Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lizzy Borden - Master of Disguise (1989)

With such a towering achievement as Visual Lies underfoot, one that was simply unlikely to be reproduced or bettered by this particular group, it made a whole lot of sense to me that Lizzy Borden would try something different the next time, something even more ambitious. Enter Master of Disguise, a formidable and fulfilling work which is the most accessible of their career. The straight up melodic metal brilliance of the 1987 gem was subsumed into a more palatable, 'mainstream' sound involving simpler guitar riffs and a healthy dosage of rock opera orchestration which rears its head skillfully through a number of the tracks, and the result creates a healthy level of variation which is like no other album in their history.

To some degree, I can see that a certain subset of Lizzy Borden's audience might have found this record more or less a 'sellout' if compared to the more raucous early work like Love You to Pieces. It's not a sentiment I can completely disagree with. Clearly the Californians were reaching out to a broader cross section of rock fan with this statement, tightening up the production values of the music and reining in the riffs and vocals into an admittedly dryer delivery. But Master of Disguise is quality through and through, almost every song on the roster distinct and memorable from its neighbors (with just a few exceptions deeper on the bench). What's more, I view this as more of a 'fantasy' coming to fruition for the band members: who the fuck wouldn't want to work with an orchestra if given the choice? The fact that Lizzy Borden is able to adapt this symphonic element into the music without transforming the core of who they were is a testament to the restraint on this thing.

But the record is special for more than just this added instrumentation, or for having easier, catchier hooks than its predecessors. It's a deeply personal album which covers a lot of subject matter that just about anyone could relate to. An 'everyman' Operation: Mindcrime, if you will, which explores themes of love, sin, aging, and even the band's own status on the scales of history and rock stardom (or lack thereof), with a few nods to film and horror keeping in line with previous offerings. You can really feel the front man/first person's point of view here, his sorrow and wonder. The lyrics are mature, poignant and simple to browse, and the hooks throughout seem to mirror this intention. It reminds me a little of another album that was released in the same year, Savatage's Gutter Ballet, which had a similar emotional authenticity to it, even if certain components like the pianos, guitars and vocals were quite different.

Remarkably, the group had brought on two new guitarists here in David Michael Philips (of Icon and numerous other groups in the 80s) and Ronnie Jude. Perhaps their more hard rocking orientation lent itself to the general accessibility of the riffing, but to be honest I'm not sure that a more complex, wanking approach would have necessarily worked out in these songs anyway. Most of the rhythms here are simple, lightly muted patterns, cruise control for standard heavy metal in the trad, NWOBHM tradition; or in the more symphonic/ballad arrangements, like "One False Move" or the piano driven "Never Too Young", they just keep their cool with minimal presence in the notes and appropriately layered power chords. The leads woven throughout the songs aren't incredibly showy, they simply balance a bluesy, burning foundation with some more advanced dexterity and tapping, and it's more than enough.

As for the orchestra, it's used both in the more intense pieces like the thoroughly rocking "Psychodrama" where it creates a sort of 'haunted castle' aesthetic in the intro and then builds to a massive crescendo in the bridge; and the more subdued, moody spaces like "One False Move". Never intrusive, never even bordering on overwhelming the rock instruments, and tastefully implemented by composer William Kidd and his players. I even enjoy the use of the funky horns in the phone sex anthem "Love is a Crime", which might seem a little dated (like Extreme's sophomore Pornograffiti), but really help to make that chorus bad ass, beautiful and swaggering.

As for Lizzy himself, I can think of no other album in the group's history which allowed him so much space to breathe and let his intonation form each line, merely for the complacency of the riffing. That's not to say that I thought he was catchier here than on Visual Lies, but he runs up and down his range in tracks like "Waiting in the Wings" and "Never Too Young", proving he had what it takes to sing in a number of genres. You still experience the requisite, wailing fragility in his timbre, but he naturally had a huge part in the album's creation and he does not dispose of any opportunity to shine here. There were a few tunes here whose choruses did wax redundant: "Roll Over and Play Dead" seems a little close to "Be One of Us" and "Psychodrama", and there were already enough peaceful power ballad sorts that the acoustic "Under the Rose" might have been omitted.

Closer "We Got the Power" is the worst of the songs, though ,with ease. The hard rock riffs seem all too standard, without any sticking to the ear, and though the horns return, I didn't care for the vocals or the truly cliche title/chorus. Not that Master of Disguise is a particularly innovative or poetically charged record, but it feels like 45 minutes of brilliance capped off with a filler trilogy that reeks of 'B-side' material. Even despite the diminishing returns that fill out the near hour of material, though, Master of Disguise is a triumph, and the structure and joyous melodic eruptions through tunes like "Phantoms", "Psychodrama" and the title track are simply unforgettable. This is still a record I return to very often, and though it doesn't match the flawlessness of its predecessor, it deserved far, far more fucking attention than it ever received, even in such a masterful era as the late 80s.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10] (a masquerade of thunder)

Lizzy Borden - Appointment With Death (2007)

With the band reformed, and Deal With the Devil was released, Lizzy Borden had begun to gig again, and update its 'look' from the frizzy and ridiculous glam overtures of the 80s to a more face painted, menacing variety (still heavy on the U S of A colors) that felt somewhat current. But unfortunately the band's Mk. II momentum was ground to a halt when Alex Nelson, the band's live guitarist who appeared on a number of the 80s recordings like Menace to Society and The Murderess Metal Road Show, was lost to a car accident in 2004. Understandably, the tragedy wore the band's resolve thin, and they dissembled for a few years before inevitably deciding to press on. So, once more, we had a more than reasonable reason for a gap between studio material, but I'm happy to report that, when Lizzy finally released Appointment With Death along with axe slinger Ira Black (who played in Heathen and Vicious Rumors for a few years), it proved worth the wait.

No, this is not greatness the likes of which I attribute to a Visual Lies or Master of Disguise, but at least this time out, the Californian quartet wasn't out to fuck around and dip their toes into other pastures, a procedure which muddled and infected a sizable chunk of Deal With the Devil. This is arguably one of the heavier records, along with Menace to Society, but it's also incredibly consistent. Lizzy himself offers what might be the most professional and seasoned vocal performance of his entire career, his inflection textured and multi tracked to a crystalline clarity that sacrifices none of his youthful range, but perhaps a bit of the wavering, shrill timbre he once dealt out in the formative years of the band. Like the previous record, there were a number of guest musicians involved in this, particularly the lead guitars and keyboards; only more diversified, with bigger names like George Lynch (Dokken), Dave Meniketti (Y&T), Erik Rutan (Hate Eternal, Morbid Angel) and Corey Beaulieu (Trivium) all contributing seamlessly to the overall style and sound.

Most importantly, though, this is a fairly inspired crop of songs that would have formed a superior natural continuity than did Deal With the Devil, had it been released in, say, 1992 or 93 as the band's fifth full-length. They definitely returned to more of that post-Maiden/Omen melodic riffing that characterized their tracks in the 80s, and many of the vocal lines are kept fresh and memorable, especially in tunes like "The Death of Love" or "Appointment With Death" itself. Choppy, harried dual guitar melodies cut through "Tomorrow Never Comes", and I love the lower, brooding melodies that inaugurate "Somthin' Crawlin'". I realize it probably had a lot to do with the guests, but the leads throughout the record are well-paced and passionate, especially in the song "Under Your Skin". The band even breaks out a series of successful, heavier grooves to support "Bloody Tears" without coming off trite, cheesy or tough guy in that treacherous Pantera aesthetic.

There are still a few tracks that don't hold up for me as well as others, like "Live Forever", "Perfect World (I Don't Wanna Live") or the acoustic bonus rendition of "Tomorrow Never Comes", which I like considerably less than the electric version, but I'd say that in general this album has a solid core of 5-6 pieces well enough conceived to mesh with the band's backlog in their set lists. The production is bright and meticulous, Lizzy stretches himself to a firm, full range of highs and mids, and the guitars are often exquisite. Not enough that I'd recommend this over a Visual Lies or Love You to Pieces for those first visiting the band, nor would I take this over any of the 80s records, really, but it's ample evidence that there's some life left in the old axe murderess. With good fortune and healthy tidings, we won't have to wait another seven years for album #7, but even if we do, I just hope it's as fluent and lively as this.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (strip away the pain)

Lizzy Borden - Deal With the Devil (2000)

Regardless of how much I might have once anticipated a followup to the phenomenal albums Visual Lies and Master of Disguise, Lizzy Borden is most definitely a band I can 'excuse' for sitting out the 90s. They weren't entirely inactive that decade, but their studio streak was silenced and the group did little of anything. The entire glam meets shock rock aesthetic of the 80s had died down, only its elder statesmen forging on. 'Gothic' trailer trash icons like Marilyn Manson and masked nu-metal morons taking the reins over the misdirected youth of America, and let's face it, even without the image, Borden's broth of hard rock and traditional metal aesthetics was not in high demand in a world addicted to grunge, emo, British alt rock, gangsta rap and other trends of the time.

