Monday, October 3, 2022

Akatharta - Spiritus Immundus (2017)

The formidable Kam Lee is one of death metal's most prolific vocalists, and while not all of the projects he involves himself in are top shelf, his own contributions are chock-full of some of the broadest, beefiest and most sustained guttural growls you're ever going to hear, and they almost instantly catapult their surroundings into something more fearsome than they probably even deserve. Akatharta, on the other hand, proves more than worthy to handle that frightening load, because his staggering and horrific delivery throughout Spiritus Immundus is equaled by its crush of mesmerizing, eerie death/doom, creepy acoustics and the novel use of actual Electronic Voice Phenomena samples to grant it an entirely new level of supernatural atmosphere, and all of this combines into a truly harrowing experience which is, for me at least, the finest hour of one Kam Lee and a project that I hope continues even to the detriment of his many others!

Though Spiritus Immundus falls squarely into the funeral doom category, it's a lot busier than one might expect from that niche, perhaps like a Shape of Despair with a slightly wider dynamic range. The huge, chugging, monolithic rhythm guitars are glazed with diabolic harmonies and Kam's growls seem to wax and wane across the beefy cuts, peaks and valleys of guttural abuse that resemble a congregation of angry spirits trying to out-monstrify one another. There's a little repetition to some of the patterns, but it's never painfully so which I've experienced from other, drier acts in this style. The yawning intros and segues are often the most 'funeral' parts of this, and the effect is achieved more with the vocals and sample effects than just the droning guitars. Drums are cautious and steady as with other groups in this style, and the bass is exceedingly simple, roiling with just enough buzz to help the rhythm guitars crush-fuck your soul. I particularly love the little ululating guitar melodies which feed into and out of the other instruments like streams of bleeding agony, and some of the pure, basic chug riffs here like in "Possessione Diabolica" hit you like a concentrated dose of Hooded Menace.

Though they do their best to mesh in the cover of Celtic Frost's "Dethroned Emperor" with the originals, I will say I found that unnecessary and kind of breaks up the novelty of the album preceding it. His voice sounds great growling that one out, and they get into some noisy clamor, but it just doesn't strike with the same impact as the longer tunes. Lyrics are fairly simple, but cover a wide range of supernatural horror from the Eastern to the Western, and nothing too complex is needed there, since the growling itself becomes an instrument that transcends its own prose. The production on this thing is vast, you'll want to turn it up and attempt to make out the detail of the samples and reverbed vocals which are the looser elements of the compositions, anchored by the guitars and drums. This album is ridiculous and I'm ashamed I didn't pay more attention to it sooner, but any fan of the style who wants it as long on atmosphere as heaviness should mandate it to their collection pronto. Cyclopean, soul-crushing death doom.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Hooded Menace - The Tritonus Bell (2021)

From its horror-kitsch Razorback origins through the more morbid and somber death/doom that most would recognize, Finnish act Hooded Menace has always stood out as one of the most memorable in its style. But even knowing that, even frothing at the bit for past works like Fulfill the Curse, Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed, Effigies of Evil or the mighty Never Cross the Dead from 2010, I could not be prepared for how damn epic and unforgettable an album Lasse and company were about to unleash with The Tritonus Bell. Consistently crushing and catchy, having arguably the best production in the band's considerable catalogue, this was a record that unhinged my jaw upon initial release, and never let up through the rest of 2021, becoming my undisputed champion to help stave off a year of global and personal uncertainty.

This is just one of those 'total packages', locking in its atmosphere, musicianship, packaging and songwriting to the degree that many classic albums of my youth once did. I've heard others refer to this as a King Diamond of death metal, perhaps for the obvious reason that Andy LaRocque was on production here, but also the horror themes, the purple cover art might draw you back to an album like The Eye, and most importantly, the quality. Sure, it's a stretch, but replace the falsetto shrieking with growls, and the flashier heavy metal with superbly constructed death/doom grooves, and you might arrive at a place not too far from The Tritonus Bell. At the same time, I also hear a lot of Candlemass, Mercyful Fate grooves and even peak mid-90s Amorphis. The melodies and harmonies abound, leads are well-plotted to create an emotional impact over the drudging chords, and most importantly, like many of my fave albums in any sub-strain of 'doom metal', it understands that its compositions do not require an insufferable amount of slowness and repetition to wring despair from its audience. Hooded Menace has never really shied away from incorporating influence from traditional heavy metal or melodic death, but here the hybrid finds it strongest balance, and you get a masterful tune like "Blood Ornaments" or "Corpus Asunder" as a result.

Don't get me wrong, the album is still largely representative of its predecessors, but there's a dash of colorization here I haven't really felt since the sophomore album, with songs that are even better. Harri's gutturals are impressive despite any lack of range, and the drums are fantastic, but its the guitars that endlessly deliver throughout the 44 minutes, from the inaugural mild shredding of "Chthonic Exordium" to the super earworm finale "Instruments of Somber Finality" which I honestly wish was a lot longer because it totally hooks me. The production is top notch as it inevitably would be with this man in the booth, and while it might not focus too much on the cult and camp horror concepts like their earlier albums, this offers a more sobering, powerful escape into a shadowy, sinister necromantic universe. Mandatory stuff. Fuck, buy a copy for everyone you know, and turn their sunny skies upside down with morbid amusement.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.75/10]

Friday, September 30, 2022

Brain Famine - Die in the Vortex (2022)

Brain Famine is an exciting local Massachusetts prospect which performs an explosive melding of death, grind and thrash, meticulously sculpted so punch more riffs through in mere moments than a lot of bands can do over much lengthier tracks. This would be enough on its own, but add to that a judicious use of eerie melodies or leads that will catch you off guard, and a harrowing vocal style that uses a bit of reverb and hoarseness to create this psychotic, splattering effect that is a lot more exciting than it might prove if he was just barking out your typical guttural or rasp. Die in the Vortex is their second full-length, unsigned for some reason (a status that I'm sure will not last much longer if any labels WITHOUT a famined brain actually hear it), and a dizzying array of speed, technicality and aggression.

