Monday, October 31, 2022

Bloody Hammers - Under Satan's Sun (2014)

North Carolina's Bloody Hammers is a band I've always wanted to like on paper and on principle, but something about the execution has held me back. Their ghoulish aesthetics read like a Hammer Horror film writ large into a Gothic doom mold, and they clearly have a whole lot of taste when it comes to the movie culture they immerse themselves into, as well as their own shock rock and classic musical influences. There's also the idea that this band doesn't sound much like any other celebrating the same sorts of horror idolatry...they're not a giallo-grind band, a brutal gore-death band, a Mercyful Fate worshiper, hell they don't even sound too much like the other Sabbath-styled occult doom metal bands that I would argue is the closest fit for them. Although the band clearly thrives off nostalgia, they don't sit and stew in it, they sound more like a band that would have been heard on more modern airwaves...a mix of hard rock, grunge and Goth that isn't necessarily offensive on the ears, but at the same time doesn't really stand out as far as it should.

Now, having said all that, I only recently exposed myself to Under Satan's Sun, their third full-length and I believe the first with Napalm Records, and I find it...alright. Very predictable rhythm guitars that are given just enough crunch and bite for the stoner sect, but occasionally they'll go off into a more interesting and eerie doom lick ("Spearfinger"). The rhythm section is quite simplistic, but effective for the style, and they are constantly adding a blend of keys, pianos, harmonicas, etc to cultivate the more nostalgic, throwback rock or black & white Gothic horror aesthetics. The one really strong point they've got is Anders' voice, which has a nice, higher-pitched edge to it without getting ridiculous, and this in particular works with their harder hitting, sludgier doom tracks like "The Moon Eyed People", which give off a Trouble vibe that I enjoyed. In fact, I wish there were a hell of a lot more like this, because the general rule for me is that when the Bloody Hammers increase to this angrier, heavier laden style of doom riffing, they become more memorable...

That's not to say this is the only moment to shine, because they have a few more anthemic heavy rock pieces like "Second Coming" and "Under Satan's Sun", reminiscent of Lake of Tears, even if the rhythm guitars don't quite get catchy enough. But all in all, while Under Satan's Sun doesn't really excel in its style, and suffers a lot from overly pedestrian chord selections, it's at least a listenable album, and not as awkward as a few other tracks I've heard from in the past. Their lyrics do the subject material justice ("The Town That Dread Sundown"), although I don't feel like the music end of things really translates the creepiness or atmosphere of these cult films all that well, but then again...neither do a lot of the horror punk bands who just write basic happy chord patterns and cover them in more thematic lyrics. This album hasn't quite sold me on the Bloody Hammers, but it's not too trashy either and I think if the stronger, heavier chops were more elaborate they'd really be onto something.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Friday, October 28, 2022

Broken Gravestones - Let Sleeping Corpses Lie EP (2011)

Broken Gravestones is a collaboration between prolific cult growler Kam Lee and several Spanish musicians including Noel Kemper who is known from a bunch of bands like Gruesome Stuff Relish and Altar of Giallo. My assumption is that this was meant to be the sidest of side projects, just another outlet for these gentlemen to celebrate their love for all things horror, pulp and gory through their common death metal medium. It's also a collaboration between Sevared and Comatose, two labels better known for their most extreme, brutal death metal, but as I predicted from looking upon the EP, this is certainly a more old school offering which relies on primal riffing and songwriting rather than trying to spin your head off with rhythmic excess. 

You get your obligatory, creepy sample/intro to set the mood, and then the guys just dig in with some steady paced, roiling death metal which more than anything reminded me of a Bolt Thrower, down to the little swerves and grooves they place against the central chugging momentum, with rhythm guitars that have that eerie, downtuned feel that always feels grindy. Kam's voice is a bit more gruesome than Karl, and the lyrical matter is much more in theme with what you'd expect than about endless warfare, but there it is, and its an aesthetic that continues throughout the majority of the tuneage. The leads here are quite nice, chaotic and whipping little affairs where they play around with the whammy bar or whatnot and add a much needed upper level or dimension to what is otherwise a bit too plodding and monotonous. However, it's the total package with the ugly instrumental tones, bucket-kicking drums and commitment to gruesome vocals that might place it higher for some.

