Thursday, December 21, 2023


If you're seeking a much longer list of great releases in 2023, check out my top 100 metal albums for 2003 list over at my Rate Your Music Page. If you want even more, there's a backup list with another 100 that includes a few of the EPs, but not necessarily the same ones I've listed below. As for an actual ranked list of my top 23 for '23, here goes nothing.

My Top 23 Metal Albums of 2023

01. Malokarpatan (Sk) - Vertumnus Caesar (98)

02. Dodheimsgard (No) - Black Medium Current (95)

03. Flight (No) - Echoes of Journeys Past (93)

04. Hexvessel (Fi) - Polar Veil (92)

05. Kvelertak (No) - Endling (92)

06. Taake (No) - Et hav av avstand (90)

07. Wyrgher (Ch) - Panspermic Warlords (90)

08. Vertebra Atlantis (It) - A Dialogue with the Eeriest Sublime (90)

09. Primordial (Ie) - How It Ends (90)

10. Thantifaxath (US) - Hive Mind Necrosis (90)

11. Wayfarer (US) - American Gothic (90)

12. Cirith Ungol (US) - Dark Parade (90)

13. Valdrin (US) - Throne of the Lunar Soul (90)

14. Hellripper (UK) - Warlocks Grim & Withered Hags (90)

15. Fortíð (Is) - Narkissos (88)

16. Blut Aus Nord (Fr) - Disharmonium - Nahab (88)

17. Shining (Se) - Shining (88)

18. Incantation (US) - Unholy Deification (88)

19. Mortuary Drape (It) - Black Mirror (88)

20. Cruel Force (De) - Dawn of the Axe (88)

21. Enslaved (No) - Heimdal (88)

22. At the Altar of the Horned God (Es) - Heart of Silence (87)

23. Green Lung (UK) - This Heathen Land (87)

My Top 23 Metal EPs, Demos and Splits of 2023

01. Lunar Chamber (US) - Shambhallic Vibrations (83)

02. Undergang (Dk) - De syv stadier af ford​æ​rv (83)

03. Tribulation (Se) - Hamartia (83)

04. StarGazer (Au) - Bound by Spells (83)

05. Rites of Tara (Ca) - To the Otherworld of Silver (82)

06. Dream Unending (US)/Worm (US) - Starpath (82)

07. Carathis (At) - The Haunting of Sablewood (82)

08. Ihsahn (No) - Fascination Street Sessions (80)

09. Desekryptor (US) - Curse of the Execrated (80)

10. Amethyst (Ch) - Rock Knights (80)

11. Exhumed (US) - Beyond the Dead (80)

12. Norrhem (Fi)/Sielunvihollinen (Fi) - Split (80)

13. Stangarigel (Sk) - Metafyzika barbarstva (80)

14. Hyrgal (Fr) - Session Fun​é​raire Anno MMXXIII (80)

15. Fluisteraars (Nl) - De Kronieken van het Verdwenen Kasteel I: Harslo (80) and De Kronieken van het Verdwenen Kasteel II: Nergena (80)

16. Sign of Evil (Cl) - Psychodelic Visions (80)

17. Pestifer (Be) - Defeat of the Nemesis (80)

18. Arstidir Lifsins (Is) - Hermalausaz (80)

19. Hænesy (Hu)/Autumn Nostalgie (Sk) - Awaking Mechanon (80)

20. Worm Altar (US) - Astral Scourge (80)

21. Necrovation (Se) - Storm the Void/Starving Grave (78)

22. Abigail (Jp)/Nekrofilth (US) - Fuck in Hells Evil Bitches (77)

23. Undergang (Dk)/Spectral Voice (US) - Split (77)

Friday, December 1, 2023

Slay Bells Ringing

Happy Holidays, thanks for reading as always, and I will return with my year's end lists, and new reviews in January! - autothrall

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Sodom - 40 Years at War: The Greatest Hell of Sodom (2022)

The prospect of re-recording albums full of thrash classics is obviously not lost upon the German veterans; Destruction has released a few of their Thrash Anthems comps, Tankard has done one, and even Sodom has issued a full, expanded re-recording of their cult In the Sign of Evil EP, and a handful of other tracks have been revisited on other albums and EPs. 40 Years at War: The Greatest Hell of Sodom is an attempt to throw together 17 tracks which cover much of the band's career into a new whole, and it certainly succeeds at that, in particular the earlier tunes that, while charming, were admittedly (and understandably) somewhat sloppy in execution when the guys were young. 66 minutes of Sodom, who are frankly on a tear with their last handful of new studio outings, honing their weaponry into a production level that can contend with their most recent albums, possibly welcomed by younger fans, and after blazing through this a few times, welcomed by this old fart too.

The track selection here isn't terribly predictable, either, so if you're just expecting the 'greatest hits of Sodom', they have avoided that to just focus on really improving some pieces. No "Nuclear Winter", "Sodomy and Lust", or "The Saw is the Law" here, but a ripping volley of tracks like "After the Deluge", "Electrocution", "Body Parts" and "City of God". Regardless of the material's original era, it has all been smoothed over to sound consistent as a whole, as if 40 Years at War were just another new studio album, and while you can figure out the differences based on the relative technicality or punky feel of the tunes, it still sounds like it all belongs to the same band. Tom's vocals sound flawless, Frank and Yorck have a tone that stays loyal to the later 80s recordings but pumps a little more power, and the drumming is as peppy as it needs to be to encourage all the sore necks. Lead guitars are functional and don't attempt to leap out of the mix too much, and the bass production is also pretty good although it lets those iron-clad rhythm guitar riffs take control.

Although the Thrash Anthems collections were quite solid themselves, Sodom has surpassed them with what must be the best of these re-recording sprees, because I can honestly tell you that in many of the cases here I'd probably prefer listening to these very versions. Not every song is amazing, but the fact they didn't just go with the safer picks raises the value of this in my estimation. Like their peers in Kreator and Destruction, Angelripper and crew show no signs of slowing down, even the older members sound just as strong as they did in their formative 80s years, and 40 Years at War is another worthwhile exhibition of their dedication and power. I also really enjoy the cover art with the band's two iconic mascots going at it with one another, very representative of the recording as a whole, that fusion of old school and later thrash.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Lunar Tombfields - An Arrow to the Sun (2023)

Last year's The Eternal Harvest was a tasteful, atmospheric black metal debut out of France, and An Arrow to the Sun looks to continue that style as it shifts between its more measured, contemplative passages and then the surges into the more conventional blast patterns. The band also has a slightly interesting sense for melody, sure the tremolo picking styles are the same that you are used to in the genre, and a lot of the chords do end up in the direction that you predict, but once in awhile they'll spit out a guitar line with a more distinct progression. Lunar Tombfields does stick to its moniker in delivering very sorrowful material that is probably best experienced under some shade of moonlight, but I think this is the very definition of a 'mood record', because when I'm not quite in the headspace to absorb it, I did find myself occasionally phasing out in the longer tracks, which is all of them after the opener.

I think it's that structurally there are not a lot of surprises to be had...the duo performs all the instruments well, the vocals bear the burden of the dour and desperate emotions, and I actually love some of the tones on the guitars when they splay out the slower, spacious chords. The acoustics or cleaner distorted guitars are wonderful, and the rhythm section is tight-knit as needed, the band also balances off the coldness and warmth through some of the chord choices and that offers and air of romance to the music redolent of the debut. But often I found myself combing through the material for just one little surprise lick or tempo break, and they pop up a little too rarely in such swollen songs. I feel that some of them lose their luster after about 5-6 minutes, or they would have that much to hold my attention combined within them.

