Thursday, June 29, 2023

Fermenting Innards - Myst (1995)

Myst was a case of instant jealousy after a friend of mine picked it up on one of our trips a few towns over to an import record shop. There were 2-3 of those in the region and pretty much the only places where we could sample and purchase a lot of underground European releases from labels that we would otherwise have had to mail out to. Much of this stuff was black metal, melodic death, folk, Goth or doom, but there were also a handful of gems that we'd more closely associate with pure death, and even though Fermenting Innards' one full-length is more of a  black/death hybrid than the previous EP, it still surprised me at just how seamlessly it mixed the two. Regardless, as soon as I heard this, I knew it should have gone home with me instead of my friend, who would never give it the love that I could, and thus I had to instantly burn a copy until I could fetch my own...which I believe I have lying around somewhere in storage, but my brain fogs, and it's possible that I lost it along the way or have a bad memory. Basically, good readers, you need to send me all your Fermenting Innards CDs stat.

Myst definitely starts more on the black metal side, with an amazing, almost militant dark ambient synth intro, and then a gorgeously textured, moonlit volley of blasting with some brooding, effective synths behind it in the title track, almost with the feel of something like earlier Dimmu Borgir. This track is immortally catchy, but definitely the substrate of rhythm guitars has a churning, death metal quality that will manifest more prominently elsewhere on the album, like the astonishingly good track "Those Burning Thorns", with an amazing blend of chords and melodies that almost write their own melodic death metal language akin to Finland's masters Demilich. The entire album is like this, a veritable riff-fest which can effortlessly shift between the two styles, though I think death metal covers a little more of the actual 47 minutes of the album (the black metal aesthetics return in a big way later on tracks like "The Rising in Northern Storm" and "Svartfoldet hat"). The vocals are a great hybrid of growls and rasped, often 'harmonized' with others, and the guitars have an atmospheric, washed out tone to them which keeps them fresh. The drum mix is pretty solid, the cleaner guitars transcend into the distortion well enough, the low end murky and thick.

Perhaps its this hybridization, or lack of full commitment to one of its two halves that held Fermenting Innards back from more success? I know that we often give that same tag to groups like Dissection, but here it really felt like walking straight down the line on those few blended tracks. There are a few odd choices, like they include a cover of Nirvana 2002's "Mourning" which feels closer to the original and thus out of place to the Germans, or the one holdover "Eternal Sadness" from the EP, which they've given a Paradise Lost Gothic spin complete with deep clean vocals, but these are both enjoyable, they just give the album a slight incongruity of identity, and I can understand why some might have found it too incoherent. For me, it still sounds as fresh and fantastic and well-written as the day I first heard it, and will always remain a gem, from the weird artwork to the mid-90s production. I believe two of the members were also a part of Golem, another excellent band off the Invasion roster, so go and check them out if you enjoyed this, though they've got a more purely Carcass-based sound. Myst is a treat, though, and if it hasn't gone a reissue it is a prime candidate.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Fermenting Innards - Drowned EP (1994)

Though Fermenting Innards would go on to put out one of my favorite albums on the entire Invasion Records roster, I had never before heard their original 1994 EP Drowned, which is largely comprised of songs that didn't make it onto their sole full-length. And I'm glad to have checked it out, because while the tracks here don't quite match up to what was coming, this is easily one of the better EPs that arrived in the earlier years of that label's existence. What you have here is basically a Florida-style death metal with some churning Obituary groove to it, perhaps a small amount of that Hellhammer-to-D-beat Swedish influence arriving later in the first track "In Hate". In addition, you can hear a little of why the band earns the black/death metal hybrid tag, though I feel they fall far more decisively on the latter, there are some elements of their blasted rhythms and synths which showcase traces of that...