The last two tracks are repeats, or rather demos of "The Rising Dead" and "Zombies Don't Run" which don't add a lot of value other than the fact that they are rawer, uglier, and more morbid, but not in a good way as I think the newer versions are superior. All told, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie isn't one I'd really chase after unless I had to have everything Lee sings on, or if you were really deep into the Spanish goregrind and death metal scene, which frankly this doesn't quite mirror in style anyway. It's not bad...Broken Gravestones love their zombies and their ancient death metal, but they haven't written the most interest or memorable epitaphs here.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Cradle of Filth - Midnight in the Labyrinth... (2012)

Cradle of Filth's music already has such a natural sweep and bombast to it that converting the metallics into sheer orchestration only seemed natural to me around the time Midnight in the Labyrinth, or Songs for the Recently Dead and Arisen showed up. This has always been a band refined at marketing, putting out elaborate products, focusing in hard on their videos, image, and so forth, and thus you shouldn't expect any less when they drop the heaviness to release a two-disc, 2 hour 20 minute collection of cuts across transformed into pure symphonic cheese from across their catalogue to date (in 2012). Unfortunately, while so much of this release is exactly what they promised, I can't help but feel that only the second of the two discs was actually necessarily...

Now, both of them are nearly identical, with the first one track longer, but the issue for me is that I had absolutely no interest in wanting to hear the narration from Dani Filth and Sarah Jezebel Diva. Filth is still putting sinister filters on his vocals as if he was still singing to the Gothic/black metal version, even going into a growl or two, and the whole thing seems boisterous, blustery and tremendously goofy. Did anyone really ask for this? One can certainly argue for the choir parts, they definitely contribute to the rousing evil feel of these epic compositions, but I am more than happy with the second disc, which simply converts a lot of the band's great tunes into pieces I can now use as a backdrop for a Gothic horror RPG, or even a glorified and more heavily produced dungeon synth album. Hearing "The Forest Whispers My Name", "Cruelty Brought Thee orchids" and "Dusk and Her Embrace" in this format is wonderful, really justifies the product, and they even keep the choirs though they are placed a little lower against the synthesized orchestra.

You can tell that some of the tunes here would be better with more natural instrumentation, but despite that I still think their material renders down to this version quite sincerely, as its obvious when they're composing a lot of the metal material they've got a Dark Wagnerian vision in mind to begin with. The organs and other tones simmer against the roiling storm-clouds of the bands' twisted British poetic imagination, making this perfect for a period piece vampire battle or some other Transylvanian epic, it's not all evil and creepy sounding, so bear that in mind; it's not such a great score for some unnerving Lovecraftian horror, but for something more historical it's wonderful. If only a little of the ego had been held in check, and they'd instead given us TWICE the songs in the pure instrumental/choral realm, this would be a home run release, but it ends up partly as corny as the digitized cover photo. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe there's a group of CoF devotees who really want to hear Dani's lustrous, demented narration while they bob for apples and compare spider-web tattoos, but I think Midnight in the Labyrinth is brought lower than its potential for this overindulgence.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Boneyard - Fear of a Zombie Planet (2014)

Boneyard is a solo act of the Spanish musician Noel Kemper, who might best be known for Gruesome Stuff Relish, but also has a good number of other projects which all tend to fall under the realm of horror and exploitation worship, grind and death metal. You can already tell from the cover art that this debut album is focused on both ends of that, a paean to the zombie pioneers George Romero and Lucio Fulci whose seminal films of the walking dead are still venerated today. Kemper does all the instruments and vocals here, so expectations should be tempered; this is unlikely to provide some high budget, technical death metal, but rather one man doing the best he can with what's he's got as he pays tribute to the splattered guts and hollow stares of the monsters that helped define his upbringing.