Granted, it was a bit of a shocker that Master of Disguise didn't blow up far wider than it did, especially on an audience that would prove so receptive to something like Guns 'n' Roses' double-album Use Your Illusion or the late 80s Alice Cooper records like Trash, but as always, the overwhelming majority of music fans are so passive and lazy that you need to repeatedly beat them in the face with something before they'll take any notice whatsoever. No MTV, no radio, no major label backing buzz: chances are, you were fucked. Eventually, cult reverence and nostalgia won out, metal once more rose from a banal cultural background and Lizzy Borden returned to their old home Metal Blade for another go at the rodeo. Deal With the Devil featured a fractured lineup, with only Lizzy and drummer Joey Scott Harges returning from the 80s lineup, alongside bassist Marten Andersson who had joined in the early 90s. Joey Vera of Armored Saint and the old bassist Mike Davis did the bass on a number of tunes, while numerous session guitarists provided the rhythm riffing and leads.

Deal With the Devil was the sort of 'reunion' comeback which felt as if half the time the band was just trying to catch up with where they left off (Master of Disguise), but it's not without a few new ideas. Sadly, the new ground being explored was very often an attempt to steer the band into an even more accessible package which might have appealed to hard rock fans in the late 80s/early 90s. Tunes like "(This Ain't) The Summer of Love" or the title track might have well been Motley Crue cuts, some lost Sunset Strip cruise anthem with which to guzzle the whiskey of regret. "Generation Landslide" wouldn't have been out of place on The Cult's Sonic Temple if not for the vocals, and "Believe" fed me some flashbacks to Queensrÿche's post-Mindcrime material like Empire, especially when Borden delivers his lower range vocals somewhat similar to those of Geoff Tate.

There were also a few tunes that tried to go with more of a modern 90s vibe, like the quasi industrial flow of "We Only Come Out at Night" with its brazen, enormous bass groove, or "The World is Mine" its familiar Pulp Fiction biblical quote intro and chanted, repetitive chorus sequence. To be honest, when I heard that Lizzy was coming out with a new record, I half expected it to sound like something out of the Slipknot or Marilyn Manson playbook, because who knows what these veterans had been following in their hiatus? I was honestly relieved that, for at least 50% of the album, it's a straight continuation of the 1987-89 style, with tunes like "Hell is For Heroes" and "Lovin' You is Murder" executed with all the finesse, melody and layered vocal tracking I used to love. I also dug the opener "There Will Be Blood", with a few 'Easter Egg' lyrics recalling "Council for the Cauldron" and "Flesheater" (metal bands love to do this on 'comeback' albums); and the exotic, Middle Eastern-flavored "Zanzibar" which is probably my single favorite here.

I remember experiencing some sense of fulfillment when I purchased this album, that Lizzy Borden hadn't completely fucked up everything that made them great in the first place, but I must admit to some diminishing returns as I have gone back to this occasionally for the past decade. Even at its best, the songs just do not live up to those on the first four full-lengths, and despite the level of variation heels more or less like repairing the links on a broken chain rather than forging it stronger. The lyrics are decent, and he production itself is quite good, with a brazen guitar tone and incredibly well balanced vocals, modern and updated as one would have hoped. Yet in the end, it's difficult to ignore the filler, and outside of a rare bout with "Zanzibar" or maybe "Hell is for Heroes" I don't visit it often. Not a terrible return after a decade of absence, but neither is it impressive.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (you can't ignore the truth)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lizzy Borden - Terror Rising EP (1987)

Even though the frizzy and embarrassing cover photo of Borden creates terror of an entirely different nature than that intended, I can't help but feel that this EP is just another example of how these Californians were a class act among their peers. Many groups in the 80s would release singles and other short form releases with merely a few live cuts, or re-edited songs from albums, or other redundant bonus content, yet the content of Terror Rising is wholly exclusive to it, and for a few bucks a fan was getting something new and different. That's not to say this is 'good', because in fact it's their worse release of the 80s. Fans today have the benefit of being able to get this paired up with the Give 'Em the Axe EP on the 1995 Metal Blade re-issue, which features a mildly less freakish Lizzy gritting his teeth in your general direction. A much better deal, since the earlier songs are higher in quality, but I have yet to upgrade my vinyl copy.

Terror Rising is perhaps best known for its cover of The Tubes' 1976 classic "Don't Touch Me There", which also wound up on the Best of Metal Blade Volume 3 collection that dropped in 1988. You might recall that I was a huge fan of the Lizzy Borden rendition of "Live and Let Die", which was included on their live album as well as Best of Metal Blade Volume 2. God, did Metal Blade love this band (Lizzy originals also kicked off both of those comps), and for good reason. This time, they brought on a special guest, Betsy Weiss of label mates Bitch, to perform the vocals as a duet, and the result is something both goofy and endearing. Weiss has a deeper and more manly timbre than Lizzy himself, so you almost get this unusual reversal of gender stereotypes. It's fun, but I don't like it quite as much as the McCartney cover. Less successful though, is the version of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" which leads off this record. Borden does a decent job belting out the vocals in a rather unpolished production, and the shredding and dual melodies do not do a disservice to the original, but one year later the Seattle group Sanctuary would release a more formidable, marching and ominously psychedelic metalization.

As for the two studio originals on this record, it's another case where they were clearly not going to make the cut for the oncoming new full-length, much like the two that were tacked on to The Murderess Metal Road Show. Only this time, it applies doubly, because that oncoming effort was Visual Lies, the band's masterpiece, and these cuts are the worst of Lizzy Borden's entire history. "Catch Your Death" is a relatively timid mid paced tune that wouldn't be out of place for a band like Journey or Survivor if not for Borden's shrill presence, but its downfall is that the riff progressions are uninspired, predictable, and though the chorus itself isn't terrible, it pales in comparison to anything from the full-lengths. "Terror Rising" itself is incredibly dumb, as if it were the intro to some terrible horror film that never was. You get a few moments of silly interplay between some schmuck character and a pitch-shifted demon voice, and then a brief burst of metal which refrains the title...and that's it. Pretty fucking stupid.

In the end, it's the dearth of quality in these originals which really drags down the value of the EP, placing it well below Give 'Em the Axe. I really appreciate that the four tunes here 'belong' to the release, but other than the occasional fun of breaking out "Don't Touch Me There", this would be hardly an essential for even the most hardcore of devotees to the shock metaller's legacy. That said, it's easy to forgive once you settle down with Visual Lies and marvel. I will say that the vinyl sleeve to the EP goes over well at parties, and might serve you as a reliable deterrent to unwanted sibling/parent intrusions of your private space. Just hang it on your door or in some visible, central location and revel in their disgust. Otherwise, this was not doing Lizzy Borden much of a service, and like the lame images adorning the first and third full-lengths, provided more fuel for the group's detractors to not even remotely consider taking them seriously.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Lizzy Borden - Menace to Society (1986)

Menace to Society might be my least favorite of the 'classic' Lizzy Borden studio efforts in the 80s, but remarkably it still showed some evolutionary growth from Love You to Pieces, and at least half of its tracks belong on any highlight reel of the Californians' career. Let's also admit that in 1986, there was a HELL of a lot to compete against. Thrash and speed were going supernova, and while there still some superb efforts in the field of more traditional or power metal (Somewhere in Time, Awaken the Guardian, and the Fifth Angel debut for example), even the lowly 12 year olds among us could sense that a 'usurper' had arrived, and that metal was going to continue to expand in a more aggressive dimension.

To their credit, Lizzy actually followed suit, and thus this one of the more hard hitting records in their canon, taking the hugely melodic tropes of the debut and driving them like a fist into the listener's face with a more heightened, dynamic and violent rhythm section. If the cheesy, Twisted Sister-like cover pose, with the band sporting various woodworking tools and riding a camouflaged military vehicle, was any indicator, they were here to offer us a beating this time, and look cool doing it. I mean, look at these gentlemen. "We're not gonna take it", through and through. Despite the fact that any passing avian might roost and nest in their rigid curls, these were guys I wanted to hang around with as a kid. They looked like they might explode at you out of some shitty 80s horror film, piss in the punchbowl at prom and then take all your girlfriends out back for a 'smoke'. Okay, the chainsaw there is a bit wimpy, and might not even threaten a woodchuck, but at least they 'tried' to look menacing to meet your mom's disapproval.

Musically, they pull no punches at all, and once the escalation of the bass and clean guitars that introduce "Generation Aliens" explodes into full velocity, you know that, as with so many of their records, you are in good hands here. I really dug the production on the vocals here, which seemed more focused than the debut, transforming Lizzy's zephyr shrieks into an air force attack, rising and falling like sleek steel birds in the sky as they drop their payloads and seek a greater altitude to escape the ensuing blast. A metric ton of chops, with a lot of tremolo melodies and other techniques picked through the record, and just a general, muscular tone to the rhythm guitar which pushes it Love You to Pieces in presentation. Bassist Mike Davis was catapulting around the undertow of the music like an acrobatic lit up with kerosene, his lines harried and busy, always presenting an additional layer of atmosphere and entertainment.

