Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Vampire - Vampire (2014)

Vampire is one of those obvious-monikered sorts of bands that comes around every few years and then offers a refreshing 'reset' on the style that they perform, almost like they've gone back to the basics, stripped away a lot of the distractions and bad trajectories that other bands have gone down, and then throttle fucking ass. Like a Ghost. Or Midnight. In the case of these Swedes, they exist on a crossroads of the black/thrash niche that has become so popular again in these last 10-15 years, and the more traditional Swede black metal penchants for great melodies. Even  beyond that, they offer a bit more of a horror-influenced mindset through their wicked note choices and occasional atmospheric relishes, and the lyrics, all of which live up quite well to their name and artwork.

All three of their full-lengths to date, as well as their Cimmerian Shade EP, have been wonderful, but it's the eponymous debut which remains my favorite due to the songwriting, and just the realization that dawned on me when listening through this that something great was happening. In fact, I recall writing about this one already for my friend's Codex Obscurum dead-tree zine under my human name, but it bears revisiting because it's a really awesome rush of these concepts. Whip-nasty riffing force glazed in eerily melodic little guitars and dissonant hooks dominates much of the material like "Howl from the Coffin", and here they do fall under some familiar patterns, but it's all the little details that matter, like the wildly different breakdowns in that particular song, which came at me totally unexpected. The raucous vocals here are absolutely wild, on the surface an uncaring rasp, but the mix of it with the reverb and sustained lines are absolutely perfect. These guys manage to pay tribute to all of the acts that formed their sound, from Hellhammer to Venom to the German thrash titans, but they splash on an added coat of vile, blackened paint.

All the songs are great, but my personal favorite in their entire canon is "The Fen", which begins will chilly acoustics and atmosphere that makes you feel like you're out on a moor under the moonlight, and then just erupts into some incredible 80s Slayer or Possessed-worthy riffing, and then this drudging little break which feels like you're repeatedly getting struck by some bog mummy with a hammer. This is just awesome horror metal all around because it actually sounds threatening, rather than just merely talking the talk. The song titles are also just incredible..."Ungodly Warlock"? "Cellar Grave Vampire"? "Jaws of the Unknown"? "At Midnight I'll Posses Your Corpse"? Everything fits to the music so thematically. Interestingly enough, while this is an excellent album (and so are its successors), I still feel like there's a good room for growth...not every lick is as catchy or evil as it could be, and I can only imagine how impressive it will be if they rise to that challenge. Fantastic debut that I enjoyed to begin with, but has definitely grown on me since I reviewed it that last time. If you're into any of the awesome current wave of death/thrash or black/thrash coming out of both sides of the pond, or even if you find yourself stuck in the 90s Swedish black metal, you want this. You do!

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Denner/Shermann - Masters of Evil (2016)

It wasn't long after the Satan's Tomb EP that Denner/Shermann would drop their first (and only) full-length album, with a cover even MORE reminiscent of the Mercyful Fate classic sophomore. So the idea this projects is that maybe they'd be getting a little more archaic in sound to resurrect the legendary vibes we are still all feeling off that 1984 staple (which, let's face shouldn't have the right to VOTE if you don't own a copy of Don't Break the Oath). And maybe the music pulls that off, but only about 1-3% more than the prior EP. Nope, this is still a hybridization of the guitar duo's heavy, distinct grooving metal guitars interspersed with the more uppity, energized style of power metal that came out of the US scene in the 80s, and the intensification of Judas Priest in 1990...

Which is nothing to scoff at, in fact it's a great fucking idea, and to their credit, the Masters of Evil pull it off for the majority of this 42 minute run-time. Though they might seem slightly less frenetic than a few on the EP, these tunes are better structured, and Sean Peck is even more reserved, in fact this is one of my favorite of his performances ever on a studio album. He's got the pitch, the fierceness, and yet he reins it in at any opportunity, never losing himself off the top. He's a great compliment to the riffing might being manifest below him, and yet when necessary, like in the bowels of "Son of Satan", or the chorus of the title track, he lets go this amazing Halford scream which had me laughing and weeping tears of joy in unison. In fact, the mix and some of the lines he projects remind me a lot of Rob, just with the different natural timbre to his voice. Snowy Shaw is once again great on the mix, though I don't think his beats stand out from the other instruments as much as the EP (a good thing). 

I also really enjoy the penchant for lurching into some "Carmina Burana" operatic moments, as if you'd just stepped into the heavy metal equivalent of The Omen, it just spices up what is otherwise a fun record with rolling riffs like "The Wolf Feeds at Night" or the title track. Not every riffing pattern is legendarily catchy, but there's clearly a ton of effort that went into this one, and the performances are set at just the right momentum to let the shrill vocals shine, which has always been one of Michael and Hank's fortes (the rest is history, right?) Masters of Evil is no Don't Break the Oath, but it's a damn good time which takes the DNA from that masterpiece and then combines it with some of the metal which followed it, like a Jurassic Park of heavy/power metal. A well written record that I haven't gotten tired of in a half-decade, but sadly another swan song from a project that was probably cut down too soon. I mean, if they took this material and then cultivated it even further, who knows what limit they might have crossed. But I'm happy to take what we've gotten.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Denner/Shermann - Satan's Tomb EP (2015)

I can't have been the only one excited when this new collaboration between Michael Denner and Hank Shermann was announced. It had been a good 19 years since they worked together on Mercyful Fate's Into the Unknown, and another couple years added to that since their last truly GREAT Fate work on Time, so I think a project such as this was overdue. Add in their fellow alumnus and prolific metal superstar Snowy Shaw on the drums, and some artwork and occult aesthetics which mirror their formative years of Don't Break the Oath, and the frothing of the fandom would reach pure rabies. It was probably too much to ask that they could also hook in one Kim Bendix Petersen, because then it would have to have become a proper Mercyful album, but they did end up with US power metal crooner Sean Peck...

And he's a capable singer, having fronted a lot of the albums his Cage, and other acts, though I can recall a tendency to go a little too overboard. Thankfully, he's rather restrained here, sounding pretty nasty at his mid-range but then keeping his highs in the range of Harry 'Tyrant', who come to think of it, would have also sounded quite nice on this. The only issue is that his presence thrusts the music itself into a little more of a USPM space, which isn't what I expected. Don't get me wrong, lots of the trademark groove and lead harmonies you'd expect from Denner and Shermann are prevalent here, but the voice and the way the tunes are put together don't always mirror that classic Danish vibe. You get a little Painkiller riffing structure (especially in "New Gods"), and then a few of the lower, leaden heavy parts do tread dangerously close into more of a groove metal thing. That said, for the majority of the four tracks and 21 minutes of material, this is pretty damn exciting, with Shaw and the lead guitars in particular giving kickass performances, and Sean getting to flex those pipes with plenty of personality over new territory.

I do feel some of his chorus lines never quite end up where I want to be note-wise, and there's just a fraction of try-hardness, but nowhere near as much as a Tim 'Ripper' Owens-fronted album, and Peck is genuinely, insanely talented. If you direct that voice properly, you've got an intimidating weapon, and I think for the most part, they do here. I even like the few surprises in store that escalating sequence deep into "New Gods" with the backing choir vocals hovering in the mix. Ultimately, Satan's Tomb does play out like a combination of Mercyful Fate and USPM like Cage, Jag Panzer or the Bruce Hall-fronted era of Agent Steel, and I have absolutely no problem with that. Maybe this is what Liege Lord would have sounded had they originated out of Copenhagen? If nothing else, a strong promise of what this project might pull off with a little more effort.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, June 13, 2022

Hell - Curse & Chapter (2013)

It's strange and bittersweet to be reviewing this sophomore album posthumously, because at the time this one dropped, Hell had top-of-the-world potential, and they could do no wrong unless massively fucking up, which Curse & Chapter does not. While I might not have been a worshiper on the same levels as others I know, I still really enjoyed the amount of effort they put into the production and personality of their debut Human Remains. The fact that it was a reincarnated NWOBHM band, being given a fresh kickstart by a huge fan (in Andy Sneap) whose own legendary band Sabbat were pretty much the only one pimping this group through their own career, is just icing on the cake. Glorious.