To that extent, I actually think parts of Fear of a Zombie Planet sounds pretty amazing...he's got this super raw and ripping guitar tone which is a bit of a mix of the British grindcore legends and the classic Swede death metal, and he's unleashing a bevy of catchy hacksaw riffs in there, an awesome distorted bass tone, passable programmed beats and then a lot of undercurrent samples of screams and such. Even the wacky, amateur leads sound cool as hell when they erupt out against the rhythm guitars. Musically, this album is fairly on point at what it needs to be...but there is one major problem...the throaty, raspy, garbly vocals are placed WAY TOO LOUD in the mix, and pretty much destroy the production of this album. This is not uniformly the case, there are a few moments where they get a touch softer, but for most of the direction this is a massive distraction that spoils what would otherwise have been a good listen, it sounds like someone listening to an album in the background and then barking into a microphone over it with some effects pedals.

It's not even that the rasps are that bad, I think they'd work fine at a lower level where you just let those ripping fucking guitars take the center stage, because they are the best written and most professionally produced part of the recording. But at this volume the flaws become too apparent, and it just erases the value I could get out of the cool riffs, cover art, zombie and cannibal lyrics. To be fair, I have heard bits of a more recent album he did called Return to a Zombie Planet, and the vocals are mixed in much better there, though the songwriting was slightly different. I think this debut would probably be worth remixing and remastering with a re-recording of the vocals, maybe some better live drums, but keep the guitar and bass tracks; you could have a little cult classic here for fans of stuff like Exhumed, Ghoul, Impaled, or the rosters of labels like Razorback Recordings. As it stands, that one significant flaw just gets in the way, there is no escaping it but to shut the disc off.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Deathlike Silence - Saturday Night Evil (2009)

Having a band name in common with the notorious Norwegian black metal label was probably ill-advised around the time that this Finnish Goth metal act was active, not because there is some ownership of the phrase, but rather that you'd just want to avoid the comparisons or mockery they might manifest from the underground that you're still tangentially a part of. Then again, it's appropriate enough for a group using horror themes, and in facts its those themes, the cinema poster style album cover and promise of some 'grave digger metal' that drew me to check this out. Could it evoke some 'Jack the Ripper'? Burke and Hair? From Hell? In fact the group tackles a pretty wide net of horror subjects including Lovecraft ("Dagon"), and of all things includes a Mike Oldfield cover ("Midnight Shadow"), so Saturday Night Evil at least had my attention up front...

Unfortunately, it wasn't able to HOLD that attention, because while the lyrics and artwork might try to capture the Gothic horror aesthetics, it's really just another of so many bands that sound like a less ambitious Nightwish, but without the hooks that made that group famous. The main focus here is on simple chugging patterns, glazed over with atmospheric synthesizers half-reminiscent of 80s AOR, and then the vocal charms of 'Ms. Maya', because in true gentlemanly British horror fashion, all of the band members go under a creepy 'Mr.' heaing...'Mr. Gehenna', 'Mr. Catafalque', 'Mr. Lethargy', that last one an all-too apt foreshadowing of his keyboard presence. Now, mind you, none of this stuff is really all that bad if you're just in the mood for un-challenging, inoffensive Gothic rock with chorus parts that quickly fade off and over the edge the memory hole. They also shift up the speed for a few numbers that feel more like power metal lite, and in those cases they let Maya flex a little, and Lethargy will throw in some organs or some more fun keyboard tones, sort of a Halloween-garbed alternative to what groups like Battle Beast have become.