That said, this is still a decent follow-up to The Eternal Harvest, and from a production standpoint it sounds quite good, especially the glint of the guitars and the drumming. If you're just out to behold the sheer atmosphere of it, you could find far worse than An Arrow to the Sun to explore, but I just felt that there were only a limited number of payoff riffs nestled among the more predictable pieces. The closer "Le Chant Des Tombes" is probably the most balanced of the 8-9 minute tracks for me, but even that one had a moment or so of unneeded excess. Interestingly, the tracks are shorter than the debut but I still found myself more immersed in that one. Regardless, they've still got the wonderful artwork and a style that merits the patient, so if you enjoyed the last album this one isn't far off at all.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

RüYYn - Chapter II: The Flames, the Fallen, the Fury

French one-man act RüYYn's debut EP from a couple years back hardly lit my world on fire, not that its wintry and isolated disposition was intended to do so, but it was rather long on the anticipated atmosphere and short on memorable compositions. Still, there was some obvious potential there that has now been followed up through the first 'full length' proper, and right away you can notice a stark elemental difference, fire and fumes and darkness as opposed to the blinding white squalls of its predecessor. Like that debut, the songs here are numerated rather than named, the usual double edged sword which can promote cohesion to the whole via individual anonymity, but also sap the tunes of some level of remembrance in the process...

That is to say, if they are not good, and Chapter II: The Flames, the Fallen, the Fury takes only a few tracks to prove that it's a notable improvement over the prior material, with a heavier sense of loss, emotion and urgency that is cultivated through more distinct riffing and overall songwriting. This is traditional European black metal embellished with the post-modern dissonance and atmospherics that are rather widespread these days, but it's also very well balanced with some spaced out, higher pitched guitars and melodies that capture a sense of longing and melancholy (even right off in the bridge to the first track, "Part I"). The bass has a tangible presence, flooding beneath the streams of chords, and Romain's vocals, which have a little more robustness than your typical rasping, and a good level of sustain when he wants to bark a line out over the desperate, melodic hostility of the guitars and beats.

Although there's the same sort of uniform sense as there was with the debut, I think the tracks here are just set up far better, for example how the first cut breaks away and surges into "Part II" with that great double bass-driven attack. Each ends and begins with a renewed sense of identity and a wonder for the listener at what is going to happen, and to their credit, almost all of these seven pieces is fleshed out rather well with some interesting atmosphere, bleak or brooding trepidation. Where the EP had its limitations, Chapter II is far more of the 'total package' that one can wander through repeatedly, and cements RüYYn as a project to pay attention to amongst the ever-present French BM scene. Not as wild or experimental as a Blut Aus Nord or Deathspell Omega, but also not entirely conventional or predictable.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, November 27, 2023

Voivod - Ultraman EP (2022)

Two of my favorite things, together at last? I've made no secret of my love for Canadian sci-fi thrashers Voivod, they are my favorite band by an order of magnitude, but I'm also a huge fan of tokusatsu shows like the legendary Ultraman. In fact, the genre has been having a bit of a renaissance lately, with Stateside Blu Rays and DVDs for series from Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, Gridman, and especially the dozens of Mill Creek releases of Ultraman shows spanning the last 50-60 years. Young autothrall would have killed to get some of this growing up, there were a few shows available to watch on TV, but usually it was fansubs only when the internet arrived, and I was never big into the Power Rangers adaptations, the original Japanese shows they were culled from were just far whackier and more entertaining.

But yeah, it doesn't surprise me that the coolest band ever shares this passion, and they mete out a split medley of 9 versions of the Ultraman theme, shifting between instrumental and vocal versions, with a few different languages in there too. It's fun, but obviously this is a novelty, much like their old cover of "Batman" which was weirdly relevant to their 80s evolution. The themes are really short, and play it fairly close to the originals, but there's a slight edge of innovation in the guitars, and Snake's punk-wrought vocal style is a smooth fit, turning them into this almost space-surf-punk feel.  For the B-side, they've included a pair of 2018 live recordings of "Voivod" and "Overreaction" that sound phenomenal, with great angry vocals, booming bass and shuffling percussion to support Chewy's energized renditions, you even get a Piggy chant from the band and audience if I'm not mistaken. All told, the Ultraman EP will have a limited appeal, the A-side is a little repetitive and it's obviously not as powerful as their original material, but it's a cute collector's item to hang on your wall, and one wonders what might happen if they put out a whole album covering obscure sci-fi/superhero themes, maybe some prog and such. Earns a big smile, but not really mandatory beyond its collectible nature, there's just so little to it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Penitencé Onirique - Nature Morte (2023)

Penitencé Onirique is another French black metal act with its post-black influences anchored rather solidly in the more traditional elements of the genre, and their first two records had some great aesthetics when it came to packaging and style, even if the the music itself wasn't constantly winning me over. There was a slight step up in quality between V.I.T.R.I.O.L. and Vestige, and Nature Morte ups their ante yet again with an even more measured and memorable of melody, atmosphere and aggression, not to mention the curious and creepy, thorny floral photography which stands out as a little unique and artsy, yet perfectly melded to the flavor of the songwriting itself.

This one had me right as I got my foot in the door with its excellent intro to "Désir", a swell of percussion and cinematic ambient/orchestration that surged relentlessly into the blasting. It's actually this constant hovering of the symphonic vibe right on the edge of the searing intensity that really rounds out Nature Morte, there is always something tantalizing to the ear, and while I couldn't tell you that every riff is strikingly unique or catchy, there are more than enough to fit that latter category, and the tunes are paced very well to provide potent breaks or balanced against the blazing speed of some of their attack. A spacier, slower tune like the title track works equally well, and allows a little more verve to the bass lines and power to the drawn-out, impassioned rasps, with some really climactic moments that nearly knocked me out of my chair.

There's not a lot of experimentation, necessarily, but for example they have the dramatic instrumental "Lama Sabachthani" which is a lovely respite from the more relentlessly-paced material, and it's just further proof of how well balanced this whole disc is. I was stunned into submission through most of its 46 minutes, the perfect template of tempering a more traditional BM style with epic atmospherics and mildly progressive overtures to keep it present in the listener's conscience, Hands down one of the better French black metal records I've come across this year, and a formidable elevation from the material that preceded it, not that there was anything terribly wrong with that, but if I'm recommending albums from this niche, I'll direct you straight to this as one of the stronger examples in that second tier beneath the more internationally respected (or infamous) groups from that scene. An awesome album and more importantly, a worthwhile experience.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, November 24, 2023

Destruction - The Butcher Strikes Back (2022)

Vic Records' The Butcher Strikes Back is one of those 'deep fan' sorts of releases, slapping together some random material onto a single recording that might have evaded some of the band's audience. This is a part of the label's M.O., to get demos and other obscurities out into the hands of the metal crowd, but I often find that the quality or presentation is lacking, and would prefer to check out their more original releases or pure album reissues. This disc features 12 cuts, including the demo recordings of the same title that came out as the band were getting back together after the debacle that some refer to as Neo-Destruction; a handful of Japan only bonus tracks, and then the entire latter half is devoted to some live tracks from a Wacken performance. Right off the bat, I can say that this already feels like a disjointed product without hearing a single note...