Still, the riff patterns are largely more clinical and morbid/gory and don't really give me the aesthetic imprints I associate with black metal of the Satanic, nature-themed or folk/Viking variety. This is mostly a bit of death/thrash inspired, reasonably produced material redolent of other German bands like Morgoth or old Atrocity, with a little trace of Carcass or the abovementioned Florida bands. It's nothing too exciting, because the guitar tone isn't all that great, and the tunes aren't littered with amazing, memorable riffs, but if you're looking for some European death metal gems from that mid-90s era, this is a band that was severely overlooked, despite being on the same plane of competence of so many that are now hailed as cult classic bands or albums. Drowned pretty much runs the gamut for the death-styles of its day, only omitting the more brutal/technical niche that was arriving through a Suffocation. A decent appetizer for what was to come the following year...

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Lake of Tears - Ominous (2021)

Had Lake of Tears remained consistent through its near 30 year existence, I would count Daniel Brennare's baby as one of my favorite doom bands of all time. Yet for every record I worship...Headstones, A Crimson Cosmos and the wonderful surprise that was Moons and Mushrooms, there seem to be a few disappointing duds that feel almost like contractual fulfillments that don't exactly forward their music or aesthetics in any tangible way. Forever Autumn from 1999 was as dull as a stump (though I seem to be in the minority there), and the band's last effort Illwill left something to be desired. After a decade, the longest break in Lake of Tears' history, Daniel returns with Ominous, an album that, while not quite in the company of those favorites, is compelling and sees the Swedish doom outfit along a fresh path...

What if you took the band's simple, drudging sound and complemented it with electronics that feel at once both novel and retro? Throw a little distortion on the vocals, a little sci-fi influence mixed with their usual introspective lyrics, and I am back on board in a big way. Ominous is by far the band's biggest risk, their most 'experimental', but at the same time it still feels distinctly like Lake of Tears. The moody, dreary ambience of "In Wait and In Worries" is propelled by a guitar pattern that wouldn't have been out of place on their older records, and "Lost in a Moment" takes its more tribal, dissonance riffing and swirling bits of ambiance into a big rocking rhythm that feels like right at home. Even the soothing "Ominous Too", which reeks of David Bowie jamming with Pink Floyd, is transformed into something essentially Brennare, and even gives you a payoff riff deep in its depths. The album's dark tones certainly live up to the great cover artwork, and the electronic beats or synth tones never feel intrusive, but a natural mutation of the style the band has been cultivating for so long...

It's not perfect, as there are a few empty moments or tracks without a real climax, but there's probably something here for fans of all the bands' prior phases...and the pseudo-death metal riffing behind the windy, frightening atmosphere of instrumental "The End of This World". Psychedelic, gloomy escape, touching upon the fantasy inspirations of their yesteryears, but from a different angle invoking a bleak futurism. Does Brennare go far enough with this here? Maybe not, maybe there are moments where he pulls back to the secure, pastoral 70s-informed doom of the first 3-4 albums, familiar patterns in the chords or choruses, but clearly there was no intention to thoroughly repeat himself, and Ominous benefits from all the new ground it churns through, while giving you a look back at the greener fields behind.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, June 23, 2023

Heavenwood - The Tarot of the Bohemians (2016)

Heavenwood decided to go all out with its fifth album, and not only come up with an interesting tarot concept for the titling and lyrics, but also deliver what must be their heaviest and most dynamic album yet. Not to say that they're not still incorporating all of the Gothic and doom metal elements you've come to expect, it's not a far cry from 2011's Abyss Masterpiece, but this one actually beats up on the listener with a selection of really heavy guitars, riffs that draw upon a lot of groove metal or thrash in addition to the stable of influences they already had. You'll also notice that the drumming here is just massive compared to their older recordings, with lots more double bass hammering and just a lot more going on which accents the busier guitars.

Fear not, they'll still blaze off into some gorgeous, sorrow-stricken melody, and the vocals still have that mix of weighty growl and bark which juggle between the British death/doom influences and the more gritty Goth guy sound. But where you've got that, they'll use the ramped up intensity to thunder it right into your skull this time. There's also a little bit of a progressive metal swagger in spots, just in how they form some of the choppier guitar patterns, The Tarot of the Bohemians feels like its ready to take on everything, that the Portuguese band is keeping up with everything going on around it and up to the challenge of modernizing, not unlike how Greece's Nightfall evolved itself through the years. This is essentially like mid-ought's Paradise Lost if it were given steroids so you could listen to it at the gym, its tender and mournful moments boxed in on all sides with heaving, hawing beefcake guitars. You were never going to see a fight in a Heavenwood pit before this album...