"Notorious" is always the song I think of first when reflecting on this record, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this. A threatening, imperialistic Roman point of view narrates the tune, yet another example of how the lyrical ambitions of this band so often, vastly exceeded the shallowness of the 'glam' thing they portrayed in their image; but the music rules the roost, loaded with glorious chord sequences, shouts of 'hail Caesar' and an excellent verse/chorus interchange. Others kicking ass include "Ultra Violence" with the Maiden-like trails of the opening guitars, bustling hedgerow of bass and the spikes of shining chords that support the sweltering voice of the front man; the choppy and energetic "Terror on the Town"; and some solid head banging through "Love Kills" and "Menace to Society", the latter of which has a very Saxon feel bisected with a more surgical melodic precision.

I wasn't such a huge proponent for some of the power ballads on the record, like "Bloody Mary" or "Ursa Minor", but they're hardly wimpy; it's just that once the heavier guitars bust out, the riffs all seem rather bland and unstructured compared to the faster pieces on the record. Otherwise, this shit is rock solid. The lyrics are all pretty serious and interesting, covering a wide array of subject material from the personal to the historical, so anyone fearing that they might devolve into a trashy sex/glam metal act where their image and music coincided could rest easy. It's not to pristine as its successor, Visual Lies, one of my favorite albums of the decade, or so compelling as Master of Disguise, but as a strong support that provided the band with more live material and some admittedly great songs to expand their following, Menace to Society more than rose to the occasion. I think much of the target audience was just too busy listening to The Ultimate Sin, Peace Sells... and Master of Puppets to really notice.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (no returns and no regrets)

Lizzy Borden - The Murderess Metal Road Show (1986)

I would have thought the mid 80s a bit early in Lizzy Borden's career to release a live record, what with their second studio album still on the horizon; and yet the medium was quite an important one for the Californians, whose frizzed up looks weren't made just for their photo ops, but for prancing around the stage setting and entertaining an audience largely weaned on glamorous drunken cock rock at the clubs. Fortunately, The Murderess Metal Road Show curbed any trepidation I might have had, a thorough treatment which was issued on both VHS and audio formats with a fat play length of around 70 minutes, and wisely, oh so wisely, a few bonus studio treats to tide over the band's followers until fall of the same year, when the sophomore Menace to Society arrived.

I've never watched the actual video, an admitted travesty for one who has enjoyed the group this long, so my knowledge extends only to the audio version, which in of itself is quite satisfying. For one, this is not a pastiche pulled from an entire tour, but a single gig, which to me is always a more authentic experience in judging a group's capabilities in the live venue. They include the ENTIRETY of the Love You to Pieces album, so all of those favorites are present here and even a few that aren't, but the consistency of the writing there makes for one hell of a solid night. Staples like "Warfare" and "American Metal" sound about as good as you'd expect, with a good balance of drums and vocals, though occasionally the flightiness of the guitar melodies takes on too much of a life of its own, breaking away from the rhythmic mold beneath, and the bass can often get lost. Lizzy sounds as sharp as the studio recordings, without ever straining himself, and in general I'd say the bound is spot on, the album exponentially better when experienced at a higher volume.

Beyond that material, they've also worked the originals from the Give 'Em the Axe EP into the set, and they replaced their Rainbow cover here with a version of Paul McCartney's "Live And Let Die", which is to me, the de facto rendition of this tune on any metal or hard rock release. Naturally, it irked me to no end when Guns 'n' Roses came along and exploded with their version, not because that was crap, but because I really thought the drama of Lizzy's timbre was the perfect fit with its screaming, while the little melodic breaks of the upbeat guitars totally pop out of the amps, not to mention the trebled thrust of the bass and the atmospheric transitions. I can live without the clamor of the closing 'finale' medley, but it wasn't and is still not uncommon for a band to end a gig with some further crowd tuning, so it's pretty sincere to leave it on the recording. All in all, a truly fulfilling set for any and all fans of the formative years of the band, and a great introduction for their newer guitarist Alex Nelson who seamlessly replaced Tony Matuzak.

The studio tunes are also quite nice, though I can see why the band might have been hesitant to include them on Menace to Society, as they're slightly less catchy than much of the sophomore. "Dead Serious" is a mix of classy melodic speed licks with loads of leads, but I didn't find Borden's vocal progressions all that memorable, even when he gets lower pitched and creepy over the bass lines in the bridge (a good shriek follows, though)."(Wake Up) Time to Die" is potentially more ambitious, over 6 minutes with loads of King Diamond-like screaming and a triplet canter redolent of classic Iron Maiden, and this is slightly sticker than "Dead Serious" what with the gang shouts and variation. But the best thing about the song is that the lyrics are based on Blade Runner, from the replicates' point of view, so how cool is that?

Ultimately, you come away from The Murderess Metal Road Show knowing that the band and label put their all into its conception. It might not be a top shelf live record when compared to the bigger names in its class, but the commitment to such a complete set and then the bonus material ensures that it never comes across as some premature, commercial ejaculate attempting to capitalize on the hot streak of a fresh new artist. Worth the time and coin if you're into the band's 80s fare, or just seeking out glistening US power or speed from the period in its birthday suit.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lizzy Borden - Love You to Pieces (1985)

The cover of Love You to Pieces serves as a poster child for the point I was trying to make in the Give 'Em the Axe review, that Lizzy Borden was a gifted band musically that was privy to some poor visual decisions that rendered them a laughingstock to many unwilling to get past them. Is this supposed to be hot? Was she hot in 1985? Was he? I don't recall having any hormonal predilection towards the big-hairs during those impressionable middle or high school years, but beyond that there's the fact this image does absolutely no justice to the music or lyrical content of this album, especially when I could angle my head a few degrees and take in the mysteries of Powerslave, Defenders of the Faith or Ride the Lightning. Granted, not all the lyrics are necessarily great, and yes, there's one tune which is particularly sexual in nature ("Flesheater"), but that doesn't alter the fact that Lizzy Borden just failed as a 'glam' band.

On the other hand, as a METAL band, Love You to Pieces elevated the quintet into one of the best West Coast outfits of its type. Thrash might have been in session by this time, with groups like Metallica, Exodus, Possessed and Slayer taking off, but Lizzy had fully capitalized on the Give 'Em the Axe material with richer, vibrant production values and stronger songwriting, mindful of keeping an 'edge' of aggression here which could cleanly delineate them from the sissy leather 'n lace hard rock acts they paralleled in appearance. This might not be the pinnacle of intricacy for their craft, but a damn fine full-length debut which manages to distinguish itself on nearly every track, while further expanding the ideas and atmosphere manifest in the first two years of their existence. For a band so known by its front man's presentation and piercing timbre, the music is remarkably well structured and delivered, dramatic and explosive enough to place them in the ranks of other hopefuls like Savage Grace, Omen and Liege Lord.

You've got thundering speed metal like "Council for the Caldron" in which the hammering of the drums and the glass ceiling of Borden's vocal patterns create an eloquent and unexpected contrast through which the raving guitar licks and glorious shredding burst like a dragster running laps and burning tires. The emotional and livid desperation of "Warfare" with its flowing melodic chords and unforgettable chorus. If Iron Maiden or the 'Ryche had released that song, it might have generated a hit single, but Lizzy was just too far down on the totem pole. "American Metal" is another barnstormer, a cheesy and effective mid paced anthem slung with microscopic speed licks, eminent percussion and excellent notation building to its sing-a-long climax, and some of the wildest screams the front man had yet pulled off. As laugh out loud as the lyrics might seem, I also really enjoy the music for "Flesheater", while "Godiva" returns to that rapid fire pacing of the opener.

Borden is almost outclassed by his guitarists Gene Allen and Tony Matuzak here, both returning from the EP (alongside the rhythm section). There is constantly some frenetic, playful pattern erupting somewhere above or below the primary chords, or they'll just let the strings resonate atmospherically. This expresses a level of ambition rarely scene out of the borderline glam/metal crowd, and it gives Love You to Pieces this almost incessant replay value which, 27 years later stills seems to hold up. The bass is great, well separated from the six-stringers and Harges' drumming is loaded with fills and muscle that place him well beyond your standard Strip basher. The only caveat to the album is that there are one or two tunes, like "Save Me" or the evolving, titular power ballad which don't seem nearly as catchy as their neighbors.

