Sunday, March 31, 2024


Off on an extended Spring Break this year (April-May), but will be back with more reviews in June! - autothrall

Friday, March 29, 2024

Blind Guardian - The God Machine (2022)

I consider myself a punctual person in general. I get the kids to the bus on time, I pick them up on time. If I'm coming for you, I'll be there on time. If you're picking ME up, I'm already waiting when you drive up to the curb. It's likely an obsessive compulsive thing for me, and just something I feel shows the proper amount of respect to other people, be they family or friends or acquaintances. I tell you this because Blind Guardian's 11th proper studio album The God Machine made me late for work. I'd heard a track or two in advance, of course, who hadn't? But I got the CD in the post before a shift, fired it up en route, and when I arrived at the parking lot, I just could not stop listening. I could not get up out of my seat, and promptly forgot where I was until I happened to see a customer wave to me out the rear view mirror. It was then I realized that, through the miracle of technology, I could actually stream the album OUTSIDE of my car and CD player.

But yeah, The God Machine is THAT fucking good. It totally encapsulated me with the charging fury of the unique Teutonic power metal machine, in a way that hadn't really happened for me since the 90s. Now, mind you, I like EVERY album that the band has ever produced, and there's nothing necessarily novel about this one if you've heard the rest, but it just kicked my ass over and over again and I felt a magic to the musicianship that might have been in slightly shorter supply on A Twist in the Myth, At the Edge of Time and Beyond the Red Mirror. The amazing Peter Mohrbacher artwork seemed to hint that there's a song here based on possibly kaiju or Evangelion or something, and even though that doesn't seem to the be the case, there are plenty of subjects here to nerd out about...Brandon Sanderson's The Stormlight Archive gets a tune. Great series. The Witcher novels. Good stuff! Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Fantastic. The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss...well, that one started out pretty good until it devolved into the author's self-insert fantasies about shagging a fairy queen and a village of hot ninjas.

But I digress. It's all here...André Olbrich and Marcus Siepen's riffs are more inspired than they have been in forever, and what's more, they've's got a great, heavy tone on the rhythm tracks that really drives it all home, while you still get a lot of those popping, squealing little processed melodies, they just blend in better with the overall force of the production. Frederik's drumming is also fire, he's definitely one of those modern power metal drummers who can bring to bear the muscle of extreme metal, but also helps fill in all the gaps. Hansi doesn't sound he's aged a single day since the 90s, his throat still delivers that grittier personality which sounds like absolutely nobody else in his field. The leads are intense, the Queen-like choruses are as involved in their arrangement as you've always loved (another of their distinct features), and this is a 51 one minute album across which I skip absolutely nothing. All nine tracks have something to offer, whether it's the lyrical approach to their varied subjects, or the hooks around every corner, the tasty riffs waiting in the depths, or the freakout leads that catapult its magnificence into the stratosphere.

Even the slow jam, "Let It Be No More", which only gets heavy for a few seconds, is engrossing, with the scintillating acoustic guitars, backing vocals and a little of the orchestration left over from Hansi's total 2019 nerdfest Legacy of the Dark Lands. It's all as well-plotted as any of their previous albums, and Charlie Bauerfeind and company make sure to make this sound like one of the slickest power metal recordings this side of the millennium shift. This thing just explodes out of my car speakers, my PC speakers, my tinny little iPhone, and the surge of energy in "Blood of the Elves", "Deliver us From Evil", and "Damnation" takes complete control of me. The God Machine is not the most progressive of their albums, and it might not be the most ambitious either, but in 2022 when I heard this, it was exactly what I needed, and dozens of spins later I am proud to say it's become one of my favorites in the band's catalogue along with Imaginations and Nightfall in Middle-Earth. Worth being late for work, even, but just make sure you've got an alternate excuse when your boss listens to Taylor Swift and 90s butt rock and doesn't know the Guardian.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Blind Guardian - Imaginations from the Other Side Live (2020)

Blind Guardian already has at least three live offerings that I can remember, all being good; 2003's Live probably remaining my favorite of them, but none of them a disappointment, and one of them, Live Beyond the Spheres being quite elaborate in all the history it covers from their discography. So I don't think the market was really chomping at the bit for another, but this is quite a popular band, so this and many more are inevitable. Also, this one has the distinction of being one of those 'played in full' performances, all the rage in recent years, though they've been around for decades. It's recorded in Germany, the band's home turf, and it's Imaginations from the Other Side, my second favorite Blind Guardian album. I'd have loved to see this myself, but I'm happy to settle with this just to hear what I was missing out on...

It's the whole shebang, all nine tracks, played in the order they appear on the studio version, sounding heavy and driven and pretty damn good, though there are a few nuances missing on the stage. For example, the volumes are often a little lopsided, with the rhythm guitar being pretty weak against the drums, vocals, effects, and leads, but it's still something you can make out well enough to support the songs and keep them thundering along. There's a hovering din of audience noise, and the effects like bells and such are amplified here, giving the whole affair a more vaulted effect than the more direct, balanced production of the original. Hansi does sound quite good, getting pretty aggressive and almost turning to extreme metal vocals in a few places, while the backing shouts also sound pretty energized. You'll also get your singalong moments that every Blind Guardian show needs as it goes dweeby, especially here with "A Past and Future Secret", and you can just hear all the lighters popping off (actually I have no idea if they allow for this in Germany but you get what I'm saying).

Hearing favorites like "The Script for My Requiem", "Another Holy War", "Born in a Mourning Hall" and especially the title track and "Bright Eyes", is all I really need to get put in a good mood, because I love this fucking band and that's not about to change even with a subpar live offering. Which this isn't, but I think of the four, if I were going on balance and quality alone, I might not choose it over the three others I've covered; but then, it's Imaginations from the Other Side, I get goosebumps hearing it, and it features a couple tunes that you're obviously not going to hear on all their live tours. Everything sounds adequate, as processed as you'd expect from their modern era, I just think such powerful songs need some more powerful rhythm guitars, but then in my head I already know how these tunes sprawl out so I was able to fill in some of those gaps inwardly. If you haven't heard this stuff, obviously get the studio disc immediately and study it meticulously, but this also isn't a bad introduction to how one of their shows just charges you up, although I've only seen them once in person. Thumbs, and lighters, up.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, March 25, 2024

Blind Guardian Twilight Orchestra - Legacy of the Dark Lands (2019)

Legacy of the Dark Lands is a vanity project, perhaps misbranded under the Blind Guardian moniker, in which Hansi Kursch gets his fantasy nerdery on in an even more hardcore manner than he ever did with his mainstay. Granted, there's a pretty huge crossover audience for this stuff, with lots of Blind Guardian tunes devoted to various fictional universes, some of which probably brought new fans over to the band and to the power metal genre in general, so it's not all that unusual to tie this in with the band. There's also some orchestration involved with some of their heavier albums, but nowhere near this level of overt, pompous cheese. Hansi drafts up the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, who seem to appear on a lot of metal or metal adjacent works, and a whole slew of guest vocalists to join him in exploring his epic fantasy milieu, his 'Twilight Orchestra'. It even features narration!

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings this is not, but more of a serious if a bit generic fantasy saga like you'd find on a string of Rhapsody of Fire albums. It's certainly not intentionally stupid or silly, and there's a dark tone to the 24 tracks and 75 minutes, which range from intros and interludes, with the narrators telling the tale, to epic symphonic tracks in which Hansi flexes his pipes against the choir. If you enjoy opera or glorious Wagnerian compositions, these will probably have some appeal for you, between the calmer and whimsical flights and the sweltering belligerence. Despite the vocal presence, Kursch really lets the symphony itself shine, and they get in a lot of time and for my dollar many of the better moments on the album like "War Feeds War" and "In the Red Dwarf's Tower", the title of which does make me crack up, as much as I love the vertically stunted fantasy race in a number of IPs. The tunes have wonder, they have magnificence, they have conflict, and if you find some of the narration and chorus parts to be too dweeby or cringeworthy, you can always put on the instrumental side, which would be a far better accompaniment for your night of fiddling with your...Baldur's Gate 3, or as a soundtrack to your D&D session.