Or maybe not even a 'pit' at all. But through that, they keep some of the exotic mystique that bled through their sound on Abyss Masterpiece or Redemption, and the album still seems distinctly rooted in their sound, but an ironclad version of that which is much more taxing to perform. Hell, in "The Emperor" they start slowly blasting to a tremolo picked death metal riff! And you'd think that they shouldn't even try to touch such an idea, but it fits in quite flush with the Gothic architecture of their overtures. I do think some audiences might find this a little much if they were expecting Swallow 2: The Stomaching, it does have a bit of the brickwall vibe of a lot of anything goes modern metal albums, but in the end it's a welcome and formidable progression by a band willing to explore further shores than those that lapped at the lake on the 1996 debut.

Verdict: Win [7.78/10]

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Heavenwood - Redemption (2008)

A decade would pass before Heavenwood would release their follow-up to Swallow, a hiatus that didn't change their sound much. In fact, I think Redemption is a natural follow-up to the sophomore which actually improves upon the production values. This just sounds much huger and more atmospheric than their older material, probably because of newer recording techniques available to them, but it's really dense and effective and might even be the best SOUNDING album they've put out, though not the most memorable. Yet from all technical aspects, the tone on the rhythm guitars getting beefier, the leads and melodies far better infused into the rest of the material, and the synths and ethereal voices and such used to build atmosphere just feel seamless here rather than the rough novelty they once were.

It opens with a decent banger in "13th Moon", although it doesn't quite escalate to anything beyond the basic verses/chorus, and then there are several other really catchy tracks here like "Me & You" or "Fragile" which sound like souped up material that might have once appeared on their debut Diva. The band even experiments with getting a bit heavier on "Bridge to Neverland", its great riffs and exotic leads marking one of my favorite individual tunes the band has ever pulled off, or "Her Scent in the Spiral" which is somewhat similar, with ominous gutturals. These tropes are reverberated through the rest of the album, more or less, but that doesn't make them any less effective, and unlike the slightly amateur vibes you could feel off their process on the old albums, they really seemed to know what they were doing here, and put together a mix that can keep up with whatever else was going on in these bold new times, with a few small surprises like the dingy vocal harmony in "Foreclosure" which reminded me a little of old Alice in Chains.

I didn't quite feel much impact off this album, but on the other hand if I were recommending any of their albums to younger or modern audiences, it would be this and the follow-up Abyss Masterpiece. Not that Heavenwood has ever disappointed me, they are a wise group to never bite off more than they can chew, and evolve themselves slowly with nuances and minor details that keep them fresh while honoring what they had created before. Redemption is certainly heavier and less accessible than Swallow, like they were righting the ship back to its original course, and while it's not my favorite of their outings it does have an evergreen, consistent quality to it which is just as welcome today as when I first heard their return.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, June 19, 2023

Heavenwood - Swallow (1998)

The cover to the Heavenwood sophomore always freaked me out, I mean not so much the devouring of the reptilian tail and possibly its owner before that, but the weird, fish-scale like texture of the skin of its consumer, glistening in sweat or slime or something. Is it swallowing it's OWN tail? No idea, but there's nothing quite so disgusting or oblique about what the Portuguese had written here, Swallow is a decidedly more commercial more effort than its predecessor. They do retain the growled vocals in places, and the doom-like chugging progressions on the record's heavier moments, but this is way more of an upbeat disc that pays tribute to Sisters of Mercy, late 90s Moonspell, and you might even find some parallels with Paradise Lost's One Second which had come out between this band's first two full-lengths.

