Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Picture - Every Story Needs Another Picture (1986)

I was hardly any hesher hunk to take advantage of the 80s hair metal sex and fashion, I was too young and dweeby at the time (and the latter does remain an apt description for me now), but something within me always stirs, partly from attraction and partly from laughter, at all these smutty old album covers. She's got a picture...of the band Picture...and she's stalking some private eye dude down the steamy city street in nylons, high heels and leather skirt. And it's on Backdoor records! If you used this as a cover today, I'd still think you were awesome, but there was something so sleazy and entertaining about it back in the day, and I like the color scheme and it strangely sort of mirrors the colors of their better known, more evil looking 1983 album Eternal Dark.

These Dutchmen are best known for that early 80s batch of records, at the crossroads between NWOBHM style heavy metal and more mainstream hard rock, which put them on trajectory for a level of international renown that they sadly didn't ever quite achieve. It's kind of cool to have a couple Picture albums around if you're showing off your old vinyl collection, but even then it's not a group I ever see a lot of people having discussions over. Every Story Needs Another Picture was already the group's sixth album, and it certainly seemed too timid in a year that was producing records like Master of Puppets, Somewhere in Time and Reign in Blood, but listening back on this one now with a fresh appreciation, it was actually a bit more busy and developed than some of their earlier, more straightforward stuff, and it has the sort of authentic 80s atmosphere to it that a lot of bands today fall over themselves trying to emulate. This album effectively sounds as it looks, something you'd chase into the urban nightscape, blaring out of the open windows of your Corvette or Trans Am or whatever was popular to drive in Holland at the time.

The guitars have a heavy foundation of hard rock and blues to them, sometimes using effects as you'd expect from a group like The Dire Straits on their ginormous hit, or ZZ Top, but just as often you've got a traditional feel that reminds me a lot of Whitesnake throughout the 80s. There are some synths here to give it that radio appeal, but also a lot of organs and such which also summon up some Uriah Heep or Deep Purple references. I'd venture that tunes like "Burning for Your Love" even leap off into a mix of mildly prog rock influences with the keyboard lead,s mixed with AOR arena rock for the predictable but functional verse guitar riffs. Vocalist Bert Heerink, who had taken over for Pete Lovell on the previous year's Traitor, has a nice, slicing high pitched voice which is smooth at encompassing all the melodies required over this material. The album does suffer from some softer rock anthems like "Stay With Me" or dull rockers like "She Was Made for Lovin'", but where they get a little more bombastic and intense like the first track "Battle Cruiser" and its cool opening choirs, or "Moving Down the Line", it's quite good stuff..."You Took My Money, You Took My Pride" and "Stand Back for the People in Charge" are also quite fun, the latter even with hints of Boston or Zebra in it.

I just wish there were more ambition here. I think if you like group such as Lion or Dokken, there is a chunk of this album worth your time, and a kernel of their sound was trying to go a little bit further than just the mundane butt-rock that they were undoubtedly pressured towards at the time, because it was either write some giant radio or hair metal hits, or get utterly fucking trampled by the heavier strains of the genre that were hitting in full-force by that time. Every Story Needs Another Picture does not accomplish either of those ends, but as an artifact of the 80s it's not bad if you have a soft nostalgia for AOR or lighter metal that really treads the line.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]


Saturday, November 27, 2021

Sonja - Nylon Nights/Wanting Me Dead (2018)

Melissa Moore is best known for her work in more extreme metal acts like Absu (as Vis Crom) Rumpelstiltskin Grind and XXX Maniak, and in particular I really enjoyed her writing and playing on the 2011 album Abzu. But if I'm being quite honest, and if these two tracks are a reliable measuring stick, I think she's found her calling with this retro heavy metal act Sonja, which has only produced this single to date, but goddamn is this excellent material. It's the sort of riffy, memorable and exciting heavy metal which is, yes, largely a throwback to the 80s style, but like some of the better bands doing that today, also feels like it is actually taking that style forward into the future rather than relying entirely on aesthetics of the past. The two tracks here are so well done that I've been slavering for a full-length ever since...

