Friday, April 29, 2011

Death - Symbolic (1995)

Having showed a marked improvement in the band's progressive, sophomore decade, Individual Thought Patterns was substantial enough that I took the stick out of my ass and came to terms with where Death was headed for the future: the car wash. Symbolic is the third and most potent work of this phase in Schuldiner's career, and yet its remarkable less complicated than its predecessor. In fact, I often have a difficult time describing this as a 'death metal' album whatsoever. It's more like a clinical, hard hitting thrash album with dynamic drums, savvy leads, and the development of Chuck's voice into a slightly pinched, higher range that was not exactly unexpected after hearing Human or Individual Thought Patterns.

This is honestly the least interesting of Death's efforts from a conceptual standpoint. The lyrics continue along the social and psychological strata the band had been exploring for the past half decade, further removed from the morbid ministrations of their formative gore stores. Much of the composition here is incredibly simple, but damn if it doesn't sound great on headphones or erupting out of just about any stereo I play it through. Jim Morris did a remarkable job here, as well as the mastering team. The guitars feel rich and fulfilling despite only a mild margin from those of Human, and the writing gives the Gene Hoglan plenty of room to breathe. I found myself paying attention to his kicks and fills more than almost anything else I've heard him play on. Rounding out the band this time, Schuldiner decide to go with a pair of lower profile musicians: Bobby Koelbe on the guitar and Kelly Conlon on the bass. Regardless, the duo are rather well suited into this game of musical chairs, complementary to the actions of the star percussionist and composer.

It doesn't hurt that most of the songs are quite good, with a few in particular numbering among the best of their 90s stint and arguably their career. "Without Judgement" is incredibly well plotted, with some thrashing grooves in the verse not unlike "In Human Form", surviving a wealth of variation, including the resonant, penetrating leads in the bridge. "Crystal Mountain" has a strong charging aesthetic that cedes into subdued, catchy bass lines and glittering strings of cleaner tone, with a jamming mystique to its closing moments. Closer to their work on Leprosy and Spiritual Healing, we have "1,000 Eyes"; and "Misanthrope" builds memorable momentum, with subtle and fetching chord progressions throughout the verse.

I'm not sure that the epic 8+ minute finale "Perennial Quest" is the strongest example here, as I tend to zone out through a number of the transitions; and "Symbolic" itself is not an incredibly entertaining opener for the effort, but the remainder of the songs ("Zero Tolerance", "Sacred Serenity" and "Empty Words") are all a study in polished contrasts of surgical aggression and accessible prog rock leads. To tell the truth, there are probably only a half dozen rhythms or individual guitar riffs on the entirety of Symbolic that are revelatory in quality, much less than any of the first three albums when Death were performing their more grisly fare. Hell, there are less standout riffs probably than Individual Thought Patterns. Yet the arrangements are almost unanimously excellent, balanced and all too easy to get lost in, not to mention accessible.

I will gladly bear the banner of dissent when it comes to the majority stance on Death's catalog, vastly favoring the years of Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy to anything that has come since, because those albums created a creepy, unforgettable presence with amazingly cool riffs that simply have never been replaced in the genre that they helped birth. But there can be no doubt that the philosophical prose, progressive influence and friendlier, bring home to mom gloss of Death 2.0 was slowly ascending the ladder of quality, to peak upon Symbolic and then fall off dramatically with the anticlimactic drivel that was The Sound of Perseverance. Schuldiner was bent on expanding his work into a cross-stream that could taken be taken seriously by fans of rock, thrash, and subscribers to guitar magazines. Here was a way to do it without sacrificing quality nor intelligence. The last Death worth a damn.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (yet at the same time, we're invisible)

Lake of Tears - Illwill (2011)

The career of Sweden's preeminent psychedelic Goth doom mobsters Lake of Tears has long been one of climaxes and fallouts, perhaps phased to the cycles of the moon, perhaps dependent on how drunk the members are during their songwriting process. Having seen the cover art for Illwill, their eighth full-length album, I was not holding out much hope for the quality of its contents. Sure, they've had some stinker imagery before, like the lazy cover to Black Brick Road or the incredibly boring photograph gracing Forever Autumn, but this looks more like a new album from the Swedish supergroup Illwill than anything else, a fat cheesy logo interspersed with the limbs of some suicide do you go from beautiful hippie distractions like A Crimson Cosmos and The Neonai, or the cosmic ball tripping of Moon and Mushrooms to something so drab?

Speaking of that last album, it was phenomenal, and the emotional resonance of tracks like "Children of the Grey" and "You Better Breathe While There's Still Time" had me chomping at the bit for more. Finally, the band had closed the gap towards the authentic power they wielded through their earlier output. Illwill was one of my most anticipated albums this year, but I'm sad to say that it's a letdown. Perhaps not so much of a disappointment as Forever Autumn had been after the brilliance of A Crimson Cosmos, but an eyebrow raiser nonetheless. To be fair, there are a few solid tracks that deliver the mood rock we expect, and the general tone of the album is redolent of Moons and Mushrooms, but a lot of the life leeching here comes in the form of its experiments. Lake of Tears have decided to strike up the tempo and explore some terrains alien to their backlog, so we end up with the speed metal (honest to Gods) of "The Hating", or the meta-black metal thunder of "Midnight Madness", which reminded me of the Wolfheart era of Moonspell, sans the goofier gothic vocals, and in which Brennare borders on sheer rasping.

Now don't get me wrong: if these Swedes wanna fuck around with pacing and attempt to crack a few new nuts, nothing should stop them. The issue is that these songs are simply not very good. The guitar tone and velocity of "The Hating" seem initially exciting, but they don't pan out over the course of the track. Likewise for the uplifting punk fuel of "Parasites", or the driving rock of "Floating in Darkness". All are rich sounding due to the mix, and possess subtleties similar to the huge rock of Moon and Mushrooms, but the vocal lines and riff patterns seem to drag. Luckily, the band has not plummeted entirely off the deep end. There are some sultry rockers like the Pink Floyd influenced "House of the Setting Sun" or the accessible Gothic sway of "Behind the Green Door", with fun but cheesy lyrics that seem to center on the finer sex (or possibly the Marilyn Chambers flick). Then you've got some borderline fare, like "Taste of Hell" which mirrors the mighty "Children of the Grey" with a few rasps, but far less memorable structure; or "Illwill" itself, with a steady driving melodic wall of force that has much precedent throughout their discography.

It always pains me to be underwhelmed by a Lake of Tears record, because when this band is 'on', they are one of the best in the world at delivering deviously simplistic Gothic doom rock. I know that when the watch-fires of inspiration are lit, they are fully capable of kicking my ass and having me sing along for the next decade or more. To be fair, this is not so vapid an album as the navel gazing Forever Autumn. There are a couple moments where I was bobbing my head along, absorbed in the weight of the chords and lyrics. But it's no more than 'okay', equivocal to their 2004 effort Black Brick Road in impact. No "Sweet Water", no "Cosmic Weed", no "Devil's Diner", no "Head One Phantom"; nothing to keep the attention engaged until the band's next creative outlet. The blame can't be wholly placed upon the shoulders of their experiments in acceleration, the broaching of other genres, but neither does that benefit the content.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Naphobia - Of Hell (1995)

With luminaries like Gene Hoglan and Chuck Schuldiner making guest appearances on this album, it's rather a shock that it was not held in wider regard. But perhaps the defining characteristic Of Hell is the performance of drummer Tony Laureano, who would go on to perform in Nile, Angelcorpse, Dimmu Borgir, and a host of other noteworthy acts. His muscled dynamics help lend Naphobia a raw, viral strength that they might otherwise not be present. Beyond that, though, there is not a whole lot to substantiate this unknown Florida group from its peers. They've got the choppy structure of Deicide, burst potential of Morbid Angel, and the otherworldly brutality of Nocturnus, often congealed into a disjointed frenzy of limbs.