Individually, though, there's nothing terribly wrong here. The demo tracks sound pretty sharp, and the production shows you they were ready to return with a vengeance for All Hell Breaks Loose and then their reunion masterpiece The Antichrist. Still a bit disheveled and demo sounding, but they aren't too far below the official studio recordings. The Tank and Motorhead covers are both serviceable, the production on the former a little more might and iron-flecked than the latter, but both of the tunes work well with Schmier's snarling and adding a little more German steel to them, and these are obvious influences on their own sound from the early years. There's a Japanese version of the Schmier-only fronted "Alliance of Hellhounds" which feels superfluous, and then it's on to the live material, which has a mix of reunion and older tracks but doesn't sound all that good from a band with better live offerings that you can experience in full, like their legendary Live Without Sense, or even the more recent stuff like Born to Thrash or Live Attack!

That's not to say it sounds bad, all the instruments are present but they feel a little cluttered at how they are entering your ear space. The bass sounds livid, the drums tinny, the guitars muscular enough and just enough of Schmier to fully embrace their infernal energy, but it's certainly no big draw towards this product as a whole. And that's rather the issue here, who is this for other than those who have to own absolutely everything? The cover art is just derivative of Infernal Overkill and Mad Butcher, and it just feels like a garden variety, second or third rate fan package which isn't necessarily terrible, nor is it expensive; but you'd be better served picking up a new CD, cassette or vinyl from some band you just discovered, or one of the Destruction albums not already in your collection. If you MUST have it all, though, I have heard far worse than this.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Tankard - Pavlov's Dawgs (2022)

As much as I love the first three Tankard full-lengths, and enjoy some of their material since, there can be no doubt that a lot of their albums of the last 20 years suffer from a sameness syndrome in which you could swear you've already heard the riffs a half-dozen times. Of course, even this period had a standout for me in The Beauty & The Beer, and I cite that title because their latest, 18th (?) full-length Pavlov's Dawgs has a lot of the same sense of melody to it as that one. Rather than the more punk and splatter-fueled alcoholic thrash of their formative era, they've been infusing a lot more of a heavy metal sensibility into their tunes, which ends up working well below Gerre's vocals, because the guy's vocals are just timeless, and even here, almost 40 years after their debut, he still sounds fantastic.

The production is likewise pristine, a vibrant and iron-fisted rhythm guitar tone redolent of the last couple decades of Destruction, and everything is crystal clear, which works well to leverage the nastier vocals and then the melodic, well-constructed leads from Andy Gutjahr which are quite good here. Frank's bass thumps along heavily and Olaf's drums are flawless in his 28th year with the band. In fact, from a pure production/accessibility standpoint, Pavlov's Dawgs might be the band's highlight of the entire post-Disco Destroyer period, and sounds killer on every speaker I've played it through. The downside is that, while there's no question of the effort that went into this album, the tunes are just not highly memorable on any level of consistency. They sound like more of the same that you heard on the last 5-6 discs, with perhaps a slightly elevated sense of melody, but there aren't many killer chorus parts or riffs that truly hook you under the keg and fill you to bursting with mosh-brew.

Now, having said that, I am so attracted to the Tankard aesthetic in general that it's still a pretty decent listen if you just shut your mind off. I mentioned Andy's guitar playing, and that's a particular point which excels here, he's hurling in all these trad/power metal dual harmonies in there and you can constantly sense this potential to explode as he reaches some new level of six-string mastery. Though the riffs and rhythm section are rushing and crushing along through the entirety, the way the vocals soar almost creates a mellow vibe off the top, like it's intense and laid back simultaneously. While the tunes don't slay me, I also can't say it's boring, just like a very 'matured' version of this band which strides forward with full drunken confidence. The album does feel like Beauty & the Beer filler, so whether or not you're going to dig it might depend on your reaction to that one, or maybe 2017's One Foot in the Grave. It's probably impossible at this point that we return to the explosive controlled chaos of The Morning After or the steelpunk-driven Zombie Attack, but I'm alright with this, and I'll keep buying their albums even if just to support their determination and consistency.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Children of Technology - Written Destiny (2020)

Italy's Children of Technology has always been a band I've wanted to like more than I do; their aesthetic blend of punk, thrash, speed metal, societal decay, mutant apocalypse leather and spikes has that inbred appeal to my inner child of the 70s and 80s, and they have always felt like what might have occurred had Voivod swerved their first few albums into a more Stateside crossover style. Now, I'm glad those Canadians did NOT do that, because they're the most amazing band ever and I've enjoyed just about every step of their journey...but I just mean to say that Children of Technology have that genuine 'cool 80s B-movie' vibe about them, and they've maintained it even through my mixed reactions to their full-length albums, of which Written Destiny is only the third...

And I'm happy to say, their best! 2010's It's Time to Face the Doomsday was fairly stylin', but their sophomore album didn't really further my appreciation. Written Destiny hit on all cylinders so fast for me that I purchased it almost instantly after giving it a test listen. There's a maturity here, a willingness to just settle into some great riffing blend of heavy/thrash metal which catches your attention right away and then holds it. I'm not saying that they've brought much nuance or invention to their niche, but straight up, the brazen metal crunch and wailing leads of "Soundtrack to No Future" set up their scythe-wielding, biker mutant aesthetic, and then the screaming and speed metal take you away to a far-flung land of radioactive bliss. Raw, nasty vocals, great gang shouts that resonate past them, and incendiary rhythm guitar tone just rattle every pleasure center in my being, and this one doesn't let up. There's DEFINITELY a huge nod to Voivod's War and Pain, and this almost sounds like a better mixed cousin to that, especially on the killer title track or the shuffling wasteland of "Desert City".

Granted, the vocals here have more of a mix of nasty nasal pinch to them than Snake's punked out pitch, but the use of the howled cleaner vocals also draws some comparisons, so they spice that up further with the occasional grunt and growl, and epic early Tom Araya screams. Riffs are very simple, like War and Pain filtered through some NWOBHM, a couple of the frillier riffs you'd expect from the blackened/speed sect so popular these recent years (for good reason). They writhe in some tremolo proto-death metal riffs here or there too, and it all gels together so well while maintaining a very down to earth, blue-collar feel to it. The riffs are never technical, not even original, but the album is simply a blast and everyone should own it, whether your jam is Manowar or Hellripper. Italy's got quite a good little scene of these bands, with Bunker 66 and Baphomet's Blood also whipping out some strong albums lately, and while Written Destiny definitely has more of the true heavy metal coursing through its nuclear bones, it's certainly one of the best in that scene to date.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Kreator - Hate über alles (2022)

Kreator's another of our enduring, legendary thrash metal bands that took a few lumps during more their experimental self-exploration phase, which usually comes around a decade after their ascent through a slew of thrashing masterworks. All things considered, though, it was never really that bad...Cause for Conflict felt mediocre, although well within their realm of typical aggression, and Endorama's moody, melancholic tinge of Goth rock influence wasn't a total disaster. Their other, more industrial-driven records like Outcast and Renewal ranged from good to great for me, however. I bring this up, because the first track I heard off this latest album, "Strongest of the Strong", featured an interesting use of tasteful female vocals that led me to believe that they'd forayed off into a new direction...and not an unpleasant one.

But it turns out that particular song is an exception here, because this is just a heavy as fuck Teutonic thrashing which put my neck and numerous other limbs in braces. Don't get me wrong, this is richly produced, mature, modern Kreator, more atmospheric than their 80s classics, but it hits like a ton of bricks with some of the fastest pure riffing the band has ever manifest. All of the decades behind them have structured and informed this record, and the only real modernization is a matter of production and tighter musicianship. You've got the utter savagery of your Pleasure to Kill or Terrible Certainty filtered through the more melodic works of recent years like Phantom Antichrist, and then a few refreshing elements like the guest vocals above, which work amazingly well, like a shade hovering above the lightning tremolo picked riffs. Mille's raving bark sounds just as rich as you'd hope, and it still shocks me how the 'Big Four' German thrash frontmen (Mille, Schmier, Gerre and Tom) are still at the top of their game after all these years. This guy is 55 fucking years's astonishing.

