Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Sirrah - Acme (1996)

Like a lot of folks, I was introduced to Sirrah through one of the Beauty in Darkness compilations that Nuclear Blast released; the title track to this debut featured prominently as one of the standouts there, and I had to track down the full-length debut of the same name, Acme, a name which I'm sure we associate more with the old Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons than Gothic, melancholic doom. I was taken aback by the songwriting itself, there is a bit more involved, a few more layers to peel back than you might be used to, and not unlike the first two Moonspell records, this had a more epic feel than some of the stuff coming from Theater of Tragedy or The Sins of Thy Beloved. In fact, the great use of rhythms and melody also reminded me of one of my favorite albums, Amorphis' Elegy, only if it were coming from a different background perspective than Finland and 70s prog and folk influence.

Well, that one particular track, "Acme", is magnificent even to this day, one of the more glorious individual tracks to emerge from that once-budding European scene, but it's hardly the only success this disc had to offer. The blend of higher pitched, catchy female vocal lines, mournful Goth growls, lighter toned keyboards, strings ("Bitter Seas"), and electric guitar melodies is very well honed across much of the album's playlength, and even where they drop out a bit of it and get darker with something like "On the Verge", reminiscent of earlier Paradise Lost had Fernando Ribeiro replaced Nick Holmes. You've got all those elements of Romance, Vampiric drama, and haunted castle vibes that you might have desired from Gothic/doom or even black metal, but configured in a slightly different package, perhaps due to minor cultural or regional aesthetics that the band members grew up with. Clearly this was much different than what Vader or Behemoth were coming up with, and further showcased Poland as a potential new hotbed for various sub-genres of metal.

There is one GLARING miscalculation on the album that will have you falling apart in laughter, but sadly to the detriment of Acme as a whole, and that is "Panacea", a track which resembles some old surf or cruise rock only if it were a gaggle of Gothic weirdos riding the waves. It's likely included to be a bit of harmless fun and break up the seriousness of the other material, but the rest is consistent enough that it just sticks out like a very sore thumb. That sort of thing might have fit the band Ghoul on their albums, which are quite silly all around, but it just doesn't belong here. In fact I'm shocked it wasn't omitted from further pressings, although this one hasn't gotten much action beyond the 90s whatsoever. Without that track, this is a stronger effort, but even with that warning, you owe it to yourself to check out Acme if you have any interest in that brief period where the sounds of the big British death/doom trio (Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Anathema) were blended with Goth orchestration and drama to create a wave of fresher bands.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, June 5, 2023

The Bloodline - Where Lost Souls Dwell (2006)

The Bloodline's sophomore album Where Lost Souls Dwell does on the surface seem like it might have fallen into the dorky, superficial trap that I had mentioned on my review of Opium Hearts, but it becomes immediate upon listening that this is cast in much the same mold as its predecessor, only a bit brighter, better balanced and dare I say it, more 'fun'. It's clearly improved in the production department, and that does drain some of the drab murk from the songwriting, but they also make a better implementation of electronics, and the seductive female vocals become more prominent since I believe both Roman and Kemi are now contributing about equal in that area. You've still got the growls, the soaring, simple guitar leads glazed over the top that elevate it all to a level it would have otherwise un-phased, but there's just a lot more to appreciate, both obvious and subtle.

For example, the strangely pick-me-up vibes of "At the Waters of Lethe" cede to some trailing feedback and horn-like blaring ambiance to set up the really somber "Final Journey" which gives off vibes of a match up between late 90s Tiamat and Theater of Tragedy. The vocals arrangements on this one in particular are quite nice, because it's like you've got the guttural/ethereal exchange plus some more ambient vocals off in the background, and despite the minimalism of its chords and structure, it's potentially the most hypnotic track they wrote over both records. They go much further with the pure electronic experimentation in the title track than they'd previously attempted, and then change lanes for the fun Goth/pop intro to "Cut the Chords" which then smacks you abruptly with the sorrowful lead and chugging. At times, there can feel a risk of The Bloodline losing control where her vocals might drift a bit too distant from the rest, and this reminds me a little of another German Goth band, The Breath of Life, with its unnerving but beautiful singing.

So, I approached the album groaningly because its cover photograph looked like it was meant for David Bowie or Dead or Alive or some 80s pop of that nature, and was pleasantly surprised that the duo had put in some work to improve their style. Granted, if you loathe all things simple and Goth inflected when combined with the heavier guitars and growls, Where Lost Souls Dwell is not going to change your mind, but if your record shelf includes titles like One Second, Skeleton Skeletron, Musique, or half the Lacrimosa discography, this one is adept enough at combining the vibes of Gothic doom metal and pop that you might have a good time with it. It sounds a lot better than it looks...perhaps not six years worth of evolution from the debut is evident, but it's a catchy escape which doesn't bog itself down with too much cringe.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Bloodline - Opium Hearts (2000)

Germany's long been central to the Gothic metal world (and adjacent styles like Industrial/EBM), but it's always been a double edged sword. Many of the artists are quite qualified and serious, capable of penning a couple good tracks at least, but they also come off as harbingers of the medium's most goofy aesthetics, often to the point of caricature. How many crazy contact lenses and colored faux-dreadlock extensions can we really stomach? There's got to be more to this corner of the 'dark music' spectrum than its narcissistic overreach...fuck, the Sisters or Mercy did it with only shades and leather. The Bloodline is another of many acts who took a crack at the Gothic/doom metal style back when groups like Theater of Tragedy or Crematory were established, but faded very quickly into obscurity...

And to their credit, the debut Opium Hearts is no joke. It's rough around the edges, and somewhat derivative of other German acts like Pyogenesis or the abovementioned Crematory, and that makes sense, since one half of the duo, Roman, was a bassist and songwriter for the former. Perhaps the material here is an attempt to bridge backwards from that group's experimentations with pop and indie rock, to the morose death/doom of something like Sweet X-Rated Nothings, but the difference is the more electronic percussion and industrial lite synths and effects which drive the array of chords and mournful metal leads. The vocals are largely focused on the grotesque guttural, though they will occasionally layer in some ethereal female vocals tastefully. This is definitely not your full-blown, overproduced EuroPop Goth metal written for an arena with seven or more musicians, loads of orchestration, but rather it's more subdued and sultry, at times comparable to Betray My Secrets but without the world music angle.

The biggest issue I take is that it's a little dull. Even when a catchier piece like "Opened Eyes Dream" is chugging along and then gallops into its minimalistic but effective bridge melody, you just start to expect some sort of climax that never arrives. The atmospherics and effects are decent and remind me of anything from lower tier 80s pop and New Age, but they lack the confidence to stand out once the melodic guitars and growls arrive. It's sad and serious, even when they go for a peppier mid pace tune like "Lost Souls in the Land of Delight", a CLEAR nod to the Sisters, but most of the tracks feel as if they're merely reaching the cusp of quality, and the album lacks the production and push to go all the way. Don't mistake me, this is better than I personally expected, and it's not musically or lyrically tacky before a few genre tropes, but I can understand why this might be ignored in place of other bands' more vivacious explorations of the niche.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Rest in Pain - Intense Tremor EP (1993)

If you look at some of the earlier Invasion Records releases, the focus was almost entirely on local death and grind, weighted towards the local German underground, but not entirely. You had EPs from Defleshed of Sweden, Fermenting Innards, Lunatic Invasion, Finland's Infera, and this little band of unknowns, Rest in Pain, who put out only this single EP and a couple of tracks on a split before calling it a day. Right from the get-go, you can tell this is not a band to take itself seriously, with the goofy Crumbsuckers-like cover art that looks like something you'd see from a crossover or grindcore band with a dash of comedy, and I think the band also had a sort of 'dress up' look to them similar to Pungent Stench, only with top least for promo pics, a notable contrast in aesthetics.