But they keep the listener busy enough that, even when seemingly about to explode, the ears will be distracted by the old school riffs and the percussive fortitude. I'd liken this album to the Brazilian band Krisiun, or Hate Eternal, only Naphobia were marginally less monotonous than either of those bands at their worst. The actual quality of the compositions does vary here, so something like intro "To Lead Astray" might play out like a sporadic, disengaged claptrap, but shorter tracks like "Pain Infini" and "Fallen Cross" deliver all the deathly charms, and pieces like "America A.D." experiment more with texture (not unlike Morbid Angel through the 90s). One can instantly identify the mechanical precision of Hoglan in "The Ungodly", but the song most will be pining for is "As Ancients Evolve". It's mixed a bit cruder than the rest here, but you can clearly hear Schuldiner's throat stretch over the battery below. Not so much a selling point as one might expect, though.

Still, with the ability exhibited on this sole full-length, Naphobia might have splashed about the same cesspool as their behemoth peers if given some further definition and exposure. For all its clutter, the majority of the tracks are captivating enough to one seeking extremity by the mid 90s, and the band avoids the gutter of gore, focusing in on broader lyrical concepts like politics and religion. The production is somewhat lacking, but organic, so you get a real jam room feel, though thankfully from a distance. Wouldn't want to be around Laureano if a stick flew out of his hand, or a kick drum rolled off his kit. Hell, just the wind and thunder alone might smite you. Of Hell might not be a cult classic to survive the ages, but its a curiosity that might have deserved more than it got. With the band dithering about in recent years, perhaps this page of history is not yet to be turned...

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Alcest - Le Secret EP (2004; 2011 reissue)

With all the hype surrounding Alcest and its creator Neige (no fault of his own), you'd think the man was on to some sort of messianic formula to invigorate the whole of underground music internationally. In truth, this is very far from the case, and I suspect that at least some fraction of his audience is simply mind blown by a lack of exposure to Alcest's primary influence: the dreamy, ponderous sensitivity of shoegaze. You see, the 90s were pregnant to burst with bands like Lush, Catherine Wheel, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain, not to mention a whole host of college 'alternative' rock (The Cure, etc), many of which have threads to what this Frenchmen is writing. Bands like Denmark's Mew continue to broadcast wonders of this style in new directions like prog rock, but Alcest channels it towards his own personal past within the black metal genre. He is not alone in doing so, but clearly he's the most popular.

Le Secret was the first official release from the project, and Neige has recently re-recorded the material for release through Prophecy Productions. It makes sense, since many of the drooling come-lately fans are likely not to own the original. Thankfully, this re-issue includes both versions, so one can simply compare and contrast between them. The differences are more than just tonal upgrades, though, there have been ever so slight tweaks in the structure of the songs, but not so much that devotees of the older recordings should flip their wigs in anxiety. A few seconds snipped or added here, a riff altered there, and presto. Personally, if forced to choose, I would probably run with the prototypes, since they carry a more desolate nature to them that seems marginally more authentic. However, the re-recordings certainly bring them flush with the Alcest sophomore album Écailles de Lune released last year, and the updated cover art is appreciable.

As for the actual quality of the tracks themselves, I fear I am in opposition to the blessed whole. Pressing aside the absurd concept of a young boy's adventures in Fairyland, which is the actual inspiration behind Neige's lyrics for this project, the two tracks seem to drone on endlessly via their sugary ministrations. Granted, there are a number of moments peppered throughout in which the mix of clean, cloud touched vocals really comes together with the streaming melody of the guitars, but they breed ennui more often than revelation, and when deconstructed, they have little, individually, to offer. Aside from it's shining, repetitious escalation, "Le Secret" itself has painfully few riffs that hold up to scrutiny when disembarked from their environs, and thus I feel like the 13+ minutes are just an endless ebb and flow of half-baked post-black majesty that are quickly squeezed into the corner of my imagination and then forgotten; a pretentious if passionate miasma void of twists and turns, surprises or subtle delights. The shimmering of a rock candy, sweet to the tongue, that I would never wish to finish, and the cyclic intro/outro of reverbed acoustics does nothing to strengthen it.

"Elevation" fares slightly better, though it also suffers from the needless excess as its precursor. I fancied the angelic intro sequence, and was satisfied that Neige through in some snarling as the lifestream of crashing chords arrived. I also found the bass lines intricate and amusing, but after about 5 minutes of this, all attention was lost. There is simply nothing compelling harbored in its depths, and it sputters along like the diminishing returns of an oil tank with a major leak. Yes, I realize the popular pastime is to lie strewn about some grassy knoll absorbed in the melancholy of missing childhoods and puffy clouds, and I've done this numerous times to the recent M83 record, but I have never felt availed by any of the purported, hypnotic effluvia of Alcest. For a work of pure ambiance or narrative grandeur, I'd be more than willing to accept such swollen excursions, but this is neither. Oh, I 'get it', I get it just fine, and I'm the last person that would accuse Neige of lacking creative compulsion in his efforts. Nonetheless, I find Le Secret to be about as mundane as music can get without become actively dopey or offensive.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Cruxifiction - The Coming (2011)

One look at the band photo for the French Cruxifiction and you become quite assured what to expect: traditional black metal. It is to their credit then that they throw you for a loop by incorporating strong elements of death and thrash metal into their compositions that keep them fresh, bloody and exciting without betraying the sultry melodic abandon of the parent sub-genre. The band will be thrust along some course of somber speculation and then abruptly surprise you with a breakdown or galloping thrash momentum, and its this callous curvature which ensures that the audience's attention remains rapt upon the contents well through the 43 minutes of its total manifestation.

It starts on a strong foot with "Haunting Hypocrisy", which exhibits several of the traits I have mentioned above. Initially searing in its own velocity, it pistons through alluring melodies not unlike early Old Man's Child, before an accelerated surge around 2:30 and a belligerent break of lurching synths and carnal, charismatic vocals after the 3:00 mark. The closing, arabesque leads are addictive and elegant, and it all flows brilliantly into "The Coming", which is built upon a similar structure. "The New Messiah" has a wonderful, atmospheric intro before it too explodes, and "Death Is the Only Way" is simply threaded with driving, melodic thrash hooks that punch through the eardrums. But it might be "Burn on a Cross" which stood out as my favorite here, a shorter track with amazing, almost technical death metal riffs driven across the bow of the fuller, melodic black metal sequences. "I'll Bless You" is only marginally less glorious riff for riff, with an even stronger sense of melody and mood.

The wealth of weaponry these Frenchmen bring to bear ensures that they have a staying power above many of their peers, and this well plotted fusion of extremities is worth at least a few spins for any fan of melodic black or death metal. The vocals are not incredibly unique, nor are the tracks necessarily immortal in quality, but the razor honed mix does the experience justice, and certainly there is something embedded in The Coming to breed excitement. This might not be an apex of novelty or innovation, but the listeners' ears will bleed none the less for it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Kaiserreich - Ravencrowned (2010)

I'm ever a sucker for a well-crafted intro, and Italy's Kaiserreich have prepared one for their sophomore Ravencrowned in "Hapax Legomenon", a potent escalation of martial and symphonic elements that successful stirs up the desire to experience the rest of what has been wrought. Sadly, beyond that, I can't promise anything with such sweeping or powerful potential. This is simply a competent, middle of the road black metal effort which manifests much of the same dire atmosphere as Norse pioneers like Mayhem (De Mysteriis dom Sathanas) or Darkthrone ('93-96), if not as raunchy. Primal aggression composed with a melodic subtext and due diligence towards its own dynamic range. Thoughtful threads of melancholia and occult speculation delivered through the lyrics. And a pretty damned wicked looking horned tyrant seated upon its face.

Ravencrowned is a pretty long album, about an hour in fact, and thankfully the Italians do not waste this time in boring the barbed tails off of our bottoms. They've got a good mix of tempos and atmospheric sequences, not to mention the variety in track lengths. Shorter pieces like "Veleno" and "A.B. 86" center on specific, sorrow-stoked rhythms of melodic desperation above a solid percussive foundation, and the band will occasionally offer an unexpected twist like the gang shouting in the depth of the latter. A nice touch. Elsewhere, there are more monolithic ambitions like "Dreamfall (Pure, Tortured Heart)" and "Tempest (Of the Unwept Tear)" which explore a broader variation in speed and mood. To be honest, while these pieces often conjure up a decent riff or two, they feel a lot more empty than their shorter peers, with the one exception being "Lunes Ov Judgement" and its creepy, compulsive midsection.