He's not the only shining star here, because Ventor still has his hustle behind the kit, and Sami's interplay with Mille's guitars provides a number of ecstatic, melodic moments that really help contrast and balance out the pure ferocity that the band are meting out on the lower end. These tracks sound like 30 years of evolution stacked on top of the ambition they showed with records like Terrible Certainty or Coma of Souls, and while individual riffs might not come across as distinctly catchy, or the chorus parts as obvious, Hate über alles has a lot to unpack, and all of it good. When I see people complaining about this modern Kreator, I have to wonder what they are even thinking. What more could you expect than this?!? It's advanced and interesting, moody and atmospheric, and STILL has the hostile undercurrent the group created in their youths. It's not full of hits that will challenge the Germans' Golden Oldies, you've still got your "Flag of Hate" and "Riot of Violence" available whenever you want to hear them, but they've used all of their experience to produce records with a lot of depth that will forever retain me as a card-carrying fan until I'm wormfood. Stellar record, my fave from them in over a decade.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Iron Maiden - Senjutsu (2021)

It might be tempting to take my recent review of Book of Souls, copy and paste it with all the appropriate titles changed, because Senjutsu suffers from a lot of the same issues I had with that record. However, I think the difference is that the lows here are lower, and the highs are debatably higher than anything on that 2015 offering. Keep in mind that this is still a legendary band, capable of legendary metal tracks, with much of its classic roster in place, taking its sweet time between new studio offerings, yet unable to really compose on the level of their younger selves, with all that money, and all that time. Don't get me wrong, they have EARNED such breaks, unquestionably, because of their incessant touring and advanced ages. Iron Maiden has nothing to prove, with a stellar, classic backlog, loads of popular merchandising, and tours that do their damnedest to give you your money's worth. The band has given me so much that I cannot really ask more of them...

Still, I'm baffled why a band with such an enormous resource pool can no longer create the sort of top shelf tuneage which put them on the map. On its surface, Senjutsu does look cool...I dig the stark simplicity of the artwork (as with Book of Souls), and Samurai Eddie is surely a thing. The 81-82 minutes of this might have easily been quashed onto a single CD, but once more the band has opted for the double-album, with a number of lengthy tracks, although nothing as long as on the prior disc. We're talking several pieces that are 9-12 minutes, and the odds of Maiden being able to fill all that bulk with the quality of a "Powerslave" or "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" seem bleak. The first single I heard off this, "The Writing on the Wall", had a decent animated video, and a folky feel to it which felt fresh for the band, although it's ultimately a pretty dull track without a memorable chorus. "Stratego" had me more excited, the flow on that one brought me back to the Maiden I loved of that mid-to-late 80s period, but with a slightly fresh mood to it (and another animated video). That's still one of my favorite songs on this album, but if you're asking me to put together a collection of a few dozen tracks for a road trip, it's not going anywhere NEAR that list.

Most of the lengthier tunes here feel rather empty, not that they lack emotion or melody, because Bruce still delivers as one of the high points of Senjutsu; but I almost never feel like there is any positive payoff to spending all that time within the music. There are tracks like "Lost in a Lost World" which feel like pure callbacks to some of my favorite Maiden material, but then there's nothing new or remotely refreshing about them. The shorter tracks here ("Stratego", "Days of Future Past") are much more engaging, while cuts like "Death of the Celts" and "The Parchment" seem to be building to something impressive, and then the work crews up and retire for a lunchbreak and never return. "Hell on Earth" is more successful at grabbing me, but again all the good stuff could have been condensed to a track half the length and I would have missed nothing.

Now that I've covered my disappointments, I will say that I don't quite dislike the album, this is not Nostradamus by a long shot; it doesn't suck at all, and it once again squeaks by on some of its positive factors. The production feels a lot more natural and resonant to me than The Book of Souls' smoother, cleaner mix, and as a result the historical, windy, epic nature of the lyrical matter seems better suited to the sound of the actual instruments. It's just as pleasant to put on in the background as its predecessor, because hey, that's Iron Maiden back there. But compare for a moment what this band is churning out compared to some of its peers...the last two Saxon albums kick ass in their traditional blue collar heavy metal. The most recent Judas Priest album was the most charged up they've been in almost 30 years. The last four Satan albums, since the reunion, leave Iron Maiden and every other NWOBHM or NWOBHM-adjacent band in the fucking dust. Bruce and the boys just sound bored and exhausted by comparison, and I hope that with these last two double albums, they've shaken off these 'epic' urges, and can fire off a few more concise efforts like Piece of Mind or Number of the Beast before we have to inevitably say goodbye to one of our favorite bands. Senjutsu is decent enough, but could have been so. much. more.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls (2015)

Iron Maiden's first double-album arrived at an era in which the band would be highly unlikely to fill 90 minutes with the sort of immortal, quality material that marked their ascent through the 80s, but the hope is that you can pick through all of its bloated carcass and find a few bits of tasty meat within, which you can then carve away from the fat. After years of trying, I can't seem to find enough of that choice protein. The Book of Souls is no hit machine, but rather the sort of record one grows to appreciate merely because of its experiential qualities. A good 90% of the material present on these two discs is harvested from similar and superior songwriting from across the band's past, but reconfigured just enough to feel like it still might be relevant, and the result is a pretty pleasant chunk of Iron Maiden lite that is well suited to background aural radiation...but you see, it's still Iron Fucking Maiden, and that matters.

I enjoyed this one for what it was when it first dropped, but admittedly had it shelved for years before deciding to finally draft up some thoughts on it. Listening now, it's much as I felt back then, professionally and competently executed Maiden with all the trademarks: mid to slow, plodding, majestic rhythms that occasionally stir an emotional response, Bruce Dickinson's distinct pipes sounding as well oiled as they've been in the 21st century, and a lot of interesting subject matter to inspire its lyrics. Toss in a production so clean that you could sniff Eddie's mummy dust off its surface without contamination, and add to that a rather simplistic but effective cover with the mascot looking his creepy best. Being an hour and a half of content with 11 tracks, there are bound to be a lot of overstuffed songs, and few of them really warrant the riffing and arrangement to justify that; but even if you take "The Red and the Black" at its 13 minute whole, there is still enough of the dreamy escapist quality to their classic material circa Somewhere in Time or Seventh Son of a Seventh Son or even Brave New World to not hit the Skip button. "Empire of the Clouds" at 18 minutes seems a little more adventurous, akin to a "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", sans the excellent payoffs and narrative quality of that track.

When they do occasionally manage to pick up the pace for chunks of  "When the River Runs Deep" or "Death or Glory", you immediately perk up, because it just stands out from the more gleaming, polished melancholy that comprises so much of the remainder. Both of these tunes are worth hearing extracted from The Book of Souls as a whole, but even then if I were to compare them to the classics of yore, they still tend to come up short in terms of having legendary choruses. The leads throughout the album are serviceable, but again you rarely get anything past 'just alright', and Iron Maiden is never a band that should settle for 'just alright', or anything less than excellence. I've seen other refer to this album as Iron Maiden 'covering' themselves, and I don't know that I agree with that, it all seems genuine enough, only played too safely, like the well of ambition behind these legends has run dry, and they've sealed it off rather than wait for that rainfall of ingenuity to arrive again. The Book of Souls gives them something more to tour on, to rally around, to churn out a bunch of non-challenging, acceptable tunes, but I'd much rather they tried to kick us all in the proverbial balls again (in a good way, not a Virtua XI way) and fail, then summon up another lukewarm offering like this one.