I'd almost say their sound is a fusion of something like modern Napalm Death, Altars of Madness and crossover hyper-thrash, that took just a couple semesters of Tech Death studies at the University of Abuse. Vocals bark out in patterns more familiar to the grind sphere, but the guitars that are much more bewildering than your usual four-chord speed-punk, and I for one appreciate the level of proficiency and ambition. Often they'll erupt into these nasty thrash sequences set to interesting, shuffling rhythms, but nothing lasts too long as the band jerks you into yet another memorable pattern that is simply too fast for my old neck to headbang along to. The lead guitars or more melodic runs are short and to the point, but yet another element of elevation which makes the experience even more compelling and well-rounded. The bass tone here is effective, thick and punchy, while the drums are a verifiable tornado of technical aptitude which perfectly compliments the rest. Lyrics and titles are also sharp as a tack, hell I was an English major and I had to look up two words as I was listening through this one (I'm sure you can guess in the track list).

It's REALLY intense, and if you're not ready for it, Die in the Vortex might prove exhausting, but again, most the tracks here are kept very concise between 2-3 minutes, so you don't even have time to realize that your head is about to spin off before it does. The one exception is "Endless March" at over 5, and to be honest I rather like that they space themselves out here, it's got a lot more of the intricate, excellent melodic guitar work and reminds me a lot more of brooding late 80s tech thrash (mid-to-late Coroner, for example). This album clocks in at around 23 minutes, so there isn't too much room, but I'm hoping more like this would appear to flesh out future full-lengths. That said, the area in which they specialize, the shorter, more spastic material is also so well done that I have no real complaints, but it could be better served with a little more of this variation to balance it out. Brain Famine is certainly one of our better local technical extreme metal acts at the moment, imagine Revocation as your gateway drug and then proceed directly to this, controlled bursts of 'off the hinge-ness' that will resonate and reward across multiple listens.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Thursday, September 29, 2022

ACOD - Fourth Reign Over Opacities and Beyond (2022)

Occasionally a record will come along with so much obvious effort and variation put into it that it feels like the band really planned out some veritable tour de force, and such is the case for ACOD's latest opus Fourth Reign Over Opacities and Beyond. Ostensibly an admixture of black, death and thrash metal, they've also got no opposition to tossing in symphonic sequences, narrative samples, or more accessible riffs and melodies than you might expect given their track record. The bottom line is that they've crafted this comprehensive album in which anything can go as long as it services the songwriting, and I've quite enjoyed the experience for all that it draws upon, and the fact that it defies any sort of easy predictability while not swinging too far outside the box.

I'd almost call the orchestral cinematics here 'graceful' in how they adhere to the mightier, pummeling riff-work, but ACOD never makes the mistakes of letting them take over the mix. Listening through a great tune like "Genus Vacuitatis", the guitars are still the stars of the show, providing the most exciting of material, with the extras just complementing it. There's also a pretty wide range of riffs found here, from stuff that reminded me of veterans from Rotting Christ to Moonspell to Samael. No track passes without some successful attempt to hook you, and then they can still get fairly evil and brutal sounding when the need takes them, whether they are flirting with their black or death metal sides. The bass playing is good and thick, simple where it needs to be, like below the glorious melodies throughout "Sulfur Winds Ritual", and the drums are exactly where they need to be, with loads of fills and different beats plastered all over the pieces that reflect their diversity. There's that same sort of Romantic darkness to this record that you probably felt through a lot of the 90s, not that this turns into some Gothic drip-fest.

As for the symphonics themselves, they are quite excellent, whether composed solely on their own in the intro piece "Sur d'anciens chemins...", the eerie interlude "Infernet's Path", or sprinkled throughout the meatier metal cuts. If you're into some of the vintage works of groups like Hollenthon or Therion then you're going to enjoy their use here, and in fact I wouldn't mind just hearing an entire album of just that. Sweeping, bombastic, with choirs to good effect and great production balance against the harder instruments. The vocals are a leaden black rasp with some character to it that can attain a more brutal edge when they strike a more distinctly death metal riff, although there are some spoken word parts and a few sections with backup layered vocals. All of this contributes to a 51+ minute album unlike most others you will hear this year, easy to recommend to a wide swath of fans into melodic black or death metal, Gothic/black, etc, from the groups I listed here to Dimmu Borgir or Stormlord.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Acédia - Fracture (2022)

Acédia hails from the Quebec black metal scene without necessarily conforming to its peers there, not there that has every been a particularly singular sound hailing from that region. Their third album Fracture does bear some of the same atmospherics, slightly lengthy songs and a vibe of more experiential nature rather than a memorable riff-fest, but I can see why they would have drawn the interest of the French label Les Acteurs de L'Ombre Productions, as they fill a niche somewhere between the more post-modern black metal and a structured, traditional style with forms the basis for some of the Medieval black metal brethren out of Europe. Dark and turbulent enough to hit a segment of the Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega fandom, but gleaming with melodies and majesty that might appeal to fans of an Aorlhac or Véhémence. One other band that comes to mind is their labelmates like Wesenwille or Hyrgal.

The compositions are generally characterized by faster or blasted tempos layered with guitar melodies that are not quite labyrinthine in effect, but often weaving and winding and showing some depth that won't always feel immediate upon listening, as if they stretch out their ideas over more measures of space than your garden variety residents in the genre. Despite the brightness often inherent into the bleeding streams of notes, it does maintain an opaque environmental quite well, a density that is often gray and depressing in sensation. I felt as the record went along I was faced with even more dissonant riffing choices, and the constant thundering of the kicks or blasted drums often created an air of confusion (like in the title track, which is the shortest piece on here, nearly half the length of its neighbors). They do occasionally break for less busy sequences, but they often thread these with more atonal, open guitar notes that maintain a sense of neurosis. The bass lines twist and turn beneath them, departing from the rhythm guitars just enough to add to the sense of mental imbalance.