Intense Tremor is definitely death metal, with a quirky weirdness to it not unlike a Jumpin' Jesus or The Lemming Project. It's rough and chunky, with a production level equivalent to a solid studio demo, and lots of simple bass guitar breaks poking through the churning, semi-clinical rhythm guitars. I'll admit that the band seems hard-pressed to evoke memorable riffs, and bounces back and forth before more serious, solemn chords and then peppier moments which reveal a punk or hardcore influence, but they also try to pick up the pace into some faster grooves where they start to lose the plot and sound sloppy. In some tunes like "Organ Donation for a Hungry", they are approaching the chaos of Napalm Death grind, but again the drums, while intense, feel like a mess against the riffs. The vocalist does a guttural similar to Barney Greenway, but they'll use a bit of clean vocal and some more ominous, weird growls elsewhere.

Definitely a curious one, and there are some spots here or there where they seem to be digging their heels into that surgical sort of death metal with dissonant chords and grooves, but they just never perfect it into meaningful riffing, you don't get the evil tremolo riffs you'd love from OSDM. Potential? I can't tell you if they were onto something or not, this was pretty weak. So not all of these earlier works bore much fruit for Invasion...two of their other German acts, Fermenting Innards and Lunatic Invasion would go on to create some pretty damn good material, and the label overall would jump into the more popular emergent styles like melodic death or black metal, but Rest in Pain just had a little fun grinding and moshing and (I'm assuming) dissolved somewhere soon after 1994. 

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Minneriket - Gjennom meg går ingen til hvile (2022)

Gjennom meg går ingen til hvile comes not only after the biggest gap in Minneriket releases, but also as the biggest single leap in progression that the band has made to date. The hallmarks of the project's original style are still present in the rasped vocal and the raw black metal guitars, but these have been joined here with a far more Romantic, prominent use of pianos and keyboards, and a large cast of guest musicians who are providing everything from female guest vocals, to strings, cello, harp, flute, gongs, and saxophones...this was clearly not an album to be given anything less than the full-on, almost overblown artsy treatment, but even if this might seem pretentious when compared to his early work like Vargtimen, it's still quite the alluring album.

I'm particularly impressed by how he's able to slap together a dreamy piano instrumental like "Hjemlengsel" and then flood you with an operatic piece like "Begravelsens hjertseslag", on which the female vocals are very chilling and the lead snarls are as evil as ever. The pianos creep alongside this and other tracks, used as an almost cinematic accompaniment to whatever the guitars are doing beneath. The drums here don't need to blast or anything so you can feel out the beats more, and probably the biggest surprise was the bass guitar, which is groovy and moody and finally creates in own layer of mood that fits write in with the spooky esoterism of the album's classical side. It's so good that I could just turn off everything but the rhythm section and I'd still be bobbing my head along to this one.

This might have more appeal to the Gothic/black metal audience more than those who valued the original Minneriket recordings, but I think its quite an improvement at maintaining my own interest level. There's just so much going on here, and it's both seductive and evil while still doing its own thing and not aping other bands that have mixed the styles. Not entirely avant-garde in structure, but definitely building a unique identity among a scene of so many other great bands that have progressed into their own distinct realms. I don't even know what to really compare it to...Peccatum? The few extra years off were put to good use, and this is one absorbing listen.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Minneriket - Anima Solis (2018)

If I didn't know better, and saw only this raven-haired beauty hanging in her corset, I'd have thought that Minnerket went full out Goth or something, but Anima Solis is instead another incremental evolution of the industrial/ambient black metal style that was started on Vargtimen. If anything, this album is even more accessible than the sophomore, but probably only because it is better produced and somewhat stricken through with more traditional black metal concepts in its construction. There is still that element of edgy, mechanistic-driven noise, the vocals are quite grimy and hostile, and plenty of the guitars produce a splatter of sinister, dissonant, droning lines above the central thrust of the beats, but it's a fraction easier on the ears.

It's also very weird, with a fair dynamic range between cuts, and arguably as experimental as anything the guy has written before. Take "When Life Gets Sick the Dead Grow Strong" with its weird, broken industrial rhythms, constant atmospheric roiling and trolling, and some of the most impish vocals he has committed to an album yet. Evil shit, and he gets the vocals to sound even more ridiculous on other tunes like "Between Infinity and Melancholy" with its cacophony of industrial clatter, or "I Am the Serpent Son" and its dash between gruesome, protracted growls and a snarl so ludicrous it sounds like its being performed by small, wounded mammals. I don't want to accuse the album of having a sense of humor, but it's certainly willing to go as far over the top as needed to make the listener lose his/her nerve.

It's pretty good, though, I mean there aren't really enough of these sorts of experimental and industrial black metal spinoffs out there, or at least not as weirdly absorbing as this one. Just when you think you've got it figure out, then he gets you with the hugely atmospheric "Alle hjerter banker ei" and its deep, narrative vocals and dreamy, dissonant guitars. This is weirdly creative, terrifying stuff, though it runs the risk of coming off a bit too childish or churlish when it goes full into its zanier passages.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, May 26, 2023

Minneriket - From the Veins of a Nearly Dead Boy (2017)

Minneriket's third album swerves away from original material to pay tribute to one of his favorite artists, and I'm willing to bet that you can guess it in three. You got it in one, Burzum. While Varg's material doesn't entirely inform the first few albums of this project, it's unquestionable that its leaning towards atmospherics and even pure ambience is partly inspired by an album like Filosofem, and why shouldn't it be? The rawness, the hostility, but also the melancholy and wantonness you would feel from that album translate quite well into so many of the potential successors, and Stein is able to capture that here while putting a slight spin on the original material.

That of course comes in the form of the more mechanical sounds that Minneriket is prone to. You will certainly recognize the lyrics and riffs of the tracks that are being covered, but they are almost all surrounded in an added level of ambient/industrial black noise, and occasionally feature a riff or two that he will deconstruct for further make it his own. It works best in tracks like "Lost Wisdom" or "Glemselens Elv", whereas others play it a little closer to the belt. They're still not exact duplicates, because there is always some difference, in the beats or the level of saturated noise, but I'm the sort that really doesn't need close approximations when a band is paying tribute though covers, I'd like to see the material adapted further, and this only fulfills that goal in particular places.

Granted, the originals sound fairly chilling and hostile even in these contexts, and as one who enjoyed most of them when they came out, I found this familiar and listenable, or at least as familiar and listenable as something like this Norse project could ever be. The melodies work just as well beneath the added level of mechanical grime, and clearly he's got taste in his  choices, even dipping into some of the later, understated material for an instrumental. Not an altogether unworthy tribute, but I'm more curious to see where Minneriket would head with his own material next.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Minneriket - Stjerner, speil og svartebøker... (2016)

Stjerner, speil og svartebøker... might not seem like such a far stretch from Vargtimen, as it still cultivates the noisy, cold black metal atmospheres of its predecessor, but it is at once more 'musical' and multi-dimensional, a slight warmth beginning to creep in at its corners, and production that is a stone's throw beyond where the project was already at. Even the cover art is a major improvement over the logo-only boredom of the debut, and if you felt like Minneriket wasn't structured enough before, I think Stein made a quick pivot to something more familiar to those seeking out a more traditional black metal, but don't think for a second that he abandoned his experimental ambitions.