There were better records in its class for 1985, like Fates Warning's masterpiece The Specter Within or Helloween's vicious melodic speed metal relic Walls of Jericho, but outside of the cover art, there's a true sense of timelessness here which continues to thrill and entertain well beyond the predicted expiration date. I wouldn't say I prefer it to Lizzy's flawless 1987 effort Visual Lies or the ensuing rock opera Master of Disguise, but it's got long legs to stand on and I return to this far more often than the sophomore.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (you can't walk out on me now)

Lizzy Borden - Give 'Em the Axe EP (1984)

Lizzy Borden certainly struck when the going was hot in the mid 80s, but they had a bit of an issue in which their image and chops didn't exactly line up together, almost as if they wanted to mold themselves into the 'glam scene' in terms of stage presence and photo ops, but perform in a heavier melodic strain reminiscent of the NWOBHM bands that influenced them. Granted, bands like Motley Crue and W.A.S.P. managed to draw from both crowds on their earlier records, back when the distinction between image and genre was a blurrier reality, but Lizzy was quite different than either in their execution. This wasn't the angrier, bluesy hard rock those groups rode to fruition, but more in line with what you'd expect from the emergent sensations Iron Maiden, with driving axe rhythms and glassy leads and melodies strewn out all over the tracks.

'Lizzy' himself was obviously poised as a shock rocker, taking his stage name from the dual patricide/matricide of the New England woman in the late 19th century. But unlike a King Diamond or Alice Cooper, his chosen appearance wasn't cast in the gloom of black and white face paint, but a more outrageous, hair spray heavy look like a crossbreed of T. Rex and a serial killer circus clown. It was admittedly not that popular an image among underground fans of the period, and still serves as a hurdle to many would be followers retroactively. I recall having a very hard time finding other locals into the group, even in my commercial glam-metal obsessed high school: they might not be necessarily turned off by the photo spreads, but once they heard Borden's shrill, piercing tones and riffing more complex than Poison and Bon Jovi pumping out the speakers, they would lose all interest. Unfortunate, but in the end, their loss, because this was a fantastic band writing some of the best traditional/speed and proto-power metal in the US alongside groups like Omen or Helstar.

Give 'Em the Axe was the usual 'teaser' EP that the band put out as a feeler after their demo in '83. Metal Blade had snapped up the band fairly early on in their existence, and this was used to test the waters for the ensuing full-length Love You to Pieces. The material here is more or less a direct setup for that record, and thus understandably the songs are not quite so memorable or rounded, but at the very least they grant a taste of the band's bustling guitar work and strikingly serious attitude towards the songwriting. This is no frivolous tit rock circa the Sunset Strip, but some righteous and aggressive heavy metal with flowing, Maiden-esque leads scaling the walls of "Kiss of Death", and an admirable performance from the rhythm section of Mike Davis and Joey Scott Harges. Above all, though, this was the introduction for many to Lizzy's distinct, ear piercing cries, which would make or break the band's potential fan base.

Surely this guy came up on a diet of Freddy Mercury, Rob Halford and Ronny James Dio, but I find it more interesting to compare him to the falsetto screamer King Diamond, or a less controlled Midnight or Cyriis. His timbre is definitely one of those divisive, 'love it or hate it' styles, crystalline and unquestionable irritable if one were to look at it as some pandering to the negative stereotypes of metal screamers in the 80s. That said, I happen to side with the former camp, and I really enjoy the wavering edge to his tone, almost like it were the serrated edge of some savage blade. He's got great pitch, an obvious range to rival the giants of the 80s, and yet something uniquely fragile, like a wounded animal. Listening to these old Lizzy records in my bedroom used to drive my family absolutely batshit, which ended up in a never ending supply of headphones for Christmas and birthday gifts.

As for the songs here, there are three originals and one cover of Rainbow's "Long Live Rock'n' Roll", which, while a competent transformation, is hardly the highlight of the EP (I prefer their later rendition of "Live and Let Die"). The Lizzy Borden tunes are all reined in around the 2:30-3:00 mark, and provide an ample insight into the shredding potential and excitement, but despite a few impressive licks in "Kiss of Death" I just can't say that these are as memorable as a "Warfare", "Flesheater" or "American Metal". There is some variation, with the title track manifest in a more hard rock laced pace akin to Twisted Sister, "Kiss of Death" invested in a more epic, traditional metal swagger, and "No Time to Lose" reliant more on sheer velocity, but the chorus sequences simply never engraved themselves deeply in my memory.

That said, despite the brevity of the recording and the questionable pinkness of its bladed logo, there's not much complaining. It does the job, it sets you up to anticipate the band's next move and boy would they deliver. I'm not sure of the availability of the original EP these days; you're more likely to acquire it on the 1995 Metal Blade reissue alongside Terror Rising, but fans of Love You to Pieces or Menace to Society might not wish to live without it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (you never, never know)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Poisonous - Perdition's Den (2010)

The expression 'old school' is a cliche that's been beaten to death many times over, myself not excluded from the practice; but few metal artists can it apply to so rigorously as Brazil's Poisonous, a band which eschews the past 20+ years of technicality and progression in the genre to produce some of the most authentically un-evolved brutality you're likely to hear south of the Panama Canal. I remember quite enjoying the group in their prior incarnation, Impetuous Rage, who flirted with a somewhat more complex aesthetic on their 2007 debut Inverted Redemption, but you could consider Poisonous a mild reinvention of their sound into something more primal and bare-boned in its execution.

Perdition's Den is certainly woven of a mildly 'cavernous' persuasion, but not so much that it emulates the droves of Incantation worship groups currently saturated the scene. You won't hear dark ambiance threaded through the metal songs (though there is plenty on the horror-themed intros and interludes), nor any severe excess of reverb on the vocals or guitars. Instead, this pays more of a direct tribute to the formative tones of Autopsy's Severed Survival or Mental Funeral, Death's Scream Bloody Gore or Leprosy, or Obituary's Slowly We Rot with perhaps a few nods to the Dutch forebears or their countrymen Sepultura back in their youth. Low end, viscera churning axes wrought from both feverish tremolo patterns and condensed walls of sluggish chords. Weighted chugs serve as ballast for the blunt guttural delivery of the vocal. Tense and tactile drumming which feels as raw as in the rehearsal space, and thick, swerving bass which oft sounds like a passive but curious ooze creeping along the listener's ear canals.

I mentioned in passing that the band incorporated some creepy interludes here. Despite the cheesy use of the pitch shifted vocals in "Demons" or the swelling nightmare of low pianos and distant ringing that is "From the Infernal Rift", these really help to break up the chugging and roiling density of their neighbors and help to curb some of the monotony the album might otherwise suffer from. I wouldn't say that the actual riffing patterns used in cuts like "Under the Blessing of Death" or "Worthless Christ" rivaled their influences in terms of sheer spookiness or notation, but regardless Poisonous bring the full, morbid package due to the consistent antiquity of the songwriting, the bassy depths of the production, and the steady threat level of the growl. Nothing too memorable in terms of its individual tracks, but they can certainly put you in a mood for ritual sacrifice and fiend summoning.

The Brazilians feels distinctly old and unforgiving, without playing too heavily on the nostalgic trends currently in rotation, and for this reason I'd give Perdition's Den an easy recommendation to fans of US acts like Funerus, Blaspherian or Cianide who place a similar emphasis on sincerity and simplicity. Though the record was originally released in 2010, it's gotten some new life through with fresh cover artwork and extra tracks, so check it out if your tastes are aligned to that crucial 1987-1990 era and those who would resurrect it.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, May 25, 2012

Naer Mataron - I Am the Light of the World EP (2012)

As a tease towards their forthcoming, sixth full-length album ΖΗΤΩ Ο ΘΑΝΑΤΟΣ, Greek ghouls Naer Mataron have unleashed this limited two track EP I Am the Light of the World, with a rather ironic cover and title if you've followed the bands incessant, scathing blasphemies to date. What I like is that this recording will actually retain some value once the album drops, as I'm looking over the track list it seems neither of these particular pieces will appear there (I can't translate the B-side title as of yet), so you are not only getting a collector's item, but one with some exclusivity. The idea here is pretty simple: the A-side features a metallic track, and the B-side a dark ambient piece, to which no doubt the group's Swedish keyboard player Nordvargr had his hands in heavily.

After an ambient intro with an almost electronic feeling beat, Warhead just blasts the goddamn heads off his drums as "A Secular Pursuit of Coffins" erupts (love the title). Anyone familiar with the stripped down, seething intensity of the band's 2008 album Praetorians will find that they've not skipped a beat here, this is more or less the same sort of level blast black with backing synthesizers and Vicotnik's grimy rasps providing a manic, sacrilegious slather. I did find the bridge and finale of this track to be a bit more curious than the rest, for all the schizoid, varied vocals laid in over a spurious black/thrash rhythm and its following threads of apocalyptic tremolo picking; but that said, it didn't entirely grab my attention.