Vocally it's a garbled intonation, a bit more BM rasp than DM growl, which hovers at the edge of its contrast against the guitars, and I did find them fairly monotonous at times, almost like they were providing a simplistic rhythm instrument for the more nuanced and adventurous guitars. This persists, even as the music hits a fever pitch of dissonant weirdness in tracks like "L'inconnu", a rush that at times almost feels like a microtonal black metal Voivod until it picks up until full black metal froth, or maybe like a Ved Buens Ende if their uncanny style was set into a more conventional blasted format. Fracture is definitely an album that requires you to plum its depths for appreciation, across a couple of listens so you can settle into its perspective. I wasn't entirely smitten with it, but the effort and intensity are hard to deny, and fans who are steadfast into the murky, roiling side of black metal will find some potential within.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Hyrgal - Hyrgal (2022)

Hyrgal would be an easy band to go unnoticed in a lineup, what with their simple and minimalistic album covers and the fact that they perform their black metal in a less esoteric and outsider fashion than French peers like Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Nord. But that doesn't mean they should be overlooked, because they produce an effective, haunting, atonal style which is heavily rooted in the conventions of the genre, but not afraid to bend a few atmospheres to come across as more atmospheric and modern, and in that way they DO occasionally bear some semblance to the more popular peers. The band really knocked it out of the park with their sophomore Fin de règne last year, and have already returned for an eponymous follow-up, whose very nature seems to veer towards an even more 'back-to-basics' form than the first two...

...and that's essentially what this is. Hyrgal is not an album with too many surprises, just a straight rush of slow to moderately fast paced traditional black metal, trending towards a little more epic feel in its slower sequences, where the atmosphere takes a stronger hold of the listener, as in "Legende noire" with its bridge full of cascading chords, ambience created through and behind the guitars, mournful leads, rumbling drums and a vocal style that can often transform from the expected rasp into something a bit more throaty, emotional from the chest. They don't saturate the stuff in bright, shiny synths, but conjure up fear and despair through feedback and background noise before slamming into the darker, depressive, blasting segments. There is always a little some extra beyond just the minimum, bare-bones that the riffs and beats would produce thanks to the layering in of leads or melodies, and to be honest, I actually preferred the areas of this record where the band let the darkness breathe a little.

Once they go into blast-mode, it's still fairly effective, especially when hitting some climactic blend of airy guitars and vocal drawl, but sometimes the drumming and rhythm guitars blend into monotony, only to save you with a slightly less predictable, dissonant chord pattern (as in "Vermines"). This is not an album you'll find instant gratification with if you just want some sinister, earworm riffs, it's instead something you've got to put in the commitment with, not a terrible tax as the whole affair wraps up in under 40 minutes. I don't know that I quite enjoyed this one as much as its predecessors, but there is plenty of talent in how they've structured it and remained so deathly loyal to such an oppressive, bleak style that holds up without requiring excessively raw production. Dependable if not terribly dynamic in scope.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, August 1, 2022

'Til summer's end

Off for my annual Summer break, will return this October for a month of Horror Metal reviews! Beware the water. - autothrall

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Hooded Menace - Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed (2018)

Judging by the intro "Sempiternal Grotesqueries", you'd think that Hooded Menace were continuing to pursue the ponderous, slow path they laid out through Darkness Drips Forth, albeit with a less weighty and burgeoning guitar tone. And that funereal touch certain plays a part on this album, but at the same time, Ossuarium Silhouttes Unhallowed does wheel back a little to the sounds of Effigies of Evil and Never Cross the Dead. I don't wanna say it's back to the 'fun' of the Finns formative horror death/doom, the lyrics and atmosphere here are quite brooding and despair-drive, but the way the songs are structured offers a bit more variation and covers a broader network of doom influences. In fact, after the opening track, which is over 10 minutes in length, the rest are cut down to a more manageable length.

Of all their works, this one has some of their strongest traditional doom metal riffs, I mean there's a lot of stuff here that sounds like the death metal equivalent to Candlemass or Solitude Aeternus, and I for one think that is fantastic. Same deep rhythm tones, same eerie, lower guitar harmonies, but with a cleaner production than the last album, one that services both the sluggish architecture and the peppier riffing. The vocals are fucking great, really resonating off the lamentations felt through the guitar melodies, and the drums rumble and thunder like a subterranean space of collapsing rubble. Yes, the whole album conveys a 'cavernous' atmosphere much like the beautiful cover artwork implies, and there is certainly a streak of Incantation running through here, but where most of the bands copying that stuff become insufferably claustrophobic and cluttered, Hooded Menace serenade you with beautiful, elegant melodies that just drift about the cavern space ("In Eerie Deliverance"), occasionally remembering to crush your spirit, as they do so well within a "Cathedral of Labyrinthine Darkness".

The five 'main' tracks on this one are just beastly, among the better the band has written, and then they close it out with a shorter instrumental in "Black Moss", which nicely segues into some crisp acoustics that also stick around in the ear for awhile. At that point, you get the impressive you've just been whisked away from some dark, oppressive nightmare, so it's a nice touch. Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed, with its tongue-twister title, is further proof that Hooded Menace have transformed into, for my money, the most reliable death/doom band in the world. From the art and concepts, to the lyrics, to the delivery of the music, the massive production, and the willingness to toy around with their tunes just enough to keep them interesting and eschew the danger of monotony and repetition that is common in this niche. EVERY album they've put out is worth your coin, just save a few for the ferryman that will loom large over you as you're listening.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (lay waste and command)

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Hooded Menace - Darkness Drips Forth (2015)

Darkness Drips Forth sounds partly like an experiment by Hooded Menace to flirt with a more funereal doom sound, not that it's quick to abandon the trappings that had defined the band to its date, but you can see in the swollen song-lengths and the slightly more glacial pacing that they were going for what might be their most saddening and serious album to its day. Add to that the rather bland (if still cool) cover artwork and you come away with what might be the most color-leeching of all their full-length albums, also fitting that motif. Fortunately, the Finns simply don't know how to fail at writing great music, and Darkness Drips Forth, with its four tracks in 40+ minutes, is quite the grower. I may not have had the same upfront positive reaction as I did with all their other albums, but I can say in all honesty that it has grown on me the most, reclaimed the most ground and nowadays its one I consider when I'm in the mood for the truly monolithic, sluggish death/doom but not quite ready to take the next step towards their countrymen Skepticism (which require another level of pathos and focus for me to handle).