The vocals are excellent, higher pitched without being screamy, and echoing with resonance in both the studio and emotional departments. I guess a good comparison would be Canada's Cauldron, in how she uses sustain and notation, but she's just a fraction or two higher. There also hooks for days going on in these cuts, especially "Nylon Nights", and I love that springy, organic tone she uses, which is one thing that absolutely sets this apart from a lot of the more direct 80s imitator bands. When she's just diving into those guitars in the bridges it feels so fresh and adventurous even if technically it's not novel. It's almost like High Spirits if you really ramped up the memorable and pounding on the guitar. And it doesn't hurt that she's got Grzesiek 'Gunslut' Czapla of Woe laying down the beats, and ex-Tombs bassist Ben Brand with some bass lines that anchor the tone of those vocals and guitars perfectly. Fantastic stuff that fans of Haunt, Traveler, Night Demon, Pounder, Enforcer, Spell and the bands I already named should track down this instant. If they'd put out an entire full-length of this quality in 2018 it might have made my AOTY.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Powerwolf - Best of the Blessed (2020)

I adore me some Powerwolf, but the last 5-10 years of the band's career have been littered with stuff you might consider cash grabs, from the number of live offerings, limited edition or otherwise, to all the other stuff like deluxe multi-disc versions of all their albums, covers album, orchestral versions, and so forth. Some of these, like The Symphony of Sin, Metallum Nostrum, and The Metal Mass - Live, make for pretty good products, but even then I'd have to say the band is laying it on thick, perhaps victims of their own productivity or maybe they just really need the cash?! Or maybe some of these weren't really the band's ideas. At any rate, Best of the Blessed is the 'greatest hits' package you just knew was coming, and at the very least it offers a pretty good amount of content, depending entirely on the version you buy.

And by that I mean, avoid the standard single disc edition entirely, because it's not a good value at all. 16 tracks, about half of which are re-recordings that do little more than bring some of the tunes off the first three records 'up to code', and I'll tell you, they didn't sound that bad in the first place, at least not to the degree that I'd ever imagine the band wanting to redo them in less than 30-40 years' time. It's not that the new editions of "Saturday Satan", "Resurrection by Erection" and "Kiss of the Cobra King" are bad...as I've said numerous times, Powerwolf is highly professional, but nonetheless, this one feels unnecessary. Maybe that professionalism is a double-edged sword...a great collection would have included a bunch of rarities, things we haven't heard, maybe a couple brand new tunes, but perhaps the band is so consistent they just don't have much left on the cutting room floor to offer. Anyway, if you're a fan of the Germans then you've already got all of this. The cover art is quite good, I like how it uses the various cover wolfs, and it comes with a nice booklet, but the musical content of the core compilation here is nothing to write home about. Not a total ripoff, since they put in a little work doing the new versions, but unneeded by any but their most devout audience.

Where it becomes a more interesting proposition is if you get the 2CD or 3CD earbook or mediabook which includes either one or two live offerings...we've already covered stuff like The Metal Mass - Live, and a lot of this stuff does seem redundant to that and their other, less impressive live albums, but at least there are a few different tracks here, and the sound quality is up to par. Plopping down the cash for all of this at once, rather than just some repressed tunes and re-recordings seems the far superior bargain. That said, this sort of thing really leads to exhaustion with a band, they seem like they're really milking it all dry. I get that they always love offering up these deluxe products, to give the fans something substantial, and you're by no means required to buy it all, but I think it's time they focused in on some killer new Lupus Dei-quality material and less on the assembly line.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (for the 3CD version), Fail [3.5/10] for the one CD.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

Powerwolf - The Symphony of Sin (2020)

The Symphony of Sin is such a pompous and over-the-top idea that you wonder why Powerwolf didn't pull it off any sooner. Okay, so it's not their first attempt, they did a couple orchestral versions as bonus tracks for Preachers of the Night, but not this well, and not to this extent. Clearly the sweep and dynamic range of their material has had a heavy imprint from opera and classical influences, ever since the earlier albums, and now the German ghouls and lycanthropes get to live it. And like so much of their output, it's carried out with a professionalism that is far beyond what you'd have expected they could accomplish...an adaptation of The Sacrament of Sin that, for my money, is just about as potent in this medium as it is was with the electrical guitars and thundering drums.

In fact, although it does have the sort of Wagnerian menace that you equate with a lot of metal, if I hadn't already heard the 'heavy' version, I'd have thought much of this was written for this very context. Attila's obviously a natural, and the choir does well to support his voice as well as give a similar impression to when the band is using one of its own gang choruses. You want screams or ethereal female vocals to break out? They do in "Demons are a Girl's Best Friend". The horns are brazen, the keys, organs and pipes all sound truly resilient, as if you're hearing this while traversing some haunted fortress in a modern-day Castlevania sequel. Percussion gives it a theatrical, exotic flare and barbaric seriousness worthy of Basil Poledouris. To its credit, even at its most glorious, it still maintains the superficial sense of darkness which fuels most of their better material, and it's done to such a degree here that you wonder if these fellas had a more promising career in opera?!

