Saturday, May 8, 2021

Helloween - I Want Out Live (1989)

In 1989, as a steel-struck teenager, I was so hyped up on Helloween that I bought this live cassette the instant I first laid eyes upon it it. I can still recall digging out that $6.99 from my pocket paper route money, happily slapping down on the counter at Record Town in my local mall, striding proudly forth with my new-fangled quasi-mullet and thrusting it straight into my Walkman. It might sound like some stereotypical scene out of one of those awful TV shows or films that tries to thrive off nostalgia for the 80s, but in fact it was our reality back then. At the time, I didn't have a high opinion of live albums per se...Unleashed in the East pretty much brought me into the genre as a tyke, and Live After Death was still in a regular rotation, and when I looked at the track list here I thought it was a little skimpy, but fuck it, this was one of my favorite bands to emerge from my #1 label of the era, Noise Records, I absolutely worshipped at the feet (stalks?) of the debut EP, the first three albums and the Judas single, and I was going to follow them through thick and thin on all their major label adventures, and back again. And I always have...

I even remember at the time knowing that this one was put out under another title overseas, and I think the track list is edited just a bit different, and there's a cool cartoon cover of the band playing live, damnit all if I don't like our version a little better. I believe in Uncle Pumpkin. Well, I listened to this about 3-4 times and then quickly delegated it to the tape rack right beneath Keeper of the Seven Keys Part II, remember those old tape racks where you'd have to move all the tapes each time to keep them in alphabetical and chronological order because you were a huge dork that didn't plan well in advance? I guess it was just me. At any rate, I found the sound quality on this totally acceptable, maybe a fraction clunky in some of the mix, but for the 80s it definitely was clear and professional enough, I had just decided that I'd never listen to this at any point over the studio works that I so adored. It's now about 32 years later, and I'm breaking this thing out for the first time, and the memories of the experience seem to have phased me more than the recording itself.

The distribution of material here is largely on the initial Keeper duology, probably because they wanted to focus on songs with Kiske vocals and promote their RCA material, but they do manage to close out the B-side with an epic rendition of "How Many Tears", and if my ears aren't failing me it even sounds like Kai is doing some faint backups along Kiske's impressive take on it, and the bridge with those airy, open guitar harmonies sounds fucking fantastic. The guitars and drums sound tight, you get a fair helping of Markus' lines in there, and the leads really scorch. Stage banter is fun enough for what you get, silly schlager melodies, definitely sounding like some Germans a bit nervous to get out there in front of the international audiences (this being recorded in Scotland and England), and I don't think any of the tracks stands out as weak at all, from the silly "Dr. Stein" to title track, which was obviously the hotness at the time. Even in my High School, where only a select few of us hanging out on Headbanger's Wall near the cafeteria even knew who names like Armored Saint, Running Wild and Celtic Frost belonged to, almost all of the glam, Ozzy and Metallica-addicted student populace knew this damn song and walked around humming or singing it all the time (of course they all heard it from MTV).

Listening to it so much later, I rather think I missed out on giving this one some more spins when I was young. Helloween has had such a massive legacy since, with a lot of changes, but this brings back the innocence and amazing potential I once felt for these Germans...potential which they mostly lived up to, mind you. I don't know if it's on the level of Live After Death or Live Without Sense, two of the rare lives that I listen to on a fairly regular rotation. There's just not much meat on the bones of this one, but I promise I won't wait three decades before it shows up in the queue again.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Rage - Unity (2002)

I've had plenty of positives to say about the 90s Rage records, even if I had spent that decade mildly disappointed, but come 2002 and the sophomore of its new power trio lineup, I was confronted with what would certainly become my favorite of the Germans' albums outside of the first five. Wagner, Mike Terrana and Victor Smolski had written a storm of a record which accented upon many of the strengths of its predecessor but ramping up the musicianship and arguably the heaviness. Because, make no mistake, while Unity is as varied as some of its neighbors in their catalog, this is one hard hitting effort that absolutely helped redefine this aging act for a whole new generation, while keeping them current and distinct among the other burgeoning Euro power metal acts.

Lead by Peavy's vocals, which are definitely lower and angrier and less ranging than some of the old albums, but still perfectly sculpted to go along with this particular sound, Unity is a positive step forward. Victor's rhythm guitars here are beastly, iron-clad, with a bulky tone that works whether he's firing on the faster material or going into some of his complex grooves. And yet they're supported by loads of little details, from his unending tides of catchy lead-work to an impressive array of synths which serve as a further bolstering to the louder guitar tone. Make no mistake, this album is just as classically-inspired as some of the others which Peavy and Victor wrote together, but it's the way they integrate it here so that it's a part of the whole that really blew me off my seat. Usually, they'd have these pompous multi-track conceptual bits that were kind of a neo-prog-classical style, which little insertions of the Rage we known and love, but here it all blends together seamlessly and helps this one excel on so many levels.

Rarely does an album feel so all-over-the-place and yet coherent at the same time, but listen through the proggy escape of the instrumental title track finale, or the bombastic choirs woven into "Dies Irae", and how well they collapse into the band's riffing momentum and be stunned. There are literally about 150 or more great riffs on the album, and they're often busy as hell, with a lot going on, developing into one another with a level of foresight you don't hear from many guitar heroes. The first triple combo of tracks here, "All I Want", "Insanity" and "Down" instantly thrust into my top playlist the band has ever written, balancing off this new aggression with some classier hard rock and metal patterns that would have been legendary if they were issued in the 80s. Mike Terrana's muscular framework ensures that everything else proceeds effortlessly, he's arguably the main reason all of this ties together due to his consistent battery even during its more left field moments. The bass also sounds fucking spectacular here, pumping through the depths of the mix.

Not every track here is equally legendary, I grant you, and a few near the latter half of the disc do drag it down just a point, but nothing is bad, and I can promise there's at least somethin catchy on every single cut even if a few of them lag behind. The bio-mechanical Giger-like cover artwork featuring the Soundchaser is pretty awesome, and it's nice to see them bring that mascot back into some prominence, not that they'd ignored him much, but like their classic album covers to Perfect Man and (the real artwork for) Secrets in a Weird World, this one just transports you away into that same realm of imaginative nostalgia their classics have always conjured up. The lyrics are all pretty relatable and in that way it also reminds me of Perfect Man, and this really just has anything I could look for from a power/heavy metal album in the 21st century...a go for the throat attitude, gobs of dizzying musicianship and no sense whatsoever that this scene was anywhere near over. I'd argue Unity sounds modern even by today's standards, two decades later. What a statement.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (I am a real survivor)

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Cold Cell - The Greater Evil (2021)

There's a dichotomy on this latest Cold Cell album, on which I find the moments where they drift furthest away from the core considerations of their genre to be its most inspired, interesting and memorable, while a lot of the heavier elements end up feeling repetitive and less capable of putting me into a trance. That's not to say they are weak when they are piling on their largely mid-paced atmospheric black metal, which is likely the dominant force through much of the 49 minutes of material, but every time they drift in and out of some dream-like fugue, I am transported to a place that is more haunting and capable of getting under my skin in a shorter period of time. I think it's just a matter of the actual black metal riffing becoming a bit more commonplace and less able to offer the unexpected.