The riffs on this are just as huge as other records, but drawn out appropriately to fill up the epic song lengths, and they all feel like they are being slowly carved into marble or granite, just staggering and Gothic and forcing the listener to abandon all hope within moments. The bass is awesome, slow and spun with just enough buzz on it to contrast against the mournful harmonies that are so vital to this sort of record succeeding, and often left alone a bit which is where the album actually feels more the most funeral. There are some brief flashes of cleaner guitars that are tastefully melded into the slowly lurching obelisk rhythms, and of course the gutturals here sound enormous, the perfect accompaniment to the style. It's not all death-drudging; the pace does pick up to a mid, rocking vibe in some spots, important to prevent any real monotony from setting in, and you often get a warmer sequence like that melody which sets in deep into "Elysium of Dripping Death", but that's clearly not the dominant offering.

Absolutely another quality Hooded Menace record, and it took me a little too longer to come to that realization, but I think this one is best when you're not interested in those little traces of horror kitsch humor that went into the earlier full-lengths. This is the band at its most ponderous and morose, cautiously crushing you through the certainty of their riffing strength and massive atmosphere. More of an homage to their old British Peaceville death/doom or funeral doom influences than their other efforts, perhaps, but still interchangeable with some of the material on the records that sandwiched it, Effigies of Evil or Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed. Realistically, you could dive into any of their works and come away comparably impressed, but just don't expect this one to give quite the same instant gratification that you'll find elsewhere. Persist, and suffer alongside it enough, and it will reveal its morbid magnificence.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, July 25, 2022

Hooded Menace - Gloom Immemorial (2014)

Gloom Immemorial is a fine example of what you get with a compilation when the band/label actually cares about the band's audience and attempts to offer them value and quality above a mere shell of a product. Someone could very easily take a handful of tracks off each of Hooded Menace's first few albums and then cash in, as the songs would likely sound great together and they could summon up some fancy cover art, but instead this is a collection of split 7" tracks and demo material that was probably unavailable to most of us that weren't right in on the ground floor of the band's career. That's not to say that some of the songs aren't available in other incarnations on records like Fulfill the Curse, but there's enough here to warrant inclusion on your shelf, and the Misanthropic-Art cover is also great.

For me specifically the split tracks are a treat, from the potent, limping cover of Anima Morte's "A Decay of Mind and Flesh", which they pulled from a 'mutual cover song' venture. Or the churning of "The Haunted Ossuary" from their split with the highly compatible Coffins, just a straight bruiser of a track that feels like a slow mosh through a mortuary. Or maybe "Catacombs of the Graceless" which is a fantastic track with a morbid groove that they put out on a 12" with Ilsa. Most if not all of the rare material on this is album-worthy, and that's just significant in that it shows us the Finns do not fuck around, and take everything seriously that they expect a fan might by. Now, you do get a few bits like The Eyeless Horde demo tracks which were also on the debut, but one can hardly fault them for that as a lot of folks probably want that collected, and it's, no surprise, strong material from a strong album. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that, taking any redundant tracks off here, just a collection of the split stuff would have made a formidable Hooded Menace record...the aforementioned "Catacombs..." is one of my favorite tracks they've ever done.

This ALSO contains the two tunes from the Labyrinth of Carrion Breeze EP which was pretty recent to this, so you don't have to track that one down. Could Gloom Immemorial have been more complete? Only slightly, there was at least one EP with a few covers (I'll go over this one elsewhere) that I can recall, but with 75 minutes of slug-like, mighty death/doom like this, layered in great mournful melodies, eerie and somber leads, and measured grooves that will twist your insides into a knot, this is a pretty mandatory compilation from Doomentia and Hooded Menace, unless of course you already own all of the separate splits and such.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Order ov Riven Cathedrals - Absolute (2022)

The intro to this record had a really unexpected flair to it, a mix of almost cinematic, mounting percussion, operatic background and ritualistic chants that kept me guessing on what to expect, being that this was my first exposure to Italians Order ov Riven Cathedrals. Right away, though, the band's moniker almost translates directly into their style, epic and grandiose death metal which has a certain Eastern, ethnic flair to it which I could only compare slightly to acts like Melechesh or Nile, and even that might not be fair, because while the sum 'package' of the duo's style fits snugly into the technical and brutal end of its genre, there are plenty of original riffing ideas permeating this throughout which show that it doesn't take anything more than a healthy, scant dose of influence from anyone.

In fact it even stands out against the band's countrymen like Hour of Penance, Hideous Divinity and Fleshgod Apocalypse, although fans of any of these would certainly be in for a treat checking this out, because it's written on the same level of claustrophobic ferocity and mechanical precision than any of those groups mete out. The production might have a similar level of bricked-out force, but the sole instrumentalist, '12', just flogs you with all of these intensely woven patterns of riffs that elevate above the punctual, pummeling substrate of the rhythm guitars. It's almost like you're listening to a classic late 90s brutal death record but with an added level of musicality cascading across its surface, bustling and busy and chop-heavy. The precision beats offer a stifling support for the rest of the insanity, but they're also packed with lots of fills and double-kick runs so that they can match the flexibility of the guitars, as in the chugging, awesome bridge of "Shameful Anthropic Principle" where they outpace the rhythm riffs until the sporadic splashes of filler notes that connect the moshing drudgery.