Swallow still brings the hooks, and if you enjoy those names I just listed, I can imagine you'll get some mileage out of this one. There's way more of a rocking impulse to the guitars, and they use far more of the clean vocals than otherwise, which can occasionally be a mixed bag, but work for the most part, even if they don't come off as that unique alongside other European Gothic rock/metal bands of this period. The guitars are threaded with more cleans, effects and such to give it that contemporary, modern Goth feel, but they also maintain the use of synthesizers, whispers, etc, and I actually find them pretty tasteful through th album, whether it's the sampled choirs in the bridge of "Soulsister" or elsewhere. Once in awhile they will still churn out a more low-ended piece reminiscent of Diva, like on "Rain of July", but even that has a little more pep to it and maybe even some Lake of Tears/Cemetery vibes, especially the riffs and vocals, which can never be a bad thing for me.

The one I can't say for this sophomore is that it resonates for long with me...I mean you could argue tha it's even catchier in places than the debut, but for some reason there are melodies from that one which my brain traces a thread directly to whenever I think of the name Heavenwood. This is more of a serviceable album which was clearly riding on the trends of its age, but not at all shallow, and if you still love throwing on your copies of Skeleton Skeletron, Irreligious, and Sentenced's Down then this is one I could whole-heartedly recommend. Just don't stare at the cover so long. Eww.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Heavenwood - Diva (1996)

Although Moonspell should be credited for breaking Portugal out onto the international metal scene, it seemed as if there were a fairly long drought after their arrival, arguably until the black metal band Gaerea showed up and garnered buckets of underground praise. But that void is deceptive, because there have been a decent number of bands popping up over the decades, and a few of them were contemporaries of the aforementioned. So right around the time Fernando Ribeiro and crew were bridging the gap between black metal and Gothic metal, there appeared Heavenwood, another group with a focus more on the latter intertwined with some doom influence via Paradise Lost and the rest of the British scene. These guys were a wholly respectable outfit, relying on nothing but their music and melancholy and little theatrics.

Diva is their first and one of their finest offerings, an album that sits somewhere between Icon, Irreligious and Darkseed's Spellcraft on the Gothimetallurgimeter, a creation entirely of my own that I promise I will never mention again (though I retain the right to break such a promise). Beautiful, mournful melodies are splayed out over simpler chord patterns, with a pronounced growl vocal that certainly sounds like a blend of Holmes and Ribeiro, but also gives off some slightly higher, emotional shouting and some dripping, gothy backups. There's a Romantic quality to how they write their tunes which reminds me a little of On Thorns I Lay from Italy, but here you've got the presence of a keyboard rather than a violin. They're also not afraid to engage with a bit of dynamic range, granted the instrumentation remains consistent, but say "Flames of Vanity" gives you a bit of a pickup with the shuffling beats before it soaks down into the tears and gloom, and then "Since the First Smile" has this slower, rolling, tribal quality to the drums which really makes for an epic escape with the synth swells.

Production-wise, this album mostly holds up, but I think there are a few minor flaws, like the lead guitar sound can feel a little too thin, it needed some more weight and effects. The growls might also have been mixed in better, but for a debut I can't expect terribly much. The drums sound very good, the bass lines occasionally pop up below the solemn crush of the chords, and I can't fault a record like this which so effectively conveys its emotions, with catchy melodies that still rattle around in my head whenever I reflect back upon this niche of Gothic/doom. Diva arrived at a time when it probably could have had a bigger impact than it did...groups like Moonspell or Lacuna Coil were blowing up and Heavenwood might have followed, but I think the band might have lacked a little of the 'star power' or narcissism so many fans drool over in their music, rather they are really just a bunch of guys who happen to be quite good at this Gothic/doom metal style, and the antithesis of the album's title.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Gardens of Gehenna - Mechanism Masochism (2003)

With a title like Mechanism Masochism, you'd expect that the little industrial footprints on Dead Body Music might have taken full control of the Gardens of Gehenna style on their third label in just as many albums. The elements are still present, but by and large the Germans maintain their brand of loping, patient death and doom without much of a payoff by way of tempo shifting, nuance or progression. It's more or less a direct continuation of the sophomore with little difference, a handful of the guitar riffs might have more of a traditional doom vibe about them, but when mixed in with the light use of the synthesizers and the occasional, other electronic influences, it still resorts to a lot of the simple chugging moments that just aren't that effective unless they can lead up to some payoff riff, which almost never happens...