To be fair, they do balance out these two extremes at several points, but I found that overall my engagement with the material varied, and while we're not dealing with excessively bloated songwriting, most of these are around the 7-minute mark, which is long enough for the tides of tedium to begin to settle in if not to completely overtake you. But listen to that intro to "Scapegoat Season", with the guy singing in just an everyman's voice while the creepy, reverbed acoustic guitars and roiling ambience escalate, or "Open Wound" with the freaky swell of orchestration and desperate, open rasps, these sorts of things set up the band to just deliver an emotional juggernaut, and when it comes to the heavier riffs they just don't really honor the expectations. Sure, the pacing and the retained atmosphere do their job, and sometimes the vocals, when they're pitched at a more tortured intonation, but just as often you're getting these riff patterns that just sort of drone repeatedly and uninterestingly off into the distance.

I'm probably making it out to sound worse than it is, because by no means is this a bad or incompetent effort. In a few spots, it's outright transcendent. There's certainly a consistency to the graying, wasting mood of the album, and the sustained riffs over the busier but almost monotonous blasting backdrop, with its layered and eerie guitars. They set a mood and stick with that, so if you dream of black and white, decaying shores, or can imagine your own being disintegrating into snowy gray flecks in slow-motion, this is an appropriate score. I think, as it is presented, the album passes muster, but there were just a few parts where I thought they were going to absolutely crush my soul with some blazing riff or rhythmic pattern emerging form one of these lushly melancholic ambient-like passages and that just never really came about. But if you're into spacious, dissonant black metal with some surface similarities to the French scene circa Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, only not quite so twistedly adventurous or potentially explosive, then you could do much worse than to check out Cold Cell.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Necronomicon - The Final Chapter (2021)

Although Necronomicon was once written off as a bit of a lower tier alternative to Destruction, it's amusing that such a comparison has become one of the real strengths of The Final Chapter. Almost from the beginning of this disc, you're belted with these meaty thrash riffs that sound a whole lot like that other band in their modern phase circa All Hell Breaks Loose and The Antichrist, and then the vocals arrive, in particular the chorus which sounds exactly like Schmier, and not a bad way, especially when pitching a chorus like "I am the violence!", which to my dumb American ears sounds like "I am the wiolence!" and just makes the whole thing all the more endearing. And this is actually a template for nearly the entire album, short and muscular tunes that definitely make you want to give or receive a beating.

And I'll tell you...I don't know that anything more is needed? For as aged as this band is, like their better known 'German Big Four' peers, they sound aggressive, driven, and quite far from the nursing home. Riff patterns here are exceedingly simple, and never quite original, but delivered with enough blunt force and then glazed with spurious leads, and even some functional atmospheric melodies as in "Wall of Pain". At some points, like in that same track, they'll graft the melodies even more directly into the verse or chorus riffs (like the intro to "Purgatory" which almost sounds like Running Wild for a second), and it just creates a well-rounded experience that proves there is some mileage left here. The vocals might indeed stay derivative, but if I'm being honest, that style of pinched, constipated snarl is a treat whether it's the original or not. Necronomicon also balances that off with some lower snarls and guttural barks to ramp up the heaviness, and they never sound too cheesy or ill-placed. The rhythm section on this one is just in perfect won't find a lot of interesting bass lines or drum breaks, but in order to drive the important factor of those riffs and vocals, it's 100% effective.

Could the tunes be more nuanced and interesting? Probably, but for what it's worth I listened through the whole album numerous times and never felt any desire to skip past anything, it's one of the more catchy and listenable efforts they've put out over their 30+ years, and nice and loud when the double bass batteries and carnal vocals start firing off in tandem. The cover art isn't the best with that samey sort of skull in the center and the font, but it's a minor complaint once you plug this in and start the headbanging. Necromonicon deserves all the credit for keeping itself alive and finding a consistent stride so late in their career, and of that lesser wave of Teutonic thrashers like Accuser, Darkness, Assassin, Exumer, and Vendetta, they seem to be one who has figured out what works and stuck to it, while leaving themselves just enough room to play around in. Good on them.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Beware the Beach, 2021 edition

Off on another Spring Break, folks. I will return in May to finish up my last few Rage reviews, and come Summer I'll be tackling another lengthy German power metal discography, with some individual albums in the meantime. Forever thanks for stopping by to read the reviews.


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Rage - Ghosts (1999)

Some might be hesitant to praise Ghosts for its ballad-heavy, rock opera feel, and the relative lack of speed and heaviness compared to so many of the Germans' records past and future. But damn if this isn't one of the last truly great, and most unique efforts Rage would produce, which took me entirely by surprise, even with the preparedness that XIII offered me. Ghosts is a more distinctly 'symphonic' metal album than the one leading up to it, with a wider variety of both orchestral and synth sounds that create a broader arsenal for them to rock against. It's also a concept album, and really capitalizes on the emotional potential when one is speaking of life, afterlife and the veil between them, and it does this with some of the catchiest anthems the band would weave through their entire 90s catalog.

This is by far the best work Christian Wolff performed for the band in the studio, with a mix of epic, Wagnerian pianos and symphonic swells, and some more proggy synthesizers where it suits. The riff set on this album is likewise incredible, with each of the rhythm guitars playing perfectly off the keys and vice versa...everything shines, nobody smothers anyone else. The drums are great, they sound like they can support an entire in-the-flesh orchestra, and while Peavy is more focused on vocals here, the bass playing is fluid and he pops in a couple cool lines and fills to keep that end of the sound interesting. His voice is still in fine form, not reaching the pitch needed for early screamers, but sustaining quite well in that higher-mid range. There are a couple moments where the lyrics and his voice interact in a mildly goofy way, but I think that's just because you've got this big German dude singing in his second tongue and it's bound to have a few creases. Still, the meaningful lyrics go a long way to compensate for any flaws you'll find there, and he's still doing some harsher howling or lower crooning in here contrasts nicely against the passionate chorus sequences.

Even if I'm throwing on the bonus tracks for this one, that's about 13 tunes, with few that could even be considered weaker than the rest. Maybe I occasionally forget about "Six Feet Under Ground" or "End of Eternity", but they're both fitting to the concept and pretty decent as I revisit them. But the emotional core for this album is the martial, measured "Back in Time", the doomy trudge of "Ghosts" and unforgettable "Love and Fear Unite", with its sweeping synth flutes and strings that erupt into this totally awesome chorus which will make me smile if you have even a faint resemblance of a soul. The album goes a lot deeper than, with stuff like "Vanished in Haze" which is a prom ballad not unlike Bon Jovi's "Never Say Goodbye", only a lot better and with less glam bullshit; or the even more cheesy but heart-punching "Love After Death", yet another of these slower pieces with acoustic guitars in the verse that explode into some nice, climbing riffs and orchestration. There really aren't many complaints I can conjure up over the core 50 minutes of material, it's a ride...provided you're willing to get on...