Perhaps the most anchored component of the material is the blunt vocal guttural of 'En Sabah Nur', but it's delivered at a volume where you can make out a little nuance and sincerity, even if the overall style does not distance itself from most in its genre. There is occasionally also a little bit of monotony to the overall pacing between songs, but the band hurls enough technical Cytotoxin-like flurries and melodies, and tricks through each of the compositions that it never becomes too much of a chore, and at an overall playtime of 32 there is simply no bloat in which it could wear out its welcome. The Order of Riven Cathedrals proves without a doubt (if they hadn't already) that they belong in consideration with some of the top shelf Italian death metal exports, if you want to be quickly and soundly destroyed by some no-frills tech pugilism then this is an easy go-to for the year.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Imperium - Ex Mortis Gloria (2022)

I am all about the Ancient World, and England's Imperium are all about taking all of that history, that conquest and culture and architecture, in particular of the Roman variety, and then filtering it through a lens of brutal whoop-ass that will absolutely be sending me to an appointment with my chiropractor. While at times the contrast between extreme modernity and thematic classicism can seem disjointed, there is just enough use of atmospherics to feel like it isn't out of place. But I will warn the potential listener: this record is almost suffocating in its total intensity, while the band is smart enough to let a few of the riffing sequences air out, to create some pauses amidst the pummeling, when this bands fires on all cylinders it can almost prove dizzying.

The main cause of this is the incredible interplay between guitarist Mike Alexander, a name that should probably be on everyone's lips after hearing his ceaseless volley of frenzied, fluid, complicated riffs, and the drummer, Swedish veteran Janne Jaloma (Night Crowned, Dark Funeral, Aeon, and many others), who is like caged thunder, battering his kit at levels of extremity that I hardly believe. Complement these two with a vocalist whose broad snarls, growls and howls make a necessary contrast against the sweltering complexity and you've got a force to be reckoned. I mean, Ex Mortis Gloria is really one of those albums you find yourself listening to and wondering if we've just gone too far? But then the band will reel you straight back in with a measured, elegant lead like that of "Indignitas" and keep you just grounded enough to not lose your shit entirely. If you've got a weak heart, however, this might be one you want to ingest in smaller doses, or at least turn it down a smidge from the volume I was stupid enough to experience it at.

I cannot imagine this album not taking Imperium places, for all its intensity it relies more on sheer musicality than dissonance, and while the faster material can grow exhausting, there is plenty more going on. It easily breaks the proficiency scale, its got that nice historical theming going for it akin to an Ade or an Ex Deo, and it ticks every brutal box, crumples up the test and asphyxiates you with it. Now if you'll excuse me I need some oxygen.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, July 22, 2022

Hooded Menace - Necrotic Monuments EP (2012)

Necrotic Monuments might play it a little safe in the cover department, choosing two tracks that are doom metal related and thus fit straight into the Hooded Menace wheelhouse, but the Finns still do a great job of converting them into cuts that would work among their own set lists, and if you weren't the wiser you might not even realize it wasn't their own material. To me, that's the hallmark of a quality cover song, one that honors the original but gets converted to something fresh, not just a bunch of karaoke bar doppelganger bullshit. To that extent, while it's really short like most 7" records are, this maintains the consistency of quality that the band is known for, and I enjoyed both tracks and think they'd probably fit in on most of their full-lengths...

"Psychopath" from Swedish death/doom cult Eternal Darkness is really close to the belt, of the two tunes present this one would required less manipulation, but it's spot on as a Hooded Menace jam...with slow, mournful riffs and melodies that immediately envelop you into the Finns' trodden atmosphere. The other, "Burning a Sinner" from Witchfinder General's debut Death Penalty was the more interesting pick, since I love that band, and yet they've managed to transform that NWOBHM doomy goodness into something more crushing and fitting to their own sound. Some of that pastoral trad doom groove is certainly maintained here, and its thus a bit simpler than most of what you'd expect from this band's own catalogue, but they glaze over some of those sad melodies and then all is well. They even bust out into the most rock & roll lead they've done, but that also just makes sense with the context of the original group. The bass sounds pretty good on this one and frankly I wouldn't mind hearing the Menace tackle a whole bunch of oldies like this if they were ever to promote a full-length of covers.

As an added bonus, this comes packed with a version of Effigies of Evil on Relapse Records, so that's probably how many of you would experience it. I do think there's a Digital version of that full album, however, that also has a cover of Claudio Simonetti's "Theme from Tenebre", which is cool and shows us another side of Hooded Menace's good taste. We know they love great metal, traditional and extreme, they're also inspired by a ton of cult horror cinema. So you're not left out in the cold if vinyl does nothing for you. But even as a collector's item with just the two tunes, this is worth hearing since they show the same respect to the covers as their own material.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, July 21, 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]

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Droid - Terrestrial Mutations (2017)

Take just about everything from Droid's Disconnected EP the year before, and then make it louder, better produced, more intricately designed and detailed, and you've got one of the best full-length Canadian thrash metal debuts in quite some time. Sure, there is still some semblance of standing in the shadow of those better-known countrymen performing in the same style, but this Ontario trio is wise to cultivate just a fraction of that Voivod influence and continue to shift it into something that becomes their own. The brighter, more powerful songwriting and mix of this album also highlights the contrast between the busy guitars and blunter, harsh vocals quite well, and both work better in unison than they did on the EP where it was a little rough.

It takes only the first moment of "Amorphous Forms (Shapeless Shadows)" to transport the listener off-world, with great melodic riffing, just the right level of effects, fluid bass lines and drumming that sounds a fuck ton better than the mix on the EP. Terrestrial Mutations is a phenomenal record because you simply don't know what's lying around each shift in its cosmic landscape; Jacob Montgomery's guitar playing is just that good, and he really brings to mind a lot of the more creative thrash axe-men of the later 80s and early 90s who populated records like Deathrow's Deception Ignored or Artillery's By Inheritance. Not so dauntingly brilliant as that stuff, perhaps, but constantly exciting, balancing out melody and aggression perfectly, and just alien and spacey enough to take me to that place on the cover art, and to many beyond. His vocals, while still a bit one-dimensional, have the right swell and mix of effects to feel like they are echoing angrily out through the empty hull of some drifting space-ship, and he's matched by a rhythm section of Michael Gabor and Sebastian Alcamo who are fantastic and both upped their game from the previous year's release.