Maybe that's too far, but The Symphony of Sin is quite a lot of fun. If you're bored of all this sort of orchestration, it's not about to change your mind. I sometimes get a mixed opinion on it, like the new Blind Guardian Twilight Orchestra album, which is nowhere as good at this. But what makes this release valuable is just how you can feel the currents of these particular tunes shift into new dimensions that are equally valuable to the metal versions. I was also a little impressed that they did it for this entire album, and focused in on that rather than assembling a 'greatest hits' through their career, which might not have gelled so well. This is also another release which the band originally included on a multi-CD deluxe set, which I missed out on, but it's since been given its own treatment.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]


Thursday, November 18, 2021

Powerwolf - Metallum Nostrum (2019)

I touched a little on this material when I was reviewing the Powerwolf full-length Blessed & Possessed that it was originally attached to, a whole disc of covers that added most of the value if you were lucky enough to grab the deluxe version of that album, which I thought was otherwise one of their weaker studio efforts which was starting to just sound redundant to what they'd already released. But I wanted to come back around to Metallum Nostrum, especially as its got its own release that can be picked up by anyone who missed out the first time around, and because it's developed into one of my go-to cover albums by a power metal band, standing proudly aside Hammerfall's Masterpieces from 2008.

Powerwolf is a band I really enjoy for both the quality of much of their output, as well as the blend of Gothic horror and sacrilegious snark that stands out as so unique among the rest of the German heavy/power metal field. They're basically the Universal Monsters of the scene, and listening through Metallum Nostrum they pretty much lay bare the sorts of influences you would have expected them to cultivate into what they've become. I've come to believe that just about every choice here was well-considered and makes for something that can naturally help pad out their sets when in need of a cover that will fit snugly with their originals. From the power metal of their countrymen Running Wild's "Consquistadores" and double coverage of Judas Priest's Painkiller with "Night Crawler" and "Touch of Evil", you can tell where a lot of the propulsion of their style originated, and then from others like "The Evil That Men Do", Ozzy's "Shot in the Dark" or Sabbath's "Headless Cross", they're touching on a lot of the classics without just picking the most obvious hits, and its much appreciated.

Something like Amon Amarth is a little more far afield, and yet they once again took this one and turned it into Powerwolf proper with all the pomp and majesty you equate with their own material. Most of this stuff is just glittering with the moonlit pipe organ tones they use fluently, and Attila does a fantastic job at maintaining his own vocal identity rather than just clinging to all the other bands. "Edge of Thorns" is a sore spot for me since I'm just not a fan of those first few Zak-fronted Savatage discs, but I can totally understand how these guys would be a fan of that, and although it's the weakest tune for me, I think I like it with Attila singing a little more these days. The production is just all-out here, there might be some points where it's a little blander than on their own albums, but a lot more went into this than just taking the piss in their garage with some covers and its a fun collection that stacks up well with the rest of their catalog.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


Monday, November 15, 2021

Powerwolf - The Sacrament of Sin (2018)

There was nothing inherently 'wrong' with Blessed & Possessed, the band's previous album, but it felt like a clear case of diminishing returns, Powerwolf writing more or less the same types of songs with only an arbitrary amount of variation. Plenty of fodder for the live sets, where most of these fist pumping horror-tinged power metal anthems can tend to run into one another, but just not a lot that was standing out in my mind even a half hours listening to it. Its follow-up, The Sacrament of Sin, doesn't exactly thrust the band back into the thundering graces of their first three albums, which for me remain the pinnacle in terms of songwriting ideas and truly catchy hooks and choruses, but there is something slightly more subdued and mature about this one that just ever slow slightly gets the Transylvanian express back on the tracks.

If you still want your mug-swinging, organ hymnal critiques of the Church of the past, you know the naughty Christians that hunt all those benevolent critters like vampires, werewolves and witches, and catching a lot of innocents in the crossfire, then you've got a tune like "Killers with the Cross" which is basically like Sabaton, the Haunted House edition, and it's not the only case here. "Demons Are a Girl's Best Friend" is probably one of the breakout singles here, a little naughty but busting out a nice chorus flow that surely gets a lot of folks singing along at the shows. There's also the big, sweeping "Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone", which is more of a lighter flicker, operatic escalation wrapped in power ballad aesthetics; it just comes across as the band spreading its (gargoyle) wings to try something marginally different, and that one also hits a satisfying chorus. The title track, "Fist by Fist (Sacralize or Strike)" and "Nightside of Siberia" are also a couple of favorites here which give a steady ass kicking even if they're not quite so memorable as some of the amazing things they've written in the past. The latter has a little melodic chugging pattern similar to Amon Amarth's stuff, ironic since Powerwolf covers one of their tracks on Metallum Nostrum. It works.