I mean if you're only familiar with the band's early era as Avenger or the first 7-8 Rage records, you might be a little shocked at what you've got on disc here. There might have been tiny hints on stuff like Reflections of a Shadow, or the fat they obviously liked classical music (i.e. the intro to Secrets in a Weird World), and were quite catchy with it. But Ghosts is that whole side idea manifest into the best the band would ever do it, and while it's probably too accessible for some, there's nothing exactly sellout or commercial about it...this shit just wasn't that popular by the close of the last century. Maybe Therion, maybe the Trans Siberian Orchestra's evolution from traditional bits of Dead Winter Dead era Savatage into an entire band, but most were gettin' their nu-metal on by this time, or we had to suffer major metal bands of the 80s continuing to churn out shit. I'm not saying Ghosts isn't a little too teary-eyed and cheesy, or that hearing Peavy tackle some of this stuff with his style of voice doesn't induce a fraction of loveable cringe, but the sum results are so well written and sincere that this is still a good listen decades later, and certainly the best step Rage ever took outside the comfort zone to which it would, in some capacity, return.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Rage - XIII (1998)

XIII is one of a few Rage albums at the close of the 90s upon which the group decided to lean very heavily on their symphonic influences and incorporate the 'Lingua Mortis Orchestra' idea directly into their metal albums. As loathe as I was that one of my favorite German acts would submit to impulses of rock opera and Broadway balladry, I'll admit that they did a pretty good job of it on the 'main' releases where the style was implemented, rather than the junky scrap EPs and Lingua Mortis album that had come out a couple years earlier. In fact, the orchestration of Christian Wolff is spun so smoothly into this record that, if you hadn't already gotten history with the Rage catalogue, you might think that this was just the fundamental sound on which they were built.

There's a tradeoff. While the musicianship of the quartet loses nothing in terms of proficiency, it's dialed back a lot to let these horn and string sections breathe. It feels like the band is really playing along with an actual symphony, and unlike other extreme metal bands who would later try and clutter everything up by going overboard, the Germans are restrained and entirely song-focused, and that's what makes this album a cut above. This is not some showboating affair, but an attempt to compose emotional resonance which makes this pleasant to listen to even decades later; a trait that would carry on to following album. Look, I'm all for the shrieking excess and dizzying speed metal licks of their earlier years, but I'll take the tunes on this one over ANYTHING the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has ever released, and I can only image if Rage had decided to focus on covers and not their original fare, they might have achieved some sort of massive stardom the likes of which that post-Savatage project did. But that just goes to show you this was no cheap cash grab on the emerging trends brought about by groups like Therion; these guys were serious about stripping down their sound and adding a new component, tastefully.

It's exceptionally clear and well-produced, with the guitars and symphonic keys in perfect balance above the very audible rhythm section of Wagner's bass and Chris E's drumming. Peavy's vocals actually sound really good hear shifting between his angrier, gritty ravings and the soothing mid-to-high pitched stuff he uses over a lot of the softer or more sentimental parts. I don't know if there's a single song on this album which lacks for something really catchy..."Days of December", "Over and Over", and "Heartblood" are all fine examples of good riffs, memorable vocal lines and keys working in tandem, and they don't have to entirely abandon the energy and heaviness of their former selves. "From the Cradle to the Grave", with its almost goofy symphonic groove, burrows itself straight into your ears and brain, and while "Paint it Black" is a really generic choice for a cover, and my least favorite piece on the album, they actually do well to merge it into this orchestrated metal style and make it blend in seamlessly with the aesthetics of all the originals.

Despite the shared DNA of Mr. Wagner, XIII is not the Rage I grew up on, but the way the band threw itself at this challenge showed restraint, nuance and an appreciation for how these styles should be balanced. The result was, at least for me, the best album they had put out since 1990's Reflections of a Shadow, and to think, a year later they'd up the ante even further...

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, March 26, 2021

Mur - Truth EP (2021)

Mur is another of a number of French acts which combine the aesthetics of hardcore with black metal, or perhaps black-gaze, or post-black metal, or really the post-ness is created by this hybridization in the first place. This new Truth EP is an interesting one as the band has found a way to implement synthesizers into the mix which created an entirely other dimension of nostalgia. Their implementation is certainly redolent of the modern era of retro synth, so they're dirty pads you'd usually equate with film scores of the 80s, and the way they fluctuate between breaks in the aggressive metal instruments, or serve to complement them with even more chaotic, spastic tones is fairly fresh and gives this material more life than it might have without.

At the core, the band bowls you over with angry, raucous hardcore barking and faster, blasted beats, as well as the streaming, airy tremolo-picked guitars common to the post-black market, and that provides a nice foundation, but once they throw in those keyboards it gets much more choppy and melodic, and it's almost like the heavy heart of the band is a blunt instrument used to add a little weight to that sort of aggressive synthscape. It's not the only atmospheric trick up their sleeve...there's a passage in "Suicide Summer", for instance, where they let a distorted bass roil out and then layer in the keys to create this really warped, drugged out effect, and that's a brilliant song as it then erupts into the more arpeggiated synth-lines and roaring chorus vocals. The fact that the whole EP is pretty filthy and unwashed only makes it more interesting, they could have gone with a more polished vibe like the popular metalcore bands from the UK that mix in the keys (Architects, Bring Me the Horizon, etc), but I kind of like how it maintains this oppressive, discordant edge to it, interesting to explore.

At over 32 minutes this one feels more like a full-length than an EP. Of course, part of that is devoted to the explosive and crazy cover of Talk Talk's "Such a Shame", which works well within the medium that Mur has built itself, and might not even be too recognizable without the lyrics. There's also this giant 10 minute title track which is basically almost all retro-synthwave/krautrock, and I feel like it almost might have been a mistake to include, because I like it more than most of the band's more directly metallic fare. They still have some drums, guitars and intense sounds there, but it sounds like early M83 on a prog bender while ingesting as much acid as possible, and that's just cool. Overall, though, this is a cool permutation on the core sound they brought their 2019 album Brutalism, and a direction they could certainly improve a lot upon, maybe by ramping up the riff quality to compete more with the synth lines. But even as it stands, an interesting listen.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Rage - End of All Days (1996)

End of All Days might not be able to match Black in Mind or The Missing Link blow for blow with regards to memorable content, but this is at least the album where I think they got that 90s production style down pat. The guitars feel beefier and punchier, but cleaner against the other instruments, and it just sounds great churning out of my car stereo or PC speakers, while keeping that generally more aggressive sound which is a little more low-end-heavy and thrashing than where they were headed at the end of the previous decade. The Andreas Marschall cover art on this was quite cool, I like how they integrated the Soundchaser mascot into a sort of Mayan, apocalyptic aesthetic and this definitely triggers the Aliens and Predator nerd within me. This is also another encouraging example of how so many European bands kept classy while their American counterparts were falling apart. Sure, this is no Perfect Man, but an album like End of All Days is exponentially superior to bullshit like Load, Re-Load, Risk, Demolition, and The Graveyard.