As I hinted, Curse & Chapter does not disappoint, even if it doesn't possess quite the perfect set-up as its predecessor. Insane, operatically-informed heavy metal which infuses whatever aesthetics of power and thrash it desires, the material relies heavily on the vocal strength of David Bower, who just owns it once again. His frilly, shrieking, manic sounding voice is once again an instant win for the amount of character he gives it. He can snarl, growl, and freak out, then just belt out something more powerful and sustained effortlessly, and he is always bending his lines to keep each fresh and fearsome. He can also do some nice counter vocals with the backups, or the deeper sort of guttural narrative that we all know Martin Walkyier probably would have used had he stuck with the Hell reunion. Apart from his performance, the twin guitar attack of Sneap and Kev Bower is formidable, bringing a good degree of variance, between choppy and powerful chords, to acoustics, wild leads, and it all sounds fresh and modern like a lot of Sneap's studio work.

As usual, the theatrics and orchestration play an important role, used to great strength in tracks like in "The Disposer Supreme" or "Darkhangel" before they clobber you over the head with the heavy-ass, thrashing riffs, and then shift again into an almost Maiden-esque vocal harmony. This was pompous, adventurous, unapologetic heavy metal which, while carried over into the live performance, wouldn't even have required costumes because it just rubs off so well on the studio recording. Another thing I really dug about this album is that at times it reminded me of a British Nevermore...Bower's delivery is in some ways reminiscent of the great Warrell Dane, and certainly some of the more involved riffs, which is probably no surprise since Sneap worked on a lot of the Americans' albums from 2000-2011.

Curse & Chapter isn't always extremely catchy or memorable, but it's timelessness comes from how it takes command of you from the operatic opener and holds your attention as it transports you into its world of occult revelations and clerical conspiracies (see what I did there?), with a brazen, polished production and a level of identity you just weren't going to find in the old geezer British metal bands of the time. If I were Iron Maiden coming off The Final Frontier, or Judas Priest scraping together the lukewarm Redeemer of Souls, I'd be pissing down my leg when I heard this fucking band, because it might have made them irrelevant if they hadn't gotten their shit together (which, to be fair, they did). Exciting compositions, bewildering musicianship, and just the right amount of controlled chaos, it's a bloody shame that in hindsight this would be their last studio album. History repeated itself. We never got enough Hell in its original incarnation, and while they hung on for some years after touring off this material, we never enough in this one. Resquiescat in pace.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Friday, June 10, 2022

Hell - The Age of Nefarious EP (2013)

The Age of Nefarious EP is a limited run artifact that arrived around the time that Hell had really hit its heights, folks were stoked to hear the follow-up to the wildly popular 'debut' Human Remains from the reformed NWOBHM legends. It was largely a teaser, with the one title track that would be the first proper metal cut on the sophomore album, and then the rest of the this, the 'B-side', was a trio of live tracks. I'll go into "The Age of Nefarious" itself when I cover the album, but I wanted to cover the rest of this because it's not quite as disposable as one would think. In fact, the only thing limiting the quality of this is its short duration and low availability.

Because these live tunes sound AWESOME. Taken from their 2013 Bloodstock performance, they sound almost as potent as their studio versions, with the caveat that you'll get some of that live noise in between having your head spun off by the great sound. I don't know if Andy Sneap was working some of his studio magic on the live mixing board, or if he just taught someone else well, but the rhythm guitars are punchy and powerful, the perfect force to drive Dave Bower's vocals, which also sound incredible here. I've seen videos of some of their live performances, including possibly this one, and they REALLY pull it off. All three of the selections are taken from the debut, naturally, they didn't wanna give too much away from the new disc, so you're getting "On Earth As It in Hell", "Blasphemy and the Master", and their cover of "The Oppressors". Intense, fun as hell, this all reinforces the idea that Hell was this nuclear explosion of unstoppable, unique heavy/power metal.

If this had been a full length live album I'd be raving about it, but alas it's only a sampling of what might have been, and the studio tune is just a 'single' for Curse & Chapter, a format that I could care less about. But the live songs here are wonderful and I'd highly recommend watching a performance if you can find one on video, it's unlikely you'll be seeing them in person again.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Lucifer IV (2021)

I would have been content if Lucifer could keep putting out equivalents to Lucifer II and III for the rest of my years, but they had to go and do one better, with an album that continues their descent into a slightly darker territory, but still fully within the envelope of sound they had been developing over their first three. 70s cult hard rock and blues swathed in a blanket of doom and modern occult rock, from a band of musicians that simply do not make any wrong choices when they're picking which riff to sear out into the listeners' consciences, or up against Johanna's addictive vocal style. The reliance on simple but often subtly menacing title and lyrics also helps round out the aesthetic, and sure, the band's name might preclude them from the international stardom I think they deserve, but only because so much of humanity are a bunch of fucking squares.

The material here isn't outside the wheelhouse of the previous album, but notice right away that the tones are a bit heavier, some of her vocal effects a little more raw, and they waste no time introducing this to you with "Archangel of Death" or "Wild Hearses", both beautiful and ponderous pieces that slosh around in the bluesy murk until its time to enchant you with a chorus. And then they have to go and unleash my single favorite riff of 2021 with "Crucifix (I Burn for You)"...imagine Slayer wrote that one on an album just after Seasons in the Abyss? This track and "Bring Me His Head" are the 'fun' and arguably most radio rock ready tracks on the album, but by no means is this the end of its depth of riches. "Mausoleum" frights and delights with its funereal organ intro and spacious, almost Moody Blues atmosphere, while "Cold as a Tombstone" creeps along like a proto-metal spider across the covers you hide under at night, and "Phobos" makes for a surging, epic, climax to the whole affair. This definitely feels like Lucifer III with an added layer of grime and muscle to it, the poppy 70s inflections still intact, and still plenty of adventure as they field a number of guitar and bass lines that feel fresh for their catalogue.

It's simply unbelievable how good this is, and I remember getting the album right in the depths of my beloved Halloween season and instantly confused how they could have gotten better yet again! It just seems like such a simple curve that they'd lock it all in and produce their masterpiece within an album or two, and yet with each new record you get a little more weight and depth, songs that resonate even longer than the previous, and yet you can still trace even the extremes of Lucifer IV straight back to the toe-dipping on the first album. To me, that is the mark of a fantastic hard rock or heavy metal band, and Lucifer are easily one of the best to arrive in this past decade. Catchy and yet never cheap or cheesy, thoughtful even when they're clubbing you over the head with one of their harder rocking rhythms, and sometimes as beautiful as the light of the morning star. A delicate terror. May they reign under the tree of forbidden fruit forever.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Kadavar & Lucifer - Split EP (2021)

This split combining the talents of two of our better 70s-flavored retro hard rocking doom bands was sure to be a treat, with the caveat that they weren't performing material of their own, or even covering each others' songs, but instead diving back into the 60s and 70s to highlight some of their influences. So this one isn't quite like the later collaboration between Kadaver and Elder, where they literally make a record together, but more of an aesthetic coupling, and it actually works quite well. As a fan of both these bands, I thought they did a good job at taking the tunes and molding them into their own sounds, and would not be opposed to hearing them both dive deeper into those record bins of olde and infusing a lot more lost classics with their contemporary energy.