Such are present with the second track here, "Vinterblot", which uses the drumming to create a cold, martial, marching beat that intersperses into the roiling, droning guitars and cruel rasp of its creator. The songs seem a lot more adventurous this time around, with elements that were not at the fore now arriving...for instance, the rumbling distorted bass in "Of Storms and Sorrows", which actually spits out some pretty catchy lines that are slathered with all these weird, broken beats, enigmatic industrial noises and such. "Jærtegn" is one of my favorites of these first two albums, it's got an unnerving sense of warmth and light to the floe of chords, and throws in everything from crackling storms, weird tones that sound like deep chimes or organs, and all manner of shimmering noisy guitars. Other cuts like "Totemkriger" take this atmospheric exploration and apply it into a more direct, blasting, warlike experience, and "How to Write Love in the Stars" (great title) adventures far further into pure ambient territory, which Stein really does excel at here...

So if you can't already tell, this effort is dramatically and artistically superior in just a year's time to where Minneriket had already been, and ample evidence that there might be some legs to stand upon, since there's really no limit to the sounds this guy is going to jackknife into your skull. The absolute-zero-temperature temperament of the debut was but a cold spark, where in this sophomore album the flames of imagination have bloomed, begun to consume the firewood and fill the hearth. Still creepy enough to freak you out, but then lays your head on a pillow and does its impression of a soothing before it starts stabbing you again. It's far from perfect, and who knows what the goal is with such an esoteric project, but it's clearly inspired.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, May 22, 2023

Minneriket - Vargtimen (2015)

The first time looking at the Minneriket logo, I am reminded of America's own Leviathan, which is ironic since both bands practice a mix of black metal and ambient, in some cases with a fairly similar sound. Anyway, this is a Norse band new to me, and as I try to keep up every few years with that all that scene has to offer, I was intrigued to find out that this artist, Stein Akslen, has been chipping away quite productively. This debut is rather a mixed bag, in that it conveys some rather generic elements of the style, but it does so with a fascinating atmosphere that kept me engaged even when the riffing and musicianship could not. It's not quite as loose or formless as a project like Abruptum, but it's quite raw, unfiltered and inaccessible, which was likely the point.

The beats are cold, mechanical, lifeless, and while that's a proper companion to the music itself, I did find it rather monotonous, especially when they are being crowned by what seem like bursts of sporadic rasped vocals that don't seem to follow the guitar patterns. Speaking of which, while they often burst out into actual riffing, they often themselves feel like they are being added only as shades of noise to create an evil backdrop. At best, they'll create some dissonant repetition that fades in and out of the clamor, almost more effective in this purely atmospheric capacity than they are at constructing purely aggressive patterns, but of course you do recognize some sequences that are standard black metal with half-step variations in one direction or the other.

In other tunes ("Blodets Hvisken") they are performed as slower, almost droning chords smothered in distorted fuzz that take on a trace-like, noise quality. Neither end of this album's spectrum is particularly compelling, but where the synths or industrial elements show up there is definitely some potential, because you just feel like you're on watching from the sidelines at some societal collapse. Vargtimen is supremely unfriendly, uncaring, mechanistic, the black metal that low-grade industrial robots might compose upon the factory floor, and I think to that extent it works, but lyrically there are clearly some other themes here like "Wolf" and "Fra Yggdrasill". Certainly no trend-jumping here, but Vargtimen is not the best of Minneriket and recommended only to those who want a raw blast of dismal reality to the dome.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Sculpture - Sculpture (1999)

Sculpture was another band of German hopefuls within the Gothic metal niche, and while the band name and cover art to their sole, eponymous debut might seem rather obvious and bland to those who follow the stuff, they definitely made up for it with a production that would rival whatever their peers like a Darkseed or Crematory were putting out. Of course that makes a lot of sense, since half this band was involved in those, in particular Stefan Hertrich doing the vocals and Lotte on the keys and guitars, and if you're a fan of either, then this is something you'll probably want to check out at least once. At MOST once. I'm not saying that it didn't deserve to be swept under the rug, but it's a curiosity that it was ever really green lit, I guess the members' bands were doing better for Nuclear Blast than I'd have thought.

Lots of synth-work, brazen and big bass lines, and a sort of poppy 80s new wave blood that courses through the songwriting veins. Guitars are simple but loud, and if you dug Stefan's grainy Goth vocal slice through his mainstay, then you'll feel right at home listening to this, it could have just as easily been a new Darkseed album and I wouldn't have known the difference, other than perhaps the more prominent use of the keyboards. The tunes are all fairly dynamic, with some different riffing styles and structures, but the one thing they lack is a real payoff when you get to those choruses, you almost always feel like the way they've written the verses and riffs deserves a little something more when you arrive at those critical junctures. In fact, they can get considerably worse...

An example would be "Deniers" which throws a shitty slap-bass line right in the middle of a driving Goth metal song, or its silly mid-90s Metallica lead guitar. That last comparison is not alone, because I think "Bring Me Down", their compilation song, also has that big, bluesy guitar with a riff and tone that sound like some of the more rock & roll Metallica. I've often through Stefan reminded me of James Hetfield's voice with a little post-Gothic Nick Holmes, so make of that what you will, but it doesn't really benefit this album. In fact, I almost feel like the more synth or pop driven pieces like "I'm Free" are just better than the heavier tunes, but even there the lyrics are very simple and dumb as they are on most of these the end, Sculpture has a big production worthy of its constituents, and about 50% tolerable ideas, but it never hesitates to snag defeat from the jaws of victory.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Blodsgard - Monument (2013)

Blodsgard is a black metal project involving Stein Akslen and his sometimes collaborator Fredrik Rex from Minneriket (who I will go into more detail on elsewhere). It's a fairly stark contrast to Minneriket in that it's approach is vectored in from a more big budget, purely Norse black metal style rather than the more subversive, mechanical and ambient nature of that other project. Monument is the sole album thus far and it was put out well before the latest wave of newer bands who are headed back in that traditional 90s BM direction, worshiping their Scandinavian forefathers; and you can tell that these were already deeply involved with the aesthetics, because this album is beyond mere competence, and quite gripping for anyone who wants this genre delivered with an icy certainty.

It's quite intense, battering black metal here, not as mindblowing as a band like Nordjevel, but featuring some great if predictable riffing, a bold production and atmosphere, and the very hoarse rasped vocals of Mr. Rex, which are fucking monstrous, and from what I gather this album is mostly just his own baby, with Stein contributing the lyrics. The production of the drums and the unforgiving, wintry nature of the recording definitely bring to mind some of the mid-period Immortal records, although I think these guys keep the riffs a bit simpler and more immediately catchy than those frost-gods. All the songs have their own identity while flowing together seamlessly into the whole, and while the drums have a bit more pep than I'm used to in a lot of other records in the genre, they blend so well with the choppier low end rhythm guitars and even the tinsel-like synthesizer lines often sprinkled over the top.