This album does manage to squeak by on my scale, hitting all the superficial chords I expect, with decent lyrics and production, but there's just no "Wicker Man" here. No "Can I Play With Madness?". No "Powerslave". And hearing how obviously competent the band remains, I think they could still pull such glories off, it's just going to require a little more pickiness in the writing phase, and a long look in the mirror without the shave.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, November 6, 2023

Amorphis - Halo (2022)

Coming off a strong stretch of albums like Under the Red Cloud and Queen of Time, I had really high hopes that Halo would ascend to the level of masterpiece Amorphis was putting out in the mid 90s. That was an unrealistic expectation, of course, and in fact this record is a step back even from its predecessors, but that's not to dump on it too hard, because Halo has all the hallmarks you've come to expect from the Finns, and it's nothing less than pleasant to experience, with some heavier material spun in there to create a good balance. In fact, this album has most of the components of an album like Elegy, which I still worship to this day. The mix of cleans and growls, the organs, the combination of prog, folk, and death metal, it's all intact, but for all the effort and professionalism, a lot of these tunes are in one ear and straight out the other.

Don't mistake me, if you want that sensation of sailing through the lakes and rivers, hair blown back as you hallucinate on Finnish myth and history, Halo, like most of the Tomi Joutsen era albums, will warm your ears. Both of his vocal styles are as strong as ever, and the guy's got a powerful projection to his timbre which fits wonderfully over the uplifting, epic nature of the music. But once you dissect the bits of this record, a lot of the chugging low end guitars are dull, the melodies with all their hippie effects seem redundant with others the band has been producing since Elegy and Tuonela, and the chorus hooks just don't have much to stand out to you, although they are always competent and easy on the soul. A lot of the proggier pieces like "The Moon" seem bog standard in tempo and structure, and even the more soothing passages like the intro to "Windmane" just seem to drift on by as mere setups for other, harder rhythms that don't deliver something I'm going to think of in 5 years (or months).

Actually, I couldn't remember a single track on this before I went back to visit it...maybe "Seven Roads Come Together" or "When the Gods Came" left a slight impression, but individual riffs or vocal lines escaped me until I was spinning the disc again, and I do feel like the middle and late tracks are more potent. The production has a great depth to it, but the songs really don't beyond the band bringing together those clean and heavier guitars, synths, etc. I like this one more than a Circle or Far from the Sun, the two Amorphis albums I never revisit, so this comes off like a stronger alternative, but even after giving it several more listens to compose my thoughts, it falls firmly into that 'decent' or 'alright' territory, there is nothing incendiary or distinct when mixed and matched against many of their past works. It's fully safe, there are no surprises to be had, no risks whatsoever waiting in its wings. Likeable enough to spend a little time with, but I wouldn't put a ring on its finger.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, November 3, 2023

Amorphis - Live at Helsinki Ice Hall (2021)

It was about the time I started listening through Live at Helsinki Ice Hall that I realized I don't think I've heard a full-length live record before from Amorphis. I've SEEN them live, a few times, sure, and I thought I could recall them putting out another live a few years before this one, but I must never have gotten around to it. It turns out that this one is quite substantial, recorded in their home turf, with two discs of tunes totaling almost 90 minutes. The caveat here is that the majority of the material is taken from the Tomi Joutsen years of the band, with a few treats for the older fans, so if you're expecting a run through of The Karelian Isthmus and Tales from the Thousand Lakes, you might come away disappointed, but this is really to be expected as they would focus on the records they're currently writing and selling.

The mix is pretty good, there's a great atmosphere created by the synthesizers and faint audience noise or feedback, so that you get this huge amphitheater-like shell of sound. Guitars sparkle along at their most melodic, but don't pack a lot of punch when they hit the lower end, but fortunately the bass and drums bulk the whole mix up. I actually think Tomi sounds off in some places, his delivery is powerful in both the cleans and growls, but especially on the later content it just sounds like he wavers a fraction off some of the desired notes, or my ears are playing tricks on me. His growling on some of the older Elegy or Tales material is pretty good though, and like I hinted, he can certainly carry the show with the pure belting he gives out. There are some nuances, effects and such here too that come off quite nice, but the album soars most when they hit upon that super atmospheric material like "The Four Wise Ones" where the synths are striking, Tomi is grunting and the leads are ringing out. Where it needs to be climactic, it delivers well enough, especially since I don't have much to compare it with!.

I'm a fan of most eras of this band, with the exception of Far from the Sun, and they seemed to have skipped that one here, as well as Circle, another that I just found mediocre. So I'm all in with the track selections, and I think they do a fairly apt job of mixing in the heaviness to remind us of their roots, especially when they take on an older number like "Into Hiding" and mix and modernize it so well alongside the more recent, progressive, mellower pieces. I don't know that Live at Helsinki Ice Hall captures the perfect Amorphis experience, or if any live recording ever could, but it's a good enough showcase to remind you of why you've enjoyed the wonderful band for three whole decades and counting.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Acid Witch - Rot Among Us (2022)

Acid Witch has evolved into what must easily be one of my go-to Halloween bands and sounds. Sure, the aesthetics and influence were always present from their debut, Witchtanic Hallucinations, with its crushing, raw psychedelic doom, but as they've gone on patiently creating new content across the last 15 years, they've developed into a much more varied, progressive style, but without abandoning the down to earth, everyman production values and campy horror inspirations. Slasher Dave has been quite busy with his solo synthesizer/score work, pumping out some really great albums like Halloween Howls, Frights and The Jack-O-Lantern Murders, and I suspect a lot of that actually turns around and informs the direction that Acid Witch takes, but it's also why this material feels so fresh and original.

Evil Sound Screamers was quite an involved, trance-inducing slab of spooks and grooves, but Rot Among Us takes us even a little further than that. You don't really know what to expect with their newer material, because they no longer just settle for the crushing stoner haze of their first two full-lengths. Each of their cuts is like a weird narrative of their own unique horror cosmic, from the Carpenter-like synths that support the guitars and impish chants in "Gather Each Witch" to the chumpy chug and take of the title track, with its goofy and endearing vocals that adorn the more melancholic, melodic riffs. You still have some of those stock, swaggering stoner blues grooves in places like "The Sleeper", but they never bore you to death with anything that even hinges on predictable, they'll churn into a more thrashing riff, or slip in some minor instrumentation like cute little synth tone when you don't quite expect it.

All the while they can still kick out the deeper, bolder rasps, screams or growls, or the bigger riff, but they save these for specific moments where they'll have an impact. They just like to play around with your expectations first, like the antagonist of some cheesy B-horror film, and it makes for a really fun time, and an album that can appeal both to the horror/exploitation hesher and stoner rock fan alike, without taking itself too seriously. Combine this with that earthen, natural feel to the instruments, like they're giving a clean, personal performance of this in your basement while you smoke a bag and stare at all your posters under a black light, and there's really just nothing else quite like Acid Witch. They are their own entity, on their own terms, and the albums just keep getting incrementally better with each progression. This is also my favorite of Shagrat's album covers for them yet, how cool is it to have an artist like that in-house?