On the other hand (and other side), the 7-minute ambient structure "ΕΓΩ ΕΙΜΙ ΤΟ ΦΩΣ ΤΟΥ ΚΟΣΜΟΥ" was quite absorbing, first born of brooding, simple tones and then applying samples of deep percussion, slight patters of what I guess must be rain (or blood), and some ominous chants. Nothing you haven't heard before if you're into the more ritualistic side of this musical niche, but impressive and haunting to use as background noise for some decadent act, or morbid self-reflection. The production on both tunes is kept really raw here, the metal piece sounding like they barely touched it, the distortion really dry and forceful. I'm not sure if that's a sign of what's to come with the full-length, of if they'll go for something more heavily polished, but it's not unusual considering a few of their past works. Ultimately, this is a decent EP to snag if a diehard follower for the group, just keep in mind that they don't play with the usual Greek slow to mid paced atmosphere: these guys blast, rip and tear in a very traditional, but incendiary Scandinavian sense.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mortalicum - The Endtime Prophecy (2012)

Sweden has a history of producing these heavy/doom metal throwbacks which use the clean, melodic vocal arrangements. Not that 'throwback' is meant as an insult, per se, since in many ways the 90s and 21st century have seen the genre expand in its array of possibilities. But I mention the vocals in the case of Mortalicum's sophomore The Endtime Prophecy because they proved a hindrance to my ultimate enjoyment of the album, and what otherwise might have been a decent Iommi-rooted riff fest was rendered somewhat average despite the obvious literacy the band has for the 70s and 80s sounds of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and so forth.

Now, before anyone gets angry, let me state that I don't actually think Henrik Högl has a bad voice at all. He hits his notes well enough, his phrasing is fine, it's just that I don't find a lot of character in it that I want attached to this style. Comparable Swedish singers like JB Christoffersson (Grand Magus, Spiritual Beggars) or Christian Lindersson (Lord Vicar, Count Raven) have a lot more intricacy, or a haunting nature to their pipes that I was really missing as I listened through this. In fact, I'd say that Henrik reminded me a lot of multi-instrumentalist/producer Dan Swanö when he's doing his clean tones in bands like Nightingale, and it just doesn't lend itself much of a heavy personality to the music. So, the vocals of The Endtime Prophecy aren't quite hack or talentless, they just don't further the experience with the crushing edge I seek out of doom metal, even that which is as accessible as Mortalicum in general.

As for its production, the album is good and loud with clear guitars and bumping bass-lines that definitely land it at that crossroads between modern tone and 70s aesthetics. Groups like Spiritual Beggars and Terra Firma make for apt comparisons in the songs' dedication to grooves and straight, classic metal, but I also heard some clear influence via Trouble ("Dark Night") or The Obsessed ("Embracing Our Doom"). I rather like the subtle atmospheric touches throughout the record like the distant choirs that inaugurate "Embracing..." or the acoustic outro "The End", in which Henrik's vocals actually seem to match up far better with the music, but these only represent a minority of moments. The remainder of the album consists of pure, driving hard rock/doom played at mid to slightly slower paces, with only a handful of guitar patterns that really stand out. It's hardly ominous, soul drudging or particularly aggressive in nature, but neither was it incompetent or poorly written.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Sacred Gate - When Eternity Ends (2012)

Sacred Gate is a fairly new German band performing a brand of heavy power metal in a decidedly 80s fashion, in that they set the rhythm guitars to chug along in cruise mode, fire up the bold, simplistic melodies and aim for a huge chorus and decipherable lead in each individual track. Tradition is not necessarily a crutch in this case, and several of the members have years of experience performing in other, similar acts since the decade before last, but clearly When Eternity Ends is not aimed at the younger generation of power metal freaks bred on the busier, heavily digitized and brickwalled tracking sounds you'd recognize from an act like Gamma Ray or Blind Guardian. This is far more along the lines of early Accept, Judas Priest, and perhaps even a touch of Running Wild in the band's devotion to big rhythms and airier production.

Thick bass lines course through the veins of the bulky rhythm guitars like veins of precious ore, reminiscent of Steve Harris' penchant for keeping things busy without attempting to divert from the central note progressions. The rhythm guitars themselves don't do a hell of a lot out of the ordinary. You've heard most of them before, and they're merely used to set the pace and allow the vocalist, Jim Over to mete out his rather distinct vocals, which as often as not carry some of the tracks. I've listened to this disc a number of times now, and I can't quite figure out whether I love the guy's style, or find it mildly irritating. Or both. He's got a lot of lower end grit to him that you'd expect from other German vocalists like Rock'n'Rolf Kasparek or Chris Boltendahl, but then he shifts to this higher pitch which has an air of fragility to it. With a catchy chorus like that found in "Creators of the Downfall", with the supporting rhythm guitar melody, or the Maiden-like pumper "Burning Wings" I think he really struts his stuff.

Not so much the case the later into the album you go, not because the vocals or music differentiate all that greatly, but the songs feel like diminishing returns, if only that so many of them keep on the same course in terms of their speed and delivery, with only minor deviations. For instance, "In the Heart of the Iron Maiden" sounds more guessed it, a Germanic iteration of something like "The Trooper" if it were dowsed in loads of melodies, while "Earth, My Kingdom" has a slower bombast driven by the bass line which belongs more to the Manowar camp. In general, though, they keep it to a mid-paced maximum, so you're never getting an outburst of speed nor a particularly slower, pensive piece. Ultimately, I thought the first half of When Eternity Ends was notably superior to the latter.

There is also this angels vs. demons, Heaven meets Hell apocalyptic vibe to the lyrics and song titles that lives up to the cover art. I'm not sure if the album was constructed for those of a heavily Christian persuasion, but mileage may vary: since I don't put much stock in celestial and infernal beings doing battle over my city, it doesn't work for me as much as it might for the next person. That aside, there aren't a lot of other complaints about this record. It's a solid debut, nothing exemplary but it packs a few memorable tracks, and I like that Sacred Gate are eschewing trends to play the music they grew up with. This is pure heavy metal with no apologies. They've got chops, they've got a front man who doesn't sound too much like anyone else, and they present the songs in a brazen manner which feels loyal to the nuclear destruction on the cover. I might not have a strong reaction to all the songs here, but a little more inspiration to the songwriting could push them over the edge.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Skelator - Agents of Power (2012)

Skelator would not be the first band in the power metal spectrum to pay conceptual tribute to Michael Moorcock's most famous creation, the albino fantasy antihero Elric of Melnibone. However, I feel that their brand of working man's US speed and power, with aesthetically bears similarities to predecessors like Virgin Steele, Twisted Tower Dire, Manilla Road, Manowar and other domestic gods, is particularly suited to telling the tales of the Black Sword, since it instinctively carries this sense of nostalgia which can draw the listener back to that formative period of the earlier 80s when the works of Moorcock, Lieber, Howard and other lesser known fantasy staples in the shadow of Tolkien were enjoying a new burst of popularity with the onset of tabletop RPGs and now-antiquated video games.

Not that Agents of Power is devoted specifically to Elric, but about 75% of the album covers his saga while the first few songs deal with other fantasy settings like Dragonlance ("Gates of Thorbardin"). All delivered in a thick, chunky down to earth guitar tone which, admittedly is drawn from a pretty derivative arsenal of riffing patterns that aren't going to feel new for any long-term fans of traditional/power metal. There's a bit of Omen here, in addition to your signature Judas Priest patterns circa the 70s, some primitive Manowar power, and a pretty vibrant lead sensibility which is engaging enough where it erupts in a track like "Rhythm of the Chain" or the ascending, bouncy "Gates of Thorbardin". The real star of the show here, is singer Jason Conde-Houston whose caterwauling timbre has a sinister side to it reminiscent of John Cyriis (Agent Steel) or Midnight (Crimson Glory) in their prime; though he certainly paces himself like a Dickinson in the early to mid 80s and I hear smatterings of other esteemed forebears like Eric Adams, James Rivera and David Wayne throughout.

I really did enjoy the production of the album, earthen and deep enough to really let Conde-Houston's shrill melodic spikes stand forth, or the considerable number of noodling micro-solos; but I wouldn't say that it was blow for blow memorable in terms of the songwriting. There's enough variation throughout the album's hour length that you can really settle into it and not become excessively bored. There are narrative briefs strewn about the Elric sequence, like "Pulsing Cavern" or the Maiden-esque brief "The Young Kingdoms" which serve to splinter the more brooding, serious pieces, but in truth most of the tunes are well balanced and reined in (only two surpassing the 6 minute mark). I actually dug the first four pieces as much if not more than the conceptual chunk of the disc, so Skelator were wise in front-loading them, but there are a few gems deeper in the playlist, like "The Dark Tower" wherein the music and vocals channel Helstar, or "Rubble and Ash" with its unnerving and awesome spoken intro.

There's a bit less spit and polish than you'd find on albums by the Italians Domine, who also devote their lyrics heavily to Moorcock, but that's largely because Skelator lack that European anthem undertow. They keep the guitar progressions boxy and simplistic, the sort they could mete out in the rehearsal space with the same level of clarity they express in studio. Agents of Power is, if anything, a humble record which knows its limitations and never really pushes beyond them, but having said that, I still think it surpasses their sophomore Death to All Nations in terms of songwriting. Don't go into this expecting floods of Gamma Ray glitter or Dragonforce drama, this is a far more stripped and sincere approach that gets the former Californian act to the finish line without necessarily winning the race. Nothing groundbreaking or essential here, but it's got enough heart to win over the fantasy rock enthusiast or the crypto-USPM fanatic.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mortal Infinity - District Destruction (2012)

The first thing I noticed as I was listening through Mortal Infinity's first full-length album District Destruction: for a German thrash band, I would not say that they dwell upon a decidedly Germanic sound. You won't hear the acidic constipation of Schmier's vocals, the alcoholic pummeling of a Tankard, or the riffing complexity inherent in the better records by a band like Kreator at their peak. No, this quintet has a style far more akin to the West Coast US thrashers like Exodus or Vio-Lence around the year 1990 and records like Impact is Imminent and Oppressing the Masses, with a pinch of bands like Defiance, Heathen, Anthrax and Metallica added as seasoning.

