Thursday, May 30, 2013

Skeletal Spectre - Voodoo Dawn (2013)

The reason Voodoo Dawn is so fun is because the album sounds like someone picked through a CD rack, took out all those doom/death classics through the 90s that I so much enjoyed, crushed all of their individual aesthetics into one unwholesome whole, and then hired on America's First Lady of The Festering Vanessa Nocera to growl bloody fucking murder over them. The only exception might be that they left out some of those duller, mournful My Dying Bride style progressions and went more for an outright, rocking formation on a larger portion of the material. Having already heard, covered and enjoyed the first two Skeletal Spectre recordings (especially Tomb Coven), I can't say there are many surprises lying in wait through the follow-up, but it'd be impossible for me to envision a world in which I couldn't bang my head and chuck the horns to this.

What separates this Swedish/US collaboration from more directly mirroring its more dreary forefathers is the fact that, in part, it's another nod to the Sunlight studio guitar tone and D-beat driven, rock-fired riff grooves characteristic of groups like Entombed and Dismember at their prime. Tracks like "Shallow Grave" and "Bone Dust" definitely scratch the itch for Clandestine or Indecent & Obscene, but then you've also got this rain-drizzled sheen of sombre melody circa Cemetery (Godless Beauty, Black Vanity) and Paradise Lost (Gothic, Icon) that rescue the compositions from becoming lost amongst the swelling crowd of cult sound- a-likes. What if Wolverine Blues had cultivated more of a Gothic/doom component than a bluesier rock undercurrent? Skeletal Spectre answers that question with loud, crunching, abrasive rhythm guitars that are admittedly quite lively even at their most basest sense of chugging, glazed or alternated with sadder single picked note sequences that confer some added texture to the meatier chords below. It does very often favor one technique to the other, like on "Black Augury Hollow", a pretty pure death & roll crowd pleasure bound to set jaws wrenching and limbs a-flailin', but that's because this is not a band interesting in boring anyone.

And they most certainly do not, with abusive, fuzzed bass lines and more or less the perfect mix of drums, which are as loud as almost anything else on the recording, without smothering the riffs or the more fragile melodies bouncing across the graveyard-scape. The kicks, crashes and snares would all do Solomon Grundy proud, and I admit many of the mid-paced riffs on this album evoked images of the undead villain wreaking havoc on his environs. Occasionally there will be a pretty neat guitar line, like the ascending pattern in the bridge of "Haunted Gallows" which gets a little buried against the remainder of the instruments, but it's audible enough to appreciate and just made me want to pay closer attention to the smaller details, which are legion throughout Voodoo Dawn. As for Nocera, she mixes up a gut-churning guttural with a mid ranged snarl/growl hybrid which is dowsed in enough effects that it consistently crashes around the atmosphere, at times feeling distanced from the more in-your-face bulk of the rhythm guitars, but just as gruesome as any of the other records I've heard her fronting.

The lyrics are pure cult/Gothic horror, which is perhaps no deviation from Tomb Coven or Occult Spawned Premonitions, yet still more novel than if they were to transform into yet another gore/slasher fan-service death metal band. Qualitatively, I'd actually place the record between the first two. Tomb Coven was a wretched, rotting and fresh experience back in 2009, but Voodoo Dawn rocked considerably more than the sophomore. Not the sort of album you'd seek out if interested in an original approach to the nostalgia of the death and doom mediums, but focused more on putting a smile on the faces of classic horror and death metal buffs, which it does. Recommended as a sort of 'uppity, poor man's Hooded Menace', or to anyone who enjoys the output from Nocera's extended Razorback/underground family (Wooden Stake, Decrepitaph, Fester, Loathsome, Howling, and so forth)...or even the rougher, muddier side of the retro-Swedish death metal movement out of Europe over the past decade (Tormented, Mr. Death, Revel in Flesh etc.)

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, May 27, 2013

Ivanhoe - Systematrix (2013)

Why doesn't anyone I know in real life listen to progressive metal? Yeah, sure, Dream Theater, Rush, Queensrÿche, Opeth, and maybe a few might remember Fates Warning, but beyond that my offline existence is void of any discussion related to the niche whatsoever. Is it really such a dweeby hobby that its fans are self-relegated to internet whisperings and the brief annual turnout at a gig or two? Or is it just that I live in a hotbed of hardcore, metalcore, grindcore, death metal and whatever other metal bands can pick up some of that audience through scene osmosis...and not some land of plenty where Operation: Mindcrime, Images and Words and Perfect Symmetry are held up as some monumental trinity? Either way, groups like Ivanhoe continue to exist, record, tour, and expand upon the legacy of artists like those I mentioned earlier, even if they're rarely embodying the pioneering spirit of their sub-genre so much as milking it dry...

...and that is the long and short of what makes Systematrix, the Germans' sixth full-length outing in a 25 year career, both enjoyable in the moment, and sadly forgettable later. At its heights, Mischa Mang's silky but cutting vocals, and the glazes of beautiful ringing guitar harmonies congeal into a blissful barrage of moments redolent of Lifeline's highlights; yet it feels altogether too long (at just under an hour of material if you include the bonus tracks) and often settles itself into some stolid but unmemorable syncopated grooves circa the Moving Pictures and Counterparts camps, without escalating into an appropriately climactic chorus. Granted, it's well arranged with a nice layer of synthesizers that are used both as classically-tinged orchestration and 70s/80s inspired prog lines, so that the content never becomes too baseline or uninspired, and there are a few cases of risk taking like the tonal soft-rock/dark ambient/electroscape that supports Mang for the first few minutes of "Madhouse", or instrumentally in "The Symbiotic Predator: I - Seduction", but by and large, Systematrix is playing it safe, and any evolutionary gradation that might have existed over their prior works does seem to have come to a halt.

So Ivanhoe relies heavily on its musicianship, production and hooks, two of which are resplendent here in the tightly controlled jam-bridges where they almost never cross the precipice of righteous self-indulgence that a lot of Dream Theater disciples partake of, and the nice midsection punch and groove of the rhythms guitars that counterbalance Mang's distinct, sensual presence and the synthesizers. The bass is good and loud and they are unafraid to put a bit of grime on there where the guitars are harder hitting, not to mention that this guy (Giovanni Soulas) can keep up with anyone else in the band in terms of his technical ability and he is not afraid to let you hear that. Rhythm guitars are constructed from a lot of simpler patterns than you might expect in this field, but that's not to say they don't possess some variation, it's just that they too ably enable the melodies to instantly shine over them and create a lullaby effect with the pianos/keys (like the bridge to "Resolution"), where I'd love them to just ramp up the 'metalness' of the actual chords and palm mutes, perhaps intersperse some more blazing, acrobatic progressions.