This is a killer of an album, and in retrospect, one I wished I paid more attention to upon its release, it scratched all the right itches, and even goes one further in pieces like the title track which has the perfectly calm atmosphere to contrast all of the heavier barrages surrounding it, almost like the perfect 'eye of the storm' set right into the middle of the tumult. It's not all that novel, granted, but its simply a quality production on par with what a lot of the long-term pros can put out, and the only real downside is that they haven't put out anything more in the decade since...get on that!

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Cryhavoc - Pitch-Black Blues (1999)

While I wasn't so hot on Cryhavoc's debut Sweetbriers (other than the cover), Pitch-Black Blues feels a little closer to what I had inwardly hoped for when I saw all the comparisons to their fellow Finns Sentenced. Granted, this isn't quite so much in the ballpark of my Amok, my personal favorite from that band, but the music resembles its own successor Down a lot, only with a rougher vocal approach that falls somewhere in between the two frontmen for that other band. Also, what the fuck is with this band and having chicks covered in sheets? Granted, this one isn't nearly as alluring as its predecessor, but is that some weird fetish of the bandmembers? Had this band continued beyond just the two discs, would we have been treated to other female forms wrapped up in tarps, tapestries, carpets, bearskins, silly string?

Pitch-Black Blues trounces the debut album in most categories, the most important being the superior production and the catchier songwriting. If you know their countrymen then you know this, it's melodic, accessible heavy metal given a slightly Goth edge by the grain of the vocalist and the general mood and seriousness of the riffing. The mix here is clear and potent, giving us everything from the smooth grooves to the bass, the snap of the percussion to a rich and full guitar tone which isn't too heavily distorted but perfect for this style. A number of the chord progressions and arrangements of the tunes here seem actually like later day Amorphis, so if you're into the Tomi years this is a gem you too might want to check out, it's kind of wedged between these two other, better-known Finnish bands...

And that might be half the reason that people didn't flock to it much, since you were getting these components better written elsewhere. Although this album is arguably better produced than Down, I think the songwriting over there was a bit more memorable, that's not to dump on Cryhavoc, because every time I listen to this one I'm engaged well enough by tunes like "The Wind" or "Metamorphosis", but they don't stick around much beyond that, where on some autumnal or snowy day I will reflect back on my favorite Sentenced stuff often. This is 100% the first contact point for this band, though, skip its mediocre predecessor and head straight to this one if you're looking for B-reel Finnish Goth metal with a hard rocking attitude and a lot of...women under sheets of some sort.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Sleeping Gods - New Sensation (2000)

While it's not as annoying as the two covers before it, the Germans of Sleeping Gods still did not seem to realize the importance of aesthetics that would help them scale the ladder of doom. What do these old timey fellers have to do with the sound of your music? Were you just desperate for something? Why the third bland logo and title type in the span of three albums? There is really not much to go on if you're browsing through the metal albums at your local record shop, looking for something with a spot of crushing heaviness to it, unless of course you had already read about the band or heard the prior albums, in which case you still might find this unappealing do to the lackluster choice.

Unfortunately, I cannot report that the music of New Sensation is in any way an improvement over the sophomore album. It's composed at about the same level, accessible but heavy doom accessed through very simple riffs that are rarely catchy on their own, slathered in mostly forgettable lead guitars and gruff, growling vocals. This is also the album where they went the most Goth with tunes like "Together As One", but they're even more awkward than their goofy peers Atrocity who also walked that road, and unlike Pyogenesis, who remained catchy even in their pop phase (though many original fans hated it), they don't exhibit strong songwriting that would be required to bridge the gap. It's not terrible, but the clean vocals feel second rate and like their last few albums, they can't pen a chorus good enough to justify what builds up to it.

Production is fine, with a nice punch to the drums, thick as syrup guitars that convey both the heaviness of the chugging and chord patterns, plus the slight sense for melody they throw down, but the tunes are just too mediocre to care, and its by no means an improvement over Regenerated. In fact, this album is hardly any better than Above and Beyond, and thus it's no surprise why they'd fold soon after. They just never quite lived up to any of the glimpses of potential they showed, and were beaten to the punch by other, more beloved bands.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Friday, May 12, 2023

Sleeping Gods - Regenerated (1997)

Regenerated might not look like much, in fact Sleeping Gods has never had a decent album cover whatsoever, but if you want to know how much better this album is than their debut, features a didgeridoo on TWO tracks. I don't know WHY it features such an instrument, or how it thematically connects with the trudging doom of this German obscurity, but it's a fun intro to what is a slightly heavier, meatier, and superior album. This is still your guardian variety chugging, with a little whiff of the Gothic style that took over countrymen Pyogenesis for a spell, but it sounds more crushing and mournful, and overall just more professional and passionate. Gazing upon it, though, you can see why approximately 99.9% of the people in the record shops skipped on past it, the other .1% being the band members' moms and grandparents.

They bring back the female vocalist who was on the debut Above and Beyond, but she has some mixed results here, sounding a little silly with her frilly timbre in "Dead Calls", but effective on "The Wingless". The real star here is the production, which is huge when they are busted out the somber, understated melodies in amidst the dense chords. The drums sound a lot better, as do the main vocals as they get gruffer. I would often hear or see comparisons from this band to Sweden's Lake of Tears, who put out one of my favorite doom records in A Crimson Cosmos this same year, but I admit that I don't really hear much in common other than the superficial details of the gruff vocal, slow churning doom guitars, maybe the production. Sadly this one is just nowhere near as addictive as that, and it sticks quite close to the same style on all the songs, where that one had a couple folksy or old rock & roll experiments.

I definitely hear the potential here where I didn't before, and if you were into a lot of their countrymen like Pyogenesis or End of Green, this is where you might want to pick up their trail, because it removes any need for the debut's existence. The riffs do need to be a lot catchier, and lead to more payoff than just the mix of Gothic whispers and operatic guest vocals, but clearly more effort was put into this in both the studio aspects and the compositions, and while I won't say it's necessarily 'good', it's taking Sleeping Gods in a positive direction...or will it?

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Sleeping Gods - Above and Beyond (1995)

I can't remember what classic album cover this one reminds me of, it's obviously a tribute or parody of some sort and entirely too goofy to adorn a doom metal album, which is more or less what the Sleeping Gods debut represents. Above and Beyond is an introduction to another long lost of the German Goth metal bands that probably had a little more fuel in their tanks than we would give them credit for, released independently at first and enough to get them signed over to the local AFM label which most of you will probably recognize more for its heavy/power metal, but has always been willing to show some support in other niches if they hear some potential...which the Sleeping Gods do possess.

Even here, on this cruder, early material, they've got a sense for using sad melodies amidst the heavier drudge of chords, gruff guttural vocals, and a decent production for such a lower budget release. The obvious comparison is Pyogenesis, and if you told me that this was an unreleased Pyogenesis album I wouldn't blink for a second of disbelief. The songs aren't quite so sticky and heart-warming as Sweet X-Rated Nothings, but just the guitar tone and vocal are enough to feel like they are nearly a doppelganger. The songs are simpler, rocking but not without a little mood and depth do the darker disposition of those vocals, but they often fail to escalate into some truly worthy chorus. I also felt like a few of the drums were weak, and the guitar tone on the little leads is just too thin and wimpy to really deserve its place above the fatter rhythm tracks.