Okay, I don't know that "The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)" qualifies as a 'lost' classic, but Germans Kadavar give it a slightly doomier spin to distance their version from other popular covers, the obvious being Judas Priest. So this one probably sounds a more earthy and '1969' in tone, with these rich, raw guitars that vibrate and resonate in a wonderful tone, and it's also got a real looseness to it, with lots of space in there to just vibe on you. It's pretty cool and sounds like it could be pulled off live in this same configuration at a 1:1 ratio. For Lucifer's contribution, they revisit "Pull Away/So Many Times" off of unsung New York heroes Dust's sophomore album Hard Attack. This is really brought into the fold of their own sound, and with a tweak or two would have fit snugly in any any of their four Roman numerated albums. Joanna sounds enchanting as always, but I liked too that they had her exchange with a male vocals, and both the acoustics and the rocking electric parts here sound really great. 

The one downside is that this is here and gone in 10 minutes, while the covers are so tasteful and cool that I wish I could hear about an hour's worth of them from each band, not only to hear interpretations of songs I might already know diving through my own hard rock, prog and metal memories of that period, but possibly even to discover some new stuff I never explored. It probably isn't too costly to splurge for the 7" of this, and that seems the most fitting way to experience, but you can also check it out digitally, so do so, and then if you haven't already, check out all of Lucifer's albums, which are fucking ace (in ascending order of quality), and Kadavar records like Berlin, Rough Times, and especially for the Dead Travel Fast, which are also damn worthy. I think such influences really rub off on their own sounds and it's so great to hear this sort of heavy rock alive in the 2020s.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Lucifer III (2020)

I like to imagine that the ascending Roman numerals Lucifer sticks on their successive albums are a 'leveling up' system, because within just the first few tracks, Lucifer III has already dominated the rock-solid earlier entries in their catalogue. A beefier tone, and a tendency towards some doomier riffs really helps round out their sound, making them feel, ironically, more true to their Rise Above Records roots than ever. The performances also seem to be a bit sharper, I mean we expect good things from all of these guys and gal, but it's down to the details here, such as leads, percussion choices and so forth that are just a lot catchier and better considered. That's not to knock the first two Lucifer albums, both of quality, but III is just jamming with memorable hooks, and it's not one I ever really want to skip through, even if I do have favorites.

"Ghosts" and the eternally groovy "Midnight Phantom" are just an awesome opening combo, the latter one of my choice cuts in their discography, but both have these doom breakdowns, the first some deep, evil riffs and a lead that cultivates a bit of Middle Easter mystique, and the latter just smoking with the clap percussion, the little howl that disappears into its nightscape, a smoking chorus and killer bridge groove which preludes a great little lead. And then, the hits keep coming as they stretch the net and welcome a lot of warmer 70s tones in "Leather Demon", "Pacific Blues" and "Flanked by Snakes". Or how about that "Coffin Fever", to which I could almost hear Lee Dorian laying vocals wonder he originally signed this band! There is really nothing even bordering on a weak track's a burning, soulful, bluesy and when it needs to be, heavy record in which every measure seems to have been well plotted. Lucifer is deceptively simple, but not as much as they could be, and so a lot of the little one-off bluesy licks, effects, pianos, or whatever you'll hear accompanying the central riffs are beautiful.

Johanna continues to dazzle, and I am continuously impressed by how much she pulls off with a range some might consider rather limited in scope. She's humble and emotive, like a lot of the 70s folk or female hard rock singers, and it's just a hypnotic contrast when paired up against the heavier, drubbing guitars or the wailing, bluesy solos. I love the clean tone they get, it's not terribly fuzzy, but super smooth and still feels just as 'stoner' as the messier psyche metal bands. The bass sounds perfect, locking in a fill or groove where it needs to stand out, and I don't think Nick's drumming requires any more praise than it's already gotten, but what is this, the fifth style the guy has excelled at in his long and illustrious career? Well I've gotta thank Nick and Johanna personally one of these days (maybe I just did), because they've put together one of the most bewitching, mellow and sneakily heavy retro hard rock bands I've heard in decades, and Lucifer III has gotten many plays over the last year. Bonus points for something my wife can listen to with me.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Lucifer II (2018)

Lucifer II does mark a partial change of direction from the debut, but it does so without neglecting the bands roots and initial premise to catapult the qualifies of 70s hard rock and proto doom metal into contemporary times. Immediately more accessible, rockin' and shufflin' than the doomier gloom of its older sibling, its a memorable and inspirational introduction to what would become the more stable Lucifer line-up. And that would of course involve the legendary Nicke Andersson of Entombed, The Hellacopters, Imperial State Electric and Death Breath fame, a musician that excels in numerous genres and instruments, the now-husband of Johanna, and an addition whose presence is felt in the excellent craftsmanship of these tunes. Add another one-shot member in Robin Tidebrink, and they're off to the races, because while I was IMPRESSED with the first album, as I am with a lot of quality doom and retro metal, it was Lucifer II that really transformed me into the slobbering fan I am today. This one went into regular rotation when I was doing landscaping in the summer of 2018, and it hasn't left.

Lucifer II is a hit generator. Tracks like "California Son", "Before the Sun" and "Reaper On Your Heels" jab you with all the right grooves, a blend of Sabbath, Heart, maybe even a little Cream or Zeppelin in the riffage, but not limited to that, and Johanna's creamy crooning just dripping all over the smooth punch of the guitars. This is where they really started to load in the small atmospherics like pianos, bells, organs (as in "Reaper...") that only serve to enhance the songs without taking them over, and unlike the debut, there are no points where I felt there was an abrupt transition or a tune that needs further polish. This is all so well written and makes perfect sense, from the opening licks, to the escalating bridges where they'll burst into a more controlled freak-out groove. And those who think the doom is no longer strong with them, guess again, because half the tracks here have some notable, darker passage or underpinning groove that lets you know just what direction they've come from, and it ain't heaven. Nick is a phenomenon here, every tone carefully chosen, every bluesy swagger perfectly inserted, every beat so organic and fresh and interesting that you could almost listen to that alone.

There are no tracks here I dislike, but perhaps one or two that I'll skip from time to time (usually "Dancing with Mr. D" and its slide guitars and cooing backup vocals), so this one doesn't reach the ranks of the two after it, but what a goddamn set you could create from all three, and maybe add a couple in from the debut for good measure. When they get down and dirty as on "Faux Pharaoh" it just feels so badass, that contrast between the ditch-digging rhythm guitar and the melody of her voice feels so unique even when compared to similar groups. Not to dump on popular groups like Witch Mountain, Brume, Windhand  or Sabbath Assembly, all of whom put out some good stuff, but Lucifer just tramples it all. There is so much more to this, and it brings together so many influences that were formative also to my own metal history, that I cannot resist. It's like a spell being cast every time they put out an album, and I keep failing my fucking saving throw.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Lucifer I (2015)

It's nothing novel to hear some new Sabbath sounding upstart arrive on a label like Rise Above Records, but when the simply dubbed Lucifer dropped its debut in 2015, it was obvious to me immediately that this was something special, something slightly different. Granted, this album is the one we would most correlate with traditional doom metal, there are a lot of riffs here that feel as if Tony Iommi is playing along with a new singer, but other 70s hard rock influences like Heart do enter the picture in a few of the songs, foreshadowing the band's future. The band was formed by German vocalist Johanna Sadonis, and then most notably, the debut featured 'Gaz' Jennings, axeman doomlord extraordinaire via Cathedral, and a mix of other British and German musicians, all of whom, with the except of Johanna, lasted for just this one debut album...