At any rate, there are still some solid cuts among these that were written at the level of Lifelines or Walk in Mindfields, like the twisting and harmonious hybrids "Walldancer", "Tin Cans Liberty" and "Learning Path" which are all engaging enough that I kept spinning through them regardless of whether the chorus lines were as sticky-sweet as others they've unleashed in the past. It's difficult to imagine a broad audience for this partially because of my own regional vacuum where people would ask me (not kindly) to shut this off and put on a Tool record instead (ignorami!), but Systematrix is sure not to disappoint any fans of their other Mang-era releases or modern prog metal which establishes a balance between driving grooves and more ear friendly pianos and melodies. A more laid back counterpoint to a Pagans Mind or Angra. Too smooth where it occasionally needs an edge. A decent disc, but I'd so love to hear what this stable of musicians could produce if they would just rattle the cage, loosen the reigns, or bare their fangs a little more often.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, May 24, 2013

Spectral Lore/Mare Cognitum - Sol (2013)

There certainly exists a pantheon of 'great' split recordings throughout the expanded metalverse, but normally the format presents me with a bit of a quandary. Are these just two or more bands of the same genre being haphazardly slapped together? Because they are friends? Pen pals? Are they covering one another? Was this just a label's idea with a few favors being called in? It's not really my favorite means of ingesting music, but once in a while there will come a team-up which seeks to further the medium by providing a cohesive and consistent experience that feels more like a direct collaboration, and Sol is just such an experience, a dramatic and emotionally ebullient immersion into cosmic, atmospheric black metal that persists for 70 fucking minutes...

I was actually familiar going into this recording with both of the constituent artists. Spectral Lore's latest full-length Sentinel was a game changer among Greek black metal works, and though my reaction to Mare Cognitum's sophomore An Extraconscious Lucidity was more reserved, I still appreciated the potential here for a usurper to the ambient/black throne of fellow Californians Leviathan and Xasthur. Both are one man acts, which might have helped them ease this into a singular experience; for while you'll pick up a few of the distinct traits of each artist, they've done a superb job here of unifying their songwriting into a seamless expression of otherworldly resonance interjected with spurts of incendiary metallic techniques like blast beats, wretched star-extinguishing snarls and roiling, tremolo picked rhythm guitars which do not belie their Scandinavian influences (Emperor, etc). Synthesizers and soundscapes are in abundance, as one might have predicted, and they're used for both melodic lines to enhance the other instruments, and cosmic waves of careening harmony that thrive on their lonesome.

What I found interesting was the sequence here, with each act contributing a nearly 30 minute track, and then pairing up for shorter, purely ambient finale "Red Giant" which is structurally the simplest of the three, but no less poignant or brilliant. "Ouroboros" and "Medius" each have a lot more dynamic architecture to them, and are quite intimidating, but it was this last, soothing track that truly gelled over the experience. That said, both Jacob and Ayloss prove themselves independent forces with myriad instrumental skills, shifting riff formations that mirror their respective solo works. "Ouroboros" is slightly more substantial, with wider contrasts of calm and intensity that fluctuate between black and death metal progressions; while "Medius" has a lot more of that harmonic discharge and raw intensity to the guitars which is redolent of Sentinel, though undeniable a more ambitious format. The production felt a little cleaner for the first tune, but apart from that it would be impossible to choose a favorite, since they complement one another so stars streaking in tandem through a nebula of loss and regret.

Admittedly, not all of the individual riffs were that inspirational, which is why it is so crucial that they balanced in the clouds of murk and void atmosphere; but there were certainly some uplifting moments in which the guitars, vocals and arrangements erupted into a glorious crescendo like an astral leviathan rising out of some spiral galaxy. Star-whales striding the space-lanes, mother fucker! The compositions aren't quite so nihilistic as something like Darkspace, instead balancing a brightness or celestial bodies against the suffocating vacuum between them, but that's exactly why I enjoyed this so much, because at each intersection I could never guess precisely where the floods of notes were going, and its held up for over four full listens as of this review, a laborious love letter to a universe which will has birthed us as surely as it will crush us.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Anvil - Hope in Hell (2013)

Hope in Hell is an interminably frustrating album because while its fully smooth and consistent with Anvil's canon, it just seems so bland, also- ran and forgettable by comparison to even their last few records. There wasn't a single hook or chorus among the 13 present here that I felt any attraction towards, though it's a direct stylistic successor to their last triumph (Juggernaut of Justice) and even bears a lot of similarities to their classic 80s fare like Forged in Fire or Metal on Metal. The tunes seem more or less dialed in from prior ideas the Canadians had already executed better, and the lyrics border on stupider-than-usual (from a group that has always had a penchant for a few silly themes on each of their many full-lengths). Not to mention, that even while I can't say I've ever seen an album cover of an anvil transmogrified into an aircraft carrier in the flames of the abyss, the artwork and title seem a little cheesy...not a first, really, nor is this the first disappointment I've encountered from this very band.

Don't get me wrong: it's pure Anvil. They haven't suddenly become Bon Jovi. The titular opener is the sort of slowish, heavy/doom crawl you'd expect from a band constantly attempting to reinvent "Metal on Metal", "Forged in Fire", or any other example of their Sabbath-like pacing. Instantly, you know where you are, back in the 'concrete jungle'. The musicianship is in no worse shape than on any of their prior efforts, with Rob Reiner's able drumming and Lips' pitch remaining consistent. But Kudlow is just not capable of pulling off a truly memorable line in either verse or chorus, and though they've always partaken of the 'everyman' lyrics rather than excursions into philosophical pretension or loaded prose, sometimes this just grows tired in its execution. Surely guys with 30+ years of experience have more wisdom to kick at me than "Badass Rock and Roll" or "Shut the Fuck Up", the latter of which is terrible. Sure, I'm nitpicking a bit, because the whole layman heavy metal thing has been their shtick for decades now, but combined with the very weak selection of rhythm guitar progressions on this album, it seems even more lazy and banal than usual.

Of course, if the chords and chugs were anything more than blazing effigees to tired, uninspired traditional heavy metal cliches that have been retread since (in some cases) the 70s, then I might still have retained a level of interest. This is Thirteen and Juggernaut of Justice were far from rocket science, but they both knew how to throw out some rhythm guitars or vocals that reaffirmed why I enjoyed them so much as a kid. Even the heavier, driving tracks here like "Eat Your Words" and "Shut the Fuck Up" are lamentably boring in their note choices, and though they definitely persist in that added layer of melody they implemented well the last time around, here the airy harmonies are every measure as predictable as the heavier undertow. "Time Shows No Mercy" and "Through With You" are examples of even blander songwriting, riffs that wouldn't even deserve to be on the cutting room floor of Metal on Metal or Pound for Pound, but somehow made it on here because 'like...they're pure old heavy metal, man.' In spirit, they're serviceable, but if I were to compile a list of post-80s Anvil highlights, not a one of these would make muster...