You MIGHT even hear a little of the reflection in how Hansi contributes to the Blind Guardian writing process, because there are more than a few points where I'm just imagining one of Olbrich's charging, squealing, processed guitar lines ringing out, and I was a little surprised that the tunes weren't more metalized, or that a version like that wasn't included on an extra disc. Some of the instruments and key tones (like in "Point of No Return") even feel like they might have appeared on A Twist in the Myth or something. There are also versions of this without the interludes, or an 'audio book' approach which I'm assuming must have more of the narration at the forefront with the music taking on a backing role. The production is pretty nice, and it's all pretty pro...the conductor is obviously great, as are most of the guest roles, a few of which are metal guys used to these sorts of massive projects. Does the music stir me as much as proper fantasy soundtrack? No, and it's not something I get absorbed into as much as Blind Guardian proper, but it's clearly a labor of love for Hansi and I don't mind an occasional spin.

Let's put it this way, if your inroads was "Sacred Worlds" and you dug the Sacred tie-in but thought the metal stuff was too heavy, this has your name written all over it. Otherwise, if you're a metalhead, just know what this is, and if you're not into the same sort of epic fantasy fiction and the hilarious pretentiousness of the whole thing, it's probably one to avoid at all cost.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, March 22, 2024

Autopsy - Ashes, Organs, Blood and Crypts (2023)

I was a little surprised to see another Autopsy record so hot on the heels of its predecessor, but as a fan of Morbidity Triumphant, I had hopes that this would continue that trajectory of some of their best material since their seminal works in the 80s and 90s. Ashes, Organs, Blood and Crypts has a title that certainly encompasses so much of what inspires and fuels the band's music, a love of raunchy horror, B-movie stuff of course, some of which have developed into undisputed classics. Autopsy is one of the bands that best translates this into the death metal medium, just by keeping it so sincere and ugly. Well, if I thought the band was going to dilute their quality by releasing too much in too quick a succession, I would have been very wrong, because this record is just as good as the one before it, in fact it's a little better for my money...

Only marginally, though. Ashes... starts off with the amazing, knockout combo of "Rabid Funeral" and "Throatsaw"; two churning, propulsive tunes that totally set a standard for everything to follow. The first tune actually transforms into this great, atmospheric piece at the end, with some awesome bass lines and messy but awesome leads, while the drums groove steadily along and there are all sorts of moans and growls hovering in the distance. The latter just beats the fuck out of you for the entire 2+ minutes. After that they definitely start to diversify the sound a little more, with some chuggy, death/thrashing moments ("No Mortal Left Alive"), some of their classic, semi-stoner death/doom ("Well of Entrails") and some of that deathpunk & roll they've been known for ("Toxic Death Fuk"). Not every tracks is totally off the cuff with regards to memorable riffing, but at the same time, there's nothing here I'd really skip either, the material is consistently engaging, capable of throwing a surprise or two your way, while totally adhering to the conventions the band has put into place since the late 80s on their debut album. 

The production is incredible here, a little brasher than Morbidity Triumphant, but also buries itself into my ears a little deeper. Chris's vocals are a little more focused and less raving mad, but he's still undeniably one of a kind, and the guitars and drums are flawless throughout. I'm going to give special cred to Greg Wilkinson though, his grooves throughout this thing are more noticeable than usual and offer a nice, fat, creepy lower level to the proceedings that gives you added body and dimension. It's not going to win me any cult status/points, but in the months that I've owned it, I think Ashes, Organs, Blood and Crypts tops Morbidity Triumphant and becomes one of my favorite albums in the entire Autopsy canon. In fact, I think this one even trumps the debut album, I've been enjoying it a lot, and it might just sit under Mental Funeral as one of their best. The production is amazing, the songwriting doubly so, and I won't be surprised if after a few years, this one grows on me even further. Could there be some future Autopsy masterpiece coming? At this rate, maybe by the Fall!

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Autopsy - Morbidity Triumphant (2022)

I've gotten a little slack from friends in the past for stating Autopsy has never been one of absolute go-to acts in the death metal field, but I think it gets taken out of context. I've always liked the band, especially those first two albums, and appreciated the uglier, less filtered vision they brought to death metal, which has proven quite important in how many great bands it has influenced. In fact, apart from Shitfun, I think I've liked all of their studio albums, and since their resurgence with The Tomb Within EP, they've maintained one of the more consistent reunion streaks in all of the genre. In the 2020s, we're reaching a point where I'm actually starting to enjoy the material almost as much as the classics, and keep it in mind that this is happening while Chris and other members are busy with various other projects, like Static Abyss, which I might even enjoy more than the output of their mainstay!

Morbidity Triumphant is an aptly named, fun album which captures a lot of the magic of that late 90s to early 90s era, shifting between the gruesome traditional death metal and the passages of groovier riffs that fall more in line with doom or stoner metal. It genuinely feels like a sequel to Mental Funeral, down to how the songs are composed, the vocals are delivered, and to an extent the production, though Autopsy isn't about to turn its collective nose at the few studio advancements that help in its presentation, so it's a little bulkier sounding, with a solid heft to the rhythm guitars that sounds nice and gross when they throw in some more dissonant chords, and an honest, stripped lead tone that really helps deliver the burning and bluesy solos that often vomit forth from the twisted mass below. The drums are fairly simple, but again they have a nice, sincere mix and power to them that helps support the meat of the guitars, and Chris is obviously just as focused on the delivery of the vocals, which is second to none. He's always been one of the most distinct in the field because he understands the suffering and horror that should be inherent in immortalizing this style of overbearing, generic deathcore barking anywhere to be found.

The individual songs don't always blow me away, but there are a few memorable choices like the super groove of "The Voracious Ones", the dreary doom harmonies that inaugurate "Flesh Strewn Temple", or the incendiary grinding deathpunk of "Knife Slice, Axe Chop" which reminds me a lot of some of the stuff they'd been recording for their punkier EPs in recent years. "Skin by Skin" is another standout with that funereal, crawling doom intro that erupts into grinding, blasting death. It's a pretty good variety for Autopsy, one that the layman might ignore, but scratches most of the itches I'm feeling when I'm in the mood to crank one of their albums. Wes Benscoter's cover art is fucking awesome, that robe of stitched faces on the skeleton with the bleeding skull and thorny crown is unforgettable, and I lvoe how one of the guys with the removed face is actually helping stitching it, while another is defleshing more victims! A lot of sick though goes into something like this, and the fact it's in some graveyard and there's a tree upon which other victims are strung is just icing on the flesh-baked cake. He's been doing great for this band for most of their reunion period releases and this is no exception. A good album, right on the border of a great one, and I've probably spun this more than anything since Mental Funeral.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Autopsy - Live in Chicago (2020)

Live in Chicago isn't Autopsy's first rodeo with a live release, there were a couple put out through the underground imprint Necroharmonic Productions 20+ years ago. Neither of those were really very good, and the others were video tapes, all of which are probably quite hard to find. What I'm getting at, is that we'd never really gotten the 'de facto' official live album from the Californians, and with its great Wes Benscoter cover artwork, an extensive 18 track set, recorded at Reggie's the same year this came, and dropped just before Halloween...this has all the tools and backing to make that happen. Spoiler alert: while the tunes can often come across a little smoother on this recording than the studio albums, I'd say that this accomplishes exactly that feat, and smack dab in the midst of their resurgence which had already been going for a decade.