And that might explain why this has a slightly different focus than the subsequent releases, but it's a great record all the same. Bright, catchy, and yet unmistakably evil when it wants to be, Lucifer I plays out like a more vintage rock Cathedral, replacing Lee's divisive grumblings with a voice both melodic and angelic. Jennings' guitars are great, whether he's flexing the doom muscles of his alma mater, or some dirtier riff patterns redolent of American groups like Pentagram and The Obsessed, or earlier influences, there's always something catchy to support Johanna's wailing, which is a lot more atmospheric than on the later records. Granted, there are occasions where the riffs go into some abrupt changes, and the material doesn't always feel the most fleshed-out, but for a debut it was already head and shoulders above a lot of the other 'mama' doom that had been coming out around the same time. Dino Gollnick and Andrew Prestridge round out the rhythm section really well, and the sparse synths and ghostly vocal layering and effects add another, ethereal dimension to the drudging darkness.

No tunes I'd consider weak here, but I most often crave the doomy triad of "Abracadabra", "Sabbath" (lol) and "Morning Star". That said, the acoustics in "Grave" are nice, and it has a nice metallic build-up, and it's all quality enough that the full 44 experience is rewarding. I admit that I do spin this one less than the three to follow it, but if you're most in tune with traditional doom metal, and not so much interested in the higher accessibility of the later albums, do not skip out on Lucifer I because it just might prove your favorite. And it's a testament to Lucifer that, no matter which lineup, the band is just so damned good that I can't argue with anyone's love of any of their output. The hours of enjoyment I've gotten listening to them in the last 6-7 years vastly outweigh the praise and thanks I could ever give them.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, May 23, 2022

Cauldron - Undercover of Moonlight (2020)

You've seen me use the 'D' word many times in my Cauldron reviews, so it's gratifying that the first track on the Canadians' cover compilation is none other than Dokken's "Paris is Burning", and the cover art itself is a sendup to the Los Angeles legends. Not that I've ever made the comparison out of spite, I really enjoy that Cauldron helps resurrect the vibes I used to feel for bands like that, and Jason Decay's vocals manifest enough of a difference for them to really stand on their own. This is a pretty damn good cover, too, and the production here sounds just right, much like they pulled off with their In Ruin album. It's also, thankfully, one of the most obvious, because the 15 tracks they've selected for this collection show a VAST range of influence, and it's fun to hear how they will tackle each of them...

Speed metal classics like "Take This Torch" from Razor, or "Die Hard" from Venom, are cool in that they let the band go a little dirtier than the heavy metal anthems they usually slap us with, and I think the band actually excels in this territory, with the rawer guitar tones, although they do seem to lose a bit of themselves in trying to emulate the originals. Same with "Necropolis" from Manilla Road, I would have been much more interested in that with Jason's normal vocals, but he's doing a little Mark the Shark impression instead. When they jump into Witchfinder General's "Free Country", it fits wonderfully in the Cauldron style, and the same could be said of "Making Noise and Drinking Beer" from the German Tyrant. The latter is not one I would have expected anybody to remember, and its one of the best and most bang-up covers on this comp. As for the covers of Triumph and Bryan Adams, they kind of suck, largely because the production, which is very uneven across the whole affair because these are mostly snagged individually or in batches from various sessions or recordings. For example, "Lay it on the Line" sounds cheesy and raw and the vocals are too far over the top, where "Run to You" is a super crude live recording and sounds like garbage.

It's funny that they also cover their own alma mater Goat Horn with "Fortress Doomed", a cool song but again the mix flubs it up and doesn't reach its full potential. The cover of Canadian rock and pop hero Gowan's "Moonlight Desires" also took me by surprise, but as much as I like the original, and appreciate that these guys also dig him, there's something slightly off about the production, otherwise this would have been one of the best tracks here. So yeah, an extremely eclectic, interesting and even goofy collection of covers here that would have come across far better with a uniform studio mix, the differences are just too distracting, but not enough so that we can deny the good taste they showed in their choices. Not a lot of generic picks that you'd just expect on a million other metal bands' 'cover albums', the flaws here are all in the presentation.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Au-Dessus - Mend EP (2022)

2017's End of Chapter was novel for coming out of Lithuania with a bright, post-black feel, but for me the Au-Dessus full-length debut something short of greatness despite its earnest, impassioned attempt. The band has taken some time to put together its successor, a more concise, 25 minute EP recording which cover only five tracks but covers about the same range of atmospherics and intensity. This is still a band which goes for that wall of force mentality, when they are firing on all cylinders there is not a lot of space left between the riffing volleys for the listener to use his/her imagination. Mend is more about going along for the ride with the roiling riffs, scathing rasped vocals, and the clash of violence and warmth within the surging tides of the songwriting.

The "Negation" duology is the one-two punch that inaugurates this release, first with several minutes of excellent ambiance, then lurching into some steady, textured, dissonant, bright and doomy chords, all to set up the writhing speed of "Negation II". The variation continues a little with "Lethargy", one of the most turbulent tracks with a mixture of snarls and gutturals and some volatile chord patterns broken up with percussive fills and moody ambience created at the top of the guitar chords. Despite the strengths early on, though, I felt like some of the later material like "Epiphany" was its most formidable, with the seismic, dissonant shifting groove patterns that crash into the post-hysterics like irritated waves against a rusted steel beach. There's a bit of sameness sometimes to the riffs, although I do like the textures and chord-forms they play about it, and I wish they could throw a few more left hooks in this area, but I think overall the material here with slightly more satisfying than on End of Chapter, without alienating those who enjoyed what they heard that half-decade ago.

An interesting band lyrically, in how they package their releases with iconic, simple imagery (here as on End of Chapter), but not necessarily the most unique in sound. I rather liked their ambient intro and wish they could have incorporated sections like that, perhaps more directly balanced with the heavy parts, but all told Au-Dessus remains a solid band to check out if you dig a bit of the modern or 'alternative' into your black metal without tossing away the building blocks.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Simulacre/Archvile King - Split (2022)

This was a pretty promising split for me, as I was highly impressed with the Archvile King full-length debut À la ruine from earlier this year, but had not heard their original 2020 EP Vile, which is included here in its entirety. Much like that album, their style is a sinister melodic black metal which does have its tendencies towards some black/thrashing elements, although those would be in the minority. The four tracks on this one are pretty good, especially in the riff department for "Bastards of the Sea" and the more patient, eerie "The Feast of the Worm King" which is one of the best songs musically I've heard from them. I will say that I didn't like the vocals quite as much here, the deliver just feels a bit too passive or casually in how its laid out over the much superior music, but we all know that has been fixed now with the full-length and its a small complaint for some pretty damn fine tunes, it's not like they don't fit or are bad. Also, there's a cut titled "Gwyneth Paltrow is a Lich", which had me in stitches, but musically at least it fits with the rest around it.

But I'm kind of covering this in reverse, because the band that fronts this split, Simulacre from Bourdeaux, is also really good, and it is their contributions that I liked a little more due just to the vocal mix. I feel that the styles pair up enough to make the split function, they both play French black metal with a heavy nod to the 90s Scandinavian classics, but where Archvile was in their early stages and having a little more 'fun' with it, Simulacre is more wanton, dreary, perhaps even a dash elegant or Romantic in its delivery, with searing rasps, and wonderfully textured guitars both distorted and acoustic. When these guys pop out a tremolo picked riff, its quite evil, as in "Les Voix du Sang", but also has a richness and warmth to it which was unexpected and really stands out. The drums and bass have a busy vibe to them, almost as if there's a subtle influence from anything from Latin to prog rock, and there's an interesting tendency not to try and flood the listener with walls of chords, but more delicate and intricate melodies, leads, and giving it all a little more of an organic space to of Seth's newest album, or maybe the more Medieval styles of Aorhlac and Vehemence should dig it.

