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]

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Sentenced - North from Here (1993)

While the band's debut doesn't strike me as one of the more unique offerings from the earlier years of the Finnish death metal scene, it's follow-up was absolutely embarking upon its own sound much like peers Demilich, only with a different sense of melody and not so much of the jazzy grooving, uber guttural other-ness. North from Here was my first exposure to the band, and I was instantly smitten with its choppy take on weird technical, melodic death metal, compelling enough to overcome the few flaws I had with its strangely processed sound. In retrospect, the cover image is rather dull, but I remember being wowed by the idea of this dimly lit, frozen forest beneath the Borealis lights, and wintry death metal that seemed like it was being concocted in a lab beneath one of the local glaciers.

This thing is just wrought with ideas, that range from clamorous, confusing riffs, to exotic escapes like "Wings" and its Amorphis-like melodies, to incredible walls of melody and leads like you discover in the masterful "Awaiting the Winter Frost". Just a few minutes will capture your imagination, and add to that some of Taneli Jarva's sickest, splattering death metal vocals, which don't really sound much like he did on Amok, but a very interesting takeover from Miika's style on the debut (he also does still contribute). But it's the crazy performance from the instruments that really evokes this album's unforgettable, nervous and intense moods, the most complex and agile guitar work of the band's entire catalogue, wild drumming in a panic to keep up with those riffs, and extremely fluid bass playing to anchor it all to the cold ground below. Fuck, North from Here might even suffer a fraction from just having TOO much happening, as much as I enjoy this one I always felt like it was a little cluttered in its transitions, sections crashing into one another rather than merging as epically as they should.

But I am willing to forgive this due to the band's youthful exuberance and envelope-pushing, which went sadly unnoticed against superior death metal bands spawning duller but more 'brutal' sounds about this same time. It's not my favorite Sentenced album, because the Finns would undergo an even more insane evolution for Amok, to the point that it doesn't even sound like the same band, and I just happen to love the songwriting and style there...but who cares? I can have both, and this is easily one of the most important gems of that early scene, which has proliferated in recent years and become one of the strongest on the planet, even though many of its practitioners edge towards the more cavernous style and not the brilliant progressive tendencies of this record or Nespithe. If you love death metal, you MUST own this one, so if for some reason you're only acquainted with the later Gothic/heavy metal style, and don't like that, fair enough, but back in them early 90s, they was somethin' else, and North From Here still boggles my brain even as I approach the half-century club.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Sentenced - Shadows of the Past (1991)

Shadows of the Past was not an album I took to immediately, because this was not my first exposure to Sentenced, and in hindsight, it just seemed a lot less unique or interesting than its follow-up. But the funny thing about death metal, and most metal really, if it's written with pure and genuine intentions, it develops a timeless quality about it, and over the years, I've certainly found myself returning to this debut more than I was compelled back in the early 90s. I do not think this was quite as memorable or potent as Slumber of Sullen Eyes, Nespithe, or World Without God, but in its defense, this was earlier than several of those, the death metal genre as a whole was still in its infancy, and there couldn't have been as much compulsion for these early second wave acts to experiment as much as their Floridian or Swedish forebears.

So the Sentenced debut sounds a hell of a lot like Death and Obituary, with a gruff guttural bark that seemed like a more meatier Chuck, but with similar enunciation, and thicker chords that rang out more like the latter, interspersed with the darker tremolo picked patterns of the former. The songs have a very good balance of riffs, some of which take me straight back to Leprosy and Spiritual Healing, but they aren't always immortally catchy as the first time I listened through something like Nespithe. Still, with the thick, competent production values here, and the commitment to old school evil, and the phenomenal cover artwork, Shadows of the Past earns its place in that second string of cult death metal, because it's just one of those efforts that doesn't sound much older today than it did then, and though the influences might be more glaring than a Winter afternoon in Scandinavia, there weren't really that many for them to draw upon at the time.