Probably the closest comparison would be Exodus, though, or their coattail bands like Bonded By Blood, Warbringer and so forth. Part of this is that Marc Doblinger's vocals feel like a composite of Steve Sousa, Paul Baloff and Rob Dukes, but also the level of variation and meatiness to the riffing has that mid-paced, central focus that those flesh-pleasure peddling, piranha obsessed maniacs have been meting out since they broke out on MTV with songs like "Toxic Waltz". This is not necessarily a bad thing, because unlike Exodus on their most recent full-lengths, Mortal Infinity actually knows how to have fun with the guitar progressions, and the result is an enthusiastic, if somewhat derivative record with lots of guitar work to band your heads. The leads, while not entirely memorable, are exciting and transitional, the gang shouts (where they appear) lend a sense of street vigilante justice as intended. Doblinger isn't afraid to change it up and bark out a pure death growl (like the end of "AT Dawn of Death") and I found that the Germans were good at pacing themselves so that no two cuts sound quite the same (individual riffs are similar, but the overall arcs remain distinct).

The guitars have this copious, modern punch to them that would thrill devotees of the other groups I mentioned above, or maybe the modern Artillery outings since this Mortal Infinity occasionally threads in a few thrash melodies that help counterbalance the rather simple mosh rhythms prevalent in a track like "Wake of Devastation" or "Retribution". That said, I didn't find a lot of the music here to be all that innovative or, really, compelling. Without question, you can bang your head to a bunch of the progressions. The Germans truly love that mid-paced Exodus aesthetic which is sure to get any gang of smelly young thrashers whipped up in a fury, but I never felt like there was an innate cruelty or cutting edge which I almost always require in my thrash. I do appreciate that Mortal Infinity plays against type, more Bay Area than Sodom, and this surely must help distinguish them in their home territory, but ultimately I didn't get more than a passing enjoyment from the songs on this. It's not bad, though, and fans of the albums Shovel Headed Kill Machine, Tempo of the Damned, War Without End or the Bonded by Blood debut Feed the Beast might find a kindred spirit here, so they should check it out.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Six Feet Under - Undead (2012)

I've made no secret of my disdain for Chris Barnes' post-Corpse venture, Six Feet Under, in the past. At its best, the earliest years of the group envisioned a parallel reality in which Barnes was fronting 90s Obituary, but since that time their canon has produced nothing but vapid ghetto grooves, miserable lyrics and songwriting, and needless albums of cover songs that in general went absolutely nowhere. I'm not saying the band was the worst on the scene, necessarily, but for such a high profile act, I could not help but feel repeatedly underwhelmed at their collective throughput. Sure, they were capable of meting out a handful of entertaining riffs on a few of their albums, and they deserve some credit for never abandoning the death metal genre as a whole, but when contrasting their work to what Barnes' alma mater has achieved with its new front man, I've found it difficult not to deem 6FU pedestrian by comparison.

Forward to the present, and in what must be the shocker of the year, Chris Barnes and guitarist Steve Swanson have actually released an album that isn't merely acceptable, or simply surpassing their previous outings (which would not be saying much, frankly). Undead is hands down memorable and entertaining, and it's time for a jaded bastard like me to gladly chomp down on his boots, choking on the grave soil caught between the soles. What's better, Six Feet Under has not accomplished this feat by abandoning their central use of street ready barbarian grooves or the emphasis on simplistic, visceral lyrics. They haven't suddenly morphed into a brutal/tech death metal act, or shouldered their way aboard the current nostalgic trends of Autopsy/Incantation or recycling Sweden. True, there are a few more brutal elements. No doubt, this is partly due to the expert Jason Suecof mixdown and the newly instated human battering ram Kevin Talley on the drums, but beyond that the simple selection of surgical note progressions and rhythmic variation here feels tangibly menacing. Undead is the most diabolical sounding record Barnes has been involved with since The Bleeding in 1994.

It's not perfect, but at least 7-8 of the dozen songs on this disc are magnificent. Take the lurching verses of "18 Days", for instance, peppered with frightful little proto-Corpse licks and some of Barnes' most blunt and monstrous lyrical depth charges in years; or the wholesale brickhouse slaughter of "Formaldehyde" with its walls of descending tremolo and old school evil. Hearing Kevin Talley implement his harried fills into each sodden groove really lends more authenticity to even the most minimal riffing schematics, and the rest of the band is skin tight as they transition from slower, blasted patterns to death/thrash breakdowns wrought of maddening mosh-stuff. How about that atmospheric, death/sludge element that arrives in "Blood On My Hands"? Entirely unexpected and excellent. Even the vocals on the record are endowed with a seasoning of nuance and variation; for example Barnes' percussive timbre which drives the track "Molest Dead" like a zombie general horny to feast upon the living, or his shuffled delivery over the Prong-like pep coursing through "Delayed Combustion Device".

Lyrically, the album sticks to the gore and murder that Barnes built his career on with Corpse, and even though I wouldn't call anything complex or 'thoughtful' it at least functions as intended. There's no egotistical death metal gangsta bullshit here which makes me want to reach through the recording and strangle the dude, like I found on a few of the prior albums. We've got vampires, serial killers, you name it. The mix is fully 'now', with loads of punch and power to the guitars and clean, balanced drums, yet despite its modernity the array of old school riffs and grooves still date the band as veterans unwilling to shed their roots. A few of the tunes devolve into predictable, uninteresting riff/vocal patterns redolent of the group's mediocre yesterdays, but on the whole, Undead is a coherent, refreshing act of punishment which oozes threat level. My hat's off to the band for this malevolent magnum opus, and I only pray that the paradox this creates will not shower us all in cosmic incineration as the universe retracts its arms in confusion.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (awake after years, to murder at random)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Blåkulla - Darkened by an Occult Wisdom (2011)

Darkened by an Occult Wisdom is the premier recording from obscure French black metal project Blåkulla, the work of a single individual who goes by the handle of Surtr Blackmoon Emperor. Original released as a limited edition cassette last year on Cold Void Emanations, it has been picked up again for a reissue through Poland's True Underground Productions, who a few of you might recognize for releases by groups like Dark Fury or Thoth. I mention this connection primarily because the sound of the tape I'm reviewing is pretty common for the label, in that it represents the 'true black metal', primitive and highly aggressive and not really giving a fuck for the conventions of variation or accessibility for a wider audience. Blåkulla lives and dies on its hellish energy, a candle burning quickly on both ends with no pretensions of elegance or comfort, and while I might very well cite an  influence of early Darkthrone, Burzum or Mayhem, Darkened by an Occult Wisdom is quite determinedly sinister even by those primal standards.

That's not to say that there is no beauty involved in this music, because some of the streams of chords being slashed across the strings are downright glorious. Surtr has an admittedly regulation rasp for this genre, yet his timbre is enormous, a claustrophobic curtain of hissing serpents being drawn over the nocturnal atmosphere of the constantly thrusting guitars and blasting mechanical drums which rarely, if ever, let the ears rest from their callous bombardment. Bass lines don't really play much of a factor in the writing, everything is just combined into this central, blasted momentum and saturated by the harrowing vocals. Blåkulla also loves opening and closing its compositions with feedback from the guitars, which lends the tape a unified, raw clamor that should thrill purists. The entire lack of poppish, folk melodies or Gothic keyboard intros and outros, which have often pervaded this genre to mixed results, will certainly prove attractive to those who seek out only the most threadbare, hostile sounds in the field.

Three of the five tracks on the recording exceed the nine minute mark, which can prove exhausting when you're dealing with material at this level of unswerving intensity, but I have to admit that two of the better songs were its longest, "Miraculous Dark Mysteries" and "Victory & Glory or Death". The notation was the strongest, the barrage of tremolo picking and chords the most evocative and nostalgic, grips of ice that draw you screaming into some sunless Medieval reality where you're pursued and devoured by wolves. The others are certainly competent and comparable in rhythm and style, but I found the patterns of notes somewhat less compelling. Blåkulla's riffs, while often repetitive, are certainly harried sounding over the rush of the drums, and Surtr is not afraid to slice and shift about the frets to keep the ears affixed, and bleeding.