They're not above a few risks like the female operatic guest vocal in "Blood is Thicker Than Water", which instantly elevates that track to another level of interest, although otherwise it sounds like an outtake from Sweet X-Rated Nothings. The dreary ballad "Viviane's Lamentation" brings those vocals back, and once again that automatically makes it stand out because of the contrast between her high pitch and the moody low-end, but they bungle that up with some boring clean male vocals and it does end up a little amateurish. At any rate, while far from terrible, this is the weakest of the Sleeping Gods' three albums, enough for a curiosity when you're deep diving through this scene, but not an enduring work by any means.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Monday, May 8, 2023

Skymning - Machina Genova (2004)

Skymning had really found its lane with Artificial Supernova, and if anything, Machina Genova takes them further down that direction with an even more electronic, industrial sounding evolution of the death and thrash metal which formed the basis for that sophomore. The cyber tendencies have now crept deeper beneath the flesh, with electrodes pumping through the band members' veins, and yet they manage to do this without switching over to exclusively electronic percussion or losing the impulsive death/thrashing of the guitars. It feels like a band that adapted its electronic personality, rather than an electronic band that just decided to punch a few guitars into its recording software. And it's still bloody exciting, arguably even more so than its predecessor, since there's a simpler, punkish energy to some of the guitar riffs.

Groove metal, industrial metal, a little thrash, Machina Genova exists at the nexus with an interesting hustle and flow to its percussion, and guitars that center in a lot on chugging rhythms and then lots of quirky techniques above them to represent circuit boards, assembly lines or whatever other mechanistic vibes are going through their brains. The bass has a great flow to it, occasionally reminding me of the mid to late 90s Voivod stuff with Eric, and this has the most interesting drumming of their catalogue because it's so adept at emulating more purely industrial bands. Lots of weird little riffs on tracks like "Scrapleech" and "Swallow the Holy Piss" keep the record pumping fresh, but there are also a lot of more familiar, thrashing rhythms, as well as a few that might teeter a little too much towards the nu metal sound, but never more than, say, Prong did, a band that continues to have some parallels to these Swedes, only over a much larger catalogue.

This is a very good album overall; it might not have left quite the impact on me as its predecessor, but I will certainly never argue that this was successful at mutating them even further away from their roots in a positive direction which kept them distinct from their Swedish peers. It's certainly a nastier and more pissed off sound than Artificial Supernova, but still maintains plenty of atmosphere and a few surprises that will keep you guessing what's around its welded corners. It's a bit of a bummer that the band decided to call it quits after this was released, but I can never fault them for quitting while they were ahead...there are no disappointments in their discography, and I think the small handful of folks who would track such albums as this down will be quite thrilled with what they discover.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Skymning - Artificial Supernova (2002)

If Stormchoirs was a sign of its times, then Artificial Supernova might be seen as AHEAD of its times. Since three years had already passed, I could hardly call this an abrupt shift, but the band members obviously looked around at the landscape and decided to forge ahead rather than remaining one in a crowd of melodic death metal scenesters from the country of Sweden. Granted, industrial or futurist elements in metal were hardly novel after the turn of the century, but for a band in that particular melodic scene to start incorporating more grooves and electronic elements in this specific was felt rather unique. Sure, In Flames, Soilwork, Darkane, all had a very contemporary vibe about them, not shying away from synthesizers and other modernizations, but Artificial Supernova had a way of sounding like organic industrial metal, that is, performed with the mechanic aesthetics to the beats, but with the normal array of instruments.

It's still melodic death metal at its heart, and tracks like "Shadowed (Astral Silver)" and "Exoskeletal X.T.C." still had some of their best individual riffs and guitar lines in that style, but even then they are tempered with some weirdness, like the bizarre pickup in the latter tune's bridge where the drums start to shuffle along and all manner of noises are thrown in. It's actually quite involved here, and the beats reminded me a lot of Prong when they had transitioned from gutter thrash into the industrial region through Cleansing and Rude Awakening. Skymning just remembers that the focus should be on the guitars, and thus this is an endless riff onslaught which just never really lets up, and always rebounds from wherever it tries to stretch the envelope the furthest. It's so well written that I can't think of even a moment or two here in which I started to lose interest, and despite being over two decades into the future of its manifestation, this one still feels fresh.

The production, too, is so much richer than on Stormchoirs, which clear and potent guitars, lots of nice effects filtered through the melodies like, and a uniform, machine-like step to the drumming which is the perfect seat for all the myriad awesome riffs. Vocally it's cleaner than the debut, but still using the rasped style with a few samples. The bass is much more important here, and really the whole mix kicks ass of even stuff like In Flame's Reroute to Remain which felt a bit too compressed. The Swedes had moved on to bigger exposure with a release through Candlelight and Blackend, and really I cannot tell you why this one didn't succeed. Perhaps the audience was turned off by its evolution away from the power metal-infused melodeath, but many bands at this time were exploring new ground, and not nearly as well as Skymning. Easily my favorite of their catalogue.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Skymning - Stormchoirs (1999)

Another gem from the Invasion Records roster, Skymning arrived onto the Swedish melodic death metal scene with an even more pronounced reliance on the former half of that genre. Essentially, they were writing power metal tunes and slathering the sorts of growled vocals you'd expect form their peers right on top of them. Certainly, bands like a Dark Tranquillity or In Flames could also be equated to using traditional, melodic metal aesthetics, but this group took it to a whole new level on their debut. You could imagine this entire record with a different vocalist and it might sound like a large number of Euro power metal acts, and I'd also say that in that capacity, it might not wind up with more of an impact that Stormchoirs did. Having the nastier vocals does the music a service, since it wouldn't be considered expert level in that more accessible genre.

It's a rush, a pretty good album for those who were diehards for melodic death metal at the time, but I do have a few surface complaints. The cover artwork and digital logo look pretty bad in retrospect, and I find the production to this one very washed out, and not in a particularly memorable way that just places it in an older studio era. Also, while the riff patterns were quite exciting for their day, nowadays they feel rather predictable since we've heard them all so many times since. There wasn't a novelty to the songwriting here as, say, a Soilwork or Darkane had, and again I think that's because the actual songwriting was being confined more to carrying these glorious power metal anthems forward, hell there are even some harmonies here (as in "The Question") which harken back to Iron Maiden and direct NWOHBM influence. But when the time was right, and this melodic death style was enormous here in the States due to the popularity of At the Gates or In Flames, I think Skymning would have banked a lot more if they only had better exposure. Right time, right place, wrong band?!

I like the music, but a lot of the components do feel dated, from the mix on some of the drum kit to the overall lack of power in the instruments. Not the compositions, mind you, because they blaze forward with abandon, but the heavier, faster passages sound a bit murkier than when they tear out some gleaming harmony. They have some softer parts where the bass becomes prominent, again reminding me of Steve Harris and Iron Maiden, but they don't exactly set up the ensuing elevations into harder riffing very well. It's apparent that Skyming also grew tired of this style, and potentially also thought of it as being more trendy than interesting, and so their later albums showed a lot of progression and growth, but there's no question that Stormchoirs had a potential which would have been realized with greater exposure and top notch production budget, and I think they were initially one of the more hype Invasion bands because their style just hit the mark at that exact point in time.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Hyrgal - Session fun​é​raire anno MMXXIII EP (2023)

Hyrgal occupy a pretty solid spot in the second tier of French black metal nowadays, and all three of their albums thus far have been a good listen, in particular 2020's Fin de règne. This new EP allows the band to perhaps dabble a little outside the usual range without the pressure of a proper full-length, and they actually manage to deliver some of their most devastating individual tracks through its 25 minutes, especially the opening 1-2 punch of "Deuil éclair", a breathtaking traditional black metal number with a brief and effective acoustic setup, and then the "Phalanges Assassines" with is a blasting, brutal ear-floss which a mildly more modern sheen that reminded a little of the German band Endstille, until it breaks out with these rousing melodies in the bridge.