Her vocals are actually nuanced and have a nice bite to them, they just aren't configured into the most memorable sequences, but I don't mind listening to her. Another strength here is the lead guitarist, Mr. Cerberos, who injects some cool shredding into a number of the tracks that instantly elevates them beyond what they probably deserve. The tracks are split between the straight forward Gothic four-note chug patterns in moderate to slower pace, and then a few of the more upbeat songs that I mentioned, but there is just too little to get excited for. Now I've hardly been a connoisseur of this style, there were certainly a few albums I enjoyed by bands like Theater of Tragedy, Nightwish or Elis at one point in time, but I felt like it got too commonplace and an album like this is a symptom of such trendiness. The best I can say is that Deathlike Silence is professional-sounding, the singing is decent, the leads skilled, the lyrics passable, and the production is obviously very polished and presentable. It's not unpleasant...but that's the rub, this is HORROR metal, it's supposed to give me something unpleasant or unnerving...and these stock riffs, insipid chorus parts and the 'safety' of the whole thing really leaves me underwhelmed and unafraid.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Mortuary Drape - Secret Sudaria (1997)

Although a number of the Italian black metal acts conformed quite heavily to the obvious Scandinavian influencers, there were a few exceptions to the rule which hinted at a unique approach to the genre that mirrors their Ionian fellows in Greece. Mortuary Drape is one of the primary among those, a group that has always thrived on both its formative horror influences as well as the 'first wave' of black and death metal rooted in the 80s, much like the Italians themselves. In the DNA of their sound, you can find a lot of the vile thrashing of Possessed, Slayer, Sepultura and Sarcofago, dealt with a bit of the gruff Hellhammer or Celtic Frost groove and vocal roughness. This is not a group thriving off blast beats and endless streams of tremolo picked notes or dissonant chords, but something primitive and malignant.

I remember when a friend first gifted me this CD, and though I was enraptured by the great, Satanic cover imagery, I didn't know what to make of it up front. I had heard of the band's earlier album and their name was whispered across the lips of the right people, but had not gotten around to experiencing them myself. At first, I wasn't entirely impressed beyond the cool packaging, for so much of this just sounding like a lot of dirty old black/thrash, but this one proved a 'grower' rather than a 'shower'; Secret Sudaria is for sure one of the band's most consistent, elaborate and evil works which transforms a lot of its own inspirations into something formidable. This sits right in the nexus between thrash, black and death metal as it once was, and offers a lot of barbaric riffing staples dowsed in great, organic guitar leads, with some fresh sounding drums, decent bass grooves, and a daunting vocal growl with is spiked with just the perfect amount of reverb so every line barks upon you like an occult preacher about to sacrifice your village's collective bones to the Prince of Darkness.

There are some really great, doomy sequences here too, like the climactic riff near the end of "Abbot", or the phased intro to "Evil Death" which almost sounds like it sets up an epic dark heavy metal track before it shifts into the Hellhammer-like Neanderthal black metal. Secret Sudaria is this brute of an album which sates both the first wave fanatic's desire for utter primacy and lack of compromise, and then those slight atmospheric touches which hint at so much more. Terrifying vocals, great lyrics that paint tales of black sorcery and supernatural entities, and one of those immortal production jobs which might not have blown me away back in the day, but really holds up when I listen to it now. This is almost always my go-to in Mortuary Drape's catalog; it's not entirely perfect, but its the summit of so many of the ideals I find from their unswerving approach to authentic black metal that remains loyal to its own forebears while tempering it with an Italo/cult horror aesthetic that made it stand out. You want the Mario fucking Bava of black metal? You've found it.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (Read his book of doom)

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Diabolical Masquerade - Nightwork (1998)

By the time Nightwork came along, Diabolical Masquerade was already this underappreciated, quality Swedish black metal export, especially when you took into consideration that it was the work of just one man. Wait, does Blakkheim even qualify as a man? I've always fancied him as more of an immortal vampire prince who wrote some catchy Goth metal tunes and retro-death metal on the side as a day job; his is a rather singular genius across the genre borders and I doubt there's a metal niche he couldn't dig into with his considerable fangs and entertain us with. Each of the albums he wrote under this moniker had a nice degree of variation from the last, and Nightwork is no exception.