I doubt Surtr intended to rupture the mold cast by his forebears, but to some degree the lack of variation on the recording proves its greatest flaw. In many cases, traditional black metal artists will offer an alternation between the tremolo riffing, hyper madness and the dominant Sabbath/Hellhammer grooves that were adopted by the Scandinavian legends in the early 90s, but Blåkulla relies very heavily on the former. Those who demand a lot of rhythmic change-ups in between the blasted elements will not find much solace here, and I'd be lying if I felt that a frost of monotony did occasionally creep into my conscience. But that said, I feel that Darkened by an Occult Wisdom is ultimately terrifying enough in its delivery that it overcomes this shortcoming. It might not feel unique or dynamic, but it's incendiary enough to quell the sunlight and drown you in its thundering viscera. For one single guy handling all instruments, that's no simple task.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, May 20, 2012

King Diamond - Give Me Your Soul...Please (2007)

Infanticide is hardly a novel theme for a King Diamond record. Little ones have been maimed, molested and murdered by all manner of antagonists in his tales, so it feels like a 'return to the well' when once is considering the lyrical matters of the 12th full-length album Give Me Your Soul...Please. It is important to note, though, that Diamond is not taking 'the side' of these butchers and pedophiles, but is in fact a staunch and outspoken enemy to such violations. He tells these tales not from some morbid fascination, but with a clear intention to revolt the audience into taking a stronger stance themselves against such crimes against the innocent. A noble endeavor, to be sure, but some people might take it the wrong way. Don't.

I admit, I did not get off on the right foot with this record. It looks pretty stupid, and the title is awful, but within just a few songs I found that the musical content, itself nothing novel or spectacular, was coherent enough that it felt a natural successor to The Puppet Master. Same lineup, same polished, voluminous production standards, and no skimping on the effort, but no matter how hard I try, I can never shake the feeling that Give Me Your Soul...Please feels like some sidereal movement. An also-ran, so deep in the band's career that it serves no other purpose than to stay steady and keep the dream alive. Which is in itself a justification for existence, but hardly the sort to garner much praise. One example of how this stench permeates the album is just how easy it seems to pin where a lot of the riffs come from: "Never Ending Hill" clearly has a spin on Priest's "Painkiller" very early on. The intro to "Is Anybody Here?" seems like a mere paraphrasing of "Eastmann's Cure" from The Spider's Lullabye (though I dug the ensuing groove). The folksy melody inaugurating "Mirror, Mirror" also seems painfully familiar, as do many other individual guitar progressions.

That's not to say they're blatant ripoffs, but the album simply doesn't feel creative. It's more or less a direct doppelganger of the two prior works. The musicians have pulled no punches and spared no efforts, in particular the well structured lead sequences or the perkier percussion of the more thrash/power-metal oriented guitar progressions, but nowhere did I find that 'distinctive' stamp of brilliance that proudly glared at me from the spectral King Diamond works of years far gone. This is more a band, keeping on keeping on, proving it can run and gun well into its twilight years, and while I can't really fault Give Me Your Soul... solely on its lack of a unique identity among the group's many full-lengths, the music is decidedly unmemorable when compared even to something like The Puppet Master or Voodoo. From a technical perspective, there are no real complaints: no frost has formed on the limbs of LaRocque, Patino, or Wead. That I can assure you. But it sucks that, with all of their collective strengths, and Petersen's dreamlike, eerie falsetto, they couldn't come up with better.

A few cuts do tease some degree of quality, like "The Floating Head" once you get past some of the vapid if driving chug rhythms. Or "The Cellar", which does manifest some degree of haunting beauty as it surges from mid-paced, narrative riffs to thundering speed/power metal. But even these lack the unforgettable sort of vocal melody that you want to endlessly cycle from your own lungs if you've got the pitch. Perhaps this is indicative of 'too much of a good thing'. Perhaps the novelty of King Diamond has simply worn me out after so many timeless experiences with this group and his alma mater Mercyful Fate, but there's got to be some reason I can remember, as clear as day, almost every song the guy released from 1984-1992, but everything here evades me within hours of hearing it. Not that it's necessarily bad music, but it had some towering stairs to climb if it wanted to reach the next level, and instead it gave up and chose a smoke break...

And, speaking of smoke breaks, I really hope this isn't the last we'll hear of the band. I realize a year or so ago he had some heart complications, and has since been lying low aside from the occasional guest gig like he did with Metallica on a few dates. I'm crossing my fingers that he'll kick the habit, take a long and deserved break and then return to us with something stripped down to what made his music so valuable in the first place. He's well fucking earned it. Never mind the modernity and mediocrity manifest by an album like Give Me Your Soul...Please, let's recapture some of that evocative necromancy of Don't Break the Oath, or Fatal Portrait, or the first Abigail. Songs before style. Spine chilling melodies. Cross your fingers, folks.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (don't let anyone see your bloody dress)

King Diamond - The Puppet Master (2003)

The Puppet Master is not a favorite of mine amongst the King Diamond canon, but by no means is it a dropping of the ball that they had, at long last picked up with Abigail II: The Revenge. If anything, this is a more richly produced album which suffers only because, despite its enormous sound quality, it doesn't have a hell of a lot of tunes which stand out in memory. Granted, Abigail II was not itself quite a match for the band's masterworks in their heydays of the 80s, but I felt there were a good 7-8 songs there that I would keep returning to, where The Puppet Master provides me with only about 3-4. Those particular choices are certainly memorable and belong on the short list of his best material beyond The Eye, but I often struggle to retain the rest of the album in my thoughts.

But gods, does this sound huge. Stylistically, it picks up straight on the ghostly vapor trails left behind by its predecessor: a re-envisioning of the band's 80s overtures with a lot of modern power to the guitars. It helps that, for the most part, this is the same lineup as the band used the year before, only with the added dimension of King's wife, Livia Zita contributing the female vocals. It's an admittedly predictable horror story here, about a pair of lovers who experience a puppet show in Hungary, only to then be turned themselves into helpless marionettes by the vile 'Puppet Master' himself. King once again introduces himself as a central character in the fable, and there are a few grisly details involving the eye sockets of characters that strike a nerve, but as usual this is not exactly the most frightening of narratives. That said, what I enjoyed most is just how well the actual songwriting captures the aesthetic of such murderous dolls, thanks to the creepy, percussive power/thrash rhythms invested into tunes like the excellent "Blood to Walk" or the dire melodies of "Emergencia".

The guitars are even louder than on Abigail II, and the level of riffing comparable, at least for the standout songs. Once again, Kim Petersen has defied the process of aging, his glittering pipes still capable of hitting the range he was exploring well over a decade before this. I give some credit that Livia's lines don't really feel like an intrusion into the mix, but they play out in a tune like "Emergencia" almost like a morbid ballet. I won't say that she's got the most memorable voice, but it sounds practiced and competent enough. It's just too easy to be overshadowed by the King himself, whose schizoid retching and screaming on a piece like "No More Me" are nearly as charismatic as anything he was producing during his prime. Rhythmically, it's also a strong effort, centered more around grooving rhythms than speed metal licks, the drums and bass quite focused on their task rather than deviating from the guitars' path; but once again this lurching, jeering sense of motion plays itself well with the narrative theme. The dolls really seem to stand up and dance around in the bloody ark of the lyrics.

If I've got any problem, it's merely that the riffs and atmosphere have been done to a far better degree in the past, and the melodies just don't seem to titillate the senses nearly as much as the old hits. This is one of those records which is so positively produced that you feel there is no help but to enjoy it, and yet after the curtains fall and the puppeteers have left the theater, I find it just doesn't stick with me. Songs like "Darkness", "Living Dead" and "Christmas" all have their moments, but I'd never actively seek them out unless I was dead set on experiencing The Puppet Master in the fullest. I was fortunate enough to get the limited edition with the DVD, which involves is King Diamond narrating scenes and videos from the story, but I can't say that it's any more effective than just reading the lyrics myself as I listen to the music and open my inner eyes to the settle and events (like I had to do for all the other albums). Still, it's a decent bonus, and in no way can I complain.

This album seemed to generate quite a lot of positive press and a strong fan reaction, which is no surprise thanks to the production and the obvious amount of love and care placed in its construction. That said, my own beaming response to the previous album precludes me from really getting all that excited, since I felt that was already the comeback I was waiting for, this didn't add a lot outside of meatier guitars and vocal levels. As for the contention I've read that this is somehow 'the best' of King Diamond's works, I must call utter bullshit. There are songs on Fatal Portrait, the first and weakest of the 80s hot streak, that I like more than all the content of The Puppet Master combined. But besides the fact that it didn't personally live up to the hype surrounding it, I will say that at least this album was no disappointment. I might not love it, or really listen to it all that often, but it was no letdown.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (almost human in size)

King Diamond - Abigail II: The Revenge (2002)

'Sequel albums', like sequel films, are always a risky proposition, especially when they come after such a broad gulf from the first (or earlier) work in a particular series. If they were being released at normal intervals, like a serial or chain of episodes, then that would be one thing, but in the case of King Diamond's Abigail II: The Revenge, you're looking at a 15 year gap after the beloved 1987 original, which stands as one of the band's finest albums and, if I'm being honest, one of the best of the 80s, period. As we've all no doubt learned, the idea of such a sequel often runs counter to common sense. After all, there's a strong chance of alienating what might be the most important weapon in an established act's arsenal: the installed fan base. For example, look at the abortion that was Operation: Mindcrime II, which came after an even broader span of time (18 years) and failed utterly to capture the magic of the first album.

