Saturday, May 8, 2021

Helloween - I Want Out Live (1989)

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

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Rage - Unity (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Cold Cell - The Greater Evil (2021)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Necronomicon - The Final Chapter (2021)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]