The vocals and leads do translate quite well here, with Chris' barks and grunts the most gruesome element of the entire performance, as they should be, resonating out over the audience like some gore-preacher tending to his cannibalistic flock. The solos are loud and over the top and definitely add that dimension of the alien and unhinged that we've always felt from their very carnal brand of death metal. Otherwise, the bass and drums sound pretty tight, as do the rhythm guitars, which have a meaty tone themselves, but the latter often sound a little too rounded off and less jagged than they might come across in their uglier, original studio versions. It's no deal breaker, and the whole effort does sound level, but in some ways the band sounds a little less volatile than you might expect. That said, it's a HUGE leap in quality over some of those older live offerings...yeah, they've got more of an underground charm, but this is actually one you could crank on your car or home stereo system and properly feel like you're in a real live environment that wasn't recorded on something like an old tape deck.

The track selection is heavily dominated by tunes from the first two albums, the classics, as you'd predict, so you've got "Severed Survival", "Charred Remains", "Gasping for Air", "Critical Madness", "Twisted Mass of Burnt Decay", "In the Grip of Winter" represented along with several more. There's a cover of "Fuck You!!" closing out the album, from Danny Coralles old band, Cali thrash obscurity Bloodbath, which was kind of fun for its crossover/punk infusion and fun lead explosion. Beyond that, there aren't many choices, so if you were hoping for an infusion of stuff off the last batch of decent albums you'd have been out of luck. "Voices" from Acts of the Unspeakable (also an oldie), "Arch Cadaver" from The Headless Ritual, "Burial" from Tourniquets, Hacksaws and Graves, and then one new song which would appear on the next studio album to follow this, "Maggots in the Mirror". As much as those first two are still probably my favorites, I wouldn't have minded some more picks from The Tomb Within or Macabre Eternal just for a better balance, but I'm sure the crowd was stoked for all the throwback material and it made perfect sense to keep the set list so thick with it.

All told, Live in Chicago is a solid live effort that I'd easily choose over its predecessors if I'm in the mood, but perhaps one day down the road, in the twilight of their career they'll treat us with some epic 2-3 disc spread that better compiles their whole history on the stage. Until then, I'll enjoy this one.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Asphyx - Necroceros (2021)

Along with Bolt Thrower, Asphyx certainly holds claim to its simple, churning death metal style, and obviously it's one that has some legs to it, since you're hearing new bands like Chainsword of Frozen Soul come along and do their best to impersonate it, often to great underground success. Necroceros doesn't really distance itself from the three albums before it, the entirety of the later Martin van Drunen tenure with the band, to the point that songs could hop between them without anyone noticing other than marginal details in the production, but it doesn't really need to. They've got a sound set in stone, their fanbase doesn't really want anything else, and I absolutely can relate to that dependability, since a large number of bands I listen to practice the same risk-averse approach to their material.

I'm not saying the Dutchmen are writing pop songs here, obviously, there's nothing safe about the loud, slow grinding bombast of these tunes, as it wasn't safe ever during their career, or on the three records from the very similar Hail of Bullets that Martin and Paul were also involved in. But having already been a fan of those three records, and some of the earlier Asphyx, I feel a constant craving for the band to try a little more on for size. Keep the grisly vocals, keep the enormous tones in the guitars, and the pudgy, distorted bass-lies, but screw around more with rhythmic dynamics, build some riffs that are a little beyond these assembly line structures that they've been cranking out for 30 years. I can only dream how cool it would be for some Slayer-like evil harmonies to bust out among these meatier rhythm guitars, or perhaps just imbue the basic chords with some more thrashing, slightly more involved sequences, just to change things up, striking the perfect balance like the German band Scalpture does on their amazing Feldwarts (very similar style also).

But much of Necroceros just sounds like what I've heard before. Bruising, efficient, loyal and maybe even stubborn to a fault. A couple moments stick out, like the majestic embedded melody of the chords that set up "Knights Templar Stand" and rocking "Yield or Die", or the slowly sinking wreckage of "In Blazing Oceans" with its little chugged triplets that don't always go where you predict, and end up a little warmer than you might be used to. The Dutchmen tip-toe into new waters where it might befit them to take a more direct plunge. Again, Necroceros is perfectly adequate on its own, because it will always have that massive wall of production to fall back against, which can cause even the most minimalistic riff progressions to explode ears, but it's simply never as great as it could be. Having said that, I'd pick it over a Deathhammer of Incoming Death, and anyone digging those records, or For Victory, or Crypt of Ice, or any of Memoriam's stuff, will feast on the fleshy guitars, but I'm still yearning days when I won't just consider Asphyx 'good', but mandatory. 

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, March 18, 2024

Asphyx - Incoming Death (2016)

Three albums in to Asphyx's reunion with Martin van Drunen, and I feel like you know what you're getting to get when you spin one of these things. Crushing, basic death metal, straight from the early 90s in craftmanship, but blessed with the advancements in production that can make it sound absolutely enormous by comparison to so many of those seminal works. The Dutch act has long maintained a very workmanlike build to its material, the riffs don't really sound very evil or atmospheric or even that catchy, but they bring the brawn rather than the brains, and for that reason they're always listenable, even if I couldn't pick many of these tracks out from a selection of those on the surrounding albums. Another band that, like a Bolt Thrower or Obituary, are quite content following the same path without ever distracting themselves with some attractive side-trails.

Incoming Death is almost as predictably named as it sounds, but if I'm being truthful, there is no amount of redundancy that can't be overcome by how Martin's gruesome grunts interact with the mix on these guitars. He sounds just as fleshy as they do, and he's always been one of the more distinct throats in the field, even though my preference will always be for his presence on the first two Pestilence albums, because the music there was absolutely fucking perfect to support him. Asphyx doesn't always seem like they take a long time to put the material together, just stringing together a standard supply of chords and letting the enormity of that guitar tone do the rest of the work. You do get a variety, from the grindier sway of tremolo picked riffs in "Candiru" and "It Came from the Skies" to the more measured, doomed gait of "The Grand Denial" or snail-like grooves of "Subterra Incognita", and that goes a long way to curb off any monotony, especially with the nice occasional lead or melodic guitar line for an added dimension to the atmosphere.

The mix here, from a little-known Swedish musician and producer named 'Dan', is exactly what the material needs to fatten out its simplicity, so that the tones can district from the lack of technicality or complexity in any of the riff patterns. The bass throbs with a thick distortion, allowing it to pop out occasionally from the tank-tread weight of the rhythm guitars, and the drums keep things pretty simple, but rock out just right against the crush. The songs can get a little boring if you're expecting any surprises, but they do happen once in awhile, like the piano finale to "Subterra Incognita", or that HUGE bass groove in the depths of "Death: The Only Immortal". Overall, Incoming Death is another win for the band, though it not all that much more memorable than the two albums before it, Death...the Brutal Way and Deathhammer; marginally better recording, but the tunes don't dazzle beyond the superficiality of their massive crunch.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, March 15, 2024

Cryptopsy - As Gomorrah Burns (2023)

Crytopsy's drummer Flo Mounier is the same age as I am, but while I'm waking up with the aches of pains that grind deeper with every year of Middle Age, the guy sounds like he's jacked into some cybernetic shit, the living embodiment of his drum kit that makes every blast beat, double bass roll and tempo change as effortless as the input of a single key on a keyboard. Like brutal death metal is some binary language in his genetic code that automatically enables his hands and feet. The fact that the rest of his band isn't left behind his capability is a testament to how well they lock together, and due to this consistency and intensity, As Gomorrah Burns is the best album the band has put out during the McGachy-fronted era, trouncing the competent s/t from the previous decade, and the ensuing EPs, though not by a necessarily large margin.