Anvil is a band you (or at least I) always want to love, and WILL continue to, because they're cool guys with hearts committed to music that most people abandoned for 15-20 years until its inevitable 'cycle' returned to fashion and then suddenly everyone decided to get back in touch with their youth. And yes, I'd say the same even if I had never watched The Documentary. But despite their best intentions, the Canadians are not above hitting a slump, like the substantial rut they found themselves in between Worth the Weight and Back to Basics, and I just hope this Hope isn't the 'teaser' for another one. Solid production, ageless musical ability, and familiar songwriting are the best accolades I can hoist upon this, but otherwise it's the least impressive outing they've had since hitting their nadir with Plenty of Power in 2001. As much as I admire Anvil, they are obviously far, far more capable than this, so I'm not about to sugarcoat my blasé reaction to this painfully average music. Time for an sonic enema of "Blood on the Ice", "Corporate Preacher" and "Fire in the Night" to purge myself of this lackluster offering.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Written in Torment - Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes (2013)

It's about as subtle as a construction crew haphazardly tearing up the sidewalk outside your flat, but what won me over with Written in Torment's full-debut was the very hypnotic quality of the riffs being carved out of the rhythm guitars. Not by any means unique for the black metal genre, but delivered with such force and conviction that they can transform what might otherwise seem like a vapid plain of blast beats into something more transitive and atmospheric, especially when engineer Johnny Maudling (Bal-Sagoth) contributes some keyboard orchestration that opens another dimension of melody and texture. But that's not the sole strength of this record; multi-instrumentalist Leviathan also doesn't shy away from the incorporation of glorious lead harmonies, pianos, and slower paced sequences ("Eternities of Suffering Endured") that grant the songwriting some much needed variation.

Ultimately, it's original enough that you can't exactly trace it to any one particular influence. In a few of the more mesmerizing floods of tremolo picked guitars ("Earth Decimated") I was reminded of how the German band Endstille chooses its notes, wherein other places there's this all-out attack on the strings redolent of fellow Englishmen Akercocke. Structurally the speed of the music hails from the Scandinavian playbook, but a lot of the riffing progressions don't carry that same feel for melody, especially when the focus is on areas like tapping melodies and dissonance ("O'Fortuna" being a prime example). I'd say a good half of the riffs are stock standard for the genre (like about half of "A Pig Hung in Golgotha"), but there's usually something more interesting waiting in the wings of each of the ten tunes, and considering that they're generally 5-8 minutes in length, I think the author does a fine job of filling them out without truly the dull repetition cycles manifesting through a lot of over-inflated underground black metal. Interestingly enough, the guy's primary instrument was the drums, which you'd hardly be able to tell here, because the guitars are the strongest component.

The bass lines aren't always so interesting, but often enough they'll stray a little from the rhythm guitar. Drums are intense and you get a good punch from the kicks, however I feel like during the blasted sections they can grow a fraction tedious. As for Leviathan's vocals, they're not so much an impish rasp as a drier, brute bark using more of the throat for a weapon, with some grisly sustained lines. Keyboards are tastefully positioned to never intrude or overpower the other instruments; nowhere near as pronounced and important as you'd find on a Bal-Sagoth effort, but you can still make out Maudling's knack for grandeur. The lyrics are more or less a tour of warfare through the centuries, rounded out by some good ol' black metal blasphemy. All told, Written in Torment is another of those projects that comes along and impresses, even if it's not out to revolutionize its medium. The production is clean, Leviathan is a great player, and those who have been heavy on melodic aesthetics since groups like Dissection twined them into their savage architecture will quite enjoy Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes (The War of All Against All) for its studied balance of trampling momentum and triumphant atmosphere.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Pest - The Crowning Horror (2013)

Though the Swedish Pest has always clung to the roots aesthetics of the black metal genre, rarely sounding as if they had stepped out of the early 90s to take a look around at what's happening lately, their latest opus The Crowning Horror goes one further, conjuring an evil and primal innocence through their songwriting that just as well might have arrived 20-25 years ago. If you muddied up the production a bit more, this record might have appeared in 1987 and been worshiped these years as an obscure, unearthed 'first wave' gem. When done properly, like on a few of Vultyr's records or that excellent Head of the Demon debut last year (also from Sweden), I am an absolute sucker for this style, and through its simplicity comes its novelty. A 'past' that never was, manifest into the present climate. The Crowning Horror isn't as doom-driven or atmospheric as the Head of the Demon album, or as abusive as past Pest efforts like Rest in Morbid Darkness or In Total Contempt, it shows a lot of class...

Part of this is achieved through the primarily traditional/purist heavy-metal composition of the riffs, with chord patterns redolent of the dirtier British and German heavy metal of the early 90s more so than the rampant tremolo picked riffing, Celtic Frost/Darkthrone grooves and dissonance we associate with the 'second wave' style. Throw a higher pitched vocalist on The Crowning Horror, especially on a mid-paced piece like "Devil's Mark" or the Sabbath-ian step of "The Abomination of the God", and you'd not even blink twice as dubbing this an entirely different genre. But once the harsh barks (similar to Nocturno Culto or Aura Noir) are delivered, it helps maintain that this is really a hybrid effort, with its feet in one style and its head up another. Add to that the simpler drumming, the perfectly honed level of distortion on the guitars (not too much drive or hiss, but plenty of power), and the fluid punch of the bass lines and you've got yourself a generation-defying album sure to appeal to all the fans of nostalgic happenings, vest metal, etc. Unlike Darkthrone's latest, The Underground Resistance, however, Pest is playing it completely straight, without any of the cheesy attempts at parody vocals and ironic lyricism.