The production is a step above the primacy one usually associates with the underground end of the spectrum, with clear guitar tone and the drums set at an appreciable mix. The vocals are your garden variety of rasping torment, though to their credit, they do have a few emotional thorns to prick the listeners' ears. Kaiserreich does not employ a lot of synthesizer beyond just the intro, nor do they excel at breeding ambiance or atmosphere through their compositions. Instead, this is more of a direct tribute to the 90s black metal out of Scandinavia, where bands would include some haunted inauguration to get the blood chilled, then proceed into more direct channels of rabid aggression. Ravencrowned shows a clear intimation of its influences, and a competence in its execution (all around), but it never quite achieves the irresistible darkness of so many that have come strode before it into the shadows.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Six Feet Under - Haunted (1995)

Ask yourself: have you ever speculated what Obituary might have sounded like in 1989-1994 if you supplanted John Tardy's raucous retching with Chris Barnes' blunt, nigh monotonous delivery? Well, Six Feet Under was seemingly formed to answer that question. Or maybe not. It's a bit of a drag that Barnes was unable to come to terms with the other members of Cannibal Corpse after such a good job on The Bleeding, but he was quick to land on his feet after the separation. Having already formed this as a side project before the split, Metal Blade were more than happy to keep the guy in the wings. So he hooked up with a pair of scene veterans, Allen West (Obituary) and Terry Butler (ex-Death, Massacre), in addition to drummer Greg Gall, and proceeded to forge a path of mediocrity that to this day has not ceased. How this band has managed to remain signed and productive is beyond my mortal ken, but fuck...if ICP can persist, why not SFU?

That said, Haunted is the least offensive album in the band's nearly 20-year career, because of one important fact: it sounds like prime-era Obituary (1989-1994). West might not have been present for Cause of Death, but the riffs here aim at the same general hooking simplicity. In fact, I'll admit that the riffs are better than those found amid the redundant complacency of The End Complete, and pretty close in quality to World Demise. Generally, there is not a song on this debut that generates more than a single worthwhile guitar line, but sometimes that is enough to at least get the listener's head bobbing to the groove. Barnes himself sounds rather dried up here, and the punctuation of his vocals rarely memorable, but a few of the tunes like "Human Target" and "Silent Violence" are fun enough that he gets a pass. What's more interesting is how Six Feet Under employs simple, steady rock beats rather than the exhaustive power that the rest of the field were soaking up. There is some double bass in there, but overall it's quite a contrast to most death metal outside of a few peers (Obituary, some Bolt Thrower maybe).

Unfortunately, that fact does little to absolve the album of its general mediocrity, and most of the songs flow together all too well, muddled in the memory and devoid of individual distinction. I'm likely not exaggerating when I assume that West and Barnes wrote this material in an afternoon or two, because it's stubbornly simple to the point that it no longer a virtue. The lyrics consist of more thoughtful if forgettable prose than one might expect, not so gore drenched as what Barnes was belching forth in his years with Cannibal Corpse. The Scott Burns mix is alright, not one of his best but certainly not one of the worst. Overall, there was room in the market for a project like this, and Haunted is functional enough for those who can check out their brain to enjoy some carnal, crushing momentum delivered with passable effort. Is it better than anything Chris Barnes OR his replacement Corpsegrinder recorded with Corpse? Outside of the middling sophomore Butchered at Birth, I'd have to say that the answer is a resounding no, so it's not at all a surprise that many fans of The Bleeding were repulsed by this. I'll hang on to my own personal distaste for some of the later SFU recordings.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]
(I'm decomposing)

Malevolent Creation - Eternal (1995)

After Stillborn failed to meet expectations, no new deal was brokered between Malevolent Creation and Roadrunner, so the band hopped over to the Pavement imprint. Eternal was the first result of this union, a work of strong initiative but little lasting resonance that would further cement the reputation of this band as solid second stringers. This was also the debut for Jason Blachowicz on the vocals and bass, who would hang around for a pair of albums before venturing off into his own realm of brutality: Divine Empire. He's got a filthy, caustic, towering presence, almost redolent of L-G Petrov during Wolverine Blues, if slightly shorter on character, but well suited to Fasciana's bruising rhythmic sensibility.

I can see how this effort might have a divisive effect on the audience. It is heavily front-loaded with a lot of straight slamming death with an almost hardcore underpinning, and frankly rather formulaic. Incredibly tight, driving double bass is slathered in a mix of palm muted grooves and uppity old school rhythms. It's very 'tough guy', especially the opening combo of "No Salvation", "Blood Brothers", and "Infernal Desire", but things start to pick up once you get deeper into the track list. "Living in Fear", "Enslaved" and "Hideous Reprisal" are more my style, the latter with some spry, Pestilence-like "Trauma" chords slung over the shifting more of mosh below. In fact, the entire closing quarter of the album is solid: "Eternal" with its incessant warlike muted grooves, "Tasteful Agony" ranging from an accelerated opening onslaught to a series of open chord grooves that once again stir the restless pit fiends.

The production values here are a step up over the underwhelming Stillborn, and aside from the debut The Ten Commandments, I feel like this album is the quickest to incite violence in the listener. Alas, Eternal suffers the same frustrating roadblock that so many of their albums face, and so many brutal death albums in general: lack of memorable content. It's a soulless if tightly executed exercise in moshing force, with almost no atmosphere whatsoever. None could question the brutality here, but would it be too much to ask for a few menacing melodies or acrobatic impressions, above and beyond the sheer exertion of physical force? Malevolent Creation could write six of these albums per week, but they'd never surpass this plateau of methodical, mechanical functionality. Eternal is fine for ass kicking or getting your ass kicked, and I enjoy that Fasciana and company maintain their thundering street cred, but it's hardly the first album I'd turn to on a hunt for compelling music.

Verdict: Win [7/10]
(void beyond hellfilled fate)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Deicide - Once Upon the Cross (1995)

With a pair of well regarded albums behind them, a front man who basked in the controversy surrounding his shocking statements and persona, the survival of a half assed bomb threat in Sweden, the persistent forehead branding, and the continued relationship with Roadrunner Records (who were now signing nu-metal bands to rake in elevated profits) the stage was set for Deicide to explode upon the release of their third full-length. Well, that's not exactly what happened, and we wound up with Once Upon the Cross, an album that played it fairly close to the bullet belt, about as 'safe' as these infernal Floridians could possibly produce without abandoning the brutality that sat them securely about the throne of infamy among the heavily saturated US death metal scene.

Not to say that this is any way a disappointment, because it's a solid effort I'd squarely place between Deicide and Legion in overall quality. For the third time, they went with Scott Burns to record and mix the album, and in all I'd say he did a better job than the first two. The guitars have a thicker, more pulverizing tone to them, and the leads feel more flush with the rhythms when they burst upon the scene. Benton's lower pitched vocals sound a lot better here, very often extracted from the snarling accompaniment, and its effective enough when he's using these exclusively (through much of the title track, for instance). It was interesting to see that Steve Asheim considers this one of their slowest albums, and that the band performs all the material at a higher tempo in the live setting, but I didn't ever feel that it was dragging its cloven hooves along: you still get the expected alternation of semi-technical chugging and accelerated bursts of intensity from Legion.

The key is of course in the songwriting, and, well, it's just another Deicide album. Entertaining, competent and punishing enough to mash your brains in against the nearest hard surface, but it never really impresses upon the memory banks. For one thing, a band focused on such an 'evil' persona and obvious blasphemy against a Christian majority falls remarkably short of writing anything atmospheric or remotely haunting. This is not some subtle, seductive serpent that slips its tongue into your lobes, promising the manifestation of your many pleasures; but instead a spiny abyssal behemoth off its meds, flailing about and stomping everything in its half way Hell house. "Once Upon a Cross" has a moment in which Benton belches out some even more lower pitched vocals than usual, and there are some tight thrashing executions in "Behind the Light Thou Shall Rise", "Christ Denied" and "Trick or Betrayed", but a couple William Defoe samples from The Last Temptation of Christ hardly qualifies this as some astute work of villainy.