The drums are great, the churning guitars arguably even better, and Miika Tenkula's vocals were good and gruesome as a hybrid of the two bands I mentioned above. In addition, Taneli Jarva was doing even deeper growls to accompany them, for a cool effect, before he'd take over the microphone on later recordings. The leads are scathing, the atmosphere unabashedly death metal through and through, no chances are taken here but to be honest with you, I'd rather spin this debut over some of the higher profile death metal releases of 1991 like Arise or Blessed Are the Sick, which I always found kind of disappointing in the grander scheme. Sentenced themselves would grow a little wary of this style and shoot for something far more interesting in shorter order, but if you want meat & potatoes death metal from that original era, which holds up 30 years on, this is the total package.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, March 10, 2023

In Thy Dreams - Highest Beauty (2001)

Highest Beauty has all the hallmarks of its age...the digital artwork with some tattooed angel that might even look a little cyberpunk/futuristic if you stared at it from a distance, a tight-knit thrashing At the Gates spin on Swedish death metal, and a slightly more modern vibe to its mix and songwriting, which was comparable to groups like Darkane, Soilwork, and Dimension Zero. I remember this sophomore album also seemed to have greater availability in my area of New England, and thus a bit more penetration into the fans of this style; several friends bought the album and asked me about it, and it seemed In Thy Dreams were at last on the radar along with their influences. Ironically, I think the band might have already called it quits before this came out, and thus they wouldn't be progressing any further, but did they at least leave us with their best?

I'm not sure. If you asked me to recommend an interested party any of their material, this could be the clear choice, as I just find that it has the most to offer. But there are some downsides. I don't know that the production is superior to The Gate of Pleasure, in fact it's a little dry and uneven, but the riff patterns here retain a lot of that album's nastiness. Funnily enough, this album feels the most AND least like At the Gates to me, because it's got the vocals and the volleying aggression reminiscent of Slaughter of the Soul, but at the same time they embark on a few riffing patterns which don't sound like they'd ever be written in that camp (but maybe in The Haunted later). When they break their formula, as on the slower piece "Spirits Forge", or the churning thrash moments of "Control", you get the feeling the band should have been expanding its dynamics all along, not that these are remarkable tracks, but they show a range that might have helped the band achieve a bit more notoriety.

There are a few riffs on this one that are among their best, like the opening to "Selfpity Human", one of the better tracks here in general, or the glorious charge of "Lower Regions". Indeed, Highest Beauty seems to save a lot of its bangers for the later moments of the disc, and if you took the last seven songs, stacked a few more good ones on at the end, I'd have a higher opinion of it. But it gets its job done either way, flooding your earspace with snarling, thrashing death metal with an occasional outburst of majestic, melodic emotion in a chorus or breakdown. These are no slouches, but I just don't know that I'm grabbing this one over Rusted Angel, The Chainheart Machine, Natural Born Chaos, Steelbath Suicide, Colony, Clayman or Damage Done. It's B-team, clearly, but the guy on the B-team that cheers boisterously and loudly from the bench, and he's ready to play at a moment's notice. He's got spirit.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

In Thy Dreams - The Gate of Pleasure (1999)

The Gate of Pleasure is hardly one of the more memorable melodic death metal efforts of the later 90s, but it certainly slaps the band's prior effort hard in the face and lets it know who its daddy is. This is much more savage and dense than its predecessor, and takes ever so slightly more of a risk. By this time, bands entering this niche had to walk either of two roads to make a dent: dial up the extremity, or dial up the melody, and I think when compared to Stream of Dispraised Souls, this one chose the former, not that there isn't a lot of intrinsic melody, rhythm guitars popping off into the usual patterns you'd expect from those in the footsteps of Dark Tranquillity, In Flames and At the Gates, but they don't go out of their way to be 'pretty' on this release, it's much more tuned in to the aggression of the style.

And that is both its strength, and maybe a little of its weakness, as most of the nine tracks and 32 minutes here flow together so tightly that I'd have a hard time picking any individual tunes out of the lineup. They make an interesting use of a guest violin in the opener "Into Infinity" and "Probing Insanity", but I almost wish they would have used it throughout the entirety because it creates a fairly delicious contrast, bringing in a little classical flair to the punishing proceedings. The rhythm guitars are quite solid, the drum battery is claustrophobic and intense, and this one hits a lot with the low end below Jonas Nyrén's rasp, which to be honest, is pretty standard for the Tomas Lindberg style, although this guy splatters it wherever it needs to be to keep the material sounding as dangerous as its going to get. There are a few breakdowns here or there, but they generally keep this stuff fast and frenzied and not just a little angry, but I do feel it lacks a little something...more leadwork, or atmospheric melodies flailing off the top, or more of the use of the violin while they had the guy available.