Granted, there are a few points here where Pest slip back into their prior skins, like "Holocaust" or "Demon" where they dial up the pace for some primitive but still atmospheric, familiar black metal riffing and modest blast-like beats, but I think this only further strengthens the record since it evokes a greater variety and reveals that the Swedes aren't just buying solely into the 'retro' thing or shifting perspectives entirely from their prior works (they've always happily waved the old school flag). The leads and melodies exhibit a lot of flashy but controlled techniques and help to round out the rust-flecked rhythms, and they come up with some genuinely killer riff progressions like those in "The Crowning Horror" itself which honor the traditions of speed, thrash, heavy, doom and archaic black metal simultaneously. It's not incredibly original in terms of the music or subject matter, and not all the tunes stick with the same adhesive properties, but all in all I had a blast listening through this, and tracks like "Volcanic Eyes" and "Devil's Mark" will easily find an audience within the cult heavy/extreme metal niches, whether you enjoy Darkthrone, Mortuary Drape, Aura Noir, Venom, Bulldozer, Sarke or even more obscure, evil 80s emissions like Exorcist's Nightmare Theatre or None Shall Defy from Canada's Infernal Majesty.

Crack open a beer, chain up a 'virgin' for some after hours 'role play', smoke up some incense from a fake (or real) skull, and put some Italian cult horror on in the background for good measure. Then hit 'play' and try NOT to smile. And if you don't, well, then you've probably got other problems to attend to.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Acherontas - Amenti - Ψαλμοί Αίματος και Αστρικά Οράματα (2013)

Acherontas is a band which has always gone out of its way to create the most ritualistic, mystic atmosphere possible in Greek black metal, or rather, in all European black metal. Whether this has been achieved through a sweeping brush of orchestration or a more tribal focus is not really in question: either way, when you're going into one of the group's new efforts, your in just as much for the non-metal aesthetics as you are for the tremolo picked guitars and ghastly vocals which buffet the listener like dragon wings. Never has this been the case more so than their latest album, Amenti - Ψαλμοί Αίματος και Αστρικά Οράματα (Catacomb Chants & Oneiric Visions), a substantial, hour plus collection of ideas and layers that occasionally had me riveted.

Seriously, half the album felt like raging against the heavens to the more traditional, Scandinavian styled riffs and pacing; and the other was like sitting in some exotic bazaar two thousand years ago with Dead Can Dance providing the soundtrack. Though they've always been pretty good (especially on Theosis in 2010), Acherontas have never been monsters at concocting the stickiest of guitar progressions; and that has not changed with this, but honestly there is so much happening at any given moment that you're unlikely to lament this omission for long. From simple, churning background chords to lighter, grooving bass lines, bells and other percussion, a panoply of growls, snarls and screams...numerous periods of chanting at the foreground and behind, rhythmic percussion which arrives sauteed in the haze of hashish or the textured and transient melodic eruptions which cascade about the dingy ceiling of the recording, there has been no effort spared in creating a complex (if not complicated) experience that you can pick through numerous times and not have fixated on every individual element.

But the Greeks avoid the calamitous potential such a broadly orchestrated, instrumented might evoke, so that they maintain a consistent, occult exoticism whether firing on all cylinders at the heart of "Set Triumphant - Nubti" or fully immersing themselves into the ancient, Eastern-flavored escapism of "Wines of Blood & Pestilence", with its caravan strings and escalating choir chants that provide what must be one of the most engrossing experiences I've ever had with an Acherontas record. Luckily, segues like this are common enough that you don't feel robbed, or that any one in particular does not stick out against the heavier tunes like a deer in the headlights, which so often happens on albums which incorporate an ethnic, ambient or experimental piece. Plenty to be had here, beyond just the usual into and outro, and never once did I feel like the writing was too cluttered...there aren't too many cooks in this kitchen.

To top it off, while the different tones and levels are hardly bold or brazen, everything is mixed meticulously so you won't miss out on the details. Bass is smooth, drums steady, nimble and potent, and the guitar melodies and harmonies are given just as much of a push as the rhythm guitars. I can't say that a lot of the metal riffs would be quite distinct if peeled apart from the other instruments or the myriad vocals, but they do not really need to be, since they add to rather than subtract from the exotic context of the mythic and black magickal themes of the lyrics. Exquisite but menacing. Whether your poisons include Septic Flesh, Hollenthon, Melechech or earlier Emperor, Rotting Christ and Old Man's Child, this is worth hearing, especially if you enjoyed the previous outing, Vamachara. Actually, I took away more from this than even Theosis, my previous favorite of their catalog.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Profane Prayer - Tales of Vagrancy and Blasphemy (2013)

In seeking out such a purist, stripped perspective on its parent genre's aesthetic bounds, Profane Prayer's sophomore album Tales of Vagrancy and Blasphemy winds up just another stitch of withered flesh onto the vast skin-quilt of traditional European black metal. Anyone who might be expecting the rarer, Hellenic sense of melodic identity here will be soundly disappointed, since this is more or less tracing a lineage straight from the originators: Mayhem, Darkthrone, Bathory, and a few of their followers like Horna, Khold and Craft immediately came to mind through the very basic riffing patterns and the guitar tone, which is dry and raw but produced cleanly enough that your ears won't bleed.

There is little to no atmosphere beyond the core instrumentation: no keys, samples, no fogbanks of reverb to witch away the wretched vocals into the distance, and lead guitars are also anathema to their process of song construction. Some might laud this very 'roots' approach to writing, but unfortunately there were pitifully few riffing progressions of interest. Slower, rock-paced grooves (circa Darkthrone) are alternated with some standard blast beat/tremolo picked floods of despondency, while they occasionally implement some more dissonant, open picked guitars that bring you back to Norway in the 90s. The almost 'black metal blues' atmosphere of the opening cut "A Grave in Silence" had me thinking they might have more of a doom/black vibe, and I dug the bass guitar grooves and the dispirited, spacious riffing there, but this was soon eschewed for more familiar chord sequences and very little by way of interesting or memorable ideas.

On the production side, I thought the album was decent. The distorted bass tone manages to stand out even against the louder rhythm guitars, and the drumming is flexible and organic. As I mentioned, there's a primacy to the rhythm guitars due to the distortion, but they don't exactly configure into anything truly threatening or evil sounding due to the lack of eerie melodies outside of a few chord textures. Vocally this is pretty much the run-of-the-mill, wretched rasp we've come to expect from a million bands, but 'The Saint' handles this as well as most, with a few layered snarls applied to evoke added diabolism. As for the transitions and the actual structural dynamics of the songs, I have few complaints...I only wish they were built of more distinct riff progressions which I'd want to come back to. But beyond a few seconds of atmosphere, like the bell that tolls to inaugurate "A Grave in Silence" or the cleaner vocal that heralds "Silence", it's fairly barren terrain.