It's a strong effort, perhaps even a little underrated, but it doesn't exactly drip with the then-modern day classics that were present on the others I mentioned at the beginning of the review. For every "Higher Than the Sky", there are a half-dozen songs that few will remember. "End of All Days" is one I really like, the perky little melodies in the riffs and Peavy giving us some sustained Rage range, even if it's obvious from the previous album and this one that his voice was already becoming limited after over a decade of touring and recording. A lot of dark, mysterious, brooding pieces here that maintain the apocalyptic or horrific vibes that the band had been hitting hard in the 90s, and a cut like "Voice from the Vault" is a great manifestation of that. Even as I journey deeper into the track list, everything holds together quite well, but tunes such as "Face Behind the Mask" and "Silent Victory", while competent, varied, and well-produced, just seem to lack a little of that staying star power which would populate set-lists for the ensuing decades. They experiment a little with some other guitar effects, very mild orchestrated feel from Christian Wolff, but even though Lingua Mortis had dropped earlier in the year, it doesn't rub off too much on this.

I can listen through End of All Days without ever feeling too bored or disaffected, but it's not adding a lot of new tricks to the Rage legacy, maybe just smoothing over the studio side of things while keeping the general level of competent songwriting high enough. It's not as catchy or experimental as a lot of its neighbors, so I'm not even sure how much enthusiastic the band would have been for this collection of tunes as they had their heads in the ambitions of their symphonic side. I certainly remember grabbing this one while away at University, and being pretty happy that some of my German heroes were holding the fort while the heavy metal genre at large was simultaneously imploding and mutating. In fact, it was this streak of mid 90s power metal staples from overseas, as well as the emergence of stuff like black metal and melodic death, that initially got me interested in writing reviews and doing my old paper fan zine, which eventually led to my tireless devotion to exploring all this stuff well into Middle Age. So a solid album with good production, and a slight sentimental attachment, just not among their best.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, March 22, 2021

Rage - Black in Mind (1995)

Black in Mind is many ways the ultimate '90s Rage album', cognizant of the decade which led to it, but embracing a bit more of a stripped down production and harder grooving sensibility than the previous albums, to keep it current with the heavier trends of its day. I'm not saying the band had set out to create the German proxy for A Vulgar Display of Power, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that Peavy and company had sat down and felt the influence of efforts like that as they continued to modernize themselves out of the shrieking excesses of the 80s. The band does not exactly shy away from some faster material, but clearly that is not the focus when writing most of the tracks on this album. I think the places where this still resembles the earlier material the most is in the great lead-work and the distinctive Peavy Wagner vocals.

I have problems with it...the songs on this album are far better than the production, which continue to feel slightly off as it was on The Missing Link. It's the way the vocals are filtered into the mix, or a constant feel that there's an airy wisp or hiss somewhere in the interaction of the drums, guitars and vocals that just doesn't sound as clean as it was meant. Perhaps its my equipment, but I've compared a few of the different masters of this one and while some do well to spiff it up, I still get that nagging sensation, and it does curb some of my enjoyment of what is otherwise a strong Rage effort for a new era. Wagner's vocals are very restrained here, far more focused on angrier, raging verses in "Alive but Dead" or "The Crawling Chaos"; he even woofs out a few harsher barks on the precipice of guttural. He does throw out some higher and more melodic chorus vocals to rein this in, like in "Shadow Out of Time", but he definitely sounds pissed off and constipated through a lot of the run-time...never to the point of caricature, but it's just not my favorite performance. The riffs here are much more chugging and crunchy, not bereft of some dexterity or frenzied pacing like the title track, but just so measured, which actually helps the solos to shine more as they just stick out from the dingy undercurrent like glints of gold spotted in a stream.

Lots of horror-based lyrics, the band has often had a fascination with Lovecraft's cosmic horror and I don't feel as if they've ever gotten enough credit for that, but it certainly runs through this record like a black blood to its angry, beating heart, and of the half-dozen 90s 'classics' here: "Black in Mind", "The Crawling Chaos", "Alive but Dead", "Sent by the Devil", "Shadow Out of Time" and "In a Nameless Time", the theme is strongly represented. A couple other tracks like "The Icecold Hand of Destiny" and "Until I Die", with the latter's screaming, definitely have riffing motifs or overall vibes that remind me a lot of the band's masterworks from the latter half of the 80s, but these too are shaken a bit from the production values, which if I'm being honest, seem to be an issue for me more than others who were probably just getting into the band at the time. Black in Mind is yet another of the Germans' myriad works worthy of respect, and I admire how they were able to make the aesthetic, stylistic shifts of the time without abandoning their identity, but this is one I'd love to hear with a severe remastering unlike those we've already gotten, or even a re-recording. It's not the material itself, as is evident when you hear the live versions of some of these gems, which sound more vital.

I think if you ran them up against a number of their contemporaries of the time, they fared quite well. Of the 9 studio albums to its day, all were very good or better other than the piecemeal Ten Years in Rage. Peavy and his new lineup might have strayed further from their roots than Running Wild, who with Masquerade sounded like a more polished, seasoned version of the same thing (not complaining), but not nearly so much as the 90s Accept. It works though: solid riffs, structures, ideas that were fresh and not terribly derived from their own canon, some aggression, good lyrics. I just don't love how it sounds in my speakers, and the two and a half decades since haven't warmed me up to that aspect.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Rage: 10 Years in Rage: The Anniversary Album (1994)

It's an interesting premise: an album created to promote and celebrate the first decade of a band's existence, and comprised not of entirely new compositions to show where the band was currently at or headed, but a whole bunch of cutting room floor material from the era of the band's first seven studio full-lengths, being recorded for the first time in either its original form, edited, rewritten or expanded. It's almost as if Rage decided, rather than consigning a bunch of odds and ends to an endless cavalcade of B-sides and CD bonus tracks, of which they already had a great deal, to properly repurpose and smooth over this material into a more palatable presentation that fans will care about a lot more than if it had just been left in the ether, or squandered as bonus tracks. It's a good and worthy idea; granted, a great percentage of musical artists build their product from a number of ideas they're recycling through their history, but this is just a more formal and 'official' way to market it. I'd also be lying if I said I hadn't been jazzed up at the chance to hear more material in the mold of one of my favorite German bands' 'prime', or at least what I considered to be.

Sadly, 10 Years in Rage doesn't light the world on fire with a bunch of unforgettable material, and many of the tunes probably represent filler at best, but not for any lack of trying or laziness on the band's behalf. In fact, a lot of the tracks probably just can't overcome that shaped around riffs and progressions that weren't all that catchy in the first place. You've got some blazing material on this like "Vertigo" and "Dangerous Heritage" which feels like vintage Rage momentum sans the truly memorable chorus parts. There are a handful of riffs or passages on the album that are worthwhile on their own, and if you just have a fondness for the band's overall style then I can't imagine you'd feel ripped off by this, as background noise it could be worse than just to have more 'Rage' playing. A handful of cuts like "Take My Blood" seem like they might have been contenders with a bit more of the tweaking they'd already undergone to make it here. The high level of competent musicianship and conviction displayed by this quartet is in no short supply, with an especially great performance by the new guitarists Sven and Spiros who have stepped into Manni Schmidt's seat with a loyal grasp of the group's traditional riffing and lead styles. Had I not looked at the actual lineup on the album I wouldn't have noticed, although I'll add that Manni and a bunch of the band's other alumni are present on "Prayers of Steel '94", whipping out some leads and drum battery.