There is no doubt that, while the very notion of a followup to Abigail album might have been brewing inside the minds of Petersen and LaRocque for awhile, that nostalgia and the diminishing returns of their recent albums leading into the 21st century played their parts in the ultimate manifestation of The Revenge. It's not a bad thing that a band would want to return to the roots of their greatness, and I can hardly blame the duo for cashing in the roster of the last album and seeking to reconnect with earlier members from an age when the 'magic' was happening, but it's hardly a formula for automatic success as we've seen from a goodly number of reunions in the genre. This time out, it happens to work out for the Danes. They brought back bassist Hal Patino after a 12 year absence, and Hexenhaus/Mercyful Fate alumnus Mike Wead to replace Glen Drover, who was busy with his own band Eidolon, and eventually Megadeth. Prolific US drummer Matt Thompson was hired on to fill John Luke Hebert's seat, and they had Kol Marshall, who co-produced this record with King and Andy themselves, to contribute keys.

Abigail II is, thankfully, a rousing success, and the best of the band's albums since The Eye in 1990, slightly edging out The Spider's Lullabye. To some extent, this is due to the fact that the band have more or less returned to those aforementioned roots in terms of filling out a conceptual work with some due atmosphere, and catchier licks than they'd been creating in over a decade. This is a 'total package' sort of record, where the production, artwork/layout, track pacing and musicianship all converge to provide nearly an hour of escape to all the wayward souls who might have been turned off the band since the later 80s. Hell, just look at the cover art courtesy of Travis Smith, which is the best the band had used since "Them" or the original Abigail. Unlike the dullard cover images of works like House of God or The Graveyard, this one actually beckons the viewer back to the realm of the twilight, campy supernatural horror that King Diamond built this career on.

It helps that it sounds so magnificent, capturing the clarity of its polished predecessors but with a guitar tone that had me pining for the early years, though fully capable of entertaining a younger crowd who had, unbeknownst to their knowledge, been spoiled with a decade or more of studio enhancements. Patino never skips a beat, his lines floating like a corpse-painted manta ray beneath the rhythmic balance of Wead and LaRocque. Thompson is perhaps not a vastly more technical drummer than the two before him, but he certainly lends the album some reliable power and the production of the kick and snare seems far more vibrant here. The leads and dual guitar harmonies are out in full force, and King himself doesn't sound a day older than when he releases The Eye or The Spider's Lullabye. As I'm sure its creators were hoping, the whole affair seems like a 'second wind' had been breathed into the stagnating project's lungs.

Which would amount to squat, if the songs weren't also quite damned catchy. Abigail II doesn't fuck around with a lot of cheesy interludes pieces. You've got the intro "Spare This Life", a brief outro in "Sorry Dear", and the meat of the record is 11 tracks straight of metal-driven narrative, with not a stinker among them even if they're not written at the memorable level of some of the 80s records. A lot of the tunes are intro'd with these synth and string sections that strike like a crystal rain before the thundering surge of the guitars. "The Storm" is a fair power metal piece to get the blood rushing, but once they zip into the acrobatics of "Mansion in Sorrow" this disc picks up steam with Diamond's layered falsetto/midrange tracking and a strong momentum of the guitars. But the album thankfully never lets up, with the winding "Slippery Stairs", the freakish stop/start antics that slice through "Broken Glass" or the straight drive of "Miriam" or "The Wheelchair".

As for the story behind the record, it's the usual mayhem and murder with a supernatural undercurrent. It offers some twists and turns on the original Abigail, picking up when she's an 18-year old woman and then 'tying some loose ends', though I can't promise she comes out unscathed herself. Like many of the other King Diamond albums, it's about bad things happening to a person of the female persuasion, par for the course, though as usual it's not presented in a particularly tasteless or misogynistic way. The lyrics are fair, certainly nothing masterful but a lot better than most of the 90s records whether they're being told through brief, descriptive passages or the first person character perspective.

Abigail II: The Revenge is one of those albums I'd categorize as 'great', but never perfect. As rich and fulfilling as the compositions feel, they certainly don't breed the same 'instant classic' atmosphere that was pervasive on the 1986-90 records. It'd be hard to recognize anything here at the level of a "Burn", or a "Welcome Home", or "The Family Ghost". But nonetheless, it was a cause for some celebration: King Diamond had once again become fluent in what it does best. Crystalline, spectral horror delivered with some goddamned class and maturity, and though it's not doing anything truly original with a formula that was mastered 15 years in its past, it provided ample enough reason to get excited, once more, for what these gentlemen could summon from the shadows and the forgotten.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (a woman in every single way)

King Diamond - House of God (2000)

For the follow-up to Voodoo, King Diamond brought on a few new hard hitters, including Canadian axe wizard Glen Drover and another former Chastain/Leather alumni in bassist David Harbour who had worked with John Luke Herbert before. This was unquestionably a stronger lineup than the last one, though it would be sadly short-lived (Drover, Herbert and Harbour would all depart before Abigail II) since Diamond and LaRocque would start waxing nostalgic. House of God is also arguably one of the most interesting albums in terms of its concept, but I'd think of it not so much as a 'horror' record, but a conspiracy theory involving a bit of the supernatural, and by that I mean a shape shifting temptress, a Faustian bargain and the preserved body of Jesus Christ lying in the crypt of some old French church.

No, it's not scary, but really, were ANY of King Diamond's albums 'scary' unless you were the sort that jumped in his/her seat at the sight of Freddy Krueger? Perhaps in the right mood, by candlelight, Fatal Portrait might grant me a few shivers, but really, I have never turned to Petersen's lyrics and music for an A-great chillfest, instead I just really love the guy's music (for the most part). At least the narrative here feels relatively fresh territory for the King to explore, we needed a respite from the usual ghost story and he gave us one. I will say though that the creativity of House of God expands beyond its central concept to the actual music. I'm not sure if it was so much the new members, of if they just found Voodoo a bit too redolent of their past works, but the riffing set used for this Y2K doesn't feel as derivative. Not that House of God is all that well written or more than faintly memorable, or that the guitar progressions are that unusual for a mix of thrash/power metal, but at least this felt like a 'new' album.

In terms of its production, this is slightly less atmospheric than Voodoo but thicker and appreciably juicier than the dry spell that had been The Graveyard. A lot of clean, bold chugging sequences permeate cuts like "Black Devil" or "Help!!!", and Harbour has a copious tone which moves and grooves beneath the rhythm guitar. The man himself, King Diamond delivers a pretty anguished, straightforward performance that, while not exceeding any of his legendary displays of falsetto prowess in the late 80s, at least manages a fine balance of shrieking and mid-ranged, venomous narrative, nicely layered across a few tracks. There are some pitch shifted, goofy vocals in the intro "Upon the Cross" or "Black Devil" that are so ludicrous that they create an instant hurdle for anyone to care about the album's theme, but otherwise the atmospheric shorts like "Passage to Hell" or the ghoulish, gliding vocal/lead guitar arrangement in "Goodbye" feel pretty true to the form of past interludes. Organs and keys are still used occasionally but not a prominent feature of the core metal songs.

Most of the guitar lines are just downright simple, which isn't in itself a negative or unexpected trait, but sadly this translates into a fair degree of mediocrity here. You get some pedestrian chugging, some decent glazed leads, but nothing bordering on the chilling atmosphere that once dominated an album like Abigail or "Them". I laud that this doesn't seem like much of a rehash of safer times, but even the last album Voodoo had a better selection. As such, pitifully few of the songs here manifest anything bordering on a catchy procession of notes that demand constant replay. I've seen some of the tunes performed live, and they fit in well enough with the backlog, but there are no 'hits' on this album whatsoever, no individual cuts that I'd include on a King Diamond playlist on my iPod. Like both its predecessors, it just doesn't seem to age all that well, and I had to blow a fresh layer of dust off it before this listening/review.

It doesn't surprise me that this was never given a highly positive reception by the fan base, and if I'm not mistaken it even sold less than the two preceding albums. There are a couple good, screamed vocals lines and a few of the leads pop right out of the mix to sweeten the ear, but even taken in as a whole it feels like the band's songwriting was still in the same slump that it had experienced since about 1991. But ultimately, it's not a 'bad' album like The Graveyard, merely an average affair. It's never dull enough that would anger anyone, and in the background it provides an accessible, acceptable King Diamond experience, just not one that either evolves the boundary's of the bands style for the new century, or features the brilliant level of composition that thrust him into the naughty nightmares of shock metal fans in the 80s. The lyrics and the theme of House of God are actually quite mature and stirring when compared to any of the other albums, only mildly dweebie due to King's usual affection for character dialogue; they ask some interesting questions, but unfortunately the music does not.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (just her name)