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, October 30, 2023

Scolopendra - Those of the Catacombs (2020)

Like most horror and OSDM fans would be, I was attracted to the cover art on Those of the Catatombs, which reminded me heavily of all that great old Italo creep cinema of past decades, like a potential period piece incarnation of the Fulci Zombi franchise. You can just envision all these putrid, horrific corpses popping at you from cellars, crypts and tombs, and to their credit, Scolopendra does their bloody best to match the morbid imagery with their crud-clad, almost minimalistic approach to extremity. In fact, their crude songwriting aesthetics mirror those of another Italian export, the great Barbarian, only where that band metes out a mix of primitive thrash, speed and epic heavy metal, this is more of a carnal hybrid of pure 80s death and thrash without any frills...

Chugging, hammering riffs that you've probably heard many times before in various forms, with a few lapses towards doomier, slower material. Lots of feedback in there, fresh and unpolished like a blend of Hellhammer and Venom, but never too noisy or clamorous that it disturbs the clarity of the recording. The raw rhythm guitar tone is balanced out by the simple bass lines and beats, and then both of the vocalists just slather on this raunchy, gruesome barks and roars which certainly remind one of Chris from Autopsy or the late Killjoy of Necrophagia. Some of the sustained vocals have a decay on them like a death metal toad roaring its dominion across a stagnant pond, and it's all total nasty and straight to the face. There's also a very 'live' vibe to this album, again it's not too disgustingly distant or crude, but as if you were getting this really intense, balanced, loud performance right in front of you.

They use a few little details like organs and such ("First-Class Coffin"), or the horror synthns of the interlude "The Smell of Cadavers" to spice things up so they don't become too monotonous, and a few individual guitar licks stray from expectations, but by and large this is very old sounding worship of the bands that stood at the forefront of extreme metal in numerous of its categories. There's nothing too nuanced or progressive about anything here, it's just a big, rolling, pounding bevy of death metal riffs that sound like the style was just then congealing on top of the corpse of thrash, and if you're into those first two Autopsy albums, Usurper, Impetigo, maybe some other bands like Cardiac Arrest, this is perhaps a band you're going to be into, and a lot more rudimentary than the members' other group Abhor. For myself, I really admired the artwork, the themes, the huge sound of the project and the attitude, but I did find a lot of the riffs direly predictable and it didn't exactly light my fire, there weren't many tunes I wanted to keep returning to beyond maybe the synth instrumental.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Silver Bullet - Mooncult (2019)

Silver Bullet is another band that could be considered alongside the more pompous, heavily orchestrated Euro heavy/power metal acts, specifically a group like Sabaton or Powerwolf, albeit performing with a lot more speed and finesse in the traditions of the Euro power metal of the 80s and 90s like Gamma Ray, Helloween and Blind Guardian. I'm honestly shocked that they haven't become a bigger name amidst this towering scene, because they're quite good, across all their three LPs to date, with this sophomore Mooncult my personal favorite, the point at which they are best balancing these two halves, never becoming quite so goofy sounding as the former can attain, but definitely going for a more accessible and commercial sound than the latter. As a plus, if their name didn't tip you off, they focus exclusively on horror themes!

Mooncult being a conceptual album about the witch-burnings of the 16th century in Europe, as opposed to the normal Salem, Massachusetts trials. Now, I won't go and tell you that these Finns succeed on many level at making music that sounds actually creepy or turns out that the very typical sorts of choirs, orchestration and pirate-shanty style backing vocals don't really breathe horror into the material, especially when affixed to such harmonious, majestic sounding metal. Maybe the intro to "Maiden, Mother and Crone", or the doomy swells and creeping riffs of "Light the Lanterns", but even that isn't exactly the darkest heavy metal you're going to hear. But what it IS, is excellently written, packed with good leads and melodies, and a vocalist in Nils Nordling who really stands out with a style that is somewhere between Dio's more operatic leanings and Ralf Scheepers' screams and sustain, he's a total package power metal frontman that maintains a personality through every track, even as he's backed up by lots of the gang shouts, synth-estrahs and choirs arrangements.

The rest of the band are no slouches, mind you, and this record hits like a truck when it needs to on a thundering mid-pacer like "The Witches Hammer" or a detailed, frenetic piece like "Burn the Witch". No, these guys aren't winning awards for unique song titles, but Mooncult is a well produced exhibition for its style, an album you can have fun with throughout, with plenty of variation as it ventures into its more operatic, narrative, or folksy segments, and while it's not as scary as it might have been were the band to tread some darker, more dissonant waters, the message behind the lyrics is strong enough, an aegis against paranoid persecution, delivered with glittering power and precision. Easily a band that should be considered more than some of their scene's other upstarts like Battle Beast.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Cult of Horror - Hermetik Heretik (2020)

Another impressive band in that South American blackened speed and thrash scene, Cult of Horror deliver the raw, pummeling goods as pioneered by their influences, in a compact, bludgeoning, evil form that will keep you headbanging in a dingy basement forever. Hermetik Heretik is their sophomore full-length, and while the first was pretty decent on its own, this thickens the blood of that style a little without losing any of the menace. Because that is key here, this Brazilian band actually sounds EVIL, they harness all of the creepy, frilly riffing that you love out of groups like Deathhammer or Hellripper, and they do it with some heft to hoist up the speed metal. I don't wanna say that they're d-beat, but they have a similar rocking out feel adjacent to the response I get to a lot of groups within that niche.

The vocalist Pazuzu really adds a lot, not because he's super-nuanced, but his growling, oblique delivery feels as if you're being smothered with rotten mummy-wrappings, there are simply no fucks given here as he growls out sustained lines over the more agile guitar parts, which are constantly catchy even where you've heard them before, but will throw out some surprises when they opt for a more distinctly death metal tremolo picked riff, or a boogie heavy metal groove like they lay down in the depths of "Philosophy of a Knife", even a doom tune in "Promethean Reign". There are often a few riffs that are borderline TOO derivative, such as the opening to "Murder by Witchcraft" which mirrors Slayer's immortal breakdown in "The Antichrist", but I'm willing to bet that this is conscious with no ill intent, rather an attempt to take that vibe and twist it off into some new configuration. This is an exception though, because while they don't exactly write original riffs, nothing else is so obvious, it's all pretty dark and dim and awesome.

I hope some of these groups can get some further exposure, I know acts like Whipstriker and Witchtrap have come around on tour, but I'd love a chance to check out Cult of Horror, Atomic Roar and some of the other underground gems from down there. This guy's voice is grisly and awesome, the material is in general quite oppressive, constantly catchy and well suited to the mix of occult fixation and horror smut that the band covers lyrically; Cult of Horror is certainly that, and what they write is the perfect companion to nights of bad booze, VHS exploitation flicks and an inescapable whiff of blood-drenched leather.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Revolting - Born to Be Dead (2022)

Has anyone come up with a comprehensive death metal discography for 'Revolting' Rogga Johansson yet? He must now have hundreds of albums under his belt across scores of projects, and while this was a thing I used to try and keep up with, I feel as if I've been left behind in the last decade. Revolting was actually one of the bands I would have considered among his 'core' projects once upon a time, along with a Ribspreader or Paganizer, but to be truthful these three and several of his others cross the streams a bit when it comes to cultivating a truly distinct identity. At any rate, Born to Be Dead, this project's eighth proper full-length, exhibits the same level of professionalism and genre knowledge that Rogga's spews everywhere, and it's the sort of album that, barring anything else available to you from the same niche, is a pretty good time that covers all the bloody bases successfully enough.