That aside, Once Upon the Cross is undoubtedly a concrete effort which serves as another gut wrenching template for hundreds upon hundreds of brutal death metal clones without an inkling of creativity, who turns towards Deicide, Venom and Slayer for their lyrical aspirations. I can remember enjoying this quite a lot when it first released, even moreso than Legion, but through the years it's settled in my estimations like a pulpy, flesh sediment in a thick cocktail of blood. As far as reliability, it's worth a spin here or there if you just want some professional punishment, solid performances all around, and unswerving castigation of the clergy, but almost all of its constituent tracks fail to evoke 'the riff', or 'that riff', if you're picking up what I'm putting down.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (prophecy in its final contradiction)

Autopsy - Shitfun (1995)

Well it IS shit, but it ain't so fun. Autopsy's 4th album might be a meager half-truth in advertising, but it's not at all surprising when one considers past tangents (the Fiend for Blood EP) or the direction the band was leaning towards with Acts of the Unspeakable. Punk and sludge had become the dominant flavor in the band's developing devolution, and while there are fewer aesthetic differences in the lyrical concepts of Shitfun to its predecessor, it does feel as if the spade wielding, festered cemetery caretaker of the California crew's formative years had been supplanted by a gaggle of delinquent trailer park pukes who think its fun to eat poop and explode frogs with firecrackers or what the fuck ever to pass the empty days.

This distinction is largely musical, as the lyrics offer the same mix of rambunctious annoyance and a more methodic, ghastly obsession. Reifert continues to communicate with a balance of his early gutturals and splattered punk narrative, but even when he's pinching a groan out it does not seem to have the same effective power as Mental Funeral or Severed Survival. Shitfun has 21 tracks on it, and in my opinion that's about 13 or 14 too many, because as hard as it might be to believe, there are some atmospheric moments amidst the slovenly coprophilia that manifest the creepy overtones of the past, in such installments as "Humiliate Your Corpse" or the slow, drudging "Praise the Children". "Blood Orgy" and "Maim Kill Maim Rape" both have a bouncing crepitation to them which proves worthwhile, but the majority of the tracks are laden in wholly forgettable punkish or dull proto-doom slop that immediately exits brain left. Songs like "Shit Eater", "Geek", "Bathe in Fire", "I Shit On Your Grave", "An End to the Misery" and so many others have about 5-10 seconds of plausible but effortless creativity that offer only a fraction of this band's net worth from the older albums.

Shitfun really feels like a band bored out of its mind, but not so mindless of its audience that it would abandon its prior dynamics entirely. There is a pretty good reason for this: Autopsy had already decided to call it quits, and transition into their new incarnation Abscess. The material here is little more than a transitional galleria of grotesque odds and ends that would not have complemented the value of either Acts of the Unspeakable or Seminal Vampires and Maggot Men. A depot for half-formed ideas. A clutter gutter. A heavily swollen contract filler with no ambition other than soaking in its own bodily fluids and stinking up its environment. Honestly, I'm amazed that this album doesn't 100% suck, but at the same time I'm glad that the members had realized their interests lay elsewhere and cut the lifeline before releasing something even more sill than this. These days, we have Autopsy back doing what they do best, so it's kind of difficult to hold a grudge over this misstep, but of the 55 minutes here there are only 10-15 not worth an immediate flush down the the maw of the nearest porcelain deity.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]
(no funeral, no fear, no remorse)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hyperborean - The Spirit of Warfare (2011)

Here we've got a debut album about a decade in the making, from a virtual unknown in the Swedish sphere: Hyperborean. Now, as with most subjects ancient and Greek, the name 'Hyperborean' alone instantly initiates salivation. A few other, small time black metal acts have used the moniker, but if the quality of The Spirit of Warfare is any indication, this is to whom it will inevitable stick. What surprises me about the band is how they manage to write so effectively in this genre with such a clean tone. At first, I was almost uncomfortable with the level of polish, not at all common for this style, but it creates an incredible balance between the hoarse vocals, glazing melodies, stolid drumming and sparse piano accompaniment.

Dissection, Immortal, I and Borknagar are good jumping off points in comparing the tone and writing of The Spirit of Warfare, but not precise parallels. The guitars are configured into patterns that best inspire sorrow and glory, as in the verses to "Weapon Making" or "The Last Stand of Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae". Almost without exception, the individual riffs have been meticulously crafted to provide a sensuous, gleaming experience in both the rhythms and leads; the vocals a pendulous, cautionary narrative to the historical battles that have inspired the lyrics. There are, upon occasion, some familiar riffs mixed in to offset those more original, and perhaps we could accuse Hyperborean of laying on the melody a little too thick, but the inclinations they create towards revisiting the material is truly telling. The pianos are enormously glassy and effective, especially in "The Sick Man of Europe", and a delightful affectation dowsed upon the equally reverent guitar lines.

If one thinks of black metal only in terms of enormous, crude distortion and lo-fidelity rebellion, then this debut is not likely to please. For those unopposed to a little grace, a classical influence, a symphonic saturation, The Spirit of Warfare plays out like a galleria of European nobility paving mosaic tributes to a the storied past of their countries. Its not exactly lighthearted: the vocals see fit to spew carnage across the luminous exhilaration, but there is no question of their knack for writing hooks that spin around in your mind, tasteful spikes of melody that flow well into each other like ducts into a central spring. It might often be 'too pretty', and a few of the longer (7-9 minute) pieces might well profit from a trimming of their sugary fat, but it's an experience easy to commit to memory and a tangible exhibition of talent, with several of its constituents ALONE worth the price of attention ("Channeling the Spirit of Warfare", "Weapon Making", "The Last Stand of Leonidas...", "The Sick Man of Europe").

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Diabolical - Ars Vitae (2011)

Long heralded as potential successors to the Swedish thrones left abandoned by At the Gates and Dissection, Diabolical have been steadily and readily improving themselves over the course of the last 15 years, passable efforts like Synergy and A Thousand Deaths breeding inspiration for the superior, strangely unsung 2008 opus The Gallery of Bleeding Art. Melodic death with character, composition and variation. Ars Vitae is not quite the anticipated full-length successor to that album, but instead a substantial fan package. Seeking to avoid a similar gulf as that which separated the releases of their 2nd and 3rd onslaughts, the Swedes have assembled some new studio material, a live set and their rare Deserts of Desolation EP (from 2000) to whet the appetites of a no doubt eager audience.

First at bat, the most anticipated portion: the new songs. There are three here, inaugurated with a moody, brief atmospheric intro ("Ortus"). "Sightless 6" is nearly seven minutes in length, but it handles its bulk extremely well, an opening salvo of arching, powerful mystique fording into the more subtle textures of its depths. In particular I enjoyed the somber ambiance created over the melodies around 2:00, but from that point on its a study in contrasts. "Infvitabile Fatvm" follows with a similar appreciation for ethereal beauty, a 3 minute instrumental with clean guitars and lush, droning synthesizers that predicates the driving "Eye". You'll notice at once that this trial material is a slightly different direction than The Gallery of Bleeding Art, less intense perhaps, but far more modern and atmospheric. If you enjoy Sverker Widgren's performance in the amazing Demonical, then you'll find his growling presence here a curious change of pace.

The live cuts span all three of the band's full-lengths, though admittedly The Gallery tracks dominate in quality: "Extinction", "Vertigo", "The One Who Bleeds" and "The Gallery of Bleeding Art" itself. From A Thousand Deaths (2002) they've incorporated "Children of the Mushroom Cloud" and "Under My Skin", and Synergy (2001) is represented through "Suicidal Glory" and "Ashes II". All of these tracks sound clear, consistent, and tautly executed, but if there is one possible drawback to their inclusion here, it's that a track like "The Gallery..." is simply so much more explosive that what the band seem to be writing now. To place it back to back with the more illicit, ambient futurism of the studio material seems akin to shooting oneself in the proverbial foot, but hopefully fans can look beyond this and appreciate the differences.