I don't really care for "The Blow in a Row", a medley of earlier tracks across the band's first decade, entirely unnecessary as almost all of them should be sought out on their own for the far superior listening experience. We don't need a 'sampler' here, so this is a complete toss-out. Another issue I take is that this is one of those 90s Rage albums that suffers a bit from the drier production; quite like I scored some marks against the otherwise-great Missing Link, this one just doesn't sound all that good when I compare the mix vs the instrumentation. So in the end, while 10 Years in Rage is on paper a really compelling idea, a little more effort might have been spent on how the recording came across the speakers, and perhaps chopping off the useless medley and the 'new version' tune, despite all its fun lead guitars. What remains would still have proven one of my least-regarded studio albums of their whole career, but it would have felt a little more worthwhile as a panoply of Rage cuts that I would not have otherwise experienced. Sandwiched between two of their rock-solid, and most famous 90s albums, it's understandable why this one is so often neglected.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Rage - The Missing Link (1993)

 The fossilized Soundchasers on the cover, and the very familiar Perfect Man vibe given off by the opening riffs to "Firestorm" had me juiced up that The Missing Link was going to be a loving throwback to the 80s Rage sound. It certainly incorporates that to a degree, although it's very firmly rooted in the more direct nature of their output for the following decade, and a pretty natural successor for the previous year's Trapped! There are plenty of new ideas to be found here; clearly Peavy and Manni Schmidt were far from finished exploring their fretboards, and while it doesn't quite rise to the level of catchy ambition that the band had achieved in the past, its a workmanlike, well-written affair which substantiates the Germans' legacy and keeps a promising window open to its own future.

I know more than one Rage fan who was introduced to the band through this very album, and it remains their favorite to this day, and while I can't hang with that, I think it's an understandable perspective as I have very few criticisms of this one. Most of the tunes here have key hooks carried into good choruses, and there's a thundering positive energy here which isn't to be denied. A track like "Refuge" is nearly as good as anything they'd written before, from its sticky chorus in which Wagner lifts his voice, to the driving bridge & lead. They still can rip out some street-level, fist-pumping tunes like "The Pit and the Pendulum", and yet the speed and finesse are writ large over half the bloody album, there's rarely any need to slow down because they can remain pretty damn consistent and memorable with velocity. Peavy's range is intact here, even if he's not using quite as manically as the past, but I particularly like his more painful sub-shrieking tones that give the songs like "Lost on the Ice" a sense of tension and nervousness. As a trio, the proficiency level here is so high that I'm not sure many other bands on Earth could have compared in 1993...

But...there's something about the mix on this album which rubs me the wrong's hard to pinpoint, because when I dissect the individual vocal lines or guitar tones it all sounds right. However, when it's all flying at my face I feel like some of the higher drums, maybe the crash, drag a little much into the speakers and it's off-putting. The guitars are bright and loud, but there's just some kind of air or hiss to the whole thing that has followed me like a black storm-cloud from my original cassette copy, to the CD, to the mp3s I ripped, to streaming versions I've heard on YouTube. I did check out the Dr. Bones Records remaster and I do think that addresses it to an extent, if you were interested in this one the first time I'd advice you to head straight to that version, but ultimately, despite some really good tunes, that has always clung to my impression of The Missing Link and held it back slightly from reaching the heights it would otherwise attain. The depth, richness, and ambition to create power/speed metal with the distinct Rage personality is present just as it was with a Perfect Man or Secrets in a Weird World, but it falls just a little short of even Trapped! in the presentation. Still, if you were to ask 19 year old Autothrall if he thought the trio were even on the precipice of producing a stinker, the response would have been a resounding 'fuck no', and that stands. This is a legacy band with so much great material in its arsenal that a randomized playlist would prove nigh on endless; The Missing Link is no slouch and it would have numerous worthy representatives on that list.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Wesenwille - II: A Material God (2021)

Perhaps my expectations were thrown off as I was looking over the dim and depressive packaging for this Dutch duo's sophomore album, but I was pleasantly surprised by the neurotic, fulfilling brand of black metal that the pair get up to, with a far broader dynamic range and sense of ambition than you'd think at first glance. While they do possess some traits familiar to their outward aesthetics...streaming, melancholic melodies splashed all over the place, and a general sense of brooding oppression that hangs like an evening din to the upper atmosphere of the recording, this is very riff-based stuff with a potential to explode one moment and then grow more pensive the next, with some bleak and enveloping ambient segues that fill in the gaps between the more guitar oriented fare.

Every song on this album has something going for it, for example "Opulent Black Song" with its ambience sprouting the bleeding, ringing guitars, slower tremolo pickings and chords to spruce them all up and create this wistful soundscape that crushes into you like the realization that you just lost someone or something important. Or a tune like "A Material God" itself which goes straight on the attack with its zipping dissonant guitar-work redolent of their countrymen Dodecahedron, or perhaps France's Deathspell Omega. The two really get a balance here of more unhinged, frenzied composition and then more controlled matter with some samples or slower climbs to aggression, and it adds up to a satisfactory overall experience. The vocals have a desperate, louder rasp to them with an edge of sustained growling which fits the brightness of the eerier guitar progressions quite well, and in fact it's the same musician also performing the moody and textured guitars, as well as the some thumping bass lines which support the melodies with some needed muddle to offset their comparative sparseness.

The drums are fairly simple through a lot of the steadier moments, with nice little kick fills and grooves that contribute to the spaciousness; however, on short notice they can transform into forceful blasting and follow the schizophrenic nature of the writing. They do have a somewhat mechanical feel to them, which almost lends the album a slightly post-modern/industrial feel on the low end, and I don't envy that they have to compete off against some truly catchy riff sequences that are, at least for me, the most poignant and memorable part of the affair. In sum, this is a pretty great record that hopefully won't be lost in the deluge of basement or bedroom black metal because its reach never exceeds its grasp, and it kept me cycling back to its nutty rhythms and the fresh atmosphere it excels with even if I can't really say that it's devastatingly original. If you like your darkness bleak, manic and beautiful then this is yet another of the Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions stable well worth your time.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Rage - Beyond the Wall EP (1992)

It makes all sorts of sense for a German band like Rage, which is often tackling sociopolitical subjects in its lyrics, to pay some sort of tribute to the Berlin Wall, and though it took a couple years, you could view this EP as their way of dealing with that or at least referencing it, even if the lyrical subjects aren't unanimously contending with that. This is another of those short-form reviews from Peavy and company throughout the 90s that, in hindsight, has become entirely useless other than maybe the kind of nifty cover by Andreas Marschall who would use that decade to become the God of German Power Metal Covers. All of the content has been scattered about reissues of several of the band's full-length efforts, but since my initial exposure was to this as a standalone product, I will once again cover it as such.