Even without that, though, The Gate of Pleasure is a passable mid-level effort which kept the band alive in a snowballing scene that had arguably just hit its apex, or was about to, before teetering off across the following decade. The issue, besides the sameness of the material, is that bands like Darkane and Soilwork had arrived with very impressive debut albums, characterized by much stronger songwriting that I frankly think could rival those 'big three' of the Swedish melodeath scene, and a couple other second-stringers like Sins of Omission were also delivering material that was just more memorable, but if you are a diehard for this strain of death and/or thrash metal then The Gate of Pleasure is intense enough to engage you for a short while.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, March 6, 2023

In Thy Dreams - Stream of Dispraised Souls EP (1997)

Stream of Dispraised Soul is a melodic death metal EP, from Sweden, in 1997. Can you guess already what this is going to sound like? Well, pat yourself on the back, because you are absolutely right, it's a take on the At the Gates formula, but I'd say in this case there's a very healthy dose of Dark Tranquillity due to the more dominantly incorporated melodies into, under and above so many of the harsher licks. It sounds almost like Slaughter of the Soul with a softer or Romantic touch, and I don't mean that as any sort of insult, but it's just a bit dreamy and more imaginative, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if some of that imagination was inspired by the earlier, less direct At the Gates albums. At any rate, this is another band that would make a few waves due to its similarities to the favorited trends of its day, nearly poised on a higher level of success.

This EP is a solid start, for sure, if nothing exceptional. They write their hearts out, loading up these tunes with walls of melody, snarling vocals and a half-decent studio sound, but the problem is this material is simply not that catchy. It's the sort of songwriting that sounds like it SHOULD be catchy, but a lot of the riffing patterns are right in one ear, and out the other...maybe a few exceptions, like the track "Dreams Within" which does kind of rock with a few memorable guitars and an atmospheric, acoustic intro, but by the time I do get to that fourth cut out of five, I'd nearly already given up. The closing title track is also one of its better pieces, and I wish that and "Dreams Within" had been in reverse order to kick off the release, I'd have perked up much faster. Otherwise, this is passable, proficient and certainly passionate in its delivery, it just lacks the thorough magic it would need to stand out in this niche. Fortunately, I think it's the worst of In Thy Dreams' recordings, they'd improve a bit, and this isn't even really that bad, I can simply think of 50 or more other releases of this type that I'd never pass on for it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Sins of Omission - Flesh On Your Bones (2001)

Flesh On Your Bones is more or less a direct continuation of the debut's style, although perhaps a bit blunter and more centrally thrash-oriented. They still bust out some of those precise, surgical harmonies in spots, and the production of the rhythm guitars still has that punch to it that sends them right past your defenses, but I don't know that the songs here had quite the same strength as their predecessors. That said, Flesh On Your Bones is a solid sophomore which I can revisit often enough without any tangible disappointment, because it keeps on mission and remains as professional and driven as the debut. Alright, the one real exception might be the cover art, which is some bland digital looking image of skeletons in a sandstorm or something, but I mean unless you're going to hire the same artist or another legend, what can ya do?

This is definitely an elbow greaser, dependable with lots of headbanging tracks even where the rhythm guitars don't spit out as many of the starker melodies to fetch your attention. They still exist, but they tend to be more compact or peripheral, and they instead flex between the thrashing low end thrust to some more atmospheric, open phrases as in the midst of "Revolution". The lead guitars are sill very well written, and I actually feel the drums here a bit more intense and thunderous than they were on The Creation. It's just an album that hangs down in that lower end more often as a rule. Some clean vocals are attempted which didn't really fire me up, but they were at least competent and confident and made as much sense as they could with the band taking a little risk or two. A lot of the album is so clinically thrashy that it almost reminds me of a Slaughter of the Soul infused with some of the Pestilence debut, Mallevs Maleficarvm, perhaps an obscure comparison but a lethal one I feel in tunes like "Angel Killers".