There is definitely a heavy, thick 'Swedish' sound to this one reminiscent of Entombed and Dismember, but with a lot of mournful, melodic playing attached which might be more akin to classic Desultory, but it all merges into a satisfactory package, assuming you aren't seeking out much complexity, or tunes that are going to roll around your memory for much time beyond that you spend listening to it. The low end churns along wonderfully, with perfectly balanced rhythm guitars doing their D-beat or tremolo picked riffs, omni present bass swells and thundering, precision percussion, all forming this seat that the simple melodies and the raunchy growls can settle into comfortably, but beyond just a handful of riffs, the tracks rarely go anywhere that exciting. All of them have been heard in similar configurations, even by this very same artist, and though they have a general timelessness about them that scratch my Swedeath itches, the tracks don't really stand out against one another.

If it sounds like Rogga can write 50 of these tunes in a single day, that's because he probably can...the guy LIVES death metal, in fact if we had to choose an avatar for this beloved medium on Earth, he might be the very one, but that doesn't prevent a bit of complacency and also-ran mentality from the meat & potatoes of this band's style and catalogue. I was a bit more fond of the earlier Revolting albums, but many of them have all started to blend together, not that this one is egregiously weak, or weak at, most of us would happily band our heads along to the thick, syrupy production and purity of the style, but some of Johansson's projects have gone a little further out on the limbs in recent years, and while Born to Be Dead LOOKS amazing, and sounds very damn solid, it just can't cross the 'decent' threshold into something more impressive and impactful. 

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Atomic Witch - Crypt of Sleepless Malice (2022)

 Atomic Witch definitely draws you in with their ridiculous, colorful cover art, which promises all manner of cult horror homages, and it looks like something you might have seen as a poster on the wall in some black-lit corner of Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses. But the music itself is no joke, a brand of semi-technical, semi-brutal death metal which hits a number of references to some of Cannibal Corpse's more intricate material in the Corpsegrinder era, mixed with a dose of clinical thrashing which bounces between the punchy crossover of a Municipal Waste and the proficiency of West Coast late 80s masters like Forbidden or Vio-lence. Hell, I'd even offer that what Vektor does for science fiction death/thrash, Atomic Witch does for horror camp.

But as spastic, intense and engaging as the musicianship is on this record, and it's quite well arranged without ever going too overboard with flashy noodling, it's the performance of the two vocals which puts it well over the top. One's got a snarky, cruel bite to the mid-range delivery, a common trope in thrash and crossover, but then the other has the propensity to hurl all these wild shrieks and screams at you, some of them slightly sustained and eerie, reminding me of anything from the King Diamond falsetto to the raving excellence of the late Warrel Dane of Nevermore, or if I'm being a bit more obscure, Watchtower's Alan Tecchio and Realm's Mark Antoni. Perhaps the band Them is also an apt comparison, though this doesn't feel quite as conceptual. My first time listening through Crypt of Sleepless Malice I picked up that slight vibe of parody, but it's really not; where a band like 3 Inches of Blood is just something I could never get used to, always seeming like a caricature, with this album it really enhances the theatrical insanity of the band's musical style.

There's also just a ton of variation here, beyond the death and thrashing you can occasionally hear a passage that has a melodic death or black metal vibe, and they also set up some great intros to tracks like "She Drifts" which build an instant atmosphere and mood before they spin-kick you in the fast with the verse riffing. The leads are pretty excellent, always appearing at the right second to amplify the mood, and when he lifts off into a scream after one, like in "Cemetery Mud", it melts your face. Now, to be honest, there are quite a few of the individual riffs which feel a bit like you've heard them before, and some of the more surgical sounding stuff doesn't always impress, but there are a good 4-5 tracks on this debut that showcase a truly formidable band, and considering they've only got a few years and shorter releases behind them, their future should prove positively atomic if they can maintain this level.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Cradle of Filth - Existence is Futile (2021)

The cover art to Existence is Futile offers a lot to unpack, some sort of devilish orgy processing center against the burning wastes of Hell, with the unfortunate tortured and ravished souls farting ravens out of their butts before being fed to the Big Guy. A little unusual, but in that classic, literary sense that Cradle of Filth are such proponents for, and clearly the most interesting that Artūrs Bērziņš has yet created for the band. But what isn't nearly so strange is how absolutely killer this album is. They'd been cruising along with newfound success and critical respect for (in my estimation) the six albums before this one, but Existence is Futile is so dynamic and well-released that it almost instantly thrust to the top echelons of their entire discography, and it's since grown into my fave that they've written since 2000's formidable Midian.

By this point you know exactly what to expect, the Brits' hybrid of black, thrash, death and Gothic metal dowsed in synth-driven symphonics, poetic lyrics and the vocal array of a flight of imps of various shapes and sizes. But with this record, everything is just so flawlessly integrated that there's never a single second where I feel like a keyboard or effect oversteps its place. A lot of albums making such heavy use of orchestration run the risk of drowning out their metallic core, but not here, as every sinister lick is crystal clear, the bass lines brood along effectively and Skaroupka's drums are at their usual peak, like a storm hovering over a decaying castle on a rain-slicked hillside. The female choirs, the arrangements, this record is probably the closest they've come to a true 'symphonic metal' style, without going too overboard and ridiculous like a Dimmu Borgir or Fleshgod Apocalypse when they went into arguably hyper-orchestrated territory on certain efforts. This just feels 'right' the entire time, like you're signing up for a full, cinematic experience, a silent lost horror epic which has been given an entire score by the filthy libertines, and you are never jerked from its grasp.

In fact, though I won't say the album is perfectly catchy throughout its near hour of material, it is quite hard to pick out particular favorites because all the tunes are so bloody consistent. I love that technical thrash riffing that pulses below the orchestration of "Crawling King Chaos", or the Sabbat (UK)-like thrash and melodies that catapult into "Black Smoke Curling from the Lips of War", but even the softer interludes with their piano lullabies are good, and I loved the doomy swagger within "The Dying of the Embers". It's really just one that I'll happily spin fore to aft, with a great Scott Atkins production and the usual high standards for layout and packaging. It falls short of a masterpiece, perhaps, but Existence is Futile easily joins Midian, Dusk and Her Embrace and the 'Re-Mistressed' version of Cruelty and the Beast as a go-to album from these persistently entertaining ghouls.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Exhumed - To the Dead (2022)

Even after what must be my least favorite of their studio albums in 2019's still-decent Horror, I had little concern that Exhumed was a band to ever let me down, and with their follow-up, To the Dead, they haven't. Where the last record fully shot for a less evocative, but more intense roots goregrind experience, this outing heads back in the other direction, with an album-length a full third longer than its predecessor. There are still loads of grinding, blasting riffs here, but that horror death/thrash which defines so many of my favorites in their catalogue (Slaughtercult and  Anatomy is Destiny) continues to dominate, and in fact To the Dead sounds as if were a sequel to 2017's excellent Death Revenge, only tempered with more of the speed and savagery that oldschool fans who probably LOVED Horror would have asked for.

The result is one of their most dynamic full-lengths, catapulting from one of the spectrum to the other, and kicking ass for much of its duration. If you like the clinical, thrash punch of Carcass records like Necroticism or Heartwork, this one has you covered with a bevy of catchy little licks, and not to mention the surgical solos are some of the best Exhumed has ever spewed forth. But the influences are pretty wide, for instance "Drained of Color" has a battering mid-paced riff reminiscent of peak Bolt Thrower, and some of the richer, blasting passages give even the most intense Napalm Death a run for its money. Bringing the full breadth of the rasped and guttural vocal interchange to play, the album is never remotely dull, and I even think the latter seems to have an added depth to it which reminds me of some of the montrous timbre of a Symphonies of Sickness, only more accessible all around due to the seasoned songwriting chops of Matt Harvey and company. The bass has a tone to it which pops along almost like late 80s Overkill, and the drumming flexes effortlessly between the component styles.