I remember reading about the group's debut Eye of Sin in 2011, around the same time I was covering the whole Greek black metal scene through chronological reviews, but I wasn't able to track that down and include it, so I can't speak to any changes here. In the end, I found Tales... too void of individuality and ideas to really distract me for long, even if it's by no means an offensive or terribly dull affair. They're not the only Greek group to play it so straight (Ravencult, Dodsferd and Naer Mataron all fit this description), but even compared to these they come up a little short. Didn't hate this, but didn't care either. Recommended only if you've just not gotten enough of this simplistic adherence to the black metal blueprint, but you could fare better in that market.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sad - Devouring the Divine (2013)

About the worst criticism I can evoke for Devouring the Divine is that it proves another Sad recording that dwells around the median of the black metal genre: standard songwriting techniques with tight execution, but nothing particularly poignant or memorable apart from a few of the harmonic textures of the dual guitar lines. That said, these Greeks have always had a decent standard in terms of production, and their latest is no exception, with a professional mix allowing all the instruments to shine through, while desperately surging below the suicidal snarls and rasps of Nadir's very up-front delivery. In fact, the clarity of the delivery bolsters the strength of the riffs, which are almost exclusively centered on tremolo picking wastelands of sorrowful note progressions that ebb and flow with the meatier transitions into chords.

There's a bit of the 'Transilvanian Hunger Effect' here, in which a lot of songs follow the same general tempo and then seem to bleed into one another, but like that album, I can't say that I found the material boring or redundant in the slightest...simply consistent. A lot of tracks are 6-8 minutes in length, but shorter on average than Abandoned and Forgotten, and each packed with at least a half dozen decent rhythm guitar patterns that allow them some degree of variation. As usual, Sad is more cognizant of Swedish and Norse influences than their Greek neighbors, so the melodies are often built from the mold of bands like Bathory and Dissection, with the strongest resemblance possibly to Arckanum, if not as catchy in their simplicity. The beats are all basic blasts or uptempo trots, without much personality since the focus is so heavily on the guitars and vocals, but there are enough fills to feel like they're not on autopilot. The bass lines offer an added layer of melodic undercurrent to the streaming riffs, but otherwise aren't wholly interesting, which I can somewhat forgive seeing that there's just one guy handling all instruments.

Admittedly, once you've made it past the first few tunes, "Cursed Be the Light" and "Grim Reflection", there aren't a whole lot of surprises, and by the time you hit the finale, "I Bleed a Lake", you feel like you're just treading the same ground as 37-38 minutes leading up to it. But that's Sad. Not a band you're listening to for innovation or a high level of dynamics; albums will differ mildly from one another, but they've always stuck to the same general path and they show no signs of deviation. You know what you're getting before you even you begin listening, and in the case of Devouring the Divine, it's certainly a passable effort. I still think that Ungod is better used in the blackened thrash cult Slaughtered Priest than any of his other projects (Kvele, Necrohell, Insidius Infernus, and this one), but ultimately this is the strongest Sad full-length since A Curse in Disguise, and if you enjoyed any or all of their offerings, then I doubt your feelings will change here. Solid.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (your sleep will be mine)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Thou Art Lord - The Regal Pulse of Lucifer (2013)

Thou Art Lord have never released a bad album, but they've also never release a particularly great one either. However, they are trying pretty damn hard to change that through The Regal Pulse of Lucifer, a catchy full-length which fondly summons up comparisons to both their earlier records like Eosforos, and several of the seminal efforts of their brother band Rotting Christ, like Thy Mighty Contract or Triarchy of the Lost Lovers. In fact, I was quite shocked at just how fluently this album brought on a nostalgia for the 'Golden Age' of Hellenic black metal, when the prominent bands in this region were taking a more tangibly melodic and mid-paced path rather than the oft ceaseless blasting grime and tremolo flood associated with many bands in the Scandinavian scene. This is varied, memorable, atmospheric material, which even at its cheesiest provides entertainment, and I'll go out on a limb to claim that it's their best record yet, effortlessly recommended to anyone who enjoys the particular sound.

I'll go one further: I've enjoyed this album more than the past decade of Rotting Christ material. Granted, the differences are minimal, and if you had Necromayhem/Sakis Tolis handling the vocals full time instead of Gothmog, it'd be difficult to distinguish the two on a cut like "Nine Steps to Hell". But let's not diminish the presence of 'The Magus' Warmpyr Daoloth on bass and keys, or new members Maelstrom on drums (who has played in a shit ton of bands including Dodsferd, Nadiwrath, Ravencult and Abyssgale) or El of Nergal and Soulskinner on guitars and additional keyboards. I mean, when you just look upon the long list of works associated with this quintet, it's no wonder that they're so capable of creating such purism of the past...several of them are the very same individuals who pioneered it. Necromayhem's crisp, staccato picking techniques and slower, majestic note progressions lie at the heart of this experience, of course. A track like "Infernarium" begs the question: what if Rotting Christ had hired Tom G. Warrior to sing on Triarchy of the Lost Lovers? Elsewhere, "L'Evangelium de Diable" and "Artificial Malevolence" manifest immediate, passionate melodies that will stick in my brain for months to come.

The vocals are consistently brutish and ghastly, with Tolis and Wampyr lending their own nefarious timbres in support of Gothmog's guttural might. Bass guitars are actually pretty timid for Daoloth, a man used to driving his own main band with the very same instrument, but the tone booms sufficiently along with Maelstrom's blasting and there's just enough happening with the rhythm guitar harmonies and frilly, spectral lead sequences that I can forgive a lack of corpulent and distorted bass grooves. Synthesizers are total old school ambient screams against the infernal night of "Nine Steps to Hell", while guitars and keys are also used to embed the freakish but subtle effects off the beat, like the squeals in the breakdown of that very same track, peppered over the old school Celtic Frost-style groove. I should point out that the record is structured and pace to maintain the listeners' interests throughout, moving in equal measure through faster and mid-paced numbers, or capturing a wider range within a single piece, i.e. "The Regal Pulse of Lucifer" itself with its morose Gothic pianos in the verse.

