and downs but it certainly serves as another testament to their ambition, to try things and see what sticks. Thankfully, so much of it did stick, and it's never been flushed out of these earholes.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (you wish it was morning)

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Bog Wizard vs. Dust Lord - Four Tales of the Strange (2021)

I've already covered the 2020 album From the Mire by Michigan's bong soaked Bog Wizard, a rather adventurous hybrid of acid washed stoner doom metal and fantasy gaming nostalgia. They've returned here on a fitting split EP with Colorado's Dust Lord, another newish act which has also independently released its debut last year. Sonically, the two bands are a fine pair, although there are some slight deviations in their thematic and atmospheric approaches which distinguish them. Ugly, huge doom metal tones, taking the Sabbath roots and drenching them in sustained distortion and vocals that occasionally make Ozzy sound like a harmless puppy. That's not to say we're dealing with songwriting on a master level like those British originators, but I think folks who are really into this saturated, evil stoner crush have two hopefuls here that, with a little tweaking, could become contenders to the thrones occupied by acts like Electric Wizard and Bongripper.

Dust Lord has the bolder production of the two, with voluminous guitars that groove along your nerves with note progressions that might not be original, but do their job. I'd say aesthetically this is the drier of the bands, going more for an in the in-the-face, traditional fare. Take a group like Fu Manchu and dial down the party and up the crunch levels. Interestingly, the first half of their first track, "Not Men, Not Women, Not Beasts" is a slow, loping desert-camouflaged sasquatch that then picks up with a slightly more uptempo stoner/metal with some harmonies, that introduces us to the pissed off vocals...I found this a bit more entertaining than what led into it, so perhaps that first half went on a bit long, and this is a crime also committed by "Career Opportunities", a lower drudge that also improves once the vocals and higher guitars arrive...just check out that fuzzy, mid-90s Cathedral-like break around the 6-minute mark when he starts spitting out the venom, that's what I kind of wanted the whole time.

Bog Wizard fares a bit better with me, I just love their gradual atmospheric builds, created by clean guitars and feedback before the molasses-thick marsh guitars start to ooze along into the track. I think the vocals on this sound even better than the full-length album, eerie post-Osbourne lines dispersed with some growlier vocals. The little drum fills are quite nice, giving the muck-tinged, steady rhythm guitar a little more of a 'march' feel. The stuff is still heavily rooted in fantasy, with tracks called "Paladin of Death" and "Gelatinous Cube", obviously, there's a BIT of a bias with me on that last one. The G. Cube is my favorite D&D monster...I own the limited edition Funko Pop!'s presence in Pixar's Onward is one of the many reasons that was one of my top movie picks of 2020. I'm not even a big fan of gelatin or Jell-O or Bill Cosby or anything, but I just love that corridor-cleaning atrocity and its slow, measured, flesh-absorbing menace. This tune is super interesting...from the chuggy rhythms that set it up, to that break in the middle with the ominous clean guitars that almost sound like drawn out, melancholic surf rock, the tinny little cadenced beats, and then the fucking FUZZ ERUPTION. This is actually music that a Gelatinous Cube could get down with, and I have to respect it for that...

All in all, Four Tales of the Strange is a decent if slightly lopsided effort. Dust Lord has the goods, but hammers them over your head after too long of a setup, whereas Bog Wizard is more interestingly composed in its hypnotic, subterranean aesthetic, meandering but only in a good way. My wife and sons don't like me doing drugs, but I can settle for this, doping up vicariously through the doom.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Inhumanity Vortex - Reverse Engineering EP (2020)

Inhumanity Vortex (renamed from Inhumanity) is a one-man Polish project which has been feeling around with a handful of demos for over a decade now, but is now finally getting off to a more 'official' sort of release through this six-track EP. The brainchild of guitarist/writer Tomasz Dziekoński, he has added a handful of session musicians to really round out the intensity on exhibition, including Kévin Paradis, the current drummer of French brutes Benighted. The result here is an EP that feels a lot more professional and polished than you might expect, which delivers a consistent and level pummeling but just enough of a more complex musical flavor that you'll find a lot of interesting twists and turns if you're compelled by that more progressive end of the death metal spectrum.