And it's all quality from there out too, like the dark, dour crawl of "Gorge Blanche/Surin Noir" which segues into these little acoustics with a bass thrumming around softly and then eruptions of a more jangled, jarring electric tone and leads. This track definitely has more of a familiar feel to French black metal royalty like a Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega. There's also an unsettling pure feedback/noise piece and then a tight cover of Marduk's "Dark Endless", a curious choice since you'd think with the pedigree of Hyrgal they'd shoot for one off one of the subsequent records. However, it's well done, well produced, and ultimately the Session fun​é​raire is a solid release with enough internal variation on its shorter play length to keep you engaged. Potentially the mark of great things to come whenever they get around to their fourth album.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Morgue Supplier - A Life Extinguished (2023)

A Life Extinguished is the second in a series of singles planned for 2023 by Chicago sickos Morgue Supplier, and like its predecessor, its focus is on further fleshing out and exploring the band's influences from death and grind, with a fraction more atmosphere and progression than you'd have expected from their earlier full-lengths. There's a clear line here from Inevitability, but I found this particular track to be one of the most interesting they've produced yet, and although it's just as demented and extreme as you'd believe, there are points where it was almost weirdly accessible, with these bouncing grooves and catchier guitars taking over from the blasted, more intense exhibitions of force. It also goes hyper weird at points, shifting numerous times between tempos where the dissonant guitar lines ring out and they almost sound mischievous or playful...

It's probably an insane comparison, but what if there were a band which adopted the grindier aspects of bands like Exit 13 or Cephalic Carnage and then twisted them with a bit of Primus and an organically rendered dissonant brand of industrial metal circa Godflesh? That's what I took away from this tune, and it's highly entertaining, and a little different, without betraying the expectations of Morgue Supplier fans over the past few albums. As usual, Paul Gillis doesn't just deliver his vocals with monotonous grunts or snarls, the guy's got all that going on, but he just slathers his lines over the riffing, as if someone had spit them out in gobs and then they were running down the walls of the song's framework like blood or puke. Add to that an awesome bass tone from Stephen Reichelt, which excels whether it's plunking out fat notes that pop from the incendiary guitars, or with its rawer, blustering tone, and a frenzied, formidable drum spot from Danny Walker (Intronaut, Exhumed, Phobia, and many others). "A Life Extinguished" is every bit as heavy and frightening as its title implies, and lyrically evocative and grotesque, but it's also a hell of a lot of fun.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Monday, May 1, 2023

Blackstar Rising - Barbed Wire Soul (1997)

It's always interested me that so many of the Carcass alumni spent their time during their mainstay's hiatus forming or joining bands that were oriented towards more traditional hard rock, heavy metal or even stoner rock in the case of Michael Amott's Spiritual Beggars. I think for the rest of the blokes, Swansong was the clear indicator of this direction, and album I wasn't terribly thrilled about, being so fanatic over the three albums before it. In hindsight, it had some fairly catchy material on there, but it felt like a real watering down of the deatht/thrashing they had perfected with Heartwork, and perhaps just too distant from their goregrind roots to even consider it the same band. For those on board with that album's sound, however, there was BlackStar Rising, the band they formed in the other's wake, which could now further that hard rocking style without the burden of a brand name associated with medical textbooks and meat repulsion.

Barbed Wire Soul is a little more seasoned than Swansong, a mix of hard rock tropes from the 70s and 80s but with slightly more aggressive riff-work and musicianship than you'd encounter from any band of hair-sprayed sellouts working the Sunset Strip. It's almost like someone metalized Aerosmith, and changed the vocals to sound a bit more road-worn and limited in range than Tyler. There's a bit of obnoxious and generic boogie behind some of the tracks, but never to the point it gets annoying, and on tracks like "Sound of Silence" or "Give Up the Ghost", it's apparent they were trying to be creative in a space that would be considered more traditional. In fact, the latter and several others do feel like they could have been Swansong outtakes, but now they weren't afraid to ramp up some of the bluesy qualities and the 'party' rock & roll mentality that they were probably denying themselves complete access to while still in Carcass. Obviously, these guys are overly competent for this style of rock, so it's too their credit that they take a step back and really fall in to relish their roles.

Having said all this, while Barbed Wire Soul is a decent record, it's sometimes cheesy and not all that memorable compared to anything they had written other than perhaps Swansong or the truly crude Reek of Putrefaction (unless you are a goregrind fanatic). It's certainly more accomplished and varied at exploring this hard rock style than Swansong, but do I like it more in the end? I can't say that for sure, only that it's nowhere near as good as a lot of the Spiritual Beggars material; but I was happy they got the chance to get this out of their systems, and later return to proper business with the successful Carcass reunion material, which is not the be-all, end-all some make it out to be, but light years more engaging for me than BlackStar Rising.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, April 1, 2023



Off on a little Spring Break, be back with more reviews in May! - autothrall

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Limbes - Ecluse (2023)

You THINK this album cover gives off the impression of some hand holding, warm emotional blackgaze, until you look a little closer and discover the pin fetish throughout the album package. Ouch! While the music itself certainly doesn't omit the expected atmospheres from its disposition, this is actually quite scathing, suicidal black metal with a vocalist who uses that outrageous, higher rasping and shouting pitch that you'd equate to bands like Burzum or Weakling. It's fucking crazy, but almost mandatory when competing against the fuzzy substrate of tremolo picked guitars and chords which are far more raw than that same packaging of the album might have hinted. In addition, the four tracks here are quite long, some only around 7 minutes but one nearly 10 and the finale 15, so combine that with the skin-peeling distortion and you've got either a headache coming or a revelation...

A little bit of both for me. The album isn't mixed so noisy that it becomes terribly painful, it's just the guitar tone that has been so heavily distorted, and to me elation it actually generates so much of the atmosphere and escapism. The riffs are often straightforward, but threated with these dissonant breaks that really jar you along. The beats are intense, blasting beyond blasting to the point where they become nigh hypnotic, that insane voice the one anchor between you and reality, the notes sizzling and shining even more once you are fully embraced in the grasp of the mechanistic percussion. But I'm going to suggest that this is the default state you need to be in when listening through this, because the rhythms do not have a lot of variety, they are quite straightforward and flooding and violent and if you're looking to be stunned with some melody out of left field, or a segue to hide out in while you wait to rejoin the storm, that just isn't happening for you...