As for the Deserts of Desolation EP, it's pretty rough. The band's compositional talent was set in place even this early in their career, but the production is shoddy, particularly the fuzzed out guitars. The vocals feel more like a snarled caricature of their later representation, but there are clearly some excellent riffs being carved through "Guidance of Sin" and "Deserts", perhaps less so in the more progressive course of "The Dreaming Dead". All told, this is the least entertaining sequence on the disc, but for most of the band's fans, who likely don't have a legitimate physical copy of the Y2K-spawned EP itself, it's a chance for completion (though the Synergy version of "Guidance of Sin" is superior to this one).

Ultimately, Ars Vitae is intended for the band's established audience, but it certainly has a broader appeal for fans of melodic, introspective death metal. It's a good companion piece for The Gallery of Bleeding Art, but if this is your first exposure, head straight for that. As a compilation, this offers a window to where the band is going, and a glimpse of where they've been, without resorting to redundant studio tracks from the three prior full-lengths. Sure, they might have tacked on an additional demo or two, but as it stands, this rounds out a considerable 70 minutes of content. The live material is potent and elegant and the new tracks show a lot of promise. Hopefully we won't have to wait much longer for more word from that front.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Bodyfarm - Bodyfarm EP (2010)

Though veterans like Pestilence and Asphyx have regrouped for touring and albums, Hail of Bullets and Sinister persisting in their personal punishment; there has not been a massive influx of younger artists into the Dutch death metal bloodstream. Enter the Bodyfarm, a fresh phalanx of aggressors intent on altering this course, with a decidedly old school approach that leans entirely upon the fundamentals of slower to mid-paced crushing momentum. It's obvious that Bolt Thrower, Asphyx and Hail of Bullets are comparisons here, especially the excellent production values of this debut EP, but I'd also draw a parallel to the earlier albums of Swedish Hypocrisy, due to the stripped down songwriting values.

As the style is wholly reliant on pummeling primacy and monstrous grooves, there's not really an enormous level of innovation to what the Dutchmen are playing. "Slaves of War" left the biggest impression on me with the ascending thrash mutes woven into the double bass and the forceful hardcore surge of the bridge, but there wasn't a lot of distinction in the writing. "Heartraped" accelerates into some of the fastest material on the EP, numerous blasted rhythms offset with grooves, most notably the Bolt Thrower swerve at about 2:40; "Final Redemption" concocts an elixir of lumbering breakdowns and squeals, while "Bodyfarm" itself escalates from a belligerent tension to another of the band's scarce bursts of speed/lead. The whole shebang is led off with a martial synthesizer intro that suitably foreshadows the ominous battlefields to follow.

Naturally, there is a substantial audience for this sort of authentic, early 90s fare, a hybrid of War Master or The IVth Crusade with Penetralia or Osculum Obscenum, and to that extent, Bodyfarm does not prove a disappointment. The mix benefits from a massive, brutal clarity that should shake down any set of speakers like the presence of mobile artillery. Unfortunately, these strengths are counterbalanced by a noted lack of sticking power in the guitar notation. The EP does well to peak your interest through its intro, and the walls of tone deliver a satisfactory environment of throughput, but the riffs are not highly titillating, nor do the competent grunts possess the same ruthless character of, say, a Martin van Drunen. Bodyfarm is not something that proves memorable after a few spins.

That said, if you're a proponent for such yesteryear's sincerity, this group does not offend. They certainly sound the part, if nothing else. A few more tours of duty, some catchier guitars to draw the ear deeper into the concussion, and these Dutch could become real contenders.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Monday, April 25, 2011

Morbid Angel - Laibach Remixes EP (1994)

Within their 30+ years of existence, Slovenian industrial/electro act Laibach has covered, remixed and deconstructed a wealth of material from acts the world wide; from classics acts like the Beatles to more extreme and obscure fare. Considering Morbid Angel's leaning towards experimentation throughout the mid 90s and beyond, and the transition of industrial and electronica from the club and cult scenes to the mainstream, it makes a lot of sense for the two to collaborate, even if that union was limited to a pair of remixes. The Laibach Remixes EP provides a simple equation: lift two tracks from a band's most recent studio album (Covenant), then sample and mutate them to evoke a decidedly dissimilar atmosphere.

Now, the inclusion of the originals ("God of Emptiness" and "Sworn to the Black") is rather useless if you've already acquired the full-length and absorbed the material, but here they are not inconvenient as a 'control group' for what Laibach are attempting. Surprisingly, the remixes are not major attempts to re-structure the tracks, only to filter them through clanging dystopian landscapes. Within "Sworn to the Black", this is achieved through the mere incorporation of pipe like percussion and reverb to the original. It's not a huge difference, really, but I do rather enjoy this subtle twist, and in fact I prefer it to the original. What they've done with the other piece, "Gods of Emptiness" is much more substantial and impressive, tweaking not only the drums but also the vocals and adding a choppy, mechanical ambivalence. Vincent is more drawn out and deepened here, and the result is something more creepy than the original, though perhaps not entertaining for very long (I would have liked to hear more variation and alteration).

The biggest issue with the EP is simply that there is not much to it at all. It's a positive that the Slovenians did not make a bad techno mockery out of the material like you'd find on the Fear Factory remix album Remanufacture, but there's not a hell of a lot here to justify the product. Had this been a half decade later, these tracks might have just been released to the internet for the fans of both bands to peruse. I kind of dig the cover and the concept behind this, not to mention both bands involved, but the scarcity of content is crippling unless you're a collector who simply doesn't care about anything more than acquisition of the product itself. Also, perhaps a bit more could have been attempted by Laibach to draw the material more into their own realm of manipulations, rather than playing it so safe. Curious but easily avoidable.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Brutality - When the Sky Turns Black (1994)

After taking a sizable stride forward with Screams of Anguish, the unsung Brutality would do it all again the following year through When the Sky Turns Black, their second album for Nuclear Blast. Anyone familiar with the debut will recognize many of the same strengths: a clear and powerful Morrisound mix courtesy of Jim Morris, tightly executed musicianship on par with most of the Florida peers, forceful songwriting cognizant of fluctuating dynamics. If there was one minor evolution of note, it seemed that Brutality had become more focused on the incorporation of melody directly into their hammering rhythms and tremolo guitar lines. I'm still drawn to comparisons of UK bands Benediction and Bolt Thrower, but these are due in part to the gruff and level gutturals.

When the Sky Turns Black is inaugurated with the title track, rolling double bass rhythms like concrete pylons beneath the scintillating dual melodies, soon to lurch into a grooving tumult with miniature, spliced leads. It's not immediately catchy, but it picks up intensity around 1:15 when the double bass returns to accompany a more carnal, disgusting riff. "Race Defects" uses an airy, clean guitar passage before its own alternating blast/grooves commence, moving at the same relative pace as the first track. Like Screams of Anguish, there are a couple of moderately brief instrumental passages here in "Awakening" and "Esoteric", both tasteful and driven by the clean, acoustic guitar tones. They've also included a cover of Black Sabbath's "Electric Funeral", which it turns out is pretty damn effective as a death/doom hybrid, but most of my favorite tracks here come later on the recording: the staggering, oft bursting "Foul Lair", the meaty fortitude of "Artistic Butchery", or the pulverizing climax "Shrine of the Master".