Production and performance are at the same high standard the band always sets for itself...even though this is not the 'classical' version of this album, it still gives that impression with a lot of the bombast created through the backing vocals, organs and synthesizers, all accompanied by simpler, driving guitars that make the band sound like its constantly on the march. Attila stretches himself pretty far with a couple of the howls here, and he's not doing anything too unique in terms of advancing or innovating his style, but the guy just sounds good whether the band is hammering away behind him or he's belting out some pompous lines to the accompaniment of only the organs or choir. In the end we're talking about an album which doesn't stand out too far above the rest, but matches up with Preachers of the Night or Blood of the Saints, dependable and slightly more inspired than Blessed & Possessed, but not much. And full disclosure: I actually think The Symphony of Sin is quite a lot better than this, you might be swapping out the metal, but those orchestrated versions are just more interesting, and alternatingly dark and glorious. Compared to that surprise, this sacrament feels a mite insipid.

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Friday, November 12, 2021

Powerwolf - Preaching at the Breeze (2017)

Preachers at the Breeze seems like an act of pure redundancy after The Metal Mass - Live from the year before, with the caveat that this one I believe was technically recorded BEFORE the other, at the Summer Breeze Open Air in Germany the same year (2015). I don't know if there's a huge market for Powerwolf live albums with a following similar to Dave Matthews Band, Grateful Dead or Primus where you've got rabid fans that want recordings of every show the band performs, but that's doubtful since these Germans aren't really known to improv or structure their sets drastically different than one another. As such, this feels like a total waste, especially on the heels of that great live package the year before, and several others they had put out through magazines or limited editions or whatnot.

I also think this one sounds a little rougher than The Metal Mass - Live. Perhaps that was due to the festival atmosphere, the far bigger and louder crowd, but while you can pick out the 'highs' on this album like the pipe organs and Attila's voice quite well, the guitars seem a little murkier. Overall, I would be satisfied if there wasn't a better option. The set list is also practically identical for both albums, with only 1-2 exceptions, like this one has a slightly different intro and is lacking two of the tracks from that later set. Makes sense, since the list is from the same stretch of months in the band's history and it wasn't likely to change much, but it just makes you wonder why this needed to really exist in any capacity. If you're actually on the prowl for one of the Germans' live packages, this one certainly isn't bad, but spend the money on The Metal Mass - Live if you're seeking after an audio live album you can play in your car. I think this also might come with a limited edition of Blessed & Possessed, so if you're getting this, that album, AND the covers album, it's more worth your while. There's something to be said for consistency, and at the very least they show it here in terms of production qualities and packaging.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]


Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Powerwolf - The Metal Mass - Live (2016)

Powerwolf has so many deluxe double disc releases of their albums that this probably wasn't their first rodeo with a proper 'live' effort; I know they had one that came with a Metal Hammer magazine, but at least for me, this was my first experience hearing these loveable Saarland spook-metallers on a full live recording, and I expected they'd give it as much effort as they seem to do anything else. This was right around the time I had started to lose a little interest in their studio material, not because I thought any of it was bad, just that I thought they were feeling a little redundant with both the writing, the cover art choices, etc. That ghost ship would eventually right itself, as I've enjoyed The Sacrament of Sin more than Blessed & Possessed, but at least hearing it live would possess some novelty.

Spoiler: it does, but at the same time, the band has an insanely professional sound here which is not a far cry from how they sound in the studio. Attila's voice soars here with all its Romanian bombast, the guy is no joke...he's not the highest pitched or most versatile, but he's got a burly tone that just takes command of the audience and he doesn't really fuck up, hardly, at all. Some might consider that a bit of a weakness, since they want to hear the more 'real' attack on stage, but in a European scene whose power and Gothic metal bands are so honed in on polish and presentation, what I'm hearing from these Germans has to place them right at the top of the pile. The guitars and organs sound awesome, the drums have a nice slap to them which sounds especially good when they're doing the marching beats alongside the operatic arrangements, and I've rarely heard such a smooth mix of the audience cheering...it almost sounds too good to be true. Doesn't hurt that it's also being recorded on their home turf, so you can hear Dorn speaking to them in German between tunes and even that sounds just about perfect!