It's absolutely monotonous, it's simply that there is a place and time where this monotony is something I can take a bite out of and enjoy the taste. Transilvanian Hunger is monotonous, after all. But this one strikes you with such a sinister, raucous slew of tones and hostile beats that I can't blame anyone for running far away. In fact, from what I can remember of Limbes previous incarnation, Blurr Thrower, this might be the more aggressive. I wouldn't mind more range here, but the fact is that it almost lulls you into its oblivion, and then when some more glorious, melodic bridge arrives as in "Corridors", it makes it all that much more impactful. It's another of those albums which will feel like you are cleaning the wax out of your ears with barbed wire, but it accomplished what it sets out to.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Sentenced - Buried Alive (2006)

What a way to release your first proper live album...recorded right at the close of your career, released posthumously, and absolutely packed with content: two discs, 110 minutes of letting the audience have mourn along with the inevitable. Now, I'd seen Sentenced before this, but it was at a festival, I believe their set was cut short, the sound wasn't very good, and I can tell you that I would have MUCH rather seen this performance, a worthwhile farewell from a band that was fucking ace throughout most of its active years. What's more, Buried Alive is sort of a retrospective of their career, they play some of the old metal stuff in addition to the Gothic/heavy metal phase, so this was really meant as a celebration of all that they had accomplished, and a welcome one.

It's kind of obvious when they tear out "Where Waters Fall Frozen" so early in the set, their little throwback death metal vignette, but that one's from The Funeral Album, they actually tear through a little Taneli Jarva set on the second disc with an amazing performance of "Northern Lights" off North From Here, "The War Ain't Over!", "Nepenthe" and "Dance on the Graves (Lil' Siztah)" from Amok, and "The Way I Wanna Go" from the Love & Death EP. Amazing INSTRUMENTALLY, I meant, because I don't think the guy's vocals are that great sounding in the mix, maybe in a few spots, but he sounds like he's all over the place. If I'm being honest, Ville also sounds weak on some of my favorite of his tenure with the band, like "Noose" and "The Suicider". Maybe everyone was just too drunk that night? For the most part, the instruments do sound great, some of the more rock-oriented songs don't pack that much of a punch, but this could also be that the sound board is isolating the audience a little much and honing in on the wrong thing...I would have loved for the instruments to be louder next to both vocalists.

So, while Buried Alive is a substantial offering, it does suffer from those few problems, not enough that it should be a deal breaker for loyal fans who finally wanted a live album, but just be prepared for a little cringe here or there from the goofier execution of the vocals, where you might have wanted them a bit closer to studio and more emotional effective. I don't think it's one I'd really revisit much when I have those more polished recordings available to me, but I do think its classy that they waited so long to put out a giant live product rather than fleecing the fans every couple years. The stars were was the END of the band, they were playing to a home audience in Oulu, the instruments sounded pretty good (especially on the death metal tunes)...if only the vocals were better. Alas.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Sentenced - The Funeral Album (2005)

I've talked about the color schemes on the different Sentenced albums and how I liked that as a sort of catalogue of the depressing emotions that their lyrics and music convey, so it's all too fitting that the swan song would be adorned in black. The Funeral Album seems to be a divisive one among fans, which I find confusing as it's clearly nowhere near as bad as Crimson, a stinker that many fans seem to let slide. If anything, this last album feels much peppier and more energized than the last handful before it, and though it's a far cry from their earlier years, they seem to bring back a degree of their metal elements, at least dialing that back to Down and Frozen, and I for one could appreciate that, even if it's not spitting out songs of the same memorable quality.

Again, by this time, a number of other Finnish and European Gothic metal bands had taken center stage, and the more metallic-borne Sentenced weren't quite so distinct, but this album definitely fits that sound which others like Charon or H.I.M. were bringing to the table. A lot of the riffs here do feel derivative of tracks that Sentenced had already written, and that's somewhat of a bummer, but there's simply enough zest here to ignore that, and even when they sling out a more balladic piece like "We Are But Falling Leaves", they still manage to thread in some tasty melodies. "Her Last 5 Minutes" feels like it has a little doom in there, and then they stun you with a minute-long death metal instrumental called "Where Waters Fall Frozen", as a paean to their earliest records. Where the fuck has that been all this time? Hell, while it's just a vignette, it makes me wish that after Down or Frozen they had gone back to this style entirely, getting the Goth out of their systems and rejoining the other Finnish death legends..

It's a teaser, and then they shift into "Despair-Ridden Hearts", one of the more bluesy and dull barroom rock tunes on the album, which does piss me off, you could imagine Five Finger Death Punch or some other shitty band doing this, complete with generic lead and no good payoff, but I can at least say that this is the one song on the album that weak...they pick right up with "Vengeance is Mine" and the very H.I.M.-like "Consider Us Dead", and a few others that are reasonable if not memorable. The Funeral Album's worst crime is that it's very uneven in quality...some songs feel like they could have been written for one of the earlier albums, scrapped for good reason until they wound up here. I'd hate to think that this was some of planned-out grand exit, because in that case it really doesn't deliver, and in fact I'd say it's the second worse of Sentenced's full-lengths, but it could have been much worse. As a 'farewell' (pun intended), it's just not epic enough.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Friday, March 24, 2023

Sentenced - The Cold White Light (2002)

The Cold White Light, a.k.a. 'The Blue One' was a nice pivot from the dregs of Crimson, and in fact I'd say even the first five minutes of this album were more memorable than its predecessor in its entirety. Not that this is necessarily one of the stronger titles in the Finns' catalogue, but it benefits from really amazing production that gives the instruments more depth and punch than before, and the songs, while still exceedingly simple, are a lot moodier and catchier. It really seemed around this time that Sentenced were running nose to nose with other Gothic rock and metal bands from their scene like H.I.M., Charon, To/Die/For and Entwine, so you definitely hear a bit of that starting to rub off in Ville's patterns, especially the H.I.M., but at the same time, it adds a little more to his performance, makes it slightly more interesting.

There are points here, like the intro to "Brief is the Light", which are clearly among their most poppy and friendly, but at least they seem like they are headed towards something greater, which is not something I felt myself saying much with the prior album. When they arrive, you often get choruses, like to that song or "Neverlasting" or "Blood & Tears" which are even worthy of appearing on an album like Frozen. The riffs are drawn from the typical bag they'd been using since the late 90s, but there is a little fire lit under them and the more robust production to this album makes even the plainer material have more of an impact. The leads are always effective, if once again simple, and it's arguably Ville's strongest vocal performance, even if he doesn't land lines as sticky as some he had on Down. He is a natural at the dominant Goth rock element, and you could almost interchange him with that other Ville (Valo), who became more popular because of that band's woozy Romanti-Goth marketing and Bam Margera promotions.

In summary, The Cold White Light is what Crimson should have sounded like, it's like they emerged from the bar on a frosty Finnish winter day, and got caught in the glare off the trees and lakes, and remembered that they were once a pretty damn good band...and not even that long ago! It's nothing too special, and there are only 2-3 songs I really find myself returning to on a normal basis, but you could also spin the entire album and feel that it's consistent enough to leave an impact. For a penultimate studio album, it seems like the band had come to its senses and was steering back in the right direction, but taking their time to arrive.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Sentenced - Crimson (2000)

I absolutely LOATHED Crimson when it first dropped, I thought the band had pushed a little too far into the radio zone and neutered down even some of the elements that made Down and Frozen worth hearing, but in retrospect I might have overreaction just a smidgeon. Don't get me wrong, I still think this is by far the worst Sentenced album, and there isn't a single song here I ever feel any impulse to listen through, but I no longer feel the urge to throw it out the nearest window or onto a busy street where it will be ground up by tires into its trace elements. At the very best, the material here seems like it's a bunch of scraps left over from the previous, superior works, and then made a bit moodier due to the slightly darker vocals and duller riff selection.

