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]

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Sodom - Genesis XIX (2020)

Sodom has, for many years, flirted with its own origins, whether that's in re-recording or re-releasing early tracks or injecting some nostalgia into its more modern, slicker productions. However, I think it's their latest offering Genesis XIX which is the most legitimate attempt at making a record that might have existed between their rough earlier material like In the Sign of Evil and Obsessed by Cruelty and then their first attempts at real thrashing structure like Persecution Mania. Granted that there is a bit of production and musical evolution present on this album that does seem slightly like something a veteran thrash act might release in the year 2020, but had this been mixed a little rawer than what Siggi Bemm and Toni Merkel ultimately came up with, it would feel like it totally belonged to that 1986-87 period.

I wouldn't deign to dub the tracks 'simple', but they are all quite straightforward and cutthroat, going for that feeling of the archaic Teutonic anthem, of which they once contributed many. If you dug staples like "Sodomy and Lust", "Agent Orange" or "Nuclear Winter", this is really the effect that so many of the cuts are going for. The riffs are never more complex than needed, but still hustled and sinister and sometimes exhibiting the speed of those early Sodom or Kreator discs like Persecution Mania or Pleasure to Kill. The leads are whipping ribbons of evil and atonal noodling that meld perfectly over the frenetic rhythm guitar riffs, and the drum and bass are just an incessant, belligerent, focused force. That said, the real star of this show is Tom Angelripper's throat, sounding just as nasty and torn as it ever did in the 80s, in fact I'll go out on a limb and say this might even be better. Perfectly placed phrasing, just enough reverb or effects in the mix to create that psychotic payback that the best thrash requires by mandate, and the guy brings more threat than much more energetic vocalists half his age in this genre.

There's nothing here by way of a surprise, and I think it might be held back slightly by a number of riff patterns that are kind of common within the Sodom canon, but ONLY if you're the sort of fan who wants them to build upon their considerable legacy, to somehow evolve. If you've been long awaiting a proper return to the roots, and were always content with those first 3-4 discs before the slightly more death metal and punk phases they explored, then this is a bullet-belted, spiked, radiation-masked Godsend. I can completely sympathize with the praise being lavished upon it, even if I might not prop it up on quite that high of a pedestal myself. It's clearly the best emulation of their formative, breakout years, and one of the best albums they've released since the 80s, but then again I had no problem with the slighty beefier, more dynamic, modern sounds of Decision Day from 2016. The intentions aren't all that disparate, but Genesis XIX just goes for the nastier, earlier strategy while its predecessor was a little bit more of matured, brute force. Good album, decent lyrics (in spite of "Glock 'n 'roll"), awesome cover artwork from the legendary Joe Petagno.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, January 1, 2021

Hyrgal - Fin de règne (2020)

Hyrgal had already impressed with its 2017 debut Serpentine, and three years later they've returned with a worthy follow up that raises its value on the French black metal underground. Somewhat less experimental than better known peers like Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, they nonetheless approach the medium from a somewhat inspired, unique vector which threads traditional, blasting European black metal with a lot of bleeding, wistful melodies, which often give off the impression of a blackgaze or post-black metal band, but they cling this all so tight to the skeleton of the genre that it perfectly blends the conventions of that more contemporary variant into the savage framework of the original. The seven tracks at around 40 minutes border so much on the familiar, while giving you just a fraction more interesting atmosphere that will keep you transfixed a little more than a more predictable, ordinary genre act.

The drums are set fast and turbulent since a great deal of the riffing is of the hyper tremolo bursted variety, and they maintain a somewhat organic feel, with the kicks and snares almost inhabiting these different planes in how they're textured along with the walls of guitars. Along with the more aggressive rhythm guitar chord patterns, there is almost this constant second dimension through the higher pitched pickings, flurries or leads which often sent me spinning off in two directions. They do have some ambient passages, or slower, sparser sequences where they let feedback or simpler, high note structures ring out and bring on some welcome balance against the unhinged speed, and I also liked that the bass became a bit thicker, thudding and more prominent. They'll also experiment a bit more with whispered vocals as opposed to Clement Flandrois' very pissed off, genuine snarls of rage; and yet the hideousness inherent to that inflection is a nice contrast against the streaming melodies and dissonant upper atmosphere to the effort.

Combine this all with a sweet digipack featuring some cool translucent pages, classy lyrical script and some architectural artwork, and this band has just transformed into something fairly top notch that a lot more followers of their style are hopefully paying attention to. Fin de règne is a practiced, poignant sophomore which kept me guessing. Enigmatic, artistic and tortured without becoming too chaotic for its own good, engaging the listener through each twist and turn, distinctly French with the raving, pissed off vocals and holding its own against the veteran bands from its own scene, Hyrgal's lightning has struck twice already and this is not an outfit to be passed on or ignored if you enjoy memorable black metal with enough depth and ideas of its own, but can still rock your face off when it bares the bloodied Mayhem, Hellhammer and Darkthrone fangs as in the intro to "Glyphe de sang" which had me punching my desk until the speakers clipped. Great shit.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]