The set list is definitely where it misses out a little, almost entirely ignoring my favorite album Lupus Dei other than the title track...but no "In Blood We Trust", "When the Moon Shines Red", "Mother Mary is a Bird of Prey" or "We Take it from the Living", tunes I'd figure would be staples. I don't think the debut makes it on here at all, but Bible of the Beast through Blessed & Possessed are all covered well enough if you dig those, and they do such a flawless job representing that stuff that it's hard to hold a grudge...they were probably just tired of the earlier material, and much of the band's popularity picked up in the 2010s as they had built a solid live presence for tours and festivals. This is quite a good live effort, and Powerwolf has proven that they do not screw around, whether it be their studio output, cover songs album, live performances, or even the more recent symphonic version of The Sacrament of Sin. They believe in themselves, and spare no expense or effort to succeed, and as silly as they can seem with their ghoulish stage makeup, they demand respect and they've got mine. I still haven't tried out their board game though, Armata Strigoi...that will be the ultimate test...

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]


Saturday, November 6, 2021

Beast in Black - From Hell With Love (2019)

Although its formula isn't a far transition from that of the debut Berserker, From Hell With Love doesn't take more than a track or two to prove that it's already a better album than the debut. It starts off on a very strong footing with a full on arena rager, and then doesn't really let up as it cycles into its hybrid of chorus-grabbing power metal, synthesizer-heavy AOR and just the ever-so-slight breezes of proggier climes. This is all about those dressing up those enormous sing-a-long style choruses with competent riffing, lavish but tightly controlled avenues for shredding, and keyboards all over the place that play second fiddle to nobody, which becomes obvious as soon as the titular second track erupts.

Another curiosity is how they use a lot of the electric drum fills that seem like they're spun off the same 80s pop influences that the synths draw upon, they do such a great job of meshing that all together with the big chords and ever-improving performance of Yannis, who sounds on this album as if he's already cracked the all-time ranks of European power metal royalty. From Hell With Love is a veritable hit machine, and while it's apt to annoy anyone for the same reasons other groups like Sabaton would, it's honestly better crafted. As someone who was reared on a lot of hard rock at the same time I was delving into all the heavier, more evil and obscure metal, I can find an appreciation here because Beast in Black won't let me think any other way. 'This kicks ass...but it's soooo lame...but it's still kicking my ass. What is wrong with me?' I mean I'll be honest in that I don't really care for a lot of Anton's earlier band Battle Beast, I find myself nodding off at a lot of their riffs on the last couple albums...the singer's hot, but so what? 

I've got no such opportunity on this album, because it demands attention at every curve, from the throwback synth tones that should have stopped being cool 35 years ago, to the elevating chorus progressions and the way it just revels in all its cheesiness and does not give a fuck. There are a couple moments where it might go a little too far, like the track "Oceandeep" where it seems to be channeling a bit too much Nightwish, but at least the first five tracks in a row thoroughly rile up the hackles on my ghost-mullet, and it does later recover with scorchers like "Unlimited Sin", or "True Believer" which once again goes for this outrageous 80s synth wave sound and then just layers on the butt rock, or "This is War" which reminds us that metal is still with Beast in Black and we've got nothing much to worry about...they were just kinda sorta testing our limits.

They've also got some cool covers on here, having the audacity to throw some roiling synths into "Killed by Death" by Our Lord Lemmy and friends, while keeping the vocals kind of nasty. "No Easy Way Out" from Rocky IV is probably more obvious, I mean the whole band's sound is meant to sound something like that, so why not pay it back? Add the sexy sword & sorcery cover art, the massive modern production and it's just a fun banger to spin as you cruise the city streets, but maybe keep the windows up since you don't want those friends who think you only listen to Pissgrave and Teitanblood to catch you.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]


Friday, November 5, 2021

Aorlhac - Pierres brûlées (2021)

One of the most textured and engaging acts of the Medieval black metal scene coming largely from France, Aorlhac hit a new summit with their 2018 album L'esprit des vents, which I admit to listening the fuck out of in the ensuing years. There was a natural electricity to experience what they might put out next, and having spun Pierres brûlées for about a month now, I'm happy to say it's a worthwhile successor, even if it does not quite blow me away or evolve their sound nearly as much as they'd obviously done in the midst of that 2010-2018 period. It might not seek such soaring heights, but it's a damned dense, reliable effort which can once again transport the listener through its interpretation of traditional black metal techniques centuries in to the past and make the themes and style fit together seamlessly.