Remarkable, another great pickup for this label and a band I'm looking forward to hearing more from, since they've yet to unleash a full-length themselves. As for Archvile King, the material here is solid as a set-up for the much superior À la ruine, and certainly enhances the split's value, but if you are new to them then I'd head STRAIGHT for that album, because it's really good and I haven't heard nearly enough people talking about it. Either way, if you love French black metal and want to dive more into this newer crop of bands who are sprouting forth while the debatable 'Big Three' are still going strong, here are two example of bands with something worth paying attention to.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, May 20, 2022

Cauldron - New Gods (2018)

New Gods is by far the best-produced of the Cauldron albums, and I can only imagine if most of the prior full-lengths had been given the same treatment. Bright, clear and powerful enough to carry the strength of the rhythm guitars and Jason's vocals, any of the small and annoying flaws of the past are history, and this is the new standard by which they should record. As with the album before it, In Ruin, this one also sticks to their strengths at writing mid-paced, classic heavy metal with a bit of a punch to it when necessary, and almost a laid-back mood to the writing which gives it an atmosphere it might not otherwise possess if it were firing on all cylinders. Clearly rooted in the mighty 80s, the Canadians seek to smother you with quality hooks and memorable vocals, and while I don't know that I like the songs as much as those on its predecessor, the added richness of the production really goes a long way towards compensating, because even that one was a little too washed out in moments...this suffers nothing of the sort.

The formula is simple: take basic heavy metal chord structures of times past, add the distinct vocals, and profit. Worked well enough for all the hairspray, fishnet stockings and leather skirt-lings of the past, but Cauldron isn't burdened by any such lame fashion sense, they're just cultivating the strengths of accessible, occasionally AOR-worthy metal music that is pleasant on the ear. I admit that the Lovecraftian cover artwork is a bit of a throw-off, but the band has sadly not excelled in this department with the one exception of their 2012 album Tomorrow's Fortune. But the lyrics and music here really don't give you any such horror impression other than the strong associations that heavy metal and hard rock always had with that genre, especially in the 80s when band like this one's heavy influence Dokken were tapped to do. So there is a clear aesthetic mismatch that does the music no service at all, but if we can ignore that, then New Gods is a damn tight album with a timelessness about it that easily thrusts it to the forefront of their catalogue alongside its direct predecessor and the original Into the Cauldron EP.

I mean if we got this album in 1985-1987, this would be one of those 'respectable' sorts of metal records that might see a little rotation on MTV's Headbanger's Ball, mainstream enough for the hair metal crowd but also satisfactory for those into the heavier shit who were just waiting for that potential glimpse of an Armored Saint or King Diamond video at half-past midnight. Similar to a Bonfire or an Accept, maybe. Jason's vocals have never sounded more refined as this, and the guitar tone just smokes every previous Cauldron record. The drums aren't doing anything special, but they also sound great, and tunes like "Never Be Found" and "Letting Go" are among my favorites in their catalogue. They don't include any lame ballads, which you'd think they might flirt with, but they do have the very mainstream sounding "Together as None" which definitely sounds a little bit like a prom song from that glam era, but it has some warm chugging and a good chorus at least, and hell Saxon has done this a number of times (like "Hold On"), and well, so I can forgive it.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Wesenwille - I: Wesenwille & Live at Roadburn (2022)

I had the opportunity last year to cover this Dutch band's sophomore outing II: A Material God, and now the band's label Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions has done a solid with not only a reissue of their scarce debut, but also pairing it up with an additional live disc. As I had mentioned on this record's follow-up, Wesenwille approaches its black metal with a visual concept that simple reeks of bleak, urban despair and decay, one that you might think lends itself to a more industrialized or electronic instrumentation, perhaps some droning which would visually match the presentation, instead performed with a more traditionally organic approach to its genre which is complemented only by a degree of jangling, dissonant post-metal or post-hardcore augmentation.

I'll be blunt: this debut is even better than its own successor, a flurry of rapid riffing and drumming, tortured vocals that don't depend too strictly on monotonous rasping, and a great use of guitars as tools of atmosphere and not just riffing...there are spacey guitar segues with samples used as narrative, shining and beautiful guitars that would absolutely satisfy those looking for a more -gaze vibe within their black metal, and then these slews of almost hyperactive, punchy thrash riffing ("Prosopopoeia") that they'll unleash before putting the pedal to the metal for the album's peak hostility, its blasting segments dowsed with spiteful, dissonant chord series. All five of the tracks are threatening, haunting, and sometimes beautiful and I can hear easily why this album deserved to be put out there into more hands along with the second.

The Roadburn festival set takes three of the debut tracks, and two from II: A Material God, and blends them seamlessly into a devastating set, which if I'm being honest, sounds just as good if not better than the studio interpretations. There's a vividness or brightness here, especially to the vocals and guitars, which is a little different than the dimmer album versions, and yet it's all performed with razor perfection, and in fact some of the vocals, like the angsty barks in "The Churning Masses", sound even more impressive. I don't know if people in the audience there had a lot of experience with these guys in advance, but they hopefully came away with the desire to track down their stuff. This sounds so great...the bass, the details to the atmospheric guitars, even the sample stuff. Two albums might be a brief amount of time before you slam out your first live album, but in this case it's exceptionally captured, and adds nothing but value to the experience of the debut. If you like bleak, expressive black metal and haven't yet heard Wesenwille, effective without being needlessly complex, conventional only to a point where the modernism sneaks in through the cracks, this is well worth tracking down.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Déhà - Decadanse (2022)

Decadanse is an interesting album for me to approach, for while I've heard a few of this artist's myriad projects in the past (Yhdarl, Silver Knife and Wolvennest to name but a few), he's been on a massive productivity streak with this 'solo' act...dozens of full-lengths and collaborations in just the last 4-5 years, part of which was possibly spurred on by pandemic-era isolation, but is showing no signs of slowing down even today. From what I've just briefly been able to read, the Déhà project is one that intentionally avoids pigeon-holing itself into too narrow a niche, but if I had to describe this, it's almost a horror landscape terraformed through a mixture of drone, doom, black metal, industrial and electronic ingredients, programmed drums with extreme vocals ranging from a prolonged rasp or growl to whispery nightmares or soaring mid-range harmonies.

There are but two tracks, each 22-23 minutes in length and obviously narrating a creepy, grandiose concept through musical construction that transforms from careful control to calamity, but always focused on forming oblique and harrowing imagery in the listener's mind. There are times when this is lurching along like the most stolid funeral doom, and others when it intensifies into blasting frenzy and tremolo picked note progressions. The guitars vary from rather predictable trudges and black metal melodies to more spacious, eerie anomalies that are constantly offering up a higher dimension beyond the aggressive substrate of the songwriting. His vocals are splayed out almost like paints of blood and ichor splashed on a canvas, becoming a part of the atmosphere just as often as they're a metallic, percussive focal point. And what's more, there is a tendency to lurch into some unexpected electronic/techno part which is quite fun despite sounding a little less dire and serious than the rest.

I'm not going to claim I was totally bowled over by Decadanse, I mean it delivers what is advertised and successfully transfers the feelings of gloom and fright into the mix, but occasionally it relies on some repetition, or riff patterns that are a bit predictable or repetitive. In the span of 20+ minutes, there could certainly be a few more interesting riffs or atmospheres on exhibit, I don't know if they struck often enough through this particular album's play-length as they might have on some of his others. But having said that, when I pull myself back about a mile from the details, and just appreciate the dark and monolithic atmosphere, the obvious amount of work places in the tortured vocals, and the placement of segues like the electronic parts, or the creepy acoustic break in "I Am the Dead" with the filtered vox, this is definitely an imaginative and involved work that fans of lightless, atmospheric dread will get a lot of, and I'm surely prompted to listen to more of what he's done directly under the Déhà handle.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Cauldron - Tomorrow's Lost (2012)

I was a bit underwhelmed by the first few Cauldron records, so when I first saw the excellent Todd Kowalski cover art (do more of these, Todd) for Tomorrow's Lost, I imagined they had turned a new leaf and might be trying out something different. That's not quite the case, but what I can say for this album is that it's a righting of the ship, a better set of tunes with a better production that validates the style the Canadians had been developing through their formative years post-Goat Horn. This isn't exactly a 'great' effort, mind you, it suffers a little from over-familiarity in a few riffs, but it's balanced quite well and shows an added maturity through the band's tenure at Earache Records.