The caveat is that this is the same, frenzied, modern tech/brutal death Crytopsy that they arguably always were, but had kind of faded into the background after a thousand other bands caught up with their skills and energy. It's a vortex of blasting death metal rhythms that alternate with thrashier, choppy outbreaks for pure neck-jerking, and rarely gets any slower than that. It's highly mechanistic sounding, and feels just like a lot of other works in the genre where individual tracks can lack the distinction of classic DM tunes. That said, they do keep some of those progressive, melodic breaks that were developed across the last EPs, and there are some formidable leads in between the grooving and thrusting, where the listener can get a little more atmosphere, something much of the brickwork brutality is lacking. The Mounier/Donaldson/Pinard trifecta is a virtual storm of limbs that never tires, and while McGachy's vocals still aren't as unique as a Lord Worm, he's well literate in this style and offers enough flexibility and professionalism that I'd consider this his best performance to date with the band; though he still clearly lacks the status of legendary growlers and snarlers you could pick out of a lineup.

As Gomorrah Burns gets better the more the band sticks its neck out for new ideas, like the flighty little melodic noodling that opens "Flayed the Swine" or the the dissonant thundering that "Obeisant" works up to. In fact, I'd love to hear the band just stretch even further into making the most weird and progressive BDM they can, though maybe not as loose and weird as something like Once Was Not or the lamentable And Then You'll Beg. But there is just so much latent musical potential here to explore even more psychotic vistas of extremity than what we're hearing. That's not to take away from this particular album, which has plenty of 'oh shit!' moments and is enjoyable whenever I'm in the mood for this style, but I still think there's room for more interesting songwriting, even if they take more breathers and don't feel the need to dizzy and impress us all the time. Wishful thinking aside, though, there's no reason the audience of brutal tech/death finesse would find much lacking in this 33-minute exercise in extremity, chalk full of the Canadians' patented weaponry.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Cryptopsy - The Book of Suffering - Tome II EP (2018)

The 2010s were not a super busy period for Canada's Crytopsy, with just the decent s/t album in 2012 and this pair of Book of Suffering EPs which were self-releases that didn't stir up a ton of attention. With only four tracks to follow up Tome I's four, it didn't seem like the band was engaged in a lot of creativity. That's not to sell the material here short, because this EP possesses all the intensity and technicality you'd expect from one of the most brutal bands in the genre's history, and there are a few fresh ideas to round out the songwriting, but it's over in a flash, and so concussive that it can give you a headache or disappear amongst all the other output in this very style that has flooded a dozen or so labels these last two decades.

The band still leans heavily on Flo Mounier's almost inhuman, mechanical drumming, but Christian Donaldson's guitars are also a highlight, leveling out a myriad of riffs all over the fretboard, some more clinical and melodic ("Sire of Sin"), others just sort of driving along in rapid succession to the grooves and blasts, but either way you'll certainly be listening through the tracks numerous times to catch onto everything. Olivier Pinard's bass is also intimidating, as dizzying as the guitars, but also laying out some fat plunking moments like the breaks in "The Wretched Living" or just lines that feel appropriately complex if we were to isolate them from the rest of the mayhem. As for Matt's vocals, I still find them incredibly generic, he doesn't have the character of some of his predecessors, and all the gutturals and snarls do feel interchangeable with countless other acts in the genre. That said, he's not lacking in the actual energy and percussive nature of his delivery, and over the year he has certainly fit into the formula so that he's nowhere near a detriment.

Like a lot of technical/brutal death, there's a modular sense of construction which seems like pieces could be swapped between songs and nobody would know better, meaning it's quite consistent in execution but also a bit indistinct. They definitely try a little innovation, like the choppy little extreme Voivod bit in "Fear His Displeasure" or numerous other progressive sequences, but the nature of how harried and busy they write doesn't let you linger on any of the catchier, striking moments, instead barreling headfirst into another blasting clusterfuck. It's all very precise, don't get me wrong, it's not sloppy by any means, but they are in such a rush to dazzle that I just can't get too absorbed into anything. It's the nature of the sub-genre, perhaps, but I actually think Crytopsy would be stronger if they focused in on the more adventurous material, and just gave us the blasting when it really counted or when they could support it with a better quality riff. Tome II is calamitous, crazy and I'd say both superior to its predecessor, worth a few spins, and loyal to the Cryptopsy trajectory at large, but it often falls prey to its own short attention span.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Obituary - Dying of Everything (2023)

Dying of Everything might have received the most critical praise I've seen for an Obituary album in a very long LEAST since the first few back in the late 80s/90s when they were sort of a shocking novelty based on the roiling guitar tone and John Tardye's sickened vocal style. It seemed like I couldn't avoid year's end lists, blogs and videos without this being mentioned, and having just skimmed over it upon release, I was looking forward to going back to it and hearing what I might have missed. This has led me only to confusion, for while this album does fire off a few very exciting tracks, the rest are quite dull and predictable, business as usual for one of Florida's least progressed death metal acts, and I don't mean that as any sort of insult, some groups stick to what they know, and this is one of them.

Now, "Barely Alive", the opener, is quite explosive and really gave me hope for this album when I first came in contact. It's not super catchy riff-wise, but the energy and leads are certainly palpable and it's hard not to get infected with it. But just as quickly, you get "The Wrong Time", which has a cool intro followed up by a pretty boring rock-ish riff, with maybe one decent groove later on. And that's the formula for many of the tunes, there's one undeniable ferocious part and then a bunch of filler riffing to surround it. Not for the first time, and hell even the better riffing sequences here just sound like slight variations on many others they've already released. Again, that just comes with the territory, there's just not much nuance or ambition to any of the material. You get a few hints of it, like the drawn out backing growls, and the bolder and brighter production than on a lot of their albums, but structurally, while this ticks all the boxes and does hurl out a half dozen admirable riffs which spark all my nostalgia for their first two, beloved records, it's rarely something special.

Now, admittedly, that production IS sounds huge coming out the speakers, one of their better balanced mixes through the decades, grasping on where it can to modernity without losing the original plot, and the chugging, the lead guitars, the vocal and drums are all monstrous. There is certainly an audience for that alone, and I think that might be the main draw to this one, but anytime I'm really about to get into a track, they just spin off into some banal, uninventive material that doesn't impress me beyond the audio force alone. The Mariusz Lewandowski cover art does feel fresh for the band, and don't get me wrong, this record sends dreck like Darkest Day, The End Complete and Frozen in Time home on a stretcher, but I wouldn't mind hearing this same level of production used on material that's more evil, atmospheric, or even slightly dissonant and innovative within the riff choices themselves. It's a decent record, but like a lot of what they've put out, feels like jogging in place through the cemetery, where I'd rather they dug down a little deeper into the rot-choked soils, or broke into some of the sepulchers for some ideas.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Obituary - Cause of Death: Live Infection (2022)

Like it's companion piece, Slowly We Rot: Live & Rotting, this is a full live presentation of one of Obituary's classic albums, and this one happens to be my favorite across their catalogue, so I was a fraction more juiced to check it out for those morbid, evil grooves and riffs that I clung to so much growing up. This one is also recorded in Tampa, so basically the band's home turf, and given the same extremely professional treatment, sounding just as good or better than when you're actually standing in front of the band at one of their gigs. The tunes on this album are slightly more controlled and I daresay catchier than on the debut, but at the same time they did feel slightly less carnage-strewn or extreme, but here on Live Infection, there is more of a consistency with Slowly We Rot, and as they start churning along, they get a few opportunities to measure up in extremity.