I mean, if there's a Sentenced album that was written at the bottom of a bottle, this should be it? I don't think the style itself differs at all from what they'd been doing in the years leading to it, but every time I am expecting a catchier vocal hook or a tasteful, memorable little lick, I just get underwhelmed at the choices. It's a little more bluesy, and Ville is smoothing out his cleaner tones against the grain of his harsh vocal style, there is no doubt, but even where they try to pick up into something worthwhile like in "No More Beating As One", they can never quite stick the chorus landing. At best, you could take a handful of the stronger tunes like "Killing Me Killing You", "My Slowing Heart", or "With Bitterness and Joy" and make passable B-sides of them for a tune off Frozen. There's also just too much softness going on here, too many parts where they go for the cleaner, banal guitars that don't even have the stronger glinting riffs like they did in the past. 

Nothing here reeks of anything resembling creativity, it's just more of the same, just meant to help open the audience up a little more, but doesn't attempt to do so with the necessary good songs. But where I used to think it was offensively boring, these days I've warmed up to the point where I consider it simply 'weak', the album in their catalog I'm guaranteed to avoid, with not a single track making it onto any career playlist. That said, if you and your girlfriend picked me up and had this blaring out of the stereo on our way to some destination, I wouldn't strangle you from the backseat. We'd all make it safely to the party...because Crimson is safe, uninspired, and unremarkable in every way.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Monday, March 20, 2023

Sentenced - Frozen (1998)

Frozen marks the first time that Sentenced had really and truly found a lane that they decided to stay with. Whereas Shadows from the Past to North From Here, to Amok and then Down shows a lot of evolution in stylistic choice, this fifth full-length is more or less a doppelganger of its direct predecessor. That's not to write it off, because the songwriting here still shows a lot of class, and it's got nearly as many great hooks as they did the last time out. I also really like how they themed and colored each of their albums in this Ville phase to look distinct...the photo art is quite minimalist, but you can always remember 'this is the silver album, that one was the gold, the blue, the crimson', if only all of them were as good as this very simple but effective choice...alas, with Frozen we are still above the median of quality.

I think this album's actually a little more coherent than its predecessor, and the production a bit better since they were now fully versed on how they wanted to structure these tracks around the new vocals. Tracks like "Farewell" and "The Suicider" are instant additions to my Sentenced playlist, though they do somewhat sound alike and very similar to tracks off Down, but even these little variations are enough to put me in that same, downtrodden mood that the band was trying to relate. There is little to no progression or experimentation anywhere, he might put a few effects on the vocals for a couple lines, and there are some moody pieces like "The Rain Comes Falling Down" or the tasty "Grave Sweet Grave" that are toying around with some newer riff types to various levels of success, and "Burn" is definitely something a little heavier and more exotic, with some throwback growls in their for fun, but it's a shorter piece that could have been extended into one of the better songs had they cared more about it, rather than being so largely an instrumental. 

Ultimately, if this had been packed in as a double album with Down, I would not really be able to tell the difference beyond a few elements in the cleaner production. The drums and guitars are playing at a high level, it might be rocking out with a very basic structure, but so many little details with the fills, beats and rhythms really help flesh this one out. There are about 5-6 songs here that would have made for an ace EP, the rest aren't quite so excellent, and I think if you mashed together the best of this and the album before it, you would have had the true highlights of the post-Amok Sentenced tenure. That doesn't say much for the three albums to come, but we'll get to them...

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Sentenced - Down (1996)

Down is a bit of an oddity for me, because I view it as both a crushing disappointment after Amok, and also as a pretty catch, evocative album on its own right, a showcase for a new vocalist who at least fits the bill of the direction the band was already spinning towards. This came out in Autumn that year, and I remember really digging that minimal aesthetic of the gold background and leaf, it seemed the perfect fit for the season, and frankly so did the music. I could almost predict what it was going to sound like, a slightly watered down version of the heavy metal influences that took over from the death metal roots on their previous masterpiece, but bleak and suicidal and atmospheric and, at least for this album, fresh and memorable. It doesn't rank up with the big boys (Amok and North from Here), but it's certainly on the upper end of their discog.

The cleaner fashioned guitars of the prior album return and dominate here, a bit less intricate in structure than a song like "The War Ain't Over!" or "Forever Lost", but tunes like "Shadegrown" here with its great, folksy melodic lick between the acoustic verses, show a lot of that still in the DNA. But Down doesn't show any hesitation to grab the hard rock aesthetics by the balls and make an album that is just about 100% song-oriented, radio friendly and they picked a new frontman in Ville Laihiala who could match those aesthetics. His voice is grainy, like there's something rough rattling around in his throat, but it's also quite melodic, and really travels alongside the autumnal riffing and depressing themes. Sure, you could totally picture this guy fronting one of the sleazier glam bands of the 80s, and he's shown in his side band that he can go even more commercial, but that grit to his performance is what helps carry a lot of these songs over the top, and although I was quite let down that Taneli Jarva and his gruesome growls had moved on from the band, I quickly came to accept this change.

Otherwise, the guitars here are pretty wonderful, treading through simpler chords and picking sequences that mesh together Goth rock and traditional heavy metal, with a few minor hints that they had emerged from a slightly more extreme background. The riffs on "Bleed" or "Noose" are instantly memorable, and all the other atmospherics like acoustics and Waldemar Sorychta's guest keys are seamlessly integrated, which they had some experience with on Amok, but really ramped up here to make sure these tunes were ending in chorus parts that would cling to your brain for a very long time. I do think Down runs out of steam in the second half, the songs are good but not usually what I'm looking forward to when I spin this, but it's got a resonant, atmospheric, not-too-polished mix that stands up even today, and when I want something in that contrasting sad/rocking style found in a lot of the more 'natural' Gothic metal, this is absolutely returning to my rotation on a semi-annual basis.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Sentenced - The Trooper EP (1994)

Apart from the obvious novelty of hearing Sentenced perform their more snarling, aggressive version of the Maiden classic, The Trooper EP is in a weird place, because it was released right between the band's major shift in styles from North From Here to Amok, and weirdly enough, the originals here actually create a bridge between them. You're still getting some of that fluid, weird, semi-technical death metal from the former, but its' embedding into melodic, rocking heavy metal riffs that would come with my favorite era of the band, the Taneli Jarva-led Amok. In fact, "Desert by Night" leans more heavily towards that, where "In Memoriam" definitely sounds like it could have been an outtake from North From Here, only with mildly cleaner production, but still very much in that pure Finnish death metal realm.

The last track, "Awaiting the Winter Frost", is actually taken from that album, and while it's a good song it really wasn't necessary on this release, so a little value is docked. And truthfully, I couldn't care less about "The Trooper" cover, I love Jarva's vocals here but they just sound kind of cluttered on this, whereas he goes broad and deeper for the amazing Amok. Don't get me wrong, they stay on the beat, but the backing vocals are flimsy and I don't know that the song gains all that much with just that added level of aggressive paint. The real attraction here are those two fresh songs, and since you can probably just nab this whole EP on a North From Here CD as bonus content, it doesn't stand up as an essential release. Still, you got that little peek of what was to come, and how amazing it might be, and boy was it...

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]