The material here definitely melds in with the style of their post-Reflections material, where the trio is starting to regain a little of the thrash metal aggression and record with a cleaner, more direct, cubicle sort of production. Had these tracks popped up on Trapped! or The Missing Link, they would have fit in rather flush, other than the fact that they are mostly filler quality tracks which don't all cultivate riffs or chorus parts that are ultimately memorable. "On the Edge" is a decent one that I could remember not only for its presence here but also as a bonus on the Execution Guaranteed CD that I picked up. A nice, choppy verse riff melody and a galloping bridge, but it's still not top shelf Rage. "I Want You" has a pretty uppity guitar lick in the verse, something that could have shown up on Perfect Man, but the rest of the track is rather dull as it never escalates to anything that can complete with Manni's riff. I think "Last Goodbye" is probably one of the better inclusions with its savaging, hammering guitars and a chorus that at least teases that it'll be catchy.

Depending on which edition of this you got, you were treated with an acoustic tune or two, and I have to say with some dismay that this one really sucks..."Light in the Darkness" is such a shrieking and feel-good anthem on Secrets in a Weird World...but the clean version saps it of all that impulsive and essential energy, not to mention that the vocals don't quite stick the landing. The glimmering acoustics capture the notes clearly enough, but it just doesn't benefit whatsoever from being wimpified, it's an embarrassment that the band shouldn't have bothered to share with us, or the audience at this gig for that matter. On the Japanese version they've got an acoustic version of "Dust", which is a little better suited to the treatment, but still doesn't feel remotely necessary other than the band trying to feel good about itself for spreading its wings. None of the harder hitters come even close to this level of mediocrity, mind you, so it's not that Beyond the Wall is pure rubbish, but one would think with the opportunity to explore this topic they might have even pulled out the stops, written some great new songs, or a full-length even...this is leftovers at best, few of which are much good. The heart was in the right place, but the songwriting simply wasn't.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Friday, March 12, 2021

Rage - Trapped! (1992)

Trapped! is the beginning of Rage's initiative to adapt a sound that might remain more relevant against the 'challenges' to traditional metal that arose throughout the early 90s. That sounds silly in hindsight, to be sure, because we all know that heavy metal fucking rules, always will, doesn't truly age, and has arguably the most loyal fanbase of any genre of music produced on Earth. But certainly there was an attempt by the Germans to bring back a little of the thrash roots, enhance their 80s aesthetics with a tiny fraction of groove, and create a more down-to-earth style which relied slightly less on the shrieking and speed, but still kept a lot of the flair and finesse which, let's face it, the Wagner, Schmidt, Efthimiadis lineup was never going to be shake off since they'd spent those fertile years mastering it. Now, having said all that, Trapped! is still fairly close to the records leading up to it, like Reflections of a Shadow. There is no material here which needs to adapt the grunge, rapcore, metalcore or nu metal trends that Peavy was happily shrugging off, but it clearly sets the blueprint for popular albums of their second decade like The Missing Link and Black in Mind while maintaining the vocal range and musicianship of its predecessors.

While I was not quite as enamored with this as the five (or six) previous albums, there is no question that this was still a Rage firing on 110% and loaded with ideas for riffs and choruses. Andreas Marschall crafted one of the best cover images in their entire catalog, with some spidery demon queen ensnaring the Soundchaser in her multi-limbed clutches, and the production is quite good. Maybe you're getting a little less of the reverb and airiness (other than Manni's lead licks), and a mix that is more straight to the face while still capturing a lot of the details mustered by this highly proficient three-piece. While Peavy is not screaming by default as he was on some earlier albums, his voice is still capable here and he can almost effortlessly lay those out among his raving, wildman midrange on tracks like "Medicine" and "Solitary Man". The drumming is excellent, with a bit more of a hammering double bass attack, and Schmidt is just as much a monster on this album as those before it. I didn't find the riffing as catchy on a 1:1 basis with earlier Rage, but the arsenal is still full and you're getting a lot of choppy little melodies strung in among almost all the harder hitting progressions, and there is also plenty of variation throughout, even to justify all thirteen tracks; you were still gonna hear something relatively new on each.

Trapped! actually ages quite well, and in truth I probably rate this more highly now than I did back in the day, because it's well-enough written, consistent, and managed to keep the band relevant against the changing heavy music landscape without abandoning its principles. The musicianship is as top notch as this lineup ever produced, and while some dread the 'mature' tag, this album is clearly more seasoned than the screaming excesses of Perfect Man or Secrets in a Weird World. That's not to say that I'd often choose this one over those to spin in the car, but it's another strong vertebra in the spine of a band that really should have become one of the biggest in the entire genre...I mean compare their career to mega groups like Metallica or Megadeth that wound up taking huge dumps on their audience, and Rage looks a lot stronger overall even if their highlights aren't always as infallible as a Master of Puppets or Rust in Peace. The 18-year-old version of me might not have held much reverence for this record, but the middle-aged me thinks it certainly stayed the course, and its detail-woven anthems offer lots of thrills that would be anathema to other heavy, power and thrash metal acts of the time, some of which were dumbing down their sounds to fit that 90s zeitgeist. Plus, the "Fast as a Shark" cover was pretty smokin' and they did it before a lot of others.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Rage - Extended Power EP (1991)

While Rage has never in my estimation ever put out a truly bad album at any point in its career, the Extended Power EP was probably the first sign for me that there would be a few chinks in the band's armor, that the 80s streak of brilliance was about to come to an end. Not because this was ever anything more than leftovers, and most fans have probably experienced its content as bonus tracks on a CD version of Reflections of a Shadow; but in the context of a new EP it just didn't leave me with a lot of memorable material, and hailing from a group that provided me with nothing BUT that, I was understandably let down. Rage is just a band synonymous with my Junior High and High School years, I was one of the only guys who listened to a lot of this stuff despite the raving popularity of arena metal in those times, and a bit of a hipster, and I really thought they deserved to be the next thing until this and Trapped! sort of humbled that idea.

The long and short of it is that the two lead-in tracks and selling points for this one, "Woman" and then "Ashes", just sound like parts of previously released tunes from Perfect Man, Secrets in a Weird World and Reflections patched together into also-rans which weren't really worthy of those albums. Don't get me wrong, "Ashes" in particular has some decent moments to it with the driving triplet guitars or the more atmospheric breaks with the lead and clean guitars. You're getting some vintage Peavy with all the range of the LPs leading up to it, but his lines just fail to hook me. Some of the other content here is a little more exciting..."Bottlefield" being a resurrected Avenger track which is the best novelty on this album, with some great leads, as does the "What's Up" instrumental, which also has some fun rapid bass breaks, but even these aren't top shelf Rage tracks. "Waiting for the Moon" is one of my favorite tunes the band has ever written, but of course it was an album track, and the seven-second clip at the end of the EP is just stupid, the sort of unnecessary padding people used to do because they thought it was somehow funny.

