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]