Again, they are played exactly in the order of the original, including the Celtic Frost cover of "Circle of the Tyrants", which sounds superior to the "Dethroned Emperor" they tossed onto the other record. The chords feel meaty and powerful, and since they're a little more spacious and measured than on the debut, the drums Donald's drumming feels even more powerful. Some of my favorite Obituary tunes like "Body Bag" and "Memories Remain" sound absolutely fantastic, and while John's doesn't always sound 1:1 for the studio versions, he's grotesque and intense as his throat splatters these lines all over the huge grooves. The leads sound a little better and more musical with the way their effects work in the live incarnation, and overall the first nine tracks of this brought so many great memories and turned out to be one of the better live albums I've come across in the last couple years. I realize it's trendy for all these bands to be playing their classics and some might consider it a cash grab, but the fact is a lot of these tunes probably left the set lists long ago, so it's good to have them back even in a limited capacity.

Like the Slowly We Rot live album, there are tracks added here which were not a part of the original, but a sprinkling from later in the career. "Straight to Hell" from the s/t doesn't do a ton for me, but "Threatening Skies" is exciting with its hardcore-meets-Obituary feel, and then you've got the dependable grooves of "By the Light" and while I'm no End Complete fan, I think "I'm in Pain" sounds much more explosive in this live setting than it did fronting that studio album. So in addition to me enjoying the core experience more, the add-ons are also slightly superior for me than those chosen for Live & Rotting. Having said that, I think both of these albums are better than their old 1998 live album Dead, which was actually decent in of itself, but lacks the strength that these have by focusing in on the best material the band has written still to this day. If you're a fan, or you just like really well-produced live death metal, both of these should earn a place on your shelf.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, March 11, 2024

Obituary - Slowly We Rot: Live & Rotting (2022)

Slowly We Rot: Live & Rotting is one in a pair of special concert presentations released on physical and digital media through Relapse records. Having seen Obituary a number of times through the years, I can attest that whatever inconsistency their studio output might have brought me, this is an arena in which they are quite good, translating their simplistic, evil old death metal into roiling entertainment, fit for a crossroads of extreme music audiences what with all the grooving and moshing potential. This live album, I am happy to say, captures the experience with a professional sound, without going too far into an over-mixed or over-polished territory. In fact, I'd take this over the vast majority of the studio albums they've put out across the decades beyond 1990.

The material is mostly presented in the order of the original album, with an ominous stage intro and then an extended title track at the end. The lineup is the same as it has been since Inked in Blood, with the three original members joined by scene veteran Terry Butler on bass, and second guitarist Kenny Andrews, but it might as well just be the whole original studio incarnation, because it does the debut album great justice. The guitars are soaked in distortion, making the rhythm crunch just as evil as it did 30+ years ago, while the leads sound like whipping, spontaneous serpents that scream out into the atmosphere over the tight performances of Butler and Donald Tardy, both of whom sound excellent. The bass is really thick and the drumming feels even more intensive than on the studio version, and it all ends up pretty much flawless. John also sounds great, his trademark growl might miss a syllable or two, or at least it felt that way, but it's still got the same gruesome sustain to helm the band whether they're blasting away or settling into one of their swampier grooves. It's difficult to pick a favorite among the main tracks here, because each is delivered with precision and care for an audience that must be psyched to see this.

There isn't a lot of fan interaction, or noise, it's all pretty slick, and they've added a couple of later songs to lengthen out the set and release; they aren't really necessary, like "Redneck Stomp" from the crappy Frozen in Time album, which is just as dull here as the original, and "A Dying World", which was a single they put out as part of an [adult swim] series a few years before this. That's not an impressive tune either, but it's much more energetic and fun than "Redneck...", and it's cool that it was included due to its scarcity. The best of the bonus tunes, however, is their cover of Celtic Frost's "Dethroned Emperor", paying tribute to the band that is unquestionably the hugest influence upon their own sound. To be honest, though, I would have been satisfied with just the Slowly We Rot material, it seems that presentation and the accompanying Blu Ray would be enough here, and a few of those later tracks drag it down a little. Overall, though, this delivers what it promises, an ageless performance of what many consider their best album.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, March 8, 2024

Metal Church - Congregation of Annihilation (2023)

Having now weathered the tragic passing of two of their most popular singers, Metal Church pressed on with the increasingly heavy and angry sound they had struck on the later Mike Howe records, once again flirting with a style we'd most associate with USPM, which they were both inspirational towards in their early years, and then ultimately found themselves embracing rather than watering down their sound as they often did throughout the 90s. Marc Lopes is brought on, another beast of a front man, who could embrace the style of David Wayne and Mike Howe quite well, while bringing his own spin on it. He'd already played on a bunch of the Ross the Boss records, which were impressive, and he slides right into the formula here; some have stated that this guy might be a little TOO over the top, and we'll get into that.

Congregation of Annihilation often sounds like Painkiller with David Wayne singing, and that can only be a good thing, brought out by a lot of the riffing patterns in tunes like opener "Another Judgement Day". They also do some heavier, chugging groove riffs to keep it a bit more modern and close to the belt, but for the most part this album has a lot of parallels to Priest of perhaps even some of the Halford solo stuff. Lopes doesn't sound quite the same as Rob, but he loves to inject a lot of one-line screams, so he's always bouncing back and forth between the mid-ranged, angrier pitch and then this shrill pitch which can often come across a little forced and tacky. That's not to say he isn't hitting the notes right, he is, if you've heard him with Ross then you know the guy has pipes, but it seems like he could have been managed better on a few of the tunes here so that that back & forth technique didn't feel so predictable; though to be fair, there are a couple screams he embeds in tunes like "Me the Nothing" which totally smash you. There's a natural feel to his voice that sometimes he's about to lose his breath or choke, but that's not always a bad thing. Otherwise, his middle range timbre is pretty awesome, certainly even trumping Howe in terms of viciousness, even if I don't quite like the voice as much as his predecessor. 

The rest of the band is just handing out a beating throughout so much of this, whether it's on the more obvious power metal thumpers or the most atmospheric pieces like "Me the Nothing" which sound more like an amped up, muscular take on the Tony Martin Sabbath years or maybe some Dio solo stuff. There's a good balance of bluesy, heavy grooves and thick palm muted passages which might not feel like some of their most creative material, but certainly propulsive and powerful, especially with the meaty studio punch giving by the mix. The drums are hammering along, the bass beefy and the leads are also pretty good here, although usually brief and not terribly adventurous. Though it's not perfect, this one definitely continues what for me is the strongest streak of Metal Church since the first two albums, and if they can rein in the vocals just a fraction, maybe get more ambitious with the leads and have a few more of the slower, atmospheric tunes to balance out the raging, we might still hear some magnum opus with this very same lineup.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Metal Church - From the Vault (2020)

Fortunately for us all, there was a little more in store with Mike Howe at the helm before the tragic event of 2021. From the Vault is not your proper Metal Church record, it's more of a compilation, but unlike so many such releases that prove entirely useless, this one actually features some new material. And what new materia! One of the fresh studio pieces here, the opener "Dead on the Vine", is among my favorite tracks that the band had ever recorded, just scorching and extremely well produced. As potent and angry as anything off of Damned if You Do, but a little more polished in the direction of XI. The others new tunes like "For No Reason" or "Above the Madness" are a little more hard rocking and balanced in pace, but still really good and Mike's voice is just off the chains as it was a couple years before.

If this wasn't enough great unreleased material, you've also got some extra tunes from the Damned if You Do sessions, like the cruising and crunching headbanger "False Flag" or the acoustic instrumental "432hz" which is quite beautiful. You can hear why a few of these were clipped from the full-length, but these two at the very least were worthy, and the mix on these is certainly full studio quality if a bit drier in overall vibe than something like "Dead on the Vine". The cover songs included here are also recorded rather well, and slightly unique choices like Nazareth's "Please Don't Judas Me", which is solid if a little silly when Howe puts some goofy grit into some of the verse lines; the others actually sound a little better, like the more metalized "Green Eyed Lady", but here Mike's vocals also get a little cringe. It's not that he sounds bad, just that the edge and venom to his style is a little overbearing in this context...then again, there are some lines where he harmonizes in the latter that sound pretty awesome, and the leads in that one are also quite nice. There are ADDITIONAL tunes from the XI era like "The Enemy Mind" which is also pretty good, and some new mixes ("Killing Your Time", "Needle & Suture") which also feel pretty lethal, though some of this is only on the digital version or the vinyl box set, not the core CD/vinyl.