I like the cool Soundchaser image on the cover, and again none of the material that was unique to me here was necessarily bad, but half of me thinks that if something isn't really worth releasing than maybe it's best to leave it behind. Rage had put out a LOT of EPs through the 90s, and one wonders if they earned enough to justify them, or it would have been better off just to assemble all of this detritus onto one extended LP of rarities, rehearsals, covers, etc; or as they later would do, include them with the appropriate full-lengths as bonus tracks. I managed to pick up this one when it came out and can't have listened to it more than once or twice before selling it back on the secondhand market. It's not strong enough to follow up that killer 5-album streak before it, or even to signal the direction the band would be taking into its second decade, so it was sorta dead on arrival.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Monday, March 8, 2021

Onslaught - In Search of Sanity (1989)

Although there wasn't terribly much of a stigma attached to the third Onslaught record when it dropped at the end of the 80s, it's an album that has been unfairly maligned through the decades; if not outright hated by thrashers and fans, then at least placed in the mediocrity box more often than it deserves. Like many, I found it quite the shift from Power from Hell and The Force, transitioning away from the more cult thrash and influential proto-death metal of those releases into a sound that was a little more fit for a time when the thrash genre was becoming more involved, complex and frankly much as I love the basic, rudimentary classics of the genre, hearing a band like Artillery or Coroner or Deathrow crank its potential up a few notches was more than welcome. Teenage ears seeking fresh sounds, not repetition of what Slayer, Possessed, Exodus and Metallica had already mastered in their primes.

Artillery is probably the most apt comparison, because In Search of Sanity has a sort of power/thrash hybrid feel to it redolent of those Danes' first two albums, Fear of Tomorrow and Terror Squad, if not the brazenly brilliant riff-gasm that was By Inheritance. This one is definitely characterized by its longer, more ambitious riffing structures, a superior balance of melody and aggression to its own predecessors, and last but not least the addition of Grim Reaper crooner Steve Grimmett. I was particularly curious to hear what Steve would contribute once I took note of this lineup change, for as effective as the vocals were for the earlier, harsher, more direct albums, I'm not sure that would have worked as well alongside the guitars here. He doesn't sound too different than in his alma mater, and strangely I think it's those more melodic phrasings that add a lot of depth to the hammering, juggernaut riffs which owe as much to West Coast US thrash metal to anything else. Groups like Heathen, Defiance, Metallica and Testament are great comparisons to the processed, bottom end feed of the muted guitars, or perhaps better yet this is in the same mold as fellow Brits Xentrix on their first two discs.

When I was younger I remember being swept up by the rather robust track-lengths, which never became boring even with the 5 minute instrumental opener, or the 12+ opus "Welcome to Dying". There's always something catchy waiting around every corner, and throughout each of the arguably bloated pieces, Grimmett is casting out another melody. He uses a lot of sustained notes which are a cool contrast to the busier guitars beneath, which are just constantly chugging and driving along courtesy of Nige Rockett and Rob Trotman. The leads here are pretty good, always controlled and never arbitrary or long in the tooth, and I also thought Jim Hinder's bass sounded pretty good, especially where it got a starring role like the verses of the cover of AC/DC's "Let There Be Rock", which I remember being another of those respectful and semi popular tributes of the 80s similar to Realm's "Eleanor Rigby" or Testament's "Nobody's Fault", the band making it something of their own rather than copying the original too closely. The drums are also pretty good, snappy and straightforward but tossing in a good cadence or fill here or there.

Over 30 years later I'm still digging both the momentum and construction of this record, and along with its two predecessors I still consider it the highlight era of the band's career. While newer Onslaught albums are met with a good deal of critical acclaim, I find them to be rather generic, if not awful. For the same reasons I'm not that into modern Slayer, Rob Dukes-fronted Exodus and Warbringer, I just don't find them to carry the same level of personality as they used to. In Search of Sanity might indeed not have the cult, battle jacket-worthy credentials of its forebears, and perhaps it's worth it to even go back to this one and think of it as a separate band entirely, but if you enjoy the well-crafted, accessible thrashings of the later 80s then I think this one easily meets the demand, even when it goes a little long in the teeth. In fact I'm almost a little sad that I didn't hear more of this with Steve in the roster.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (lies taint the mirror)

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Rage - Welcome to the Other Side (2001)

As far as launching and showcasing the talents of a new band roster, few albums in my collection are quite as potent as Welcome to the Other Side. After the lovely, memorable, and conceptual Ghosts, Peavy parted ways with his longtime partners in crime Spiros and Chris Efthimiadis and Sven Fischer, and joined forces with a pair of absolute monsters in drummer, who had played alongside such unknowns as Artension, Tony MacAlpine and Yngwie Malmsteen, and Victor Smolski, arguably one of the more gifted guitarists in European metal to arrive in some time, who was somewhat of a newcomer but certainly didn't play like one. Smolski had recorded some guitars on Ghosts, so this wasn't entirely his Rage rodeo, but here he is let loose to exhibit his wide range of mastered disciplines like the progressive, neo-classical and jazz influences he can so effortless weave into the riff-oriented material required for the Germans' distinct power metal.

Now, to be clear, this is not one of my favorite albums they released with this lineup, I like the two follow-ups considerably more, but there are a number of catchy staples here like "The Mirror In Your Eyes" and the surging "No Lies", both of which feature the vast instrumental capabilities of the band while reigning it all in with great vocals lines in which Wagner still spits out a little higher range reminiscent of the group's earlier years. The best riffs on the album are usually the dextrous speed/power metal progressions long attached to the band, but Smolski integrates even further levels of melody, some jazzy chords and fusion feeling leads to imbue their material with elements I simply hadn't heard before. Almost as if a continuation of the prior album, this one could be considered mildly experimental...but not at all weird. There are a number of softer pieces like "R.I.P." and "Requiem" which are largely just pianos and spaced out, atmospheric guitar leads with some narration that feel like parts of a rock opera, which they are as there's about a 15 minute chunk of stuff here comprising the 'Tribute to Dishonour' suite.

Other pieces like the clean, hyper-picked classical exercise "Trauma" or the highly proggy, measured gait of "I'm Crucified" also stand out a little, the latter sometimes reminding me of Savatage in the later 80s or early fact you can hear a bit of Gutter Ballet or Streets: A Rock Opera throughout this, despite the band having a different approach from a different continent. The same could be said of its predecessor Ghosts, of course, and a lot of that bled through onto this one, in fact the entire 'Lingua Mortis' concept from the 90s was returning until it would later be separated into its own things. All of this is perfectly acceptable and Rage are no chumps at performing it, but the mellower stuff takes a backseat for me to the aggressive writing that I prefer. "Deep in the Night" is well written and actually has a pretty catchy chorus build that feels like it belonged on Ghosts, but there are too many throw away tracks like the classical tapping of "Lunatic" which reminds me of Joe Satriani's "Midnight" only nowhere near as good. I get that Smolski likes to strut his stuff but I just don't feel this is the place, especially when he's not going to go all-in and shred your face off with something substantial.