The band is still alternating between driving power metal lite ("End of Time") and their big, bombastic hard rock/heavy metal anthems ("Born to Struggle"), the latter tracing a lot of its DNA to bands like Dokken and Scorpions, and also still a little of the over-pronounced rhythm guitar tone that irked me on Chained to the Nite, if not as bad. I personally find the faster stuff here is just better mixed and more effective. Tracks like "Nitebreaker" and "Burning Forture" really live up to the material on the band's Into the Cauldron EP, which was my clear favorite until the album after this one. Jason Decay's vocals still really work for me, and the drums have a nice rumbling clip to them, as well as the lead guitars, which once again need to be a little more brazen against the rhythm riffs. A couple others I did like are "Endless Ways", which sounds like a tune that'd be better fitting on In Ruin, and "Summoned to Succumb" which rocks along at the perfect clip and has that great Dokken vibe to the chorus; these two also prove the exceptions to the general rule of how I liked the faster material more.

Tomorrow's Lost could have used slightly better production, but for the most part this is one I can sit down and listen through in its entirety without getting annoyed. I do feel that Cauldron was already losing ground at this point to a lot more exciting throwback heavy/speed metal bands, like Enforcer, or their own neighbors Striker and Skull Fist, all a lot more explosive and exciting, but what I can say for these guys is that they were so good at evoking nostalgia for those horror movie closing credits themes, or borderline metal/hard rock anthems of the 80s which thankfully eschewed the glam bullshit. I was finding myself more intrigued with the everyman metal mood that Cauldron creates, something they would refine for what I'd consider their best album four years later, or at least the one I always reach for besides the EP.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Cauldron - Chained to the Nite (2009)

It's got the kind of hot album cover many bands would have dreamed of in the 80s, but then the fact it's coupled up with the cheesy album title font and the gigantic logo is quite hilarious. We have arrived at the Cauldron debut full-length, which dropped on Earache records when the British label suddenly got involved in snapping up a bunch of retro sounding bands to compliment the grindcore and death metal royalty of their back catalog. The style on this one is fully representative of the previous EP, and yet I feel like it does show a little more maturity or restraint (pun intended) that actually sometimes drags it down a little. Really though I think my issues here come a little with the album's mix.

The guitars are just as bulky as they were, but the tone here just stands out a little too much for me, and it feels a fraction too processed, so that it starts to suffocate Jason's excellent vocals, which are absolutely on point here, I just wish I could hear them more against the bulk of the riffs. This is much more egregious on some tracks than other, for instance the opener "Young and Hungry" is one of the main offenders, it's like a young fan plugged in his personal Marshal stack and played over the original recording; and on other cuts like "Conjure the Mess" or the more power-metal oriented "Dreams Die Young", it's not such a big deal, but I honestly don't love the rhythm guitar sound on most of the runtime. The riffs themselves are pretty consistent, and they are definitely merging a lot more USPM and Euro heavy/power into their sound, even a dose of thrashing gallop, which automatically generates a more appreciated variance, a bigger sandbox for the Canadians to play around in. I had mentioned that Jason's vocals were awesome, and they throw in a lot of decent backup vocals and such that show this was a central component. The leads and melodies also sound pretty damn good, but again the rhythm guitar can off-set that.

Basically, if Into the Cauldron was your jam, I can't imagine this would disappoint you, and it continues to cultivate the aesthetics the band would continue throughout their career to date, but I think this is clearly the record most deserving of a remix, because the vocals and songwriting do deserve a little better. A couple of the tunes are also better earworms than others, but there is at least always some cool vocal line or riff in each, and though they do experiment with some of those aforementioned metal styles, there is still that core of West Coast heavy metal in plenty of tracks like "Chains Around Heaven" or "Bound to the Stake" if you wanted them to keep rockin' like Dokken. A decent debut that struggles a little under its studio choices.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Cauldron - Into the Cauldron EP (2007)

Born from the dying embers of Goat Horn, Cauldron was an act that sought to hone some of those same influences, but dropping off the doom metal for a more pure retro heavy metal sound redolent of, but not entirely relying upon the 80s. I think this was an important maneuver, because while the Canadians might be a little underrated even to this day, and have truthfully been inconsistent with some of the ensuing full-length albums, I think their arrival was one of a number of portents that cravings, both newfound and nostalgic for classic metal sounds were to once again explode across the metalscape, as they tend to do in cycles. It doesn't hurt that their Into the Cauldron EP is a fucking barnstormer that, at least for me, rendered Goat Horn irrelevant within about two tracks, it is just THAT much better...

This is STILL some of their best material to date, with riffing that comes across like a mix of West Coast sounds of the 80s, with the catch that it's heavier and more iron-clad. Maybe combine the first two Armored Saint records with a more aggressive Dokken, and it might turn out like this. The guitars are potent, the bass loud, the leads effective it not entirely catchy, but for me the selling point to the band has always been the vocals of Jason Decay. Down to earth, memorable, melodic and a little acidic, this guy is the epitome of the 'guy next door' heavy metal frontman, and that is what lends his presence such character. Sure you will hear a one-off higher scream or growl, but his voice just brings me back to a bunch of low rent heavy metal records that never got their due, that I'd actually find throughout the 90s in the bargain and cut-out bins on tape and LP, in Boston or at one of the many record dives near my alma mater UMass. A few friends and I would snatch these things up and take them back to our apartment or dorm room and just revel in the cheese, more often than not truly falling in love with what we've heard. Cauldron does that for me, and I thank them profusely, even if I don't like all their albums equally.

Four tunes. Three burners and "Restless", which is a little more measured, but no less powerful once it gets into those plodding triplets that Decay sounds great soaring over, and his lines there definitely expose the roots to some of the great material they'd write for their better albums like In Ruin in 2016. The mix here is really dense and home-grown, with guitars taking the forefront but not in any way clouding out the thundering drums, bass-lines or vocal track. I don't have many criticisms, I could do without some of the snarled vocals but they are so sparse it doesn't matter, the cover art is terrible, and I'm sure a few of these could be catchier than they are, but all told this was a fine introduction to the band that I will still spin alongside some of their stronger full-lengths when I need a dip in the Cauldron.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Enslaved - Caravans to the Outer Worlds EP (2021)

It wasn't enough that Enslaved regaled us with a number of great streaming performances and a killer new studio album, they had yet more material waiting in the wings during the pandemic and that has manifest on the short but sweet Caravans to the Outer Worlds EP. This is comprised of 18 minutes and four tracks, two of which are instrumental, but that's never a band thing in the hands of these capable Norsemen, and the two longer vocal tracks will more than compensate for any misgivings that might create. I do feel that the title track is really the centerpiece, a vicious and incendiary cut with some rapid riffing that is just covered in ambient atmosphere, drawn-out roars that drift into the difference, and an awesome contrast between some vocal harmonies, calm acoustics and heavy surges. This more or less fits the Utgard aesthetic, so like that album it can create nostalgia in turn for their mid-90s and 21st century material, but overall it feels like some of their most modern and ethereal music to date.