Because that's not enough of a fan package for your time and money, there are also a couple of live songs, and they sound pretty clear from Japan, but they don't quite match the energy of the studio material and that's probably just because of the particular tunes selected. Mike sounds alright but some of his higher pitched screams are a little much. Regardless, this is the worst that you're going to find on From the Vault, and it's a great complimentary tribute to the two prior studio full-lengths in terms of going back and celebrating Mike Howe's contributions when he rejoined the band. Had all the studio content here been mixed more fluidly as a third new studio effort with him, that might have been superior, there are a few distractions like covers or B-sides that don't live up to the rest, but overall this has at least an EP's worth of killer material that shouldn't disappoint you if you've enjoyed either of his tenure's with the band.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Metal Church - Damned If You Do (2018)

XI might have benefited a bit from the 'look who's back' factor, but with Damned If You Do, Metal Church pull up their sleeves and put in the hard work with a record that sounds angrier, more confrontational, and decidedly more USPM than its forebears. In fact, this is one of the band's heaviest efforts to its day, due not only to the riffs and structures, but also Mike Howe had really settled back into his vocal role, and he dishes out one of his most vicious performances. It's this charisma and confidence that seeps through even the simpler of passages on the record, like the verses of "The Black Things" with their clean-tinted guitars, and makes even this track a beast. But he's not alone in this, because the guitars continue to spit out riffs that feel fresh for the band's catalogue, and this is clearly riding the wave of newfound creativity that the band had plunged itself into just a few years before.

That's not to say it's totally out of the ordinary for a veteran band that inhabits the hinges between heavy, power and thrash metal, but if you only had the first few Metal Church albums to go buy, you might not even think this was the same band outside of Howe's resemblance to David Wayne's style. These songs sound like the ravings of much younger men, brisk and savage yet still capable of integrating some more thoughtful uplifting melodies ("Revolution Underway"). The guitars and drums are really busy, and like a lot of their albums they've got a corpulent but cruise-controlled bass presence to support them. Leads aren't overly developed, they just sort of burn out bluesy progressions where appropriate, and in general I felt like this album wasn't as glossed up as XI was in the mix, so there's more of an appreciable level of power at their control. Just a little ugliness to complement the hostility and augment its authenticity. The record sounds great whether it's trotting along at a rapid pace ("Guillotine", "Out of Balance", "Into the Fold"), which it does ably and often, or if they chug along with a moderate headbanging ("Rot Away").

Damned if You Do is bittersweet, of course, because it would be Mike Howe's last record before taking his own life in 2021, which for an underground metal nerd like myself, who had been worshiping his work on Heretic's Breaking Point since that album came out over 30 years prior, was pretty devastating. For my money, though, he left us with one of his most intense records, easily the best I'd heart him sing on in all that time, and arguably his best technical performance, with a lot more catchy harmony hooks and screams than I might have expected from XI before it. This is one pissed off and effective record, and for my money the best Metal Church material outside of the first two discs. It might not achieve masterwork level, and let's face it, the band probably won't ever grace us with an Operation: Mindcrime, Hall of the Mountain King or Master of Puppets, but you can't ever question their persistence and loyalty to the genre that broke them...persistence that would outlive even the aforementioned tragedy.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, March 4, 2024

Metal Church - XI (2016)

It might not be the prevailing opinion, but Metal Church is a band that never quite amounted to much for me beyond their first two albums, both of which I consider, if not masterpieces, then classic American heavy metal records which have withstood the ravages of time quite fine on their own. Since that point, though I've struggled with so much of their's very often adequate, but just never blowing me away as I would have liked if that initial trajectory held true. The original Mike Howe run, while decent, never impressed me as much as his work with power/thrash outfit Heretic on Breaking Point, but he certainly had that similar attack to David Wayne with the inherent edge and anger to his performance; the songs just were not there for me. So having him return to the lineup some 20+ years later seemed like it couldn't hurt, because they hadn't exactly been knocking it out of the park in the interim, why not give it another go with their second most popular frontman? 

I was pretty satisfied from the first singles, because the reunion definitely works out in their favor. This is not the stuff of the eponymous debut or my favorite, The Dark, but it's hard enough hitting where it needs to be, and the band in general sounds more fired up than on the albums leading to it. The riffs are fairly creative, at least within the band's own canon, and they try to incorporate a bit of a modern groove or edge with some of the palm muting parts that keep it from sounding too forcibly nostalgic. Mike sounds just like he left off, in fact I think his performance here is superior Blessing in Disguise, with that harrowing decay to his sustain that feels angry and unique. Not exactly melodic and never as screamy as he might have been when he was younger, but that character to his style is in full effect, and he still to its day sounded like the most natural successor to Wayne. It just helps a lot that he's supported here by songs from Vanherhoof and company that leave a little visceral impact, that show some effort where a few of the albums between the two Howe eras were slightly lethargic or phoned in. There is an enthusiasm and virility here across all instruments that seems to concur with Mike's return.

The production is super clean here, and though it doesn't necessarily do the material any favors, and if anything creates a drier atmosphere, audio purists will really love the clarity of the bass, the acoustics, the beats and vocals and who can blame them. These tunes don't always end up with the catchiest of chorus parts, but at least they are striving for that, culminating with "Killing Your Time", "Sky Falls In" and the lumbering "It Waits" with the cool effects, shining if minimalistic synth lines, and searing chorus line. But really, there's nothing I feel compelled to skip when I'm revisiting this one, all the material holds at least some modicum of consistency and quality, and I remember at the time being happier with XI than I had been with any of their other albums since 1986. I STILL feel that way, though I've overall cooled on the material slightly since it's release. A good Metal Church record, and a worthy reunion, with some explosive potential for moving forward.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, March 1, 2024

Griffon - De Republica (2024)

I think if the last decade of this French black metal scene had arrived at any other point in the past of extreme music, it'd likely have received the due it deserved. Sure, Blut Aus Nord has really broken through with their creepy, masterful and dissonant soundscapes, and maybe Deathspell Omega prods the attention of the unwashed masses once in awhile, but there is such a richness and consistency to a lot of these bands that you wonder why there isn't a bigger stir. Whether they're meting out the Medieval style, or the post-black elements, or the even more avantgarde and gonzo extremes that a Pensées Nocturnes reaches, there are so many strong options out there to fill your earholes and deplete your wallets.

Griffon's another one, and I had enjoyed their Ὸ θεὀς ὸ βασιλεὐς from a few years back, as well as vocalist Aharon's side project A/Oratos more recently. And like those albums, there is a sense for classicism here which is most likely in the first of the three categories I listed above, with an emphasis on 19th century France forward. . This is essentially traditional European black metal, with a huge flair for magnificent melodies that can due justice to its historically-grounded lyrical themes. But De Republica, their third full-length, goes further with the integration of more symphonic components through the keys and choirs and shimmering, rousing acoustics. There's definitely a sense of folksy foundation meets orchestral grandeur which is constantly accompanying the riffs, but to their credit, it doesn't always devolve into mere chugging just to support the weight of this added instrumentation. Even where you could accuse the material of that, like the bridge to "A l'insurrection", the lurching palm mute rhythm is at least weird and goes some places you wouldn't expect with the spoken word and graceful atmosphere.