Alas, there's a whole lot that went into this one, over 60 minutes worth, and the sum of its parts just isn't overall as valuable as a handful of its best cuts. However, the writing is on the wall: there just isn't much that these three will be unable to attain together, and while Welcome to the Other Side is surely a competent effort with a lot of elements that would please a lot of people, it's the album following this one which really tightens the trio and makes a statement.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (I'm anywhere, nowhere)

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Rage - Soundchaser (2003)

With albums as ranged and excellent as Ghosts and Unity, Rage had REALLY started to shift back onto my radar in those early 'oughts, in a way they hadn't since the beloved 80s. Sure, I had never abandoned the band, and there are efforts they've produced every decade since their arrival that I enjoy, but against the surging scenes of melodic death metal, metalcore and Gothic drear that permeated that pivotal turning of the century, it was great to hear a great veteran band like that bark back, and bark back hard. Soundchaser, named for the band's biomechanical mascot, was the third album with the Peavy Wagner, Mike Terrana and Victor Smolski lineup, which had clearly shaken out any of the kinks before even the previous album had been released, and where Unity could have been seen as the band putting its foot in the ground, and re-affirming the band's long-held strengths, Soundchaser could be heard as the press forward across the battlefield.

It could certainly be seen as a Unity Part II, because stylistically it falls very close, with a lot of the bulky, grooving, chugging guitars, and if I'm being honest, there are transitions or individual riffs here which I often confuse with its predecessor, or might even be interchangeable in particular songs. However, I think they were trying to go a little more aggressive, and create a slightly more evil theme overall, with some lyrics that were a little more inspired by science fiction and horror, like in the title track, or "Great Old Ones", or maybe even the post-intro slammer "War of Worlds" which in at least title only recalls the great H.G. Wells but then applies that to the context of modern geopolitics. A lot of Victor's nastiest riffs are present through the album, seeded with his spurious, showy little leads and melodies, although it's only rare that Rage actually sounds 'evil'; I mean they've generally been a thundering, anthemic, uplifting sort of band, so you have to take that with a grain of salt, but certainly there's always been a darker influence to some of the lyrics, and the mascot, while awesome, was always a bit of a creepy enigma.

There are a few corny bits on the album like the filtered growl vocals in the verse of the title track, but then again it's all playing into this more futuristic Rage, and yet they can shift between the choppier and heavier parts to smoother, melodic passages where Peavy issues some mellower vocals and the overall tone goes for a more decidedly prog/power leaning. What's most important is that I don't think there is even a single track that goes by here without some excellent part, "Defenders of the Ancient Life" is just choked with these awesome Smolski riffs and a nice rhythmic shift for the chorus, whereas "Human Metal" has possibly the coolest lyrical sentiments you could hope for from the already-aged band...and a breakdown in the bridge that should have you flailing your arms around the room and fists into the nearest available poseur. It's almost pointless to repeat just how good these three musicians are...Mike and Victor are icons on their respective instruments, and Peavy deftly balances the bass and vocals like few others...he may not have the shrieking capabilities of his youth, sure, but just about every line on the album is delivered with character, grit and passion.

Along with Unity, this represents my favorite material from the band in the 21st century, and like so much other work in their catalog, it really holds up, the further evolution and refinement of a band that absolutely belongs in the top tier of any German metal conversation. Blow for blow, album for album, Rage might not be as historically important as bands like Accept or the Scorpions, nor do they have the same sorts of accessible hit singles, but they are clearly a lot more consistent, more engaging and just overall superior, and they're given us more great music than we can ever repay. They're just one of those long-enduring Euro power metal bands which has hardly ever taken a misstep while keeping its own identity about it, in the same class as a Helloween or Running Wild or Blind Guardian. I am all the richer for having ever discovered them and witnessed their transformations through the decades.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (now the beast has come)

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

MP - Get It Now (1987)

MP was another casualty of the 80s European metal surge, a band that might have stood out a little more against its flourishing scene if there were simple a few less sharks swimming in the pool. For all intensive purposes, they have a sound extremely similar to other German acts like Faithful Breath, Samain and the mighty Accept, but as a card carrying fan of all three, I don't know if I can quite get enough of that particular niche, so an album like MP's Bursting Out or their second, Get It Now is something I consider a treat. As a full re-release of this LP approaches through Dying Victims' sub-label 'Relics from the Crypt', perhaps its time to give a glimpse back at what I'd honestly consider the best disc of the group's four full-lengths between 1986-1992, one that cleans up well and certainly scratches my itch for well-written if slightly indistinct traditional heavy/speed metal from the middle of that decade.

Their debut Bursting Out (The Beast Became Human) was similar in structure, but suffered from a more brash, uneven production. Part of that gave it a nastier charisma, but as it turns out, the smoothed over sophomore exceeds it with better hooks, stronger choruses, quality lead guitars and, let's face, it a much cooler cover art that seems to be channeling Valeria from Conan the Barbarian. We're talking total traditional Teutonic steel here, they've got a bit of more energetic pep than Samain's Vibrations of Doom, with a similar, raunchy vocal style from Thomas Zeller, but then again he's not so explosive as his countryman Udo, and I think that's probably the reason a band like this got raked across the coals, there was just a much huger presence in that niche from Accept, Running Wild or Warlock, or the emergent power metal of Helloween in their earlier incarnation. But that's not to take away how damn consistent Get It Now is, firing off some catchy, pumping openers like "Not for the Innocent" or "Claws from the Night" that make for instant heavy metal magic, provided you can get behind that melodic but sleazy strain in his delivery, one of my favorite characteristics of this album.

The rhythm section here is likewise strong, with Zeller's throbbing if 'stock' bass lines driving a lot of the songs' momentum, and Michael Link giving a moderately-paced, tireless hammering. I really love the guitar tone too, shifting between the agile, often palm-muted patterns and leads, the latter of which have a bit of flair to them not unlike Rage's Manni Schmidt, only MP isn't overall near that band's level of intensity and innovation. The band does seem like another of the countless groups in the 80s that were still flirting with the idea of the hard rock roots, and this translates into cuts like the brilliantly titled "Rocktober Blood" (and I say that with no irony), or the strangely subdued instrumental closer "Slow Down", which is like a mellow rock thing just over a minute which seems like it was a fragment of some other song that could have used vocals. Thankfully the band never goes all out power ballad, "Cruel to the Heart" seems to tease that for a few seconds before rocking its face off.

I don't think there's a single track other than that instrumental outro which I find weak, but my faves here are probably "Not for the Innocent", "Claws from the Night", "Hawk of May", and "Never Trust a Woman" which is one of a couple tracks here that sound straight from the Wolf Hoffman playbook. If you don't care about pretention or requiring anything stunningly original in your metal, and you often find yourself leaning back on albums like Breaker, Vibrations of Doom, Gold 'n' Glory, Burning the Witches, and Gates to Purgatory, then I think you'll hear a natural affinity in this album and find it worth the time. It's definitely one of those albums where I can lead in by dating it or defining it as a chronological relic, but to these ears it really hasn't aged a day. It sounds because metal is indeed eternal and anyone trying to convince you otherwise is still your enemy.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

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]