The instrumentals are quite cool, with some low-end, creeping organs and eerie chugs leading into a massive, crushing wall of slower doom/black metal for "Intermezzo I", and  "Intermezzo II" seeming like some prog doom that erupts into a melodic death metal riff. I do think both cases would have been stronger as full-blown compositions with vocals, though, the riffs and atmosphere in these almost seem too good to waste on their current formats. Probably the most bizarre piece here is "Ruun II - The Epitaph", an acoustic 'sequel' song that has these lush walls of acoustic guitars, brooding chants, and then squishy sounding little bass or guitar sounds that add an unusual sense of tribal percussion to the proceedings. But it's the clean vocal that arrives right after the 4 minute mark that brings it all home, just great stuff. Caravans to the Outer Worlds would have been more impressive with the two instrumentals extended into proper tunes, for a total of maybe 30 minutes, but as it stands, its still strong writing from one of the best bands in the world, which shows no sign of endings its aural cross-genre adventures any time soon.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Enslaved - Cinematic Tour 2020 (2021)

One complaint I can launch against the Cinematic Tour 2020 product is that it might be parceled out in separate audio and DVD release here rather than just the one that I've seen out there that includes EVERYTHING. Granted, the price isn't terribly off to buy them individually, and they're not expensive, but still it felt a little lame, some nickel and diming of the fans. That said, this is by far one of the most tremendous things to come from, and probably exclusively the product of the COVID-times, a fantastic band collecting a number of its streaming performances into a quality box set that should thrill fans of the bands various efforts. Even having watched most of these live as they were happening, this was a recording I was eager to get my mitts on. Their 2017 Roadburn Live was pretty damn good, but this goes beyond reasoning...

Four sets of vinyl or discs covering four distinct performances, each with video accompaniment, the audio quality equal about between them. You want to hear them perform Below the Lights in its entirety, one of their very best albums? Here it is, and it sounds quite damn good although some of the lineup is different than on the original recording, that's a caveat throughout the boxed set. But all of the instruments sounds excellent, airy and live and wonderful much like on the studio versions. For someone so new to the band, Iver is owning those drums, and to think he had to learn so much material to mesh in, AND he offers yet another weapon with his smooth, clean vocals. Now, I would say a few of the cleans throughout these can be a little unbalanced in volume, but its a minor issue since the actual sculpt and delivery of them is top notch. So these discs were a true treat, and I also really loved the full performance of Utgard...the album itself hadn't fully sunk in with me, but after watching them pull it off live it enhanced my appreciation and understanding of that material and now I love the thing.

The other two sets here, Chronicles of the Northbound and The Rise of Ymir, are not as focused performances, but rather thematic arrangements of tracks through their history, a mix of new and old, and they might even be BETTER than the single-album sets. Getting to hear "Ethica Odini" and the sprawling "793 (Slaget om Lindisfarne)" in the same set is just ridiculous, and I'll say the old material in some cases sounds even better than it did back in the 90s. There are a few tunes that crossover into multiple sets ("Ethica Odini", "Havenless"), and that in no way hurts their individual placement or performance, but it would have been even more added value if all the songs were exclusive into just one of them. Regardless, the Cinematic Tour 2020 is an awesome, polished product and a good idea to create something positive out of the nightmare of these last few years. If you have to choose between the two, I'd go for the video because it's a little more epic to experience in that contest, but if you don't use DVDs, or just want something for your car or daily jog, the audio definitely holds up on its own.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Monday, May 2, 2022

Revocation - The Outer Ones (2018)

There are times I've got to temper the pride I feel when a cool group of local guys goes on to international metal stardom with a critical ear, and I think I've done so pretty fairly throughout the Revocation catalog; but it's heartwarming to see acquaintances the world over pick up on the Boston band, and several more did with this 2018 effort The Outer Ones, their seventh full-length (not counting their time as Cryptic Warning), and for me the best once since 2009's Existence is Futile. This is the consummate death thrash band, combining the technical instincts of both into a proficient, efficient, punishing excursion into the realms of cosmic horror...always a great topic, although the cover art (their best yet) and lyrics probably highlight it more than the music itself.

You're getting intense, rapid fire riffing sequences that exult the group's worthiness to compete alongside acts really known for that like Obscura or Inferi, mixed with some concrete moshing thrash riffs which help keep them grounded for the pits at their tours and festivals. For me, though, it's the lead work and melodies here that shine, some of the best they've ever constructed, always elevating the songs to a level beyond the mundane, because while the guys can fire off a million riffs a minute, not a lot of them really stand out on their own. It's the flood of technique and incessant aggression that forms them into a patchwork that holds the attention, because you always feel the aural equivalent of 'blink and I might miss something'. But there are some decent rhythm guitars here or there, and I noticed that the more clinical and evil they get ("That Which Consumes All Things"), the better, and the more brick-like and Pantera, the worse off. But the latter doesn't happen enough to really bring down the whole effort, and there's enough variation across all these tunes that it'll soon fade from memory when you encounter the more musical, ambitious stuff.

As for the vocals, I've not always been a huge fan, and they're still a little generic, but there are a few varying degrees of guttural grunts and snarls here to at least mix that up too, and in terms of patterns and delivery they all sound effective over the music below. The main vocal is like a Chuck Schuldiner growl only more blunt, and I still can't imagine how much better they'd be with some more charisma and pain in them. That said, these are adequate enough for a lot of the audience that probably encounters this band among a bunch of lesser deathcore or brutal death acts and obviously aren't so picky. The music is also so polished in the mix that it does feel a bit too mechanical and soulless, a common symptom within this tech death niche. But I don't wanna seem too down on this, because when The Outer Ones shines, it really comes together into some exciting moments that make the heart quicken. It's not perfect, but it's really consistent with their other recent efforts like Great is Our Sin and Deathless, and if you miss bands like Atheist, Hellwitch or Cynic during their heavier phases, here are some successful successors.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Rip Ryde - A Taste for the Kill (2022)

Just one glance at the cover to A Taste for the Kill and I'm taken back to the 80s when I'd be cruising the mall for metal records, and in addition to the thrash and harder stuff there would be this crop of bands which sat in the median between the trendier, terrible glam rock and the heavy metal proper. My love for bands like Dokken, BonfireKing Kobra, etc came from within this margin, and it's clear that Cleveland's Rip Ryde had a similar fascination because they have managed to recapture this same feeling on their indie debut. I'm not too surprised, because the lineup here is pretty ridiculous, almost a who's who of Ohio goodness, featuring members of Soulless, Shed the Skin, Vanik, Vindicator, Ringworm, and Shok Paris. And while the album takes a track or two to really take off, it's packed with accessible, catchy metal that's prepped to party on the surface, but also has enough of a genuine emotion and intelligence behind it to matter more than that.

I'll say that the opener, "Stop, Rip and Roll", with its very Dokken-like riff, didn't exactly hook me as I felt like it was the vocalist's weakest performance on the album. He's got a good, everyman voice with a capability for a little pitch, almost an amalgam of a blue-collar Midwest bar front man and a NWOBHM hero ala Biff Byford, but I just didn't pick him out too much as he was following along the guitars in the verses. Still, the little splashes of fun, bluesy hard rock leads, and the production tone on the rest of the instruments is pretty promising, and though the song was a little repetitive, it's a good teaser for their style, which improves very quickly on cuts like the similar, flailing "My Oh My" or "Legends for the End", and these are catchier with the vocals and guitar melodies. The chord patterns are pretty simple, and hardly novel, but infused with just enough legit 80s melody circa Scorpions or Maiden that they really hammer home, and this band is very adept at setting up solid rhythm guitar hooks to support the awesome leads, which don't exactly 'duel' but have a nice, memorable interchange that takes you back.