As I said with The Creation, this is a very good band, even if a bit derivative, and while I don't think they took this style to the new levels that Soilwork and Darkane did, their albums were and remain fun to listen through, and definitely a memorable name to sound off whenever I meet someone who is looking for more in this Swedish melodic death/thrash niche. They were built to last, and though they only endured a fairly short career, they never gave themselves the chance to burn out. Check out both albums and hear it done right.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, March 3, 2023

Räum - Cursed by the Crown (2023)

Räum is a newer French black metal act which relies heavy on the fundamental shifts created by the riffing patterns, all rather simple and traditional to the genre, but digging into those windy, primordial and melancholic aesthetics and then tearing your face in with them. In many ways, this is one of the more straightforward examples of its style that I've come across lately, but that's not to sell it short...this is not some juvenile attempt at Black Metal 101, but a calculated, harrowing journey into an emotional void which is never too raw, but also not anywhere near overproduced or polished. You still get a little noise and feedback off the sizzling guitars, the rasps are highly atmospheric and bounce around in the middle and upper ends of the environment, and they also will implement some cleaner guitar tones in and about the distortion which make it a more saddening yet lofty experience.

This is also one of those albums with only a handful (minus a thumb) of tracks, ranging from around 7 to 12 minutes, so they've got to pack a lot of space, and they're not doing that with a larger selection of riffs or tempo shifts. Thus there is a reliance of the listener becoming almost hypnotized by the patterns, and I wouldn't say that most of them are strong enough to captivate me to that level. Predictable in terms of where many of the chords or tremolo picked melodies are going to end up, but still rather dramatic and moving in terms of this particular niche. "Beyond the Black Shades of the Sun", the 12 minute finale, probably feels the most expansive in no small part due to its size, and also the most airy and outdoors-feeling, but even there I'm not sure its 'twists' entirely succeed at pulling its weight. That said, Cursed by the Crown isn't bad by any means, it might prove competent enough to offer you a depressingly majestic escape, I just have to be in the mood for this very specific style, and even then I don't know that it would be the first I turn to.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Sins of Omission - The Creation (1999)

Sins of Omission was another Swedish band trailing in the footsteps of the formidable At the Gates, and I'd say that they probably had one of the closer sounds to the Slaughter of the Soul era, with a few pretty notable exceptions which push their 1999 debut over the top from just a trend hopper to something well worth having. From the stunning as usual Kristian Wåhlin artwork to the excellent punch of the production, this was one of the better efforts I heard from the tenure of Sweden's Black Sun Records, a label with some promise that unfortunately didn't survive very far into the new millennium. But that is clearly no fault of this quartet, who had much of the promise of their own influences but never quite broke to a broader audience, and I know I sound like a broken record but it was all due to the saturation of this sound.

But in the hands of Sins of Omission, this sound was still damn potent by the close of the 90s, and this is an album that not only gives some instant gratification but sticks around as a finer example of the style. For one, I think the lead guitars here, and a lot of the surgical, almost neo-classically defined melodies, are often SUPERIOR to that better known band, almost as if they were twisting in a little of another obvious influence, In Flames, over the more snarling and thrashing subtext of At the Gates, and it's really damn effective on numbers like the unforgettable opener "Eager for the Fray" or the title track. The riffs through the whole album are pretty much 75% hit, and 25% just okay, but everything seems pretty well plotted out, and while they aren't always as intense as their primary inspiration, they make up for that with those melodic adventures which are often more akin to an evil power/metal vibe of the era. The rhythm guitars have a punchy, razor-sharp slice to them which sounds timeless, the bass is good, the snarling of Toni Kocmut is a strong send-up to a Lindberg, the only thing I thing I would ask more from is the drums, which are more than passable but sometimes a little subdued in the more rock-oriented beats.

They occasionally get a little stranger, like in "The Experiment" where they try the harmonized, operatic mid-range vocals, or the mellow and emotional touches to "The Serpentine Route" with the proggy and eerie acoustic guitars; but it's pretty brief before they get back to the neck-jerking action. The Creation is with ease one of the better albums of this style which gets no love, and whether you're a huge whore for Slaughter of the Soul or you enjoy other bands in its wake like Darkane, Soilwork and Impious, this is totally an album worth snapping up if you find it in the used bins anywhere. Just as virile sounding today as it was then, and might have even gained a little value for me as I've gone back to it through time.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]