I do feel that the mix on To the Dead is a little overly suppressed, or processed, possibly due to the guitar tones, but it's neither a deal-breaker nor does it muddy up the instrumentation to the point where I can't still enjoy it. It's the songwriting that wins out this time, and while it's probably not going to crack my top 3 records from this band, it's just another sign of the stable execution and evergreen fun factor that Exhumed carry with them like a sword and mask and chainsaw. The Marc Schoenbach cover is appropriately gnarly and gruesome, the lyrics bounce between sinister and gory, all written to the level that the music deserves. There are NO bad Exhumed albums, they are one of our most concussive and consistent American death metal bands to not only pay homage to their own heroes but to occasionally innovate upon them, and here's another reason why you should climb aboard this midnight meat metal train if for some reason you're still diddling yourself on the platform.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, October 16, 2023

Damnation Gallery - Enter the Fog (2022)

Another of the myriad horror-themed Italian heavy metal acts, and a fairly recent one is Genoa's Damnation Gallery, who I hadn't heard until this third album. The cover art here isn't exactly evocative, but at the same time it's not an inaccurate representative for the dark and chunky feel of this album. Where I was expecting some creepy heavy metal, this is actually quite a bit heavier than, with a grotesque edge to the female vocals which aim at snarling cruelty rather than melody, and in fact it almost seems like an extreme metal vocal bleeding over into a more traditional sound. That said, the writing itself is rather ominous, with a distinct presence of thrash or proto-death metal rhythms that flavor the songwriting.

They'll still bust out a pure heavy/speed metal passage (the bridge of "An Instant"), but in general this is a meaner, knuckle dragging spin, not afraid to spread its bat-wings wherever it needs to take flight, I even caught a few fills or riffs where they was a slight black metal aesthetic, and certainly a Gothic mood is felt in the cleaner guitars or narrative. That said, I think I actually like the material best in tracks like "Your Will Shall Be Done" where it comes off like early, Slayer-flavored heavy metal, or perhaps with a slight earlier 80s Teutonic thrash feel, and the band feels more coherent. Enter the Fog has a pretty natural sound to it, with grooving, corpulent bass lines, driving drums and a deeper rhythm guitar tone that has a live feel to it. They also leave a lot of the vocalist's imperfections to tape, which actually benefits their style, and the whole thing seems like it could be pulled off very close on a stage, with plenty of capes, top hats and cheesy horror props to emphasize the subject matter. 

The songs themselves don't always blow me away, but they definitely engage you with a style you mightn't expect, and though you can't say she's got the best vocal style or range, she's quite committed to the insanity, with all manner of tortured, strained growls and snarls that had me convinced. Despite the spread of styles, they definitely come together to create a consistent atmosphere which feels pretty unique to the band. I was occasionally reminded of America's Crisis, but rather than having that groove or hardcore backbone, this is one borne from more pure 80s metal worship. I'd love to hear more evil leads, maybe even some more synth added in to give the horror elements a bit more bluster, but Enter the Fog definitely sounds better than it looks, and it walks (flies?) its own path to honor its themes.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, October 13, 2023

Blood Rage - Welcome to Crimson Pines EP (2022)

The VHS cover reference, the obvious Friday the 13th parallels, and the title definitely seem like the setup for a fun slasher metal record from this newer British band. The retro-synth intro/sample is also great, and then they bludgeon you directly in the face with meaty, gruesome, old death metal which reminded me of ancient fucking Bolt Thrower of all things, with a slightly more contemporary sense of groove; or perhaps a less intense Mortician, with some more accessible songwriting and leads tossed onto there. Either way, Blood Rage doesn't really follow any of the trendier death metal waves of late, or perhaps it might fit in best with the caveman death popularized through cool labels like Maggot Stomp, but it's not quite the same.

Now this is obviously a for-fun project, and not too serious, so I can forgive a few inconsistencies in the production, like how the vocals just seem too loud and overbearing for the instruments (as in "He Came Back"). When you've got multiple guttural growls and then even some crumby sounding rasp behind it, and they just seem to drown out the visceral riffing and beats. The production on the guitars is awesome, just loud and crunchy as fuck, in fact the tone makes up for any lack of nuance in the overall quality of the riffs, and once the screaming samples and chainsaws show up you are having a blast. The titles and lyrics are hilarious ("Skewered with a Tent Stake", "Campfire Immolation") and appropriate to the slasher niche the Brits are paying tribute to. Ultimately, this isn't something you're going to spin repeatedly forever, but an engaging, brawling disc when you're in the mood to just shut down and mosh your mind. I can only hope they'll put out some other slasher hero tributes, perhaps theming one EP after each of the big guns. Just an entertaining beatdown and a reminder to survive the great outdoors by not being there.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Lord Vampyr - The Vampire's Legacy (2021)

Italians and their horror go hand in hand, from the classic zombie and giallo films to a broad range of metal engaged with the genre. From your Paul Chain doom to the theatrics of Death SS, to the occult haze of a Mortuary Drape, they've got you pretty much covered if you're into the classic traditions and macabre mysticism. Not all of it is great, in fact a lot of it can get pretty goofy, but when I see an album cover this fucking awesome I am quite hopeful on the former. I mean this is artwork you really need to live up reminds me of the first two Necromantia've got a grisly looking Dracula that you don't want to fuck with, and a trio of ghastly brides that you wouldn't want to fuck with even with someone else's appendages. Lord Vampyr himself, Alessandro, has a long history in horror-themed bands like Theatres des Vampires and Malamorte, and while I found some of them a little cheesy, others certainly held promise.

I haven't heard a lot of his solo albums, granted, but I know he flirted around with some industrial or Goth stuff, which The Vampire's Legacy only dabbles in occasionally. For the most part, this is full-on vampiric black metal which does sound like an aesthetic mesh of the Greek style of groups like Necromantia and Varathron with perhaps a bit of Cradle of Filth's haunted house stylings. The tremolo picked riffs are dowsed in an attempt at creepy atmosphere through the note placement, and they mix things up a lot with some slower grooves that might be channeling a bit more of the Goth metal influence, but this record did surprise me with some great pauses/breaks that erupt into these excellent, smothering black metal riffs, with intense drum batteries, non-intrusive synthesizers, decent bass lines, and ecstatic leads that rip out of the creepy castle countryside that this album explores to the bone. Top this all off with Lord Vampyr's charismatic, gnarly vocals, a blend of your typical Dani Filth rasps and more haughty shouting, and there's a wide enough variety here to fill the space and time.

For instance, "Mircalla" starts off with this drugged out, Celtic Frost vibe to it before erupting into the lurching, stuttering blast kicks, where "Wicked" fully embraces the Gothic/heavy metal thing without somehow interrupting the harsher, faster elements of the album, and "Blood Ballad" is a violent dip into its namesake without losing some degree of heaviness. It all feels like it should exist in the same place, that Lord Vampyr is simply pacing things out so the listener can catch a breath before going back into the symphonic black metal depths, a few of which are well orchestrated with clean vocal choirs ("Mater Vampirorum", "In My Tenebra"). Nothing here is truly amazing, granted, and sometimes it does come off a little over overly committed, but I was impressed that this stuff at least made an honest attempt to earn that killer cover art, and there's no question that it's legit horror metal through and through.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]