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]