This record just slays, from the Megadeth-meets-Voivod hooks of "Suspended Animation" to the more melancholic and mood-shifting title track, nothing ever sounds quite the same twice, thought it all seems to occupy the same envelope of style. They can pull off a ten minute composition with a lot more adventure in it as they can a shorter, more direct thrash piece, and when listening to this I feel like they could take on such an even wider scope, the stars are the limit!? In fact the one downside to listening through Terrestrial Mutations again is that I'm sad they haven't put out another offering in the 4-5 years since this one dropped. I know some of them are also involved in the retro metal/hard rock group Freeways (also a good band), but I can cross my fingers that they'll be called back out to the greater cosmos soon enough. Killer disc, familiar but fresh, and if you're looking for more stuff like Voivod's masterful 1987-1991 period or DBC's Universe then I'd advise you to give this one a go!

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Droid - Disconnected EP (2015)

Canada. Sci-fi. Thrash metal. The first thing that comes to mind is obviously Autothrall's favorite band in the world, Voivod, but the idea of hearing other bands from that same neighborhood perform their own spin on the concept is thrilling by osmosis. DBC's excellent Universe was a great example, and certainly we've heard that on the more technical death/thrash end of the scale with groups like Martyr and Obliveon, but the more recent Droid takes on a slightly less intense approach on their Disconnected EP which feels more like a fusion of classic thrash, heavy and speed metal with perhaps a handful of crossover strands in its DNA, and a healthy degree of involved or slightly technical riffing for an added level of depth.

While I'm not going to say that there isn't a little 80s Voivod influence in there, I think Droid does a pretty good job of establishing themselves as their 'own thing'. There are a lot of dissonant guitar chords that might recall Piggy, especially in "Cosmic Debt" which is their most punkiest, quirkiest, and the most similar to that influence; but also they use some other, warmer tones, and the agile licks that occupy tunes like "Breach Oblivion" certainly feel like they have more in common with other thrash scenes like the Teutonic school. The lead-work here is pretty outstanding, and they'll often throw up some nice atmospheric melodies that ring out over the busier rhythmic substrate. The bass-work is solid, grooving along not unlike a Blacky but nicely mixed in to support those crispier rhythm guitar tones. The vocals are a pretty straight crossover/thrash bark, not terribly interesting but certainly fit to the dystopian nature of the lyrics and concepts.

My one other small gripe is in the production, it's clear but fairly mundane and doesn't always emphasize some of the power of the guitars, but this is something they will improve upon their full-length, and to be honest, at worst this one just sounds like a great demo recording. It's authentic and sometimes dirty sounding, but never too splattery like a lot of Venom-worshipping black/thrash acts (which, to be fair, I do really love). I enjoy inventive, interesting thrash and speed metal, and while Droid don't reinvent any wheels on this, they're clearly distancing themselves from a lot of the more generic pizza party re-thrash outfits and coming up with good guitar licks that balance off mystery and melody, and Disconnected was a solid launching pad for something great.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Spell - Opulent Decay (2020)

I was so hyped up on For None and All that its follow-up, four years later, Opulent Decay, felt like a bit of a letdown up front. Not like its a far cry from the sophomore outing, but the band has once again taken a bit of a left turn, and molded a few new influences into their heavily retro metal sound. Namely, there are some guitars here that give off more of the classy Goth rock vibe, and the use of synthesizers seems more like something you'd hear on an atmospheric metal record than an old Boston disc. It turns out that was I was being a bit presumptuous, because this is actually another strong work for the Canadian trio, perhaps not their best, but showing that they can continue to move along in whatever direction their imagination takes them, and bear me along for the ride.

The album is like if you mixed some Rush and Sisters of Mercy with other Canadian retro metal bands like Cauldron or Freeways. It still sounds like something that could have burst out in the latest 70s or earlier 80s, Cam's voice is much the same as it was on the last album, maybe more moody and reserved, and the riffs are still densely melodic and metallic, a lot of them dwelling in that vintage margin between glam/hard rock and true heavy metal from decades past, but almost always well-thought and catchy. But the compositions here are far more liable to throw you for a loop, they'll be treading along lightly with a melodic metal verse and then go into something a little more bottom-heavy and jammy, and it's there that the slight prog rock touches really shine through. The drums and bass feel thicker and more syrupy than the album before it, and the material definitely casts a weird vibe much like that cover art...okay, maybe it doesn't sound like a Lovecraftian hell-scape, but its not the easiest to define.

The sense of adventuring with their style is probably just as strong here as on the sophomore album, and that's the real value of Opulent Decay. Cuts like "Sibyl Vane" and the epic "The Iron Wind" just ricochet off into a million little sub-styles, from prog to heavy metal to Goth to doom. Or they'll go with a different vocal as in "Deceiver", or the awesome, mournful harmonies of the vocal piece "Ataraxia". Who the hell would expect that? There are just a lot of unexpected components to this one, and that ultimately makes it worthwhile and ties into the more epic, mystical, fantastic themes the band is exploring. And who knows just where the hell they're going to take us next? It should definitely prove interesting.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Spell - For None and All (2016)

As fun as The Full Moon Sessions proved to be, there was a little sense of it being slapped together and lacking cohesion, something the Canadians Spell were quick to fix on the sophomore effort For None and All, which excels beyond its predecessor in just about every department. You've still got that sense of nostalgic 80s metal, almost like a collage of the obscure NWOBHM and Metal Blade acts from that decade, but this new album also has a bit more of an infusion of 70s hard rock and proto-metal due to some of the retro riffing, lead guitars and vocalizations. It all comes together quite wonderfully to be what I'd consider the trio's strongest work to date, obscenely catchy and just sounding tremendous coming through my car speakers. Yes, this is just another album I love to spin when I'm driving my sons around or just want a soundtrack for the wind through my beard (my old man proxy for having a head of hair), it's a highly mood-driven collection of tracks that sound just as good now as they did six years ago.