This is a bit more theatrical than The Phantom Lodge, more like something you'd heard in the background at some dark carnival with all its creepy pianos, and of course that cinematic nature would be honed in even further on the fourth record, and not necessarily for the better. But here, Blakkheim strikes just the right aesthetic between haunted house hysterics and worthy, varied riff patterns that are excellent at complimenting the spectral synthesizers and his awesome rasped vocals, which can be shifted around much like a Dani Filth but not quite so much a caricature. There's a refined, progressive nature to the writing here which often focuses on sinister chugging patterns interchanged with a dual narrative between vocal and keys, for example in "Dreadventurouz" which is a far cry from the more symphonic, thundering overtures he's written on previous albums. Those might have howled at you beautifully from a mountainside or castle, but here you're getting into the winding, nightmarish corridors of some fun house or museum. There are still sequences which bridge between the two extremes, yet Nightwork sounds tighter, more personal.

The use of the 'z' in song titles rather than an 's' seems goofy at first, but actually adds quite a lot to the charisma of the album, and the song titles are fucking great anyway: "The Eerie Obzidian Circuz", "Thiz Ghoultimate Omen", and of course "Rider on the Bonez" all convey the themes and moods set by the music, as well as the idea that Blakkheim is not taking it all so seriously. He's the rock star at the Halloween party, but he won't just flick his cape like a snob and ignore you, he'll have a few laughs with you and participate in the usual masquerade games. But that's not to undersell Nightwork's competence, this is an engaging, spooky and sometimes phantasmally beautiful black metal piece which was quite unique in its day, and holds up extremely well almost a quarter of a century later. What else really sounded like this? Maybe Entombed in the Midnight Hour from Dead Silent Slumber? Maybe bits and pieces of Emperor, Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, but this was every measure as interesting and worthy in the late 90s.

In fact, while there might be individual tracks on the albums before it that I hold in higher regard, I think this is quite clearly his strongest work with this project, and frankly I hope he himself will come back to Diabolical Masquerade one day, ignore the Death's Design, and pick up where this one left off. I love some Katatonia and earlier Bloodbath, but my October evenings are all the weaker for lack of new Blakkheim adventures.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Tribulation - The Dhampir EP (2022)

Having somehow missed owning "The Dhampir" due to not picking up the double vinyl or the proper CD edition, I'm stoked that this 18+ minute epic is now available for myself and all the other plebeians to enjoy in an economic digital version, and in three digestible chunks. It offers what might even be the most fulfilling blend of Gothic haze, proggy escalation and hints of Tribulation's death metal roots that can be found among the Where the Gloom Becomes Sound sessions, if not perhaps as catchy as some of the originals that wound up on all versions of the album. I can see why such a thing might be clipped, but after wallowing in the experience I'd recommend tracking down any of the physical media where it's present as opposed to where it isn't.

"Part I" definitely builds to a steady clip after a folksy introduction with some great drumming, a very 70s vibe offset with some riffing that almost feels post-punk in places, but also features most of the 'metal' riffs in a conventional sense, and gives a similar melancholic, uplifting atmosphere to some of the tunes from the album proper. "Part II" is a more spacious, doomy section with a lot more experimentation in the instrumentation, some anthemic guitar harmonies and no real vocal presence, and "Part III" returns mostly to the pacing of the first, but then segues out into some rather abrupt changes that range from cleaner guitars, to almost ghostly sheens of atmosphere. Though the tracks flow pretty well into one another, there are certainly an excess of ideas here that don't necessarily need to be experienced in conjunction, but work well enough when the tune is divided into these parts. I wouldn't say that the experience as a whole is dull in any way, but there are a few parts that don't match up to others.