The style is heavily characterized by steadily blasting tracks with highly melodic arrangements of rhythm guitar, which are frankly a better fit for the lyrical themes and exploration of history than the more evil and diabolic passages we tend to equate with the genre; and this is an exception I tend to take when a band can create such a formidable gestalt of concept and style. There's a a never-ending cycle of desperation created through the riffing, and while a lot of the note progressions are splayed out in patterns that can be somewhat predictable within the niche, they just work so wonderfully alongside the blend of howled clean vocals and dirtier rasps. This record is like a flood of emotions from someone dying of a sword wound, a windy ascension of pain and majesty which goes so fast that it takes flight. That's not to say that the band doesn't have its moments where they break down into a more moderate pace with lots of kick drums and darker, harsher vocals, but it's this high temp that they will generally be associated with. I do really appreciate when they try more rhythmic variation, like the eerie intro to "Nos hameaux désespérés", and I feel the acoustic material like the "Averses sur Peyre-Arse" interlude is damn near mandatory to help break up the faster flow from any monotony.

Aorhlac might still not reach the top tier of distinct, musically adventurous French black metal acts like Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord or the ever controversial Peste Noire, but there's certainly an identity and fluidity of musical expression here which solidifies them as one of the contenders in that scene, and of all the strains of metal music I feel like this is just the best married to the idea of exploring the past. I'll not lie and say that this trio couldn't use a little more variation, perhaps even more acoustics or folksy passages to help flesh out the authenticity of their themes, but they are nonetheless a fantastic band and this one sits just below L'esprit des vents in overall strength.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]


Thursday, November 4, 2021

Inebrious Incarnate - Abstemious Genocide (2021)

The prospect of a brutal death metal alternative to the Teutonic alcohol thrashers Tankard is a fun one, because the suds must flow across all genres of carnage, and it's one that knee-slappingly named Inebrious Incarnate seems to embrace, with what must be one of the most fun and outrageous album covers you've seen all year. Reading that some of these blokes were also members of Unfathomable Ruination kind of keyed me in the musical content was going to be no laughing matter, and it's not, but a tautly executed array of face-punching riffs that sit well within their parent style but also show no shyness towards including the occasionally more grinding edge, or maybe even a bit of aggressive, technical thrashing like on the opening title track.

The production is really bright and pugilistic, the rhythm guitars have all the chugging force you'd need to offset the squeals or spikes of technicality, but there's also a nice boxy tone to it which doesn't ever feel too terribly over-dubbed or polished like a lot of albums in this niche can feel. The major influences I can feel through this 37-minute drubbing are perhaps Suffocation, George Fisher-era Cannibal Corpse, and Cryptopsy, but sometimes they go for a total knuckle dragging slowdown mugging ala Devourment, or even some clinical death/thrash chops that are reminiscent of Dutch staples like Prostitute Disfigurement or Pestilence. The vocals are cast in a genre-typical guttural bark mixed with snarls circa Napalm Death, but it flexes really well with the rhythmic variation and he gets a nice sustain over some of the ends of his lines which hovers ominously over the much busier music flashing beneath. The drums are so frothy and fun that the kit sounds like its about to explode out of the recording like the beer glass through the entrail-spilling torso on the cover, but there's still a great level of control, lots of fills being thrown around there, grooves that stick.

In fact Inebrous Incarnate tries to pack in as much as they can into the space of these 3-minute-and-change tracks without ever going disgustingly showy or wanky. What thrilled me the most was how they manage to pack their chugs and breakdowns with a more roiling, busy structure before hitting all the pinches and squeals, it keeps the record rhythmically entertaining rather than something too dull that you've heard before. That's not to say they're strikingly original, and this does rely somewhat on the hilarious lyrical alcoholic novelty of tracks like "Hair of the Cerberus", "Double Liver Destroyer" and "Moonshine Supremacy" to stand apart, and the fact that this is way more in the 'fun lane' than just the usual gore-soaked paeans to serial killer streaks. A fun full-length debut with lots of 'fuck yes' moments in the churning, choppy rhythmic attack, well suited to tearing up your living room or rehearsal studio while on your latest bender. Team these guys up with Cannabis Corpse for a bill of punishing substance-abuse mosh excess.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Beast in Black - Berserker (2017)

While his previous band Battle Beast continues to drift into an almost pure popular arena metal outlet, playing generic, unchallenging riffs with a few more intricate dressings, relying heavily on the charismatic vocalist's stage presence and delivery, it seemed like Anton Kabanen wanted to head back into more ambitious territory. No surprise then that Beast in Black comes out firing with a more decidedly heavier Euro power metal vibe that lines up a little more with where his alma mater was once headed. Don't get me wrong, this is still a band that plays it safe with a sound that primes them for the stage with other popular groups like Sabaton, Epica, Nightwish and Hammerfall, but you cannot really question the drive and effort that's gone into album, no matter the level of cheese it ever strives for. Well crafted, anthemic tunes will catch you every time, and nobody can accuse Berserker of lacking such.