They've got some perfectly passable background noise though, if you just want to hear some growling and low guitars off in the distance, struck through by an occasional keyboard for some gravitas and alarm. I find that the more exotic this album grows, with even more electronic beats ("Sestra") and occult atmospheres, it peps up and becomes a little more interesting, and in those few moments we've clearly come as close to the proper industrial metal as we're going to. The strange thing is that the industrial components are more groovy-oriented but then they go into the melancholic doom real heavy with the melodies in something like "Opus Noctis", and it becomes perplexing just how these two things are really going to work out together. And they don't, and Gardens of Gehenna strides forward only with baby steps, apprehensive to go all out into an industrial metal attack...

That said, I don't hate this one, it arguably has the best production, surpassing Dead Body Music, and the vocals have a cleaner grit to them, though I can't say I liked them much more. The band itself sounds on disc like its interest in this whole affair is draining away, but it's by no means awful, there were just so many more enticing options at this time and you wonder what audience Gardens was truly going to appeal towards. Decent ritualistic lyrics, somber melodies, a few compelling moments where the electronics support the grueling vocals and guitars, but otherwise forgettable.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Gardens of Gehenna - Dead Body Music (2000)

Gardens of Gehenna swapped over to Last Episode for their second recording, and it marked a small if insignificant shift in style as they began tiptoeing around the inclusion of some industrial elements into their Gothic, drudging death/doom framework. We're not talking the full rivet-head package here, but in tracks like the opener "Requiem" they have that one grating industrial tone in the verses along with the guitar that gives it a bit of a weird, crunchy groove. The synthesizers are more prominent, not always just following along the rhythm guitar as they often did on the debut, and they are continuing their mix of haunted house tones and slightly more industrial effects. Overall it's an incremental evolution for the Germans, but one that at least makes this more interesting than the tawdry Mortem Saluta.

There's a little more depth in everything, from the roil on the rhythm guitar, to the grunts and growls, which while stylistically are the same, have a little more variation within them, a bit more ugliness too which casts its shadow over the listener. The bass is present but rather mundane here as on the prior effort, but the lead guitar melodies are more mournful and effective to compensate. They are also willing to strip some of the flourishes away at moments to do something like the churning "Tod und Teufel", a more frightening sort of tune where the synths are more used for the background to create a mix of horror and martial/industrial for the chugging guitars to brood upon. These songs usually falter when it comes to becoming truly 'catchy', but there are a few simple passages and configurations that are at least fun enough to nod or bang head along to while you're in the moment.

It's almost like someone shoved some keys and other electronics at Paradise Lost between Lost Paradise and Gothic and told them to have at it, or a pauper's early Therion, so if that sounds appealing you might make it through at least a couple listens of this sophomore outing. It's pretty harmless, and shows some modicum of growth, but I still feel as if there's not enough payoff that they can build to in these tracks. Still, the better production, the fractional increase in atmosphere and mysticism make this a much better starting point to the band's catalog than the first album.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Gardens of Gehenna - Mortem Saluta (1998)

I could not remember this band's name for the longest time. When I first flirted with the idea of covering some Gothic metal stuff for a change, I had this vague inkling of a band whose albums I either bought cheap at the local import shop, or received to review back in the zine days of the 90s. I thought I had finally stumbled upon them but that was Garden of Shadows, a different beast altogether. Alas, I recall not liking the albums that I did have very much, but wanted to go back and give them another chance, because who knows after such a long gulf of time I might feel about this stuff. I often find that albums I once head a lukewarm view to improve over time just because their sound ages well from such a unique period of style or production.