It gets to the point where even the band's most overt attempts at a more 'party' theme like "Sweet Rocket Girl" still don't come off excessively cheesy, even when the singer is giving it a bit too much rock & roll gusto, and even that song has a very "Delivering the Goods" vibe. When the band dials it down for a ballad like "Into the Darkness Again", it's earned and not at all cheap, a solid construction and really good lead-work/bridge in there transformed it into one of my favorites on the album, and the rapid melodies of "Dance for the Massacre" really sealed the deal. A Taste for the Kill is fun but never shallow, nearly every riff here is imbued with a love for its influences, and from a cast of characters who have cast a pretty broad net in the past, from other heavy metal projects to raucous speed/thrash to blistering melodic death metal. Maybe the malls suck these days, but your life doesn't have to, so whether you dig the old 70s Priest, Saxon and Maiden, the more accessible side of the Metal Blade roster in the 80s, or the new weave of Canadian metalians and hard rockers (Cauldron, Freeway, Spell, etc), this is worth at least a listen, and the blood and cleavage are the cherries on top.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, April 1, 2022

Spring Break 2022

Hey all, off on my normal April sabbatical from reviews, be back next month! - autothrall

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Bog Wizard vs. Froglord - A Frog in the Bog EP (2022)

Can we start with how awesome the cover art for this split release is? I'm getting total vibes of primitive PC graphics, and by primitive I mean the PEAK. If we saw something like this on a Commodore 64 game's title screen, my bros and I might have creamed our collective corduroys. No surprise then that it is another tripped out recording from Michigan's psychedelic sledgehammer Bog Wizard, this time paired out with the equally outrageous Froglord out of England. There is no scenario in which the two of these groups collide and dungeon level mischief does NOT ensue, so make sure up front that you've run some clean bong water, written your wills, put on your space helmets and whatever random pieces of armor you can sling together to defend yourself from the trudging, sludging and drudging you are about to receive.

Bog Wizard's portion of the split definitely feels in the same wheelhouse as their recent Miasmic Purple Smoke album, that is to say a steady, slow, crush of distorted swill playing out thick, oozing, repetitive grooves that will devolve you into your respective reptilian or amphibious DNA. The vocal tracks are delivered with a barbaric hypnotism, but the band also breaks the heaviness down into some simple bass lines and percussion here. Froglord's contributions, "The Bog" and "The Wizard", both references to their partners in crime (much as "Reptilian Death Squad" did for them), are slightly more robust, accessible stoner metal jams with great tones, and a cool vocal that sounds like Rob Zombie got punched square in the gut, but gets a little more hoarse when they get to a chorus part. To be honest, both sides of this equation do complement each other well, they're both well within that wheelhouse of savage, simple doom and sludge that was undoubtedly inspired by Robert E. Howard's Conan fiction and dangerous degrees of hashish consumption. The Brits go for a brighter tone whereas Bog Wizard sounds more dreary, raw and repressed by design.

What's even cooler, is that in addition to how their individual contributions celebrate one another, there are two directly collaborative tracks named for one another, and these are some of its funnest moments, with the "The Frog Lord" mantra being repeated against some sizzling synth effects, and the aforementioned vocals attacking you from all angles as the tripping turns paranoiac. "The Bog Wizard" sounds like Clutch on a bad bender after listening to some Conan or Buzz*oven records, and it's just kind of cool to see a split recording taken this general, the bands can remain a bit disparate and then the whole experience feels forced, but here it's all quite balanced. The songs are all really simple, and I wouldn't mind either band getting a little more riffy, complex or experimental for some added depth, but it seems like a good time was had by all, and if you're a fan of their individual records, then there is no reason to skip this one.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Voivod - Synchro Anarchy (2022)

The Wake was, at least to me, another of Voivod's myriad masterworks which celebrated everything that had come before it, everything that this anomalous Canadian band had built into its DNA through the decades, and then pushed those parameters even further, fattening the envelope with some fresh ideas like a touch of orchestration or some riffs and arrangements which have naturally bled into the band's process with the integration of Chewy's great talents. That's a daunting act to follow, but to its credit, Synchro Anarchy strives really damn hard to do just that, and while it might not succeed 100% of the time in its task, it's an absolute scorcher that belongs on the shelves of anyone into inspired, original metal music, or maybe even music in general?!

Granted, this is my favorite band ever, and I'm biased, but until there are as many copies of Voivod as Michael Jackson out there in the world, I will not rest. This is the hill I want to die on! After hearing the first couple singles off of Synchro Anarchy, I was definitely feeling a heavy Dimension Hatröss vibe, as if the weirdness and grooving thrash of that particular record had been energized and updated for yet another decade. To an extent, that's true, as displayed through the weird dissonance of the chord sequences, thick cement-like bass grooves and almost drugged, introspective vocals, but once you've listened through this one a bunch and discovered its bigger picture, the album has a lot more going on, and like its predecessor, offers a few new spins on the considerable lexicon of the Canadians' progressive sci-fi metal tropes. At points I was hearing a little more of Chewy's death metal heritage splash into the writing, like a few of the brief tremolo picked runs in the opener "Paranormailum" before lurching into those warped jilted, extraterrestrial guitars.

A track like the titular "Synchro Anarchy" teases you with some of the old Piggy trademark chords, but splays them out in new rhythmic patterns beneath Snake's mesmerizing, punk-inflected hymns to retro and post-futurism. There are loads of details which are obvious from the get-go, but after increased listens through I started to enjoy them...increasingly, especially some of the warmer and more proggy flights of notation from Chewy. The other new-ish member, Rocky, also floods this album with what might be the fattest and most impactful bass-tone they've ever had, once again honoring his predecessor Blacky in full with lines that are odd, alien, funky and fresh when you run them up against about 99% of what other low-enders are performing in metal bands. He literally drives tracks like "Planet Eaters" out of the stratosphere, and the rest of the band has to find something tasty to distract us away from how amazing he is. To be fair, they do, and it all gels together so smoothly despite the obvious level of aggression, for Synchro Anarchy feels slightly more tense and hungry than Target Earth or The Wake.

It also doesn't hurt that the veterans, Snake and Away are at the top of their game with their own respective instruments and writing, and the production on this is totally killer. While I'm not always the biggest sucker for levels of polish like this, for what a band like Voivod is pulling off, it's so critical to get those volumes clear and potent and right in your face, because this is not a band that requires an atmospheric sheen to enhance it...the wondrous, frightening musical spaces they create are AUTOMATICALLY transports to otherworldly metal music parallels. And yet there are plenty of atmospheric effects added here anyways! There is not a note on the album that sounds mixed out of place, and Francis Perron absolutely nailed it. Away's artwork is as always a delight of that freaky pulp futurism we've seen before from the, as with the Post Society EP, and I really enjoyed letting each concept sink in while I stared at the accompanying imagery. The band's visual concepts ignite my nerdy imagination just as they did when I was a kid and first encountered the band.

What's more, there is not a single dud on the entire album. As strong as the first three tunes are, the album gets even BETTER as it goes along, and while highlights are not easy to pick out, tracks like the weird, pumping "Sleeves Off", churning "Holographic Thinking", and catchy-as-hell "Memory Failure" were initial standouts. Of course I was being hasty, because with each successive spin I've continued to appreciate the entire album even more, and it's one of those efforts where you could pull out single tracks for a quick, effective thrill, or just bask in the 48 minutes of genius. There are certainly moments that feel like visitations to the past, but plenty enough here to confirm that this Machine Is Far From Lost, the band's constant creativity is well-intact, they can honor their own history while forging ever further into the sparkling black depths of space metal. I hope I've got enough oxygen to follow along for as many light years as I can.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10]