Anton was sharp enough to once again hook up with a monstrous vocalist in Yannis Papadopoulos from Greece, who has that loud, frilly, powerful range but can also dish out a little angst and anger when he's staying in his mids or lower. He seems like someone complete aware of the emotion and spectacle that these 21st century power metal albums require as they attempt to almost out-accessible one another, but thankfully these guys aren't as cringeworthy as something like Gloryhammer. Sure, the cover model for this album looks like the planeswalker Ajani from Magic the Gathering, and some of the lyrics and titles can feel a bit generic, but I don't get the impression from listening through this that the band is trying too intentionally to come off as ironic or silly. They write massive material that draws equally from their Euro power peers and then a whole host of old 80s AOR and dad rock. You can hear the traces of stuff like Survivor, Europe and so forth, with those big old keyboard tones driving or emphasizing a lot of the action, but they get a little more meaty and musical when they go full-bore metal, and they also manage to pull off those softer, more sensitive moments like the verses of "Born Again" without getting too awkward.

The band does its best when firing on as hard as they can, with tracks like "Zodd the Immortal" and "The Fifth Angel", Yannis adding a lot of character there and every beat, riff and even keyboard feeling mighty. I don't imagine the festival crowds overseas finding it hard to fist pump their beers, because everything is well in place. Great leads that are both flashy and catchy, obviously holding just back from the precipice of over-indulgent excess. The only real drawback to this album for me was the fact that I feel like it should be so much more memorable than it is...while I'm actually listening to it I get the impression these are songs I'll have fun with for quite some time, and yet between exposures I seem to forget much about it. But if you pick me up and we're listening to this in the car, I'll let my hair down...the phantom hair...because all of mine is now hanging from the front of my face, and I'll sing along and smile. There are definitely a few things that hit you from out of left field, like how "Crazy, Mad, Insane" has those throbbing synth parts that sound like an 80s synth pop tune by Dead or Alive, and while this is the sort of overtly polished and pop-market-friendly I sometimes wish to scoff at, I think this absolutely crushes the entire Battle Beast catalog and it's a big step up for its architect.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]


Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Pharaoh - The Powers That Be (2021)

Upon first hearing Pharaoh's latest opus this summer, I remember thinking that based on its riffing strength alone, it was one of the strongest releases of the year, and after several more months I hold to that perspective. As with the Pennsylvanians' progressive power masterpiece Be Gone in 2008, arguably one of my favorite melodic metal records to ever hail from the States, this is not and has never been an act that rested on any of its genre's laurels. There is no predicting what riff is going to follow the next, this is one of the few groups of its kind that feels as if its treading new ground rather than attempting to emulate Dream Theater, or the flowery, trite Euro power anthems, or the sort of generic screeching throwbacks you'll hear in KK Downing's new band. The ground level is not nostalgia, but innovation.

Sure, internally there are similarities in production and riff patterns across this band's own discography, it's Matt Johnsen's sandbox after all, but even there you can tell they're pulling out all the stops to create new progressions. This is arguably the band's most technical outing, with a gajillion melodic riffs hitting you in each track, the vast majority of which are well-structured and would be impressive even if you turned the rest of the band off in the mix...only you'll never want to do that, because Chris Black's drumming is just intense across this thing, fills all over yet complementing the rhythm guitars, and Chris Kerns' bass-lines are also formidable, and really lock down that lower end so Johnsen's playing can just shimmer all over the place. The leads are tasteful, occasionally flirting with a shredding velocity but never beyond the point where they complement the rest of the instrumentation. There are some cleaner guitars, as used in the folksy "Waiting to Drown" or the intro to "When the World Was Mine", but these didn't quite excite me as much as the electrics, although they do function alongside the moodier vocal style Aymar uses in the former.

Speaking of which, Tim's voice didn't quite score with me the first few listens through this one, for some reason I thought he'd lost a little steam from Be Gone or Bury the Light, but now going back through it I realize I was just being foolish, he sounds perfectly fine and continues to possess one of the more unique voices in USPM, or really metal at large. He's like a David Wayne, an Udo or a Flemming Rasmussen (on the earlier Artillery records); he's just got this burlier, angry edge to his intonations that in no way diminishes their melodic impact. You can just instantly place the voice once you hear it. All of this is captured in a super clean mix which isn't terribly different than the last two albums, but allows all of the players some distinction from one another without feeling insanely polished and neutered. To some degree this feels like Be Gone: Advanced Class, an album that is nearly as catchy, but even more proficient, and while it might not just have instantly ingrained itself into my ears, it's extremely rewarding, highly re-listenable and propels Pharaoh even further into a class of its own.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]