With all of the keys to success here, Brutality should have broken out far beyond their regional association, but this album ultimately wound up in the same seat of obscurity in which its elder sibling had planted its considerable posterior. Seriously, not many death metal records of the day possessed a production standard this high, and it has retained its polish through the years. If I'm comparing it to Screams of Anguish, then I'd have to place this slightly beyond the debut. There are still some barriers restraining it from the status of a masterpiece, primarily the fact that the majority of its guitar riffs are not individually distinct or masterful enough to scale that height, and the vocals don't have a ton of character to them. However, in every other department, this band soared. Memorable, iconic cover art, good lyrics, potent musicianship, varied songwriting that never numbs the listener. It's well worth the expense to add this to your CD collection.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (people lay wasted, condemned)

Vomitory - Opus Mortis VIII (2011)

It must be great to be Vomitory, doing pretty much the same thing year in and year out and managing somehow never to date yourself or sink into irrelevance. Of course, this is pure Swedish death metal of the old 90s variety, a sub-genre which is currently experiencing an indisputable overload of new talents and stinkers, yet these specific gentlemen are one of the originals, even if their debut arrived later than their more infamous peers (Raped in Their Own Blood, 1996). Opus Mortis VIII is yet another puerile pummeling in the vein of Dismember, Entombed, and so forth, with that added fresh paint of blood and velocity that they have become synonymous with, and while I can't cite it as one of their strongest, it delivers at least the neck wrenching you expect.

That said, it took a few tracks here before I jumped on board the entrails express. "Regorge in the Morgue" is a standard, fist pumping d-beat with acceleration into blasted territory, and the ensuing "Bloodstained" a mid-paced, effective blunt instrument, but not until "They Will Burn" did I find myself back in the saddle. A hooky thrasher with lower pitched growls than usual, almost like a mixture of mid to late 80s Slayer and old Unleashed. "The Dead Awaken" follows suit with another great thrash riff bisected with old school, writhing death. Beyond this chunk of carnage, the material becomes a bit less balanced in quality. "Hate in a Time of War" seems to offer something different through its tranquil, clean guitar into, but the thick grooves are not so exciting. "Torturous Ingenious" and "Forever Damned" tear shit up as if they were outtakes from the band's unsung classics like Revelation Nausea or Carnage Euphoria; "Shrouded in Darkness" has a classic Morbid Angel lurch to it which is sweet; yet others like "Requiem for the Fallen" and "Combat Psychosis" offer about one decent riff and not much else.

Opus Mortis VIII does suffer a little from the been there, done that syndrome, especially since its artisans have delivered far more punishing, diabolic efforts in the past, but its by no means a bad album for those dead set on the genre's purist virtues. Like any satisfactory horror film, you will not experience any skimping of the gore elements, nor any reduction in the band's violent propulsion. However, there are precious few riffs here that make you want to strap a lawnmower to your chest and tunnel through the dead OR the living, and it's unlikely that this will offer an increased appeal beyond the core audience with cannibalistic, unswerving loyalty. If you are seeking out Vomitory for the first time, then I'd much more recommend you experience the beautiful atrocities that are Revelation Nausea and Primal Massacre. If not, then this is another day at the butcher block. Meat in steady supply for all carnivores, but you must supply your own seasoning.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Pestilence - Doctrine (2011)

Resurrection Macabre was easily one of the more divisive of the death metal 'comeback' albums in the past decade, with one half of the listener base decrying it as a cash-in or mindless afterthought, or harboring ill will towards various questionable statements made by Patrick Mameli during the band's long hiatus; the other praising its mesh of ingredients from the band's first three, legendary full-lengths. I happened to fall deep in the latter category, and immune to the exaggerated hyperbole of the former. I found the album immensely enjoyable and am still spinning it in a regular rotation today, despite a few minor flaws (semblance to a few Testimony of the Ancients tracks, excess if intentional repetition of the track titles in the lyrics).

Besides, if you gauge the reality that Resurrection Macabre and its ensuing tour earned barely enough to cover the bands production fees and travel expenses, the implication that it was some sort of cheap cash-in is entirely laughable. As for Mameli's unfortunate statements...if I based my metal listening choices on the irrational and emotional outbursts and tongue slips of musicians involved, my play list would be carved down to like a half dozen bands. Was the comeback as remarkable as the band's Martin van Drunen-fronted fare? Not on your life. But as a strangely mechanical contortion of the band's hypnotic rhythmic sensibility, high production values and great riffs and vocals, it was about all I could have hoped for as a long time fan of all their prior full-lengths (yes, even Spheres).

Two years later, and we've got Doctrine, the sixth Pestilence effort, and one which follows rather closely in the footsteps of its direct predecessor. In fact, this is the least evolutionary or retro-evolutionary step in the band's career. Like Resurrection Macabre, the focus is on primal, punctual palm mute patterns ("Sinister", "Salvation") interspersed with eerie octave chords ("Amgod", "Malignant"), sparsely erupting into more frenetic tech thrashing fare ("Doctrine", "Confusion"). A number of curious aesthetic choices were made here like the simple, almost unanimously one-word titles redolent of their interludes on Testimony or the furthered inclination towards the repetition of the choruses, which admittedly grows annoying in the closing moment of "Sinister". Patrick Mameli has actually claimed a wider emotional range than the past three albums, the growls scaling and descending intense heights, even displaying an unexpected ability to scream at higher elevation, and the technical performances, especially of the rhythm section (Jeroen Paul Thesseling and Yuma Van Eekelen) are incredibly tight.

The band does actually reach back into their jazzy guitar synthesis here. Not to the extent of Spheres, but there's no doubt that the bridge of "Salvation" is intended as more than a wink and a nod to prior Pestilence experimentation. This is not unwelcome, as it adds a bit more depth than the largely muted rhythms of the verses are able to manifest alone. Unfortunately, if I were to compare this to any of their older works (even Resurrection Macabre), the songs just don't add up. They're interesting, and grow even more effective through a few listens to the album, but I constantly felt myself awaiting hooks that seemed to hover over the precipice of possibility and then never manifest into the actual songs. Whereas songs like "Horror Detox", "Devouring Frenzy" and "Hate Suicide" were both immediately catchy and enduring, there are too few here that stride the same path of quality. Thus, the better tracks throughout Doctrine are those that exhibit the most dynamic range, escaping the subdued monotony and primacy of the bludgeon grooves that comprise most of the experience.

There is still much going for Pestilence, and I for one am glad they are still 'going', but I can't sugarcoat the recognition that this is their least impressive effort to date. Fans of modern death or thrash metal with jazz and progressive influences, still moored in brutal breakdowns, with slick production values and talented musicians capable of restraint, will certainly want to check this out. Think a mix of Testimony of the Ancients, Destroy Erase Improve era Meshuggah or Fredrik Thordendal's Special Defects, and you're in the right ballpark. But in lieu of this Dutch staple's mighty legacy, I expected a lot more, especially after the the 2009 comeback already served as their midlife crisis management, finely fusing their past ingredients into a fun pummeling. Doctrine seems more of a sidereal glance than a stride in any direction, but its not without a few exceptional hints of headbanging mirth.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Obituary - Don't Care EP (1994)

The Don't Care EP is just another of those padded corporate pocket liners that has been manifest simply to direct currency into the label and (hopefully) the band itself. Released a few months before the band's heavily groove-oriented World Demise, it features two tracks from the full-length and one that you wouldn't find until the 1998 re-issue, which arguably is the only piece of value to anyone hunting for this. Even the cover to Don't Care is incredibly lazy, just a zoom on the smokestacks present on the full-length's facade, filtered through a different color palette. If anyone had given a fuck about this EP, they might have restricted the redundant content to just the title track, then peppered in a few extra live tunes, videos, and more non-album, unreleased material, but it's nothing but a teaser.

The central piece is of course "Don't Care", in which we get the first look at the new Obituary. Having found The End Complete to be a ruddy and forgettable rehash of their great sophomore Cause of Death, I had no idea what to expect, so I was rather pleasantly surprised by the huge grooves the band set forth. The lyrics seem pedestrian on the surface, but there is more to them, and John Tardy's growling charisma fits the mold well, and the primal leads work really well over the bridge. The tune also plays it short, only around 3 minutes, and its probably the band's most 'accessible' yet. "Solid State" is the other album track, a pumping hardcore groove built for the flexing of violent limbs, but despite its swagger, it soon becomes incredibly repetitive, and the gimped, lazy mosh breakdown near the close of the bridge is incredibly weak.