I suppose Cam's vocals are the place to start, he's got a very authentic, natural mocking tone to his voice that sounds impetuous but perfectly suited to the music, especially when it comes against the more epic contrast of something like the choir that erupts in "Whipping Sigils". The way he delivers his lines does remind me of fellow Canadians Cauldron, who also use a very down-to-earth, guy-next-door sort of vocal style, but the pitch is higher, more playful and leering. There are a few tunes in which it can feel a little monotonous, a wider range wouldn't hurt, but they're still beyond adequate. The guitars are extremely melodic, running through a rich set of patterns in each tune with one of the most wonderful guitar tones. I'm actually reminded a bit of the first two Def Leppard records with a few of those great rhythm guitars in the mix, and also by the constant crest of melodies and harmonies, but really this guy is using all sorts of effects to add in bluesy, funky or atmospheric layers as well. Graham McGee is great here.
The bass pops along audibly with lots of nice grooves or fills to round out the amazing guitar performance, and the drums sound very natural and authentic to the fusion of 70s and 80s metal influences. They also use some cool throwback synthesizer pad lines, choirs, or really whatever the moment needs to sculpt tracks that go straight into your memory, and I very often found myself wondering what decade I was in, although the music here is strong enough to conquer the 21st century. For None and All is might not maintain the same level ten tracks deep, but there are no stinkers in the bunch, and this should be a go-to to any true heavy metal fans heavy with nostalgia for hard rock and metal for such formative years, being thrust into the present with a style just as fun as your latest power metal or Euro arena metal obsession. Easily one of my faves of that entire retro inspired Canadian heavy metal scene!

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Spell - The Full Moon Sessions (2014)

You always gotta wonder how a band lands on such an obvious, simple moniker as Spell and yet it hasn't already been taken by some legacy act for decades. I'm positive there are some other underground acts that have used it through the ages, but it's just so perfect to the type of metal these Canadians perform that it feels that the moons were really in some sort of magical alignment for all this to come together. Part of that massive Canadian blitz of the last decade that includes groups like Cauldron, Striker and Skull Fist, these guys make an strong impression right out of the starting gate with a series of NWOBHM-sounding hymns updated for the 21st century through brightness of production alone, and very little to any other nuance or evolution of the much-beloved roots of melodic heavy metal.

The Full Moon Sessions offer up a nice variety of proto-speed/power metal and then occasionally a bit that sounds a little more epic like a Manilla Road, Manowar or Omen, and they've got a nice mix here that never quite sounds the same, even the production sounds a little rawer and rougher on some tunes than on others, yet fittingly so. "Electric Witchery" has a big, booming epic metal anthem feel, where "Never Enough/Sisters of the Moon" is just a filthier force with some great little screams and picking passages. And then a piece like "Possessed by Heavy Metal" sounds like a raunchy, faster-paced Twisted Sister if Dee was using a higher pitch. The bass and drums are also good, but I think the real highlight of the style has to be the aesthetics and production which make this sound like you've stumbled across a box of old 80s heavy metal demos from bands that never really got to live the dream, or maybe a compilation tape mix that a few heshers were passing around those 30-40 years ago and now you can finally bring it to light and recognize it for the glory which its own creators never fully grasped.

It's certainly a little short, only about 25 minute if you were to clip off the acoustic instrumental "Zott Lee" from the ending. It's also little cheesy, a fraction generic, and sure you've heard every technique and probably most of the riffs on this album before, but for me it's just the right sort of tribute... intelligent in how its using influences below the mainstream of 80s metal, and unwilling to sacrifice its underground sincerity by going too polished with the production. Of the three Spell albums to date, this one was the loosest, you could argue the band might not have fully locked down where it wanted to be, but judging buy the differences between its too successors, I think this is a case of some guys who don't planning on resting on any laurels and writing whatever the hell they want at any point in time. If you want the trio's most structured and mature material, you'll want For None and All, without question, but if you love the charm and glitz of traditional under-the-radar North American heavy metal with a healthy heaping of British influence, this debut is a no-brainer too.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, July 4, 2022

Vampire - Rex (2020)

Vampire has been one of the more consistent Swedish extreme metal acts of the last decade, and they've got a pretty broad sound which can be seen as a successor to not only classic melodic black metal from that scene (Dissection) but also to the blackened/thrash legacy of a group like Nifelheim. And I wouldn't even limit them within those very parameters, because they've sort of developed a style of their own that is equally nestled between the black, death/thrash and black/thrash niches and provides them a lot of potential riffing attacks form many attention. Having said that, their third full-length Rex definitely leans mostly into the blackened thrash aesthetics, a hard hitting rhythmic undercurrent that is balanced off by a lot of excellent melodic guitars over the top. This one didn't give me the immediate thrills of their eponymous debut, but after a half dozen spins it's proven to be yet another excellent offering in their catalogue.

This is riff-fucking-tastic from the starts, with loads of faster paced guitars that structurally resemble a lot of what you hear from many of the frilly, evil, post-Venom sorts of groups. Take something like a Craven Idol or Deathhammer, but then focus in on the more extreme ends of those, barbaric riffing meant to roll over you like a...reaper on horseback!? But then take all that business, and add the complex and furious layers of memorable melodies that defined so much of Swedish metal of the it the black metal end of the spectrum, melodic death, you name it. Beyond that, they also have a penchant for throwing in some tasteful and minimalistic synths right where it counts to elevate the black heart of the music to the next level. Rex is a beast from fore to aft, shifting between volatile, fast scathing numbers like the title track, or some more moderately-paced neck jerkers like "Pandemoni" which they spice up with rapid fills and dissonant little effects to add a layer of cinematic intensity. The musicianship is top notch, although I think it's really gotta be the guitars and light touches of synths that put this one over the threshold.