Hegemon - Sidereus Nuncius (2021)

While they might not have made a large splash beyond the immediate French black metal scene, Hegemon have actually been at this for a quarter century now. Their last two albums (their third and fourth respective full-lengths) dropped on the Season of Mist Underground imprint, and now they've transferred to the Let Acteurs de L'Ombre Productions roster where they could not be any more at home. This is yet another act which takes a heavy lesson from traditional black metal formulas of the Scandinavian sects, and then adds just a spin of their own personality and dissonance atop of it to keep it form becoming too derivative or repetitious, and the beautifully packaged, desolate Sidereus Nuncius just clobbers the listener with despair that often teeters upon a dangerous knife-edge.

The overall riff-set here might not be the catchiest or most interesting you've heard from a scene which produced luminaries like Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, but it's really tortured and robust, with a lot of swells of ambience in the backdrop that beautifully align with the menacing guitars and ever raging blast beats and incredibly potent double kick drum sequences, with some great sounding crashes on top of hte percussion. To an extent, the way some of the material here roils with the touches of more memorable dissonance actually reminds me a lot of what some of the forerunners of the Icelandic scene are doing, like a Sinmara, Slidhr, Svartidauði or Misþyrming, only many miles to the South. Controlled bursts of chaos incarnate occasionally break for a mild sense of melodic surging, and though they don't often paint with the broadest of brushes for their riffing palette, the songs are kept tight in the 4-6 minute range so they simply cannot suffer from the tedious repetition that some of their peers might succumb to. They certainly play around with the formula enough, through guitars, synthesizers, and a darkly charismatic vocal presence which raves, barks, snarls and whispers to a maximum, manic effect.

Sidereus Nuncius is clearly a product of experience and well worth checking out if you're out combing the black metal underground of Europe for acts that can deliver a seasoned, menacing assault. I spent a good amount of the time listening to this glancing over my shoulder or facing some other sort of internal trepidation and nervousness because Hegemon fundamentally understands that black metal is meant as an evil, oppressive art form, and like many of the best of the tradition, this record embraces that threatening nature to create a dark trip which never outstays its welcome, and yet has a lot of intricacy from the spikes of diabolic blasting, to the sublime groove of the bass lines, tasteful cleaner guitars, et all. It's not the most unique thing you'll ever hear, granted, but will make for a great spin on the grayer days of the upcoming winter months.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


Monday, November 1, 2021

RüYYn - RüYYn EP (2021)

The cover artwork for French RüYYn's eponymous EP is the sort I am a sucker for: a windswept, wintry landscape with the hint of some dark, ominous, possibly empty structure in the backdrop, partly covered by the dunes of blowing snow, with a figure struggling through the storm. This is instantly evocative (one hopes) of the sound the act is pursuing, and whatever else I might say about this Roman-numerated track list, there is absolutely no false advertising. The half hour of material here sounds like you are increasingly being buried in the winter drift, or whatever trials and despair and emotions it is serving as a stand-in for. The mix on this material is also quite strong, typical for the Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions stable, there is a stark professionalism to the sound that one expects from far better situated acts.

The primary issue I ran into here was that many of the chord patterns, in both the surging storm-like blast sequences and some of the slower passages, were rather mundane and predictable. Now this was a double edged sword, because while in the moment they don't really evoke anything interesting beyond what is needed to sound like the EP looks, they also make the few standout sections stand out even further, like when that melody breaks out in the depths of track "I", a dreamy, almost post-black rush of catchiness that one probably wishes there were more of. Also, there are some nice, dissonant riffs that occasionally offset some of the prime chord patterns, but not as much intricacy on the whole that these tunes could probably have held. The influences are all straight on the sleeves...Mayhem, Bathory, maybe a bit of the simpler Immortal or Marduk stuff, though the slight nuances I've mentioned do differentiate this slightly. This is also the work of a single musician, Romain Paulet, and he's certainly as efficient with the thundering beats as he is with the guitar and the rasping vocals.

So RüYYn is stable introduction to the project, and if you're dreaming of blinding white winds, ice-scraped skin and utter desolation, this will make for a reliable soundtrack, if not a terribly interesting one. The DigiPak packaging is gorgeous, the production exactly what is required, the intensity and energy is not lacking, it simply deserves a little more variation within the compositions themselves, more riffs to stick in you ears and create a proper hibernal haunting to accompany the imagery. But I can't be too hard on it, this is an act only started THIS very year, so if you look at this as sort of a demo offering, there's probably not much that can't be accomplished with a little more effort, since the technical side of things is already at a proficient level of delivery.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]