But when the band is blazing forward, as they are much of the 37 minute play length, there is a lot of strength to the guitars, whether they're bursting out into a tremolo picked pattern or a slower, more spacious and emotional pattern. The drumming is intense, the vocals capable of shifting between the genre's patented rasp and more gloomy cleans that are used for both melodic and narrative support. Even more impressive is just the ambition going into this stuff, you listen through a tune like "The Ides of March" or the slowly escalating titular closer and the band is definitely trying to expand its envelope structurally and rhythmically, to the point that it definitely has a more modern gloss to its atavistic principles. De Republica falls into that category of very well-rounded, black metal experiences which take the form seriously and never fuck around with your time. It might not always strike the most memorable riffs or vocal lines you've heard, but it's summarily driven and impressive, and gives the last album a run for its money.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Lucifer - V (2024)

The first few singles I had heard of Lucifer V before its release were alright, but didn't leave me quite so excited as I was for its predecessors. Turns out that was the usual smoke & mirrors of maybe a label or band members choosing material that wasn't quite the best, because nearly every other track on this album is absolutely the nut. It might lack some degree of surprise and progression that I'd felt for prior entries, and a lot of the writing here seems like it's hanging out on the plateau with Lucifer IV, but still snooping about for points of ascent, higher grounds to scale of pools of diabolic lava to dip its toes into, and in the end I've even come around to some of those advance tracks as cogs in a very consistent, grooving occult hard rock machine.

The moody "Slow Dance in a Crypt" and "At the Mortuary" were the two I had encountered, and the former has its place as something bluesier, but a little too predictable in its progressions. Still, if you're at the prom, with someone missing most of their flesh, I think this is the exact sort of song you'd hear playing in the end credits of that particular Carrie sequel, and it does have a nice twist in the end with the pianos and elevating vocal line. But when you've got so many other scorchers here like the Priest-y "Fallen Angel", or "Riding Reaper" which I could hear ending up on an old 70s Scorpions album, everything really balances out. Lucifer revels in taking the familiar and then giving it a little spin here, a chord change there that makes it freshly memorable and unique to their own legacy. A few of my favorites here are tucked away near the end like the rocking "Strange Sister", or another bluesy piece, the creeping "Nothing Left to Lose but My Life", but by this point I've listened through the whole album and don't find any compulsion to skip past anything.

Production is steller, the band pulls off one of those cleaner 70s-style atmospheres and yet it can go toe to toe with modern rock, and helps translate the darker vibes to the guitars. It's just a perfect tone for everything...organs, acoustics, drums, and especially Johanna's voice, which is still one of the best out there, she might not have the craziest range, but there's a wicked smoothness to her pitch that hangs tight even when she becomes a little more desperate and shrill, and again it adds to the sense that this is an unearthed relic. But that's not to take away from the other players here, like Nicke who's fills and thundering totally moor "Maculate Heart" so that it kicks even further ass, and the sweet guitars of Martin and Linus which knock out the harder punching chords and burn bluesy through the airbrushed muscle car nightscape this album once again created for the Swedes. Another excellent Lucifer album, I'd probably place it on par with III, I had a slightly stronger connection to IV; though at this rate I hope they can keep this up to X.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Voivod - Morgöth Tales (2023)

I've made it no secret through the years that Voivod is my favorite band, so the prospect of an album of re-recordings is dubious. Why mess with what has largely been perfection, or close to it? The thing is, I've been proven wrong on these specific sorts of compilations often enough that I've no question that, when done patiently, or done 'right', they can have some value in the modernization of limited recording technology or production values that in some way might have crippled the original sessions. Or maybe the band just wants to give the current roster a chance to lay down their spin on the band's legacy, or gloss up some golden oldies for the younger audience used to the sound on the more contemporary output in the discography. The idea behind Morgöth Tales is all of the above, but it's also a 40th year anniversary offering with the idea to take one track from each of previous albums, or at least eight of them, and 'update' them with Rocky and Chewy; plus a few added bonuses.

For me, those three bonuses were initially the biggest draw, since they tackled their Metal Massacre track "Condemned to the Gallows" and made a neat sweep of it, tightly controlled with a tone that wouldn't be out of place on their recent records, but structurally just as fun and punk-driven as the original. Daniel's lead is great and the thing is just infused with youthful vitality, although I can imagine a swath of the purists might rue the lack of real rawness and underground vitriol to the recording. The title track, which closes off the album, is a very cool new track, but with a style that more closely resembles Dimension Hatross, with a spacious atmosphere due to some of the reverb on the vocals, but some real amazing, cycling grooves and a nice psychedelic break which lapses into Nothingface territory. This is ultimately my favorite part of the collection, although their slightly metalized cover of Public Image Limited's "Home" is also quite good, and fitting with Snake's vocals and the overall odd vibe of the band. I like some of their sillier covers of stuff like "Batman" or the "Ultraman" theme plenty enough, but they do their best tributes with more serious fare like this or "Astronomy Domine".

I'm not sure I'm entirely in love with the idea of picking one track from each of the albums, since I think some really wouldn't have needed to be touched, like "Fix My Heart", "Nuage Fractal" or "Rebel Robot"; the differences are minor, and I don't know that these versions truly embellish on the originals, even with the tonal evolution and alternate studio. It's more fun to hear early stuff like "Thrashing Rage", and I wonder if just re-recording War and Pain or its successor would have been better. The versions of "Killing Technology" and "Macrosolutions to Megaproblems" here are damn tight, and they will certainly give a better idea of how the band would sound performing them today with this lineup, but the originals come from works I praise so highly that any small detail will feel more abrupt to me. Perhaps I'm just too biased, but I'm certainly not trying to bash this, I think overall it's a worthwhile pickup for the longtime fan or initiate, I bought it day one, and I'd buy six more volumes if they were intent on release them. But at the same time...I'm looking forward to the band's energy being focused back on the infinite universes they still might explore, the past they've lest us is already so awesome, expansive and unforgettable that I'd never get sick of playing around in it.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Darkthrone - Astral Fortress (2022)

Each new Darkthrone studio album comes with the obligatory internet tug-of-war over why their new material is irrelevant, and they need to hang up the bullet belts; or why it's genius, and they're still treading some new ground. Here's the thing, though. Darkthrone doesn't give a fuck, and I have to agree with them. Yes, their material might been on an increasingly minimalist path of late, and some might construe that as lacking effort or 'phoning it all in', but it's not their first rodeo. That's exactly where they've been through so much of their career! Was Total Death complex, or The Underground Resistance revolutionary? They were cool because they held true to the band's ideals of slowly expanding and contracting its sound, tapping into primal influences across various metal sub-genres, and always infusing that with their own distinct personality. Astral Fortress is no different, and while it's got the most 'trolling' cover image in their entire discography, that's just another thing to admire about it. They don't always do what I expect, but 95% of the time so far it's turned out pretty damn awesome...

And it's awesome this time too, and that is why Darkthrone has my trust. Astral Fortress does conform a little to the blackened/doom vibe they've manifest through some of their recent albums, but this time they've got a warmer, more direct sound than on the eerier Eternal Hails... The riffs definitely feel like the sort the duo have written in the past, and across the seven tracks, they usually do a few per song, but MAN what riffs. "Impeccable Caverns of Satan" has those great, Sabbath-laden grooves to it, which work so well against Ted's constipated grunts, and the very simplistic Fenriz beats. "Stalagmite Necklace" opens with one of my favorite 'Throne riffs since forever, and the way the vocals echo off against the shuffle of the drums is just timeless, it feels like it could have hailed from any dark shed or sub-cellar of the last four decades, and the little synth touches are just perfect in enhancing the atmosphere. The most ambitious piece here is probably "The Sea Beneath the Seas of the Sea", with its ridiculous title and 10-minutes of evil, churning molasses riffs that once again bring to light that strong doom influence with not a small amount of the Celtic Frost/Hellhammer sound they were birthed on.