"Killing Victims Found", the non-album bonus, is very similar. It takes an effective, leaning groove and then alternates it with the massive, stock Obituary wall of chords and belligerent, almost tribal drums. Definitely carries the huge Hellhammer/Celtic Frost tone and influence that we'd all come to expect from the Floridians, and does so rather well. I don't love the song, it suffers from the same sort of repetition for diminishing returns that "Solid State" commits, but it is admittedly the best thing about this EP. Unfortunately, the track is included with the reissue, rendering Don't Care completely useless in retrospect. And in all honesty, anyone with even a half-canny suspicion would have realized this was just as worthless as nearly any CD single or promotional EP in those times. Do yourself a favor, if you're interested band's mid-90s style, save the money on this and make a direct line for World Demise or Back From the Dead. I can't promise either is a good album, but certainly they are more cost effective.

Verdict: Fail [2.25/10]
(pitfalls twisted)

Obituary - World Demise (1994)

By the time World Demise rolled around, the audience for extreme metal had already begun to change far and wide. A lot more punk and hardcore kids were attending the shows, in my region even making up the bulk of any death or thrash gig attendance, and it only makes sense that bands would begin to adapt. If you'd been to a performance by this band in the mid to late 90s in the States, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Now, I'm not accusing Obituary of some chameleon strategy, and a band cannot necessarily choose its audience (nor should they), but there can be no dispute that the band was beginning to incorporate an increasing amount of heavier grooves into their songs, perfectly suited to the mosh tastes of a wider fan base seeking the release of youthful testosterone (or estrogen) over the endurance of lasting, legendary music.

On the one hand, World Demise creatively channels the underlying themes of their classics Slowly We Rot and Cause of Death into an urban bricklaying force, with a near excess of manly swagger. We had already been inundated with the hilarious "Don't Care" from the EP of the same name earlier in the year, but here it sits atop its proper throne of primal, driving grooves and crude but effective chorus. John Tardy sounds quite good here, as he does on the concrete crushing of the title track, another of the clear favorites here for the relationship of the descending chugs and resonant growling; and a great pure old school, creepy death bridge. Other pieces of note include the almost hypnotic sway of "Lost", the warlike percussion of "Redefine", and of course "Final Thoughts", with the hugest and most menacing groove on the entire album. Most of these do suffer from a faint reek of useless repetition, and in most cases :30 seconds could have been snipped to greater effect, but they're all fun enough songs that the album was almost instantaneously more memorable than its dull predecessor The End Complete.

On the other, I really would have liked more fast material on this album. It's all too rare that the band will surge into one of their morbid and wild, frenetic scenarios, like the bridge to "Solid State" and its winding, deceptively sloppy lead sequence. There are some decent old school rhythms here that hearken back to the heyday of Xecutioner and Death ("Set in Stone", etc), but not enough. A lot of 'one and done' tracks choke off the album's efficiency: "Burned In", "Paralyzing", "Kill for Me", "Boiling Point" are not incompetent, but they suffer from familiar vocals patterns and tempos that have already been done better (by this very same band). As an EP with 6-7 songs, this would have been all I could hope for, but the 51 minutes of its entirety are swollen with redundant ideas and a decided lack of restraint.

Scott Burns had a hand in the recording here, and it's another success for him, ably capturing the band's broad Hellhammer guitar tone and vocal dynamics. Despite the simplicity of the song titles (not a first for Obituary), the minimalist lyrics are rather poignant, a disjointed poetry, though there is no question the band was aiming for a more socially conscious subject matter than their past albums. The cover art is probably the worst of the band's career (even suckier than some of their post-hiatus flops), but it too reflects this shift towards matters of importance with impunity. All told, World Demise is far from the worst of Obituary's full-length excursions, but neither is it consistently engaging. A scant few tracks belong among the band's career highlights, and the rest snuggle comfortably into oblivion.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (the shocked earth groans)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Forgotten Tomb - Under Saturn Retrograde (2011)

Based on the strength of their first three albums (Songs to Leave, Springtime Depression and Love's Burial Ground), I would have felt no hesitation in naming Forgotten Tomb my all time favorite metal act from Italy. Unfortunately, their following, fourth effort Negative Megalomania sought to modernize the band's languishing, melodic black metal sensibility, and the change was simply not all welcome. It was by no means a poor full-length, but seemed to me to lack all of the puerile, ghastly architecture of its forebears. The band has since taken some time off, but rather than return to their foreboding, grim roots, their latest Under Saturn Retrograde seems to follow in the same motions as its direct predecessor, a clean and tidy excursion into the driving, melodic fundamentals wrought by acts Agalloch, Katatonia and Opeth.

Not that this is necessarily a bad move, but I rather miss the more vicious, snarling vocals and demented, depressive atmosphere so latent in Songs to Leave or Springtime Depression. This album often feels like its dragging its feet, despite the obvious propulsion in production standards that it has over their formative releases. Each of the nine tracks is graced with at least 1-2 riffs that provoke atmosphere, but they are set against a mundane backdrop of straight doom rock guitars ("Shutter") or Gothic/black drawl ("Joyless"). There are some shining, eerie components to "Reject Existence", "Spectres Over Venice" and the bloated "You Can't Kill Who's Already Dead", and at least for those last two I felt like a time capsule had opened on the band's past, but then you've got the rather vapid cover of The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog", or the tranquil clamor of "Under Saturn Retrograde Part II" that don't feel as if they have much to contribute to the suicidal terror so inherent in the first three albums.

Ultimately I found this even less effective than Negative Megalomania, but I wouldn't say its a total waste of time. There are good ideas present, or at least the shadows of such ideas, and the mix of the album is quite astoundingly bold and bright, almost in tandem with the band reaching their next stage of accessibility. If you're into primal driving Gothic death or black metal, or the depressive black acts who risk using higher audio standards (Lifelover, Apati, etc) then there is a likely some appeal to this. A handful of riffs stand out, and the album is undeniable moody (and not in a 'good' mood); but I felt none of the same cavernous convulsions of agony that made me want to slit wrists and paint the walls and sky with my drained life force.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Brutality - Screams of Anguish (1993)

Screams of Anguish marked an excellent transition for one of the more unsung acts in the formative Florida death scene. It might have taken seven years since the band's creation to arrive, but it stands far above the demos and EPs that the band had previously produced, eschewing their rugged thrash/grind crossover roots entirely for an onslaught of well written, immaculately produced death metal that integrates both atmosphere and variation into a punishing palette. Perhaps the worst you could say for Brutality was that by 1993 standards, they were not wholly original, drawing on elements from both their direct American peers and overseas (Bolt Thrower), but the music has this incredible maturity to it which absolutely bears distinction among the better known Florida bands like Morbid Angel, Deicide, Death, and so forth. In fact, Screams of Anguish is the best death metal album from this particular scene and year, no mean feat when up against such legends.

"These Walls Shall Be Your Grave" inaugurates the album with a straight, Morbid Angel style blast sauced in glittering, manic micro-leads; but soon grinds down to an atmospheric verse of melodic death/doom, returning to Altars of Madness levels of fury in the bridge. Scott Reigel's vocals here are quite enormous, like a hybrid of Karl Willetts and Glen Benton's growling affixed forcefully to the hammering bass drums and manic riffs. "Ceremonial Unearthing" combines a lot of the same influences as the first track, but then we're in for our first surprise: the synthesized choir and acoustic guitar piece "Sympathy", totally unexpected but quite delicious despite its simplicity. "Septicemic Plague" lays out a wall of huge chords, cystic leads spun off into their own dimension of excess, before the excellent battery of the bridge, muted and melodic. Most of the album's remainder is equivalent in quality, with standouts coming in the rampant "Cryptorium" and epic "Cries of the Forsaken". There's one more ambient interlude, "Spirit World", which again fuses synthesized swells (of haunting winds) and clean guitars; and the album is closed with a reworking of "Spawned Illusion" from the Sadistic EP, and it sounds stunning here.