Mortem Saluta is the Gardens of Gehenna debut, and it's very basic, crunchy death/doom with a guttural vocal not unlike what other bands were doing in the wake of a Paradise Lost or My Dying Bride. The difference here was that they would often have a keyboard or organ constantly following along with many of the riffs, rather than just arriving at sporadic moments to provide atmosphere. The drums mix steady, basic rock beats with some double bass rolls, but the latter sound kind of irritating in the mix, like a piece of plastic sheeting that is fluttering in a strong breeze. The songs are definitely dark and daunting, but they can also grow rather dull over their 4-5 minute song-lengths. Thankfully there is some degree of variation in how the riffs are put together, as well as the percussion, but I wouldn't mind a lot more, once they lay into some hook they a little too confident with it, and it becomes a slog. 

The mix is overall not much to write home about, but it's fairly crisp and steady. I wish the drums were a little heavier, and the backing instruments like synths were mixed in a little better, it feels more like a demo reel than a production with much depth. The guy has a decent growl that he can sustain, but a lot of his delivery sounds the same between tracks, which makes this overly monotonous. At best, the vocals and some dark doom ("Those Who Walk the Shadows") come together to create something appropriately ominous, and there's no fairy tale bullshit anywhere, this is all pretty gloomy stuff in outlook, like a death/doom to complement old black & white horror flicks; it just needs a better mix for more impact.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Friday, June 9, 2023

Sirrah - Did Tomorrow Come... (1997)

I would be remiss to think of anything possibly quirkier than the track "Panacea" from Sirrah's debut, but I think in general, it's follow-up full-length Did Tomorrow Come... is much more progressive and quirky, while still keeping a lot of its fundamentals intact. You can still hear a lot of elements of anything from My Dying Bride to Paradise Lost to Pyogenesis to Moonspell, but the Polish band was not settling its butt down on any laurels, but writing that style into the future. Upbeat, peppy, perky ideas are strewn throughout the ten tracks, and the band seem unwilling to be pigeonholed into any one niche. I'd almost risk that Did Tomorrow Come... is like Sirrah, only Arcturus got ahold of it and infected it with their zany carnival attitude.

The production is cleaner here, really giving us better access to its scattershot components, from the ethereal female vocal lines to the busier guitars which at times almost border on a blend of thrash and doom metal. Synthesizers are used sparingly, as well as pianos, and the majority of the vocals bounce between the guttural expectations and then a wavier, sad or drugged sounding cleaner male vocal that is perhaps one of the weakest parts of the album. Perhaps due to the accent or confidence level, but there are moments that it sounds quite good, and others where it feels like its lost the plot. Regardless, it's only a minor intrusion that can't quite mar the surface of the obvious excitement below this. It's like the band was listening to their first album and decided not to sound so sad anymore, and gave each other a kick in the rump while they were in the studio, or maybe just a lot of drugs. To its credit, though, the writing doesn't lose a whole lot of impact from where they were at two years prior.

It doesn't have a truly standout track for me like "Acme", but at the same time, there's not really anything goofy like "Panacea" to spoil it. The closest might be "Madcap" which sounds like someone took the orchestration from the old Celtic Frost Into the Pandemonium... album and combined that with a strange Gothic chamber quartet, but in fact that song's tremendous fun. The closer, "Floor's Embrace", starts off pulsing off like it's going to be some mix of dance and folk music, but that one is rescued quite quickly when the great guitar riff rips forth. Did Tomorrow Come... is fascinating stuff, despite me not liking a few of the vocals, it's quite sticky and a superior experience to Acme only if you're willing to chuck your expectations to the curb and revel in its unique boldness. Had Sirrah continued on much longer, who knows what they might have become? I could certainly hear them hobnobbing with the likes of Arcturus, Solefald, Sigh or Diablo Swing Orchestra. This is a fun album that too few give a damn about.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Sirrah - Acme (1996)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, June 5, 2023

The Bloodline - Where Lost Souls Dwell (2006)

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

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

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

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Bloodline - Opium Hearts (2000)

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

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

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

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Rest in Pain - Intense Tremor EP (1993)

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

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

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

Verdict: Fail [4/10]