Almost all the other tracks deliver too, though if I had to pick the three I enjoyed the most, it would be those. The jangly noise interlude "Kolbotn, West of the Vast Forests" does feel extraneous, but in a weird way it feels like some breath of icy breeze is striking some strings or chimes out in the frigid environment of the cover photo, I just think it could have been better used as an intro that wound better into a proper metal track. They bounce back with the harmonic glazing of "Eon 2", another very good tune with a nice folksy surprise within, but it doesn't bring back any of the same tropes from the instrumental. Otherwise, the mix on this album is's very bare and some might argue dry, but the way Culto's vocals hover off the simple riffing and timekeeping, lightly struck drums makes for an unexpectedly haunted experience. All the instruments sound good in isolation, though the bass as usual isn't an important factor, just thumping along enough to notice it. The guitar tone, the few acoustics, the drums, all adherent to the simplicity and effectiveness of their design, and Astral Fortress grants me what I so wish for every time I listen to this or any other black metal band...escape.

Maybe it doesn't throw me a lot of left field hooks like some of my favorite Darkthrone moments throughout their hearing "The Winds They Called the Dungeon Shaker" for the first time on Dark Thrones and Black Flags, thinking 'what the fuck is going on?' and then gradually becoming so smitten that it's one of my favorite songs period. Or that earliest transition from the otherworldly, murky death metal of Soulside Journey to the icy Swiss-style nihilism of the sophomore, which seemed so unapproachable at the time but has long-since proven mandatory. Astral Fortress is not borne of such revelations, but it's another journey within that greater journey that I am privileged to be alive and take with two of the most honest, down to Earth dudes in all of metaldom. The most absorbed I've been with one of their albums in 15 years.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Monday, February 26, 2024

Cannibal Corpse - Chaos Horrific (2023)

I'm going to say this up front: I like Vincent Locke's artwork, I like that the band is high on consistency, but would it kill Cannibal Corpse to explore some other color palettes once in awhile? It's not that the cover to Chaos Horrific is bad or unfitting whatsoever, but considering how the band is often criticized for some of the sameness of their death metal material, it might help a fraction to vary up the packaging. Other than that, though, I have few if any complaints about their 16th studio album, because their sound is not one I grow that weary of, and while it's got a lot of the predictable, hammering, gory elements, you can hear them occasionally trying to throw a few new hooks or patterns at you when they can spare the expansion. That said, if you're not a fan of the George Corpsegrinder era of the band, now the default at nearly three decades, if you're pining for those simpler times of the early 90s, Chaos Horrific is not going to change your mind.

This is the battering, clinical, darkly brutal death metal they've been releasing since Vile with few if many alterations other than who is in the lineup, what they can offer, and minor differences in production. I for one prefer this flurried, semi-technical style and I'm constantly exploring the substrate of gore for all the tasty, meaty little hooks, but there's no question that you could mix up a bunch of tracks off the last ten albums on a playlist and perhaps forget which album they came from beyond a few standouts. All of these tunes are almost obnoxiously consistent, packed with agile little palm-muted chops and evil tremolo picked rhythms that alternate against groovier, weighted hooks like those that set up "Blood Blind" and its roiling horror show. One thing that's great about Cannibal Corpse, you can almost always discern the thrash roots and propulsion through their material, where other bands in the more cavernous style seem to have distanced themselves more from those fundamentals, this feels like that genre armored up with more oozing entrails and a growling animal and set to non-stop headbanging. If only all our necks could endure this as much as George's can!

I wouldn't mind more leads to whirlwind about here, but with Erik Rutan in the fold, you know where they do appear they're going to kick ass, and they do, like the eerie harmonies and exchanges in the center of "Fracture and Refracture". Alex and Paul still mete out the rhythmic bottom end like players 20 years their junior, and Rob and Erik load every song up with too many chops to ever bore from, even if there is that slight monotonous sense that they're largely small alterations on past progressions. The album is totally ferocious, even where it breaks to let a guitar thrash out or slows into a cyclopean but loaded groove, there is no place for your heart to rest, you are going to be splattered for 40 minutes and you'd best be ready. Rutan's production is quite in line with other recent efforts, and there's no point at which my attention wavered when I was truly in the mood for this style. Favorites include "Pestilential Rictus" for its infectious death/thrashing opening and groovy verse, or the finale "Drain You Empty" for that cool atmospheric intro, but the whole thing smokes just as hard as a lot of their other output from the 2010s and beyond.

Is there still some fleshy masterpiece waiting on the slab, ready for carving? I think the band would have to endure a forced evolution into a more widely-written album, or perhaps a de-evolution to super catchy, simpler tunes with the same charm, but at this point, even if they make another half dozen LPs of this general pace, punishment and quality I'll be supplied with enough bruisings to last me the rest of my days. Nothing broken (except your bones), nothing to fix.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, February 23, 2024

Prong - State of Emergency (2023)

There seems to have been a reinvigorated interest in Prong lately, with what might be their most hyped album in ages, a swank tour with the greatest band on Earth (and beyond) Voivod, which is unfortunately not coming anywhere near my neck of the woods (god damnit). State of Emergency itself continues along that path of polished thrash that Tommy Victor has been on since the surprising Carved Into Stone back in 2012, which I'm sure is a relief for some, but obviously lacks most of the industrial elements that the band was performing quite well on Rude Awakening or Cleansing, as well as the really interesting and weird, organically mechanical rhythms the band was feeding us when they blew up on Beg to Differ or Prove You Wrong. Naturally, this also isn't a foray back into the raunchy sewer thrash of the magnificent Force Fed.

No, State of Emergency is in reality a pretty standard array of groove/thrash rhythms given personality through Tommy Victor's vocals and the occasional twist of melodic chord patterns reminiscent of Rude Awakening or Carved in Stone which help to balance out the taut chugging force. It's nearly identical to the last four original studio albums, and that's not a bad thing, since he's really settled into this style alongside bassist Jason Christopher who has now been a part of the proceedings for nearly a decade. He has a simple style, which supports the structure of Victor's rhythm guitars with a good tone, making for an appreciable impact; but it doesn't venture off on its own quite enough, and I do think the simpler riffing patterns would certain allow for that. On the other hand, the new drummer, Griffin McCarthy does an awesome job, slapping out a lot of fills and grooves to help amplify the material without attempting to extremify it too much, which just wouldn't work on such basic grooves. As for Victor, he's always had that relatable, gruff tough guy timbre and sounds awesome here, barking off with a few effects here or there to make it feel sleek and modern.

I do think the album gets better as it goes along, really picking up with tracks like "Light Turns Black" or "Who Told Me" which go for broke a little more and grow catchier as a result. The opener track "The Descent" has propulsive riffing energy, and makes sense in that position, but it feels like a good 12-14 minutes pass before it's grabbing me, other than the squeals in "Breaking Point" or that melodic floe of chords in "Non-Existence". But pretty much the entire second half of State of Emergency is flooded with the more emotional style of chorus, and the riffing really supports that. Even the cover of Rush's "Working Man" really thrives in context, and unlike a lot of covers it actually functions alongside the band's original material. I also noticed that the few little spurts of effects or industrial influences that do sneak through here almost always stir my interest, and wouldn't mind if they brought more of that back into the songwriting for the future.

Ultimately, I found this the best Prong album since Carved in Stone, though I don't think it exactly laps their more recent output like Zero Days or X - No Absolutes. Though some of the riffing choices are short on nuance or innovation, the sum package is largely consistent after a predictable start, and the band still retains its distinct feel from the rest of its genre. So while it's not at all any sort of comeback album, the hype is deserved, this has always been a worthy East Coast thrash band throughout most of its incarnations and stylistic shifts, with only 1-2 sub-par studio offerings in the earlier 2000s, long since compensated for with much stronger determination, tapping into the core, urban fundamentals while streamlining them for an audience of today.

Verdict: Win [8/10]