The coolest thing about The Dhampir is that it hints at even more open musical spaces the Swedes might traverse on future could easily hear them going in a more prog direction (maybe not in the same way they did on Formulas of Death), or more psychedelic folk, or even using more cinematic soundscapes where the instruments drop out for haunting feedback. As a part of Where the Gloom Becomes Sound, or even independently, it helps round out a broad swath of influences, and provides a lot of gas left in the creative tanks even though parts of it conform to the general style of that particular album (or Children of the Night). A cool listen, although not immortally carving itself into my conscience like some of their other tunes.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Mystic Circle - The Great Beast (2001)

Mystic Circle has long been a band so invested in the law of black metal averages that it's no wonder they made so little impact. The Germans are by no means bad musicians, not even bad composers, but they just hit at a time in which the Scandinavian acts meddling in this sort of melodic and symphonic black metal were literally exploding across the map, and though this group kept churning out numerous releases, they just never garnered the same level of excitement beyond deep-diving BM fans who were snatching up everything in the genre. The Great Beast isn't quite as flagrant or interesting as Emperor's first three discs, or even as pompous and potent as the Dimmu Borgir catalogue of the 90s, but honestly it's one of the better Mystic Circle records and those who are really into the current wave of symphonic 90s black metal throwbacks might actually enjoy going back to this authentic, also-ran article.

The band is hardly sinister-enough sounding to really do their Satanic theme justice here, but I do like the bombastic swell of the mid-paced, roiling black metal against the near-constant orchestration which calls to mind Gothic castles and haunted landscapes. The riffing is quite steady, often with a thrashing facade to its structure, but very often the rhythm guitars feel like they're afraid to strike out on their own, but rather they support the ethereal sweep and strings. That said, there are plenty of leads and melodies that show the band hasn't entirely thrown out the guitar as mere support, and it's rather a well-rounded recording, because the symphonic are elegant and really immerse me into the occult escapism. The vocals are a fairly monotonous rasped guttural, a little deeper than some of their black metal peers, but they fit in well, and the rhythm section is more than capable, making The Great Beast an extremely well-rounded effort with a nice production that sounds clean without becoming neutered through over-polish.

There are lots of licks here that sound like a IX: Equilibrium-lite or a less dense Spiritual Black Dimensions, but by no means does it fall down to cheap impersonation, this was always a band that wanted to take that earlier symphonic BM style and run with it. While The Great Beast doesn't manifest the same personality as those comparisons/influences, it's a pretty good listen that only suffers from a slightly monotonous pacing, since this isn't a band prone to blasting off endlessly, and it might have benefited from a few more such indulgences. But everything is tasteful, from the spectral female support vocal to the endless nightscape of orchestration that is really going to sit well with the more Gothic-oriented black metal advocate. Definitely one of their better albums, along with its follow-up Damien; fits the bill when I'm in the mood for something that sounds equally graceful and aggressive, even if it lacks much novelty.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, October 7, 2022

Destruction - Diabolical (2022)

Destruction has settled so comfortably into its post-reunion niche by this point that it's their game to lose, and while they've had a steady flood of albums and enormous productivity over the last 20+ years, it did seem to peak quite early with 2001's The Antichrist, and since then there have been only minor deviations within the more ironclad style they've been adopting. The production has been pounding, the band's energy and aggression still unquestionable, but at the same time they've not ever felt quite so clinical or creative as they did on some of their earlier offerings during the initial run. Diabolical doesn't exactly fix this, but while it's still consistent with the half-dozen albums that precede it, I felt like there was a little more flexibility and variation to be had on this one, and it's easily one of their more enjoyable since being hammered by the immortal choruses of "Thrash 'Til Death" or "Nailed to the Cross".