There's a fantastic 'Easter egg' at the close of the album ("Fire and Blood") in which the band offers up a tremolo picked metallic rendition of Ramin Djawadi's opening theme for the Game of Thrones TV series, instantly recognizable and proof that these Greeks have great taste in fiction as well as music; but to be honest I was equally pleased throughout by the original material. A few note progressions here or there seemed familiar and 'generic' for the genre, but in general it felt like they were putting some effort into shiny new patterns that would remain sweet on the ears. Layered with all the effects, the multi-pronged vocal attack, and the intense and level rhythmic consistency of the new drummer, The Regal Pulse of Lucifer is unquestionably a 'complete package' whose subtleties don't fade after the first few listens. I've been going over it for about a week now in my car and still haven't stopped smiling. Varathron, Nergal, Rotting Christ, Necromantia and obviously earlier Thou Art Lord fans rejoice.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]!/

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cadaveric Fumes - Macabre Exaltation EP (2012)

The glory of the vinyl repressing strikes once more, for without the MLP Blood Harvest release of Cadaveric Fumes' 2012 demo Macabre Exaltation, I might likely not have encountered the Frenchmen for a spell longer than it took. And yet, I've got a feeling that many people will be having such an encounter before long...because this is a ridiculously awesome, bowel churning concoction of classic death metal which borrows only marginally from the Swedish scene of the early 90s, with a liberal seasoning of Autopsy, and as a pièce de résistance, splashes in a sense of unusual, warm harmony to a sampling of the guitar progressions, plus some killer ritual dark ambiance to round out the undead throttling of the necrotic fleshed riffing patterns.

In short, I enjoyed the pants off this damn thing. The tone of the guitars is fucking unreal, a bulky and filthy overdrive that manages to sustain its punch in both the more meticulous muted picking (intro to "Vault of the Haunted Mist") and the morbid melodies that the Fumes are deliriously unafraid to implement. A lot of the guitar structures draw upon records like Mental Funeral, Onward to Golgotha or Scream Bloody Gore for inspiration, and you can just hear the crud and worms dripping off these damn axe lines, but they're also capable of embedding some faint spikes of dissonance that create a barely tangible nod to black metal. The
drums, in particular the kicks, are not as bold or brazen as in other death metal dinosaurs, but with guitars this ghoulish, they're still audible enough to evoke that an ubiquitous, earthquake foundation over which the skin tearing riffs can stretch themselves. Distant organs and other effects are often thrown in there to build subtle hints of horror (like in the bridge of "Gravecrusher"), but overall, even though a few of the guitars do radiate a warmer, emotional aura, you just come away from Macabre Exaltation feeling unclean (in the best of ways).

Dank, necromancer gutturals aren't exactly pronounced above the guitars, but they really create this sense of suffocated accompaniment to the more intricate picking, like a ghast that gets trapped after some sinkhole opens in the local graveyard. I suppose Macabre Exaltation does scratch a similar itch to a lot of the more 'cavernous' retro-death metal released in the past 5-years, and I think its lineage of influence is quite clear, but Cadaveric Fumes is ultimately an exercise in how to properly compose such material without becoming dull, predictable or repetitive. You won't always guess what is coming next. The track lengths and riffing styles offer sufficient dynamics throughout the four metal cuts, and it feels like some unburied treasure. This is just that awesome. So if you haven't heard it yet (and considering the limited press of its tape incarnation, that is likely the case), make a correction, especially if you're into Krypts, Vasaeleth, Innumerable Forms, Portal, Abyssal, etc.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bölzer - Aura EP (2013)

Switzerland, in its eminent neutrality, has never been the most prolific exporter of high quality metal music, but it seems like each decade you can count on some ephemeral wave of darkness to explode out of that country; in the 80s, it was Celtic Frost and Coroner, followed by the great Samael in the 90s, and now...Bölzer? With their Aura EP, the Zurich duo embarks on a refreshing tour of some classic black and death metal influences, but they stand up and own them with a fresh layer of ritualistic atmosphere that seems to reverberate off the walls of the Alps before escaping into the cosmos beyond. To be blunt, I wish I heard a lot more bands taking chances like this one does; too often do you hear the same old, tired 20-25 year-in-the-past US/Swedish death worship which fanatics tend to laud strictly through a sense of apathetic nostalgia. But I promise you: Bölzer evokes a sound both ancient and current.

The rhythm guitars have an enormous but ripping tone to them which can support both the drudging cemetery dirt of the low-end chords and the band's uncanny sense of harmony which pervades the exotic, immediately memorable tremolo picked progressions and grooves of "Entranced by the Wolfshook". A truly absorbing piece, and my favorite among the three on the EP, despite some stiff composition from its neighbors. The vocals range between broad, echoing van Drunen growls and raving lunatic barks and howls, but then the band will also tear into these manly mid-ranged cleans. I know its an unusual blend, but I often felt the music was like a collaboration between Incantation, earlier Samael and Mastodon, especially when those open vocal intonations arrive in the bridge of "Entranced...". Hell, the EP's finale, a nearly 11 minute behemoth called "The Great Unifier", is like a perfect hybrid of atmospheric blackened death-sludge, which effortlessly storms between blasted streams of dissent and sodden breakdown grooves. It's quite good, DAMN good, and eschews the normal sense of unnecessary repetition often associated with fattened track lengths.

Bass guitars don't seem to be a factor in this sound, but the richness of the rhythm guitar carving is so dense and atmospheric, simultaneously ethereal and crushing that the ears will only rarely need to wander from them, and usually to the vocals. The drums of HzR are vital and propulsive, though, and the substantial periods of tribal-based tom smashing lend the album much of its mountainous, Cyclopean flavor, a more esoteric and externalized sense of being than you usually get from Bölzer subterranean peers. It does not suffocate; it exhales. This music does not sound like it's being performed in a cave, but from the hills and heights, challenging the sky to swallow it, and it takes on a beautiful/ominous contrast, a mythic quality that glues the listener to a sizable swath of relistens that he/she might graze on its magnificence. Transcendental, memorable, earth-shaking and night-slaked ideas. Varied enough without losing consistency. Very eager to hear if Bölzer can pull off this level of expression on a full-length; but, for now, Aura is ample fulfillment.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]

Friday, May 17, 2013

Aggressa - Nuclear Death EP + (1988)

Australian metal in the 80s is somewhat of a gray area for me, being familiar only with some of the most popular acts, and even then, my knowledge of anything before the extreme metal down under outbreak of the 90s is hazy at best. So hearing Aggressa's Nuclear Death EP after about 25 years of blissful ignorance should have been something of a celebration, with a bottle of expensive whiskey and an evening of banging my fat head into unconsciousness. Instead, it wound up rating only one cold beer at best, and a cheap one at that. Decidedly average and dirty heavy/speed metal with a pretty bland riffing selection, the only true strength ironically being the lack of polished production to the rhythm guitars, and the more aggressive barking of the vocalist (in particular on "Voo Doo Doll" where it reaches a wretched rasp along to the more thrashing/speed riffs), which often hints that the band was headed in a more extreme direction, but the music hadn't exactly caught up.