Brutality had quite a lot going for them, and alongside their statesmen Resurrection they would represent some of the best pure death metal on the earlier Nuclear Blast roster. Here was a band that could cycle through faster and slower material without ever dipping in quality, and restrain their obvious musical ability whenever it did not suit the mood they were creating. The debut was recorded and mixed by Jim Morris at Morrisound, undoubtedly some of the most satisfying audio from that period, with loud and clean, crushing guitar tones, empowered drums, a relatively thick bass presence and dour, conquering gutturals. There is next to no chance of becoming exhausted or bored with this record due to the excellent structure and constant in tempos, and the atmospheric tracks are placed at just the right joints to hint at so much more: a further dimension of possibility. The lyrics are well written if not impressive. Perhaps the riffs are not individually compelling, and the band is rehashing the dynamics of bands like Deicide, Malevolent Creation, Morbid Angel, etc, but these are the only strikes against a potent and substantial debut which is still worth experiencing almost 20 years later.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]
(choking on man's corruption)

Killing Addiction - Omega Factor (1993)

The 1991 7" EP Necrosphere showed genuine promise, some of the most weighted, atmospheric US death outside of Pennsylvania's mighty Incantation, but it was hindered by terrible production. Still, the incredibly ghoulish guttural vocals, searing riff tumult and spacey synthesizer segues exhibited something we hadn't heard much of back in those days. When it came time for the band's proper debut, they were snagged up by JL America, a fledgling label carving their mark through the US underground with releases by Acheron, Morpheus Descends, and others, not to mention their European licensing of titles like Beherit's The Oath of Black Blood. What's even better, though, is that Killing Addiction represented a real second wave of Florida death, one nearly as crushing and compelling as its flagship generation, with a whole new world of disgust in store for the audience.

Unfortunately, Omega Factor does not fully deliver on all of this potential, and thus the band was never able to create large waves about itself. There are several admirable components on the debut: killer sci-fi/horror cover artwork, great logo, solid and intelligent lyrical expression, and most of us, utter brutality. But these qualities are sadly counterbalanced by a still lacking production and a dearth of truly memorable riffs. Killing Addiction trawls along to bludgeon you with crushing focus, while interspersing more technical, surgical guitars through the walls of slamming grooves, but the patterns never quite manifest into anything more than mosh fervor. "Nothing Remains", "Equating the Trinity" and "Altered at Birth" all have their share of old school aggression, taut performances and Pat Bailey's frightening, scrawled out growls, but there are no individual tricks that one can really point out as exemplary or lasting.

A few of the Necrosphere tracks are re-recorded here: the titular "Necrosphere", which has a supreme lead sequence, and the longer "Impaled". But both lack the same devious sci-fi cheese that they once adorned, and I was actually depressed that this aesthetic was not woven through the whole album, else we might have been presented with a more grisly alternative to fellow Floridians Nocturnus. Omega Factor is far more straightforward, and while that's not a bad thing in of itself, it just doesn't stand out. Also, while the mix is arguably superior to the EP, it still sounds rather amateur and scraped together. The drums often feel clunky, and the guitars tone is almost too overdriven, too crunchy if you could believe that. Having said this, it's still a good enough record to track down if you're hellbent on hunting old school gems that you might have missed. Memorable it is not; musically it's of a one-track mind, but it's a fun preamble to the entire atmospheric, drudging death wave currently trending, and brutal enough to sate the more cannibalistic underground mutants who laud the genre.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]
(for science the children must die)

Cynic - Focus (1993)

Cynic has developed quite a legacy despite the relative sparsity of their collective output. Part of this is the involvement of constituent members in other legendary projects like Death, but much of the credit falls squarely upon the shoulders of the debut Focus. If any album was to be considered an anomaly among the burgeoning death metal scene of the early 90s, it was this one. The band had eschewed the sheer technical thrash of their earlier demos to evolve into an entity the likes which we had simply never heard. Progression had not been unheard of by this time: bands like Pestilence, Atheist and Death were clearly exploring and expanding the boundaries of the genre's definition, grafting fluctuations of form into the marrow of their compositions. But for Cynic, thinking outside the box was not some surreal infusion developed over a number of official releases: it had already been molded into their vertebrae by the time Roadrunner put this album out.

Describing the music here is almost as much a challenge as it was to first listen to it upon release. Highly technical, meandering melodic guitar lines are set in a latticework of talented jazz and rock drumming, with abundant leads set off the primary rhythmic patterns almost as tangents to the central emotions. Instead of simply growling, which might normally have sufficed, guitarist and front man has incorporated a robotic vocal filter which casts an otherworldly, cybernetic gloss over the sheen of the hectic instrumentation. The level of proficiency here is staggering. Cynic made progressive-peak Death sound like rank amateur schoolchildren, and all without the expense of losing strong songwriting values. Copious amounts of guitar synthesizer were incorporated (akin to Pestilence on their Spheres album), but most impressive is the use of the Chapman Stick. In fact, Sean Malone is the backbone of this entire recording. At times I feel like I could just crank down the guitars, vocals and percussion and just listen to his bass playing, a stunning evocation of adventurous fusion that was unrivaled at this time.

The intelligence of Focus is not only found in the music, but in the conceptual groundwork for the lyrics. Applied mythology, astrophysics, and philosophy are woven into its considerable curves, and no expense is spared in creating an ambient awning that suits each thematic extraction. "Veil of Maya" dawns with the mechanical grace of the vocals above a deeper, clean voice and busily percolated bass lines, before the chorus and guttural counterbalance arrive over a stolid miasma of precision thrashing. It's an incredibly uplifting piece, comparable to what Atheist had built on Unquestionable Presence, but more in depth. "Celestial Voyage" is perhaps best known for that snaking, incredulous opening guitar streak, but its subdued, jazzy verses are brilliant as they explode against the metallic current like stars going supernova, witness through the safety of a vast telescope, but no less beautiful. "The Eagle Nature" is marginally more choppy, with the very Death-like guitar tone cutting through it, think of it as a more advanced thesis on what Chuck was trying to achieve through Human. Love those descending vocals around :30.

Then comes "Sentiment" with its pumping bass-lines and wondrous jungle of tribal percussion and sailing, effects-driven vocals. Mid-ranged female vocals are incorporated to create a terse narrative to the musical escalation, and I just love the darkening climax around 1:30. "Uroboric Forms" is again quite similar to the material Reinert and Masvidal were performing on Human, but more intense and memorable, with further female presence, this time ethereal. However, my favorite song here might just be "I'm But a Wave to..." and its scintillating, terrifying architecture of warped synthesizers and cyclic dissonance. I wasn't so compelled by the song "How Could I": it's fascinating, but the individual melodies did not stand out among the album as a whole. As for the instrumental "Textures", it's basically a volcanic orgasm of aural conjecture, and pretty much exactly how you want to pace such a track when it doesn't have the lyrics to back it: sine waves of lucid pleasure exploding into cautious acrobatics, and then back again...

I have noted elsewhere that Brutality's unexpected Screams of Anguish was the best of the Florida death works of 1993, but Focus has one up on even that cult classic, because it simply transcends the entire genre, becomes something OTHER. Something at once beautiful and alien. There are times when I don't love the highly processed production (a similar hurdle that albums like Spheres and Symbolic also face), but Scott Burns manages not to completely cock this up. I can only imagine the guy's face when Cynic presented the material to him. How the fuck am I going to handle THIS one? That he manages to do so without losing many of the myriad nuances is a credit to his ability, though I'd advise that anyone interested lean towards the Roadrunner remaster from 2004 which sounds an inkling better. Focus is not at all a perfect offering because at times it feels as if there is almost too much happening, and one of the tunes seems to trail the rest in quality, but really there was nothing else like it and there hasn't been since...

Hell, this is such an intimidating exhibition of foresight that Cynic themselves would not deign to follow it up for quite some time. I can imagine nigh on endless nights of poring over reams of written material, hurtling it all to the trash bin on accounts of not being good enough. A lot of pensive drinking, or moving on to other projects in hopes that the time apart would somehow surpass what the band started. Ironically enough, they managed that exact feat 15 years later with Traced in Air, a revelatory if more tranquil experience which benefits from far superior and rounded production standards, though a bit of a 'grower'. Alas, the albums are as different as they are the same, and I'm happy to own and experience both on a regular basis: but Focus is the more historically potent, because it helped force open a passage that only the most daring would follow.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (balance every joy with a grief)