I suppose a lot of folks might refer to this as 'cyber death metal', and thematically or sonically that isn't far off, but it's far less focused on industrial or electronic components as a group like Fear Factory. There are some synthesizers and other programming bits involved, but at its core this is neck jerking, frenetic death metal which is possessed of both style and groove, and science fictional concepts which feel as if the music actually represents them pretty well. Groups like Cynic, Obscura, Decapitated, Gorod, and Gorguts came to mind, or perhaps Pestilence if you were to mix up their Spheres album with the more modern groove aggression of a Doctrine or Obsideo. Busy guitars that involve lots of dissonant tones blended into the palm muting ferocity, and often erupt into spurious and fitting leads. Just enough futuristic effects are added to keep you in mind of its futuristic leanings, but there's a time and a place for them and for much of the duration they're just committed to a more consistent, bludgeoning effect. While the bass sounds good and is fitting to the mix, and the gutturals, if a little monotonous, also complement the style well, this is really all about those guitars and Paradis' drums, which are both awesome.

Rhythmically, the five heavier tracks here differentiate themselves rhythmically while still flowing well on the whole, but I was also really digging the instrumental "Through the Infinite", which brings out more of the guitar synthesizer and cultivates a more epic feel than its neighbors, obviously implied with the title. While this one might not have suffered at all from having vocals layered on it, their absence does come with a degree more creativity that was appreciated. On the whole, though, if you're into the school of modern/tech death but don't have any use for excessively wankery, perhaps enjoying that sense of fleeting futurism a lot of groups like Neuraxis used in the 90s and 00s, then Reverse Engineering is worth a listen. It's not always catchy, but it's pretty damn solid, and kept under control to provide an effective impact without any need for flashy frivolities and masturbatory over-indulgence. Inhumanity Vortex knows its business, and with a bit more experimentation and variety, perhaps a little more experience with melody against the harder hitting tunes, this has all the potential of a standout act.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Sodom - A Handful of Bullets EP (2020)

A Handful of Bullets is another example of a German thrash act putting out an exclusive CD strictly through the publication of a European magazine, throwing together a few odds and ends for fans and readers. It also happens to be a pretty cool one, because Sodom and Rock Hard have seen to it that the material here is not something you're going to exactly find elsewhere in the same form. In addition to a couple tracks, there are remixes and a remaster here which not only do justice to the original or 'main' mixes, but in my opinion even surpass them. This is especially true of "Sodom & Gomorrah" and "Indoctrination", which just seem to have a more even balance of evil, crisp guitars and the diabolic vocal snarling that Tom achieved in one of his nastiest performances of the whole discography. They're not exactly a far cry from what you'll find over on Genesis XIX, but I responded even more favorably to these than the versions chosen for the broader release of the full-length.

There's a cover of Venom's "Leave Me in Hell" which is quite nice, playing pretty close to the belt in terms of the guitars and drums, but once again Angelripper's vocals tip the scales, they sound really awesome with that sort of distanced or reverbed effect on them, it just makes the whole tune evolve from its dirty roots into something somehow more menacing and potent. What fans will REALLY be pining for here is the non-album track "Along the Path to Hades", a peppy thrasher with a bit of a feel of their records like Agent Orange or Persecution Mania, and I'm honestly a little surprised they held this one off the full-length, it's quite damn good. Rounding the EP off is another remixed tune from Genesis XIX, "The Harpooneer", and no surprise...also sounds good. I imagine the mix to these tunes isn't going to be for everyone, it's definitely just a few knobs twisted, but in its own way it feels just as 80s as the album and I just had a blast listening through it all.

The value here is limited a bit by its rarity and the fact that 60% of the material can be found on the release the fans are much more likely to track down, but I have to give some credit that they put together an entertaining and ear-pleasing 22 minutes of content that will certainly be a boon for those who subscribe the magazine and undoubtedly already dig the legendary group. I'd actually place this above most of their other EPs in quality even when those including more unique, unreleased cuts.

Verdict: Win [7/10]