The darker Aggressa gets, the better the results, but unfortunately the verse riffs to cuts like "Break Down the Walls" or "Torture and Pain" feel like your standard British fare circa Priest, Venom and Motörhead had already mastered well before this. Mid-paced stuff with some lighter palm muted picking that will then erupt into a more punkish chord anthem, but I can't say there was a single series of notes here that in any way surprised me or had me drooling to listen further. The leads are frivolous, noisy middle fingers that arrive unceremoniously where you'd expect them. There's a particular charm to the lewd and churning tone with its primitive distortion levels, and the singer's angry enough to pull off his own charisma, coming off with a bit of punk/crossover/splatter vibe. But you're just not getting the sort of memorable chorus patterns you'd expect from this period. Kind of a bar band atmosphere being created; sure, you'd look up from the bottom of your cup/misery, and perhaps even throw the blokes the horns, but it's not about to replace Kill 'Em All or Sign of the Hammer in your stereo, or even make it onto your stereo. The drums are ratty and crashy sounding, the bass lines rarely interesting even when bouncing along on their own (the intro to the "Phantom Stage Diver"), and both contribute to this sort of 'diamond in the rough, OF the rough' mentality popular in today's underground, where people are constantly trying to unearth more underground materials like this.

It's a bit meaner sounding than the average commercial/trending radio metal of the day, and has more in common with Canadian groups like Exciter or Piledriver musically than Quiet Riot or the Scorpions, but most of the guitars still seem pretty familiar even for '88. I also have to say, even if the bonus demo versions included with the Nuclear Death EP are even filthier and cruder in production, they benefit from a more vivacious, DIY atmosphere to the extent that I preferred them. "Religious Bloodshed", which is likely the most entertaining and smile-inducing tune on the release, with some whacky higher pitched vocals breaking out in the chorus and easily the best guitar riffs, also wasn't part of the EP, so I'm glad they threw that on here as a bonus. Ultimately, though, too many of the tracks suffered from stale riffing. There's certainly a core audience of rare metal connoisseurs and rabid Metalucifer/Abigail fanatics who will eat this shit alive, but aside from its attitude and obscurity, this just wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed musically, which might be why I'd never heard of it. I warmed up a few times to the rawness of the spectacle, but the songs themselves just didn't hook me.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Insanity - Death After Death (1994)

Perhaps it was the artistic exodus from metal that plagued the middle of the 90s, or perhaps it was the bland band moniker (there must be at least a dozen other Insanities), or perhaps even that San Francisco's Insanity was playing such a heavily 80s hybrid of thrash and death metal in a time when brutality, technicality, gore soaked and misogynist lyrics were emerging as the preeminent factors in the field. Even if all three factors contributed to this record's obscurity, I think it would be hard to argue that Death After Death deserved better than it got, and in today's heavily nostalgic underground climate, this Hell's Headbangers vinyl reissue is definitely likely to stab the attention spans of those who were previously ignorant of its existence.

Of course, just how 'death metal' this album is/was will vary by perspective. Treacherously little of the morbid tremolo-styled riffs or crushing palm-muted grooves one would expect. Personally I find it to be a more hyperactive mesh of speed and thrash metal with some more-aggressive-than-normal vocals had they been on an 80s record; almost as if you cranked up the celerity of Possessed, welded in some wild licks that wouldn't have been out of question for Dave Mustaine to perform in his prime, and perhaps a hint of other psycho blitzers like Whiplash, (early) Exodus and Dark Angel for good measure. Splatter speed. Morbid Saint and Ripping Corpse might also be decent reference points, but for my money, both of them had transitioned further over into the death spectrum. The drums of Bud Mills, though, could definitely be counted among the Hoglans and Lombardos in their impact on more extreme metal later. But regardless of its precise classification, Death After Death is the sort of invigorated, energizing affair that occasionally eschews rhyme and reason for a crash bang wallop of accelerated abuse that might damn well appeal to thrash/speed purists, proto-death mavens, or even those crossover fans who like a more metallic centrism to the material. It's not incredibly memorable, but it very much puts me back into that mid to late 80s mood (rather than the 90s in which it was dropped).

Calculated, spastic street riffing dominates pieces like "Attack of Archangels", "Morbid Lust", and "Blood for Blood" (coincidentally my favorites here), but the band sounds cruel and raw even when slowing to a mid-paced neck straining sequence. The leads are lunacy given flesh, flashy and spurious but not so gratingly atonal and caustic as, say, Slayer. The drums are definitely capable of sustaining a double bass rampage, and the kicks and snappy snares definitely distinguish themselves in the mix. Bass playing here is pretty busy too, but subjugated by the rhythm guitars, unfortunately pretty standard for thrash of the late 80s/early 90s. What I'm most impressed with are the surgical sounding lead/melody lines embedded into riffs like the one at the minute mark in "Possession", or leading off "Rotting Decay", which coincidentally also has some of the best bass guitar progressions on the record. Interestingly enough composed that I think Insanity lives up to their (rather generic) name, and might have had a more visible career in technical thrash ala later Nasty Savage had they only arrived with this full-length a few years earlier (they were still doing demos for much of the 80s).

I should also say that the vocals here are quite primal and abusive, occasionally with a little growl to the sustained notes, but otherwise like a mix of Don Doty, Nasty Ronnie and Jeff Becerra. Over the top and murderous barking which often sounds like a one-man gang shout. They really don't have much by way of a memorable chorus anywhere, but most of the tunes are at least as exhilarating as a night at the zoo when a predator becomes uncaged and starts mutilating the guests. Insanity also tries its hand at acoustic passages ("In Memory") and exhibit some classical picking/training; feels thinly produced, and a little out of place and disjointed with the metal intensity, but hinting at broader musical tastes. In the end, while I wasn't entirely in love with the album, there are at least 5-6 tunes on Death After Death which are pedal to the metal, balls out ballistic exercises worth pursuing. A marginal cult classic status is deserved, and with the vastly improved cover artwork for the new gatefold vinyl, it might be time for collectors or fanatics for any of the other bands I name-checked in this review to end their negligence and give Insanity a listen. Unless they/you already HAVE, in which case have another golden star.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Crystal Castles (III) - 2012

Ed note: the album review contains notes on a live show, which was held at The Beacham in Orlando, FL on 16 April 2013.  Crystal Castles took the stage roughly around midnight after opening act Doldrums.

From the outset of Crystal Castles' third self-titled effort, you can tell not everything is right.  Even before listening, the album art invokes some sense of discomfort.  It features a hooded figure shrouded in black except for its maniacal grin--female?--embracing a naked male form.