Vocals are a great, loud hybrid between a bark and rasp, almost similar to a Tribulation only matched up with the far more furious, thrashing music. They work especially well when they're barked out and sustained over the more shifting, ominous patterns as in "Moloch", but it's a top notch performance on every line across the record, spitting all kinds of horror/occult themed lyrics that you want from a band with the Vampire moniker. The production here is just right, kind of timeless and washed out rather than too punchy or bright or polished, and it just foments the perfect atmosphere for this level of grace-threaded violence. If you're a fan of bands like Nifelheim, Bewitched, or Swordmaster who were blowing up a bit in the 90s Swedish underground, this band is the most natural successor to much that they strove for, and in my opinion even more effective. Rex is their most purely punishing record to date, even if it's not quite my favorite, but it's the sort of aggressive/atmospheric mix that will sound just as good today as it's going to in a decade. Don't sleep on this. 

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, July 1, 2022

Vampire - With Primeval Force (2017)

You only need a few minutes into "Knights of the Burning Crypt" to realize that With Primeval Force is truth in advertising, a more furious entry into the Vampire canon than the band's eponymous debut, and a purist continuation of the Swedish savagery of their 90s black metal scene, both the more brutal based style like Marduk, Sacramentum or Lord Belial, and the more thrashing side of things. That's not to say that this is a band to ever blast away monotonously, it's more that they carry forward the carnal riffing patterns, often somewhat predictable but still impressive just by the sheer force and consistency. But what places this band beyond that is their excellent use of atmosphere and melody to create such a well-rounded set of tunes that really bring honor to the album format.

There's also a nice influence from Germanic thrash here which becomes more obvious in a cut like "He Who Speaks" reminiscent of Kreator, and a lot of speed metal too inherent in the "Metamorfosis" riffing. Vampire is such a total package that they don't let a track pass without a few essential melodies and really ripping, excellent leads that bring to mind any number of heavy metal or thrash influences ranging from Mercyful Fate to Destruction. All of these wide array of inspirations are unified beneath the carnal and incredible rasping of Hand of Doom, and those little segues and moments of horror atmosphere that they first introduced on their debut, but are inserted expertly into the tunes like at the end of "Metamorfosis" with its acoustics and ghostly keys, or the synth and reverb that inaugurates the "Initiation Rite". The drumming is likewise excellent, just as strong as most of the rest of the mighty Swedish legacy acts, with strong double-kick, good fills and a nice natural mix that balances out against the more raw, vile power of the guitars.

With Primeval Force is certainly more of a beastly attack than the debut, yet it doesn't lose much by way of songwriting or intricacy, it's just excellently written music that services its black, thrash, and heavy metal components somewhat equally. If Dissection were more into horror movies, this might have been what they sounded like, and if that's not enough to tempt you into trying these albums I don't know what will. Metal music is such an embarrassment of riches these days that a band like this, which should be on the lips and in the ears of a vast swath of fandom, is just not one I hear spoken of much at all beyond those who are really into the mighty swell black/thrash emergent in the last decade. Vampire is on point, two points that will sink smoothly into your fucking neck. Invite them in.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Vampire - Cimmerian Shade EP (2015)

I am not a vinyl collector. I've got a stack of old records from back in my youth, and a couple I've gotten through the years, or sent for review, but the CD is my format of choice, and things like the Cimmerian Shade 10" EP are some of the few reasons I regret that. Yes, I'm aware that this was available on a special tour edition of the debut, but I'm stuck with my normal copy of that disc, and a digital of Cimmerian Shade. So be it, but obviousy, you can already tell that I think this is fucking awesome, in fact a few of the tunes on this are among my favorite by Vampire, and that's saying a lot because the band is tremendous, and has yet to fail me in any regard, except for the arguable failure of not having an exclusive CD version of the EP for schlubs like this one...

Not as savage as the albums to follow it, but extremely compelling, melodic black metal ("Pyre of the Harvest Queen") that rages down much of the same roots, while the 'B' side tracks "Night Hunter" and "Hexahedron" are scorching examples of the band's more blackened/thrash, just nasty ass metal that blitzes on past you and leaves you branded with some catchy licks among chords powered by the classics like Hellhammer, Bathory, Venom, Slayer, and their ilk; only with that melodic black stuff mixed in there to make them even more multi-faceted. The instrumental "Sleeper in the Deep" is the odd one out here, a tranquil blend of ambient and acoustic guitars which is totally 'fine', but that's a crime when its matched up with all the rest of these songs. Cimmerian Shade is fantastic and played out like a quick and delicious notification that their excellent eponymous debut was not just going to prove a fluke. Curse you, vinyl collectors! By which I mean 'pity me'. :(

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Miasmal/Vampire - Split EP (2014)

Miasmal and Vampire seem like a natural team up for a split 7". Both are Swedish, both are melodic and aggressive, and both are pretty good, although I'm not sure I'd place the former in quite the same class as the latter. But I certainly dig the Miasmal s/t and their later albums, and the potential for these two on Century Media was immense, and hopefully it still is, but we haven't heard from Miasmal in some years. I admit that I was most interested in this for "The Night It Came Out of the Grave", an exclusive Vampire track which is quite awesome and more in their blackened thrash vein, with heavy overtures of Slayer in the rhythm guitars and a bit more of a wicked rawness than their full-length albums, but mostly within the same wheelhouse and quite a good song, though I can appreciate that they'd cast it out for a collector's item like this one. The lead in particular is awesome, and the cool Hellhammer-groove breakdown at the end.

The Miasmal tune is also somewhat fun, propelled by the band's Entombed d-beat influence and then some riffs that rip forth at a faster, more lethal pacing, but it's not nearly as interesting for me because it does kind of blend in with so many other bands of this variety and doesn't do much to distinguish itself, whereas the other side of the 7" is much more fresh and evil. Still, "Queen of a Poisoned Realm" has some great leads in it and it doesn't wear out its welcome, but I prefer a lot of the tunes on their full-lengths to this one. All told, it's nice that these are exclusive tracks to this release, it has some value for collectors, and any chance to hear another Vampire track is a welcome one, over the last seven years they've grown into one of my favorite Swedish exports.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

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]