Perhaps some small part of this is attributed to being the first album without Mike playing guitars, but to be honest the riffing here sticks quite closely to his style, and you can only notice marginal differences in how the duo of Damir and Furia handles the attack. A lot of the progressions will seem familiar if you've been listening over the last two decades, but there are enough differences to keep the formula refreshed. The songs are generally fast and busy, and the band never really goes for cheap or obvious chorus parts. Riffs aren't the stickiest to the ear, but they pound so relentlessly that I never found myself remotely bored listening through. The solos here are great in tracks like "Repent Your Sins", wild melodic forays that immediately add another level of depth to the usual neck-jerking, and often they are the true climactic moments throughout the album, which is frankly rare these days. To the surprise of no one, Schmier still sounds absolutely fucking awesome, that nasty blend of rasp and melody proves the perfect frontman and he frankly murders the rest of the German thrash veterans in delivery. Did he really record all these vocals back in the early 2000s and is just slowly rationing them out on each album, because it's hard to believe!

They do actually bring back a few, slightly technical riffing and popping patterns which remind me of their early years (the pre-chorus to "Whorefication" for example), and certainly the shredding is top flight compared to any of their prior efforts. Randy Black's drumming continues its machine-like intensity and he's constantly fluttering out great fills that clap and snap along with the frenzy. There are a lot of good tunes here, but favorites might include "The Last of a Dying Breed" with the atmospheric, maniacal framing of its intro, or "The Lonely Wolf" with its churning rhythmic battery that sounds almost like a German Testament. A couple guitars here or there sound somewhat derivative (pin the tail on the Slayer riff), but as originators themselves, I can forgive this, and the fact that a band so deep into its career has such infernal energy as I'm hearing on this record is rather impressive. The cover of GBH's "City Baby Attacked by Rats" is a great touch, and they definitely put a thrashier Destruction spin to it, while the cover art here makes for a perfect tribute to all your nuclear mutant metal-punk Troma film dreams, as the Butcher leers on in the background. Much like Sodom with their latest, Schmier and company just know how to kill it and I hope they never stop!

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Cultes des Ghoules - Sinister, or Treading the Darker Path (2018)

I can confidently state that Cultes des Ghoules are one of the finest bands out there at channeling the primitive essence of black metal into something truly nightmarish and fresh, even if that 'something' requires a degree of patience for its occasionally languid plot and pacing. They offer a parallel to the conventional, a funereal escapism that reeks of ritual and authenticity, and Sinister, or Treading the Darker Path is one of the most evil records in their discography. Granted, not all of their output sits equally with me...their debut album and some of their shorter form releases still evade my attention span, but when they're on, like with 2013's Henbane, or this latest album, they offer an experience like few others can, some of the better primitive metal you'll ever encounter.

Raw, glacial paced riffs trudge along repeatedly here in "Children of the Moon", glazed in ominous if sparse organs that add much to the weight and creepiness without needing more than a single chord or two. The drums are played with a hypnotic, basic groove to them that will leave the draw the listener in despite their criminal simplicity. The vocals of Mark of the Devil can only be compared to Big Boss of Root, only here they are intonated as more of a pure aural ritual, like a tormented specter creeping through an abandoned manor or church, warning all of the woe at their own ends. But the Polish band is just as comfortable with the shoe on the other foot, picking up speed with "The Woods of Power" or the excellent riffing "Day of Joy" that shifts between the two. They can also twist this into something even stranger as in "Where the Rainbow Ends" with its truly ominous vocals, slim but catchy bass grooves and proggy structure that grows quite psychedelic and ritualistic in its depths.

Like many 'experiential' metal albums, you'll want to set the mood for this dark as possible, your only light by moon or candle, at your most downcast and foul, and just breathe it all in, its sanguine and opaque haze of atmospheric cruelty. It's depressive, frightening and almost sounds like something you ought not to have stumbled across...whether in the woods, or in an alley, or a cellar being used for something unspeakable. A formidable offering from one of the few bands out there that truly sounds like it doesn't give a damn about letting any trends or joy rub off on it, and for me this is their second strongest effort to date.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

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]