 The opening track immediately begins with a nightmarish siren of sorts, perhaps signaling some fel beast coming from planes where reality is unstable.  Slowly synths stagger forward methodically, and we hear Alice Glass's voice for the first time.  Here she is lulling, but it's not long before her distorted, airy, distant pseudo-punk vocals begin shouting, almost unintelligble, except for one line: "I AM PLAGUE!"  Almost as if that is the only part of the song we are meant to understand.

Alice Glass is the unquestionable image of Crystal Castles, adorning most all of its merchandise in offbeat ways.  A bloody, Madonna-esque drawing.  As two pink, naked succubi with their tongues lolling.  That image carries onto the stage, with her torn tights and punk boots, thrifted clothing hanging loosely off her gaunt figure.  She drinks directly from a large bottle of vodka in one hand she carries with her frequently, the fiery cherry of her cigarette occasionally flaring up in the dark on stage.

Her performance is littered with her crowdsurfing, while she continues to sing.  It's become a fetish of fans to do everything they can to touch her. When she leaps down, there's a sudden surge of bodies forward in the crowd and it's easy to find yourself completely flattened on all sides, like Kirby.  There's other assorted hijinks that, perhaps, should stay with those who saw that individual show.  Needless to say, Alice is a miscreant.

Ethan Kath, who represents half of Crystal Castles, is less prominent yet equally impressive.  He was honored, along with Alice, together, as the #1 Icons of 20 Years at Lollapalooza.  Live, he is found usually slumped over, tinkering with his keys and nobs and pedals and switches, typically quiet except to occasionally berate the crowd for not being loud enough.

Interestingly, though Kath and Glass both come from punk backgrounds, their contemporary music sounds decidedly electronic: specifically (III).  Certain tracks would make instant dance club favorites, especially one track called "Sad Eyes," whereupon its beginning literally everyone in the crowd started jumping up and down rapidly.  A personal favorite for obvious reasons.

Each song is beautifully cut from the same fabric, customized and woven back together into a beautiful quilt of dark, electronic goodness where dark lords command skeletal stormtroopers, as the landscape slowly fades into a pixellated, poisoned point in the distance.  Faded black, shot through with purple, blue, pink and blinding white.  Banners of false prophets streaming in the wind.

Perhaps the most charming thing to me about Crystal Castles is its refusal to take itself too seriously.  Alice and Ethan make a true spectacle of a show, and played almost two sets when I saw them.  They're a true treat, and to venture sounding like a fanboy, one of my favorite acts.  I often pine to relive the show I saw, a bittersweet feeling.

Post-it note: Doldrums was impressive as the first act, featuring an odd looking frontman who spent most of his time singing using a custom-built suitcase with vocal effects built in it to make himself sound female or terrifying, and anything else he desired.  The band is unique and worth investigating.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.314159.../10]

you can't disguise sad eyes

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ash Borer - Cold of Ages (2012)

After the considerable raving hype I had experienced for Ash Borer's eponymous 2011 debut, I have to say that the final product I listened to was quite underwhelming. While appreciating the meditative quality of the Californians' music, there often seemed to little by way of ideas to fill out the large space occupied by a couple of the songs; and the riffing progressions were really quite bland, even if they successfully conveyed the heavily atmospheric intentions of the quartet. As it turned out, ash boring was...rather boring, but hardly something to foist a lot of grief upon, since there was clearly a vision underlying the sounds and themes that, with further gestation, was bound to evoke something poignant. Sure enough, enter Cold of Ages, the sophomore outing, and already the rougher edges were being smoothed over, the note selection of the largely tremolo based riffing superior, and the ambient passages and noise experimentation more transcendent and engrossing.

That's not to say that I love this album, but it's certainly one of those cases where I admire the consistency and craftsmanship on exhibition. The pacing and construction, for example, of how they build "Descended Lamentations" from a miasma of solemn ambiance and depressive, repetitive clean guitar plucking to a rush of dissonant, crud-encased chords and then even some slower, doom-spawned harmonies in its depths. Or "Convict All Flesh", the 18+ minute piece which opens with similar, sluggish doom guitars and a convocation of snarls and rising ethereal background swells to another fit of corrosive, moderately blasted mayhem. I was a bit letdown again that the quality of these epics played out in a very plane-like nature, where repetition and lack of climactic transitions led to an expanse of flat emotions that were so rarely exciting or anomalous. The architecture is quite predictable and typically shifts between two tempos. But there's enough atmosphere and fine tuning that I never feel groggy or completely uninterested in what's coming next. There are more riffs to experience throughout, and the quality has been tweaked so that about 50% of them are actually interesting, though often looped around a few measures too much for my liking.

Scandinavian-styled progressions, with a bit more Sweden than Norway in the melody department, are measured off against feeds of rougher discord, or majestic lamentation. Clearly there's a hint of the until recently trending 'blackgaze' or post-rock to some of the woozier guitar lines, but I was surprised at just how 'traditional' much of the writing felt, as if it wouldn't have been out of place in the second-third waves of the early through mid 90s. The drumming is efficient enough through the tunneling double bass patterns and the steady snares, but I didn't find a lot of character there, almost as if the beats were too subordinate to the whole idea of an existential meditation rather than the vicious intensity we so often find in the genre. The bass guitars are seeped in appropriate ooze, but yet often just wailing away in a tremolo pattern that sacrifices the possibility of further expanding the music's melodic dimensions for pure, anchored texture. Interestingly, the vocals are quite sparse in terms of syllabic delivery. Very often, they're used as just another instrument which grinds off against the nihilistic gray nebula Ash Borer inhabits, but then again, I cannot imagine another style being used here aside from the standard, gnarled rasp.

All told, even if there were a number of minutes where I would find myself checking the clock, I found that I was able to develop a stronger relationship to Cold of Ages than its predecessor. Just not to the extent that I'd flag it to friends as 'you've GOT to hear this', or that I'd reach for it over countless hundreds of other black metal efforts that are more entertaining, revelatory or abusive. The songs are quite long and some might argue 'pretentious' for the number of interesting twists and turns they actually deliver, but if you constantly find yourself with 60+ minutes to kill, you can get lost in its bleak cosmos for a spell; which I'm sure is the point of the thing. Decent US black metal which is likely to appeal to fans of other, like minded 'Cascadian' artists (Agalloch, WITTR). A little less dynamic, maybe, but it beats the hell out of the janky and disjointed diuretics of frustrating groups like Liturgy or Krallice, who only ever feel 'half on' at best.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Necroccultus - Solemnelohim, Bringer of Death EP (2013)

Hidden away from most eyes and ears, the Mexican metal region has strung together quite a thrifty little old school death metal scene, with acts like Denial and Zombiefication releasing some worthwhile output in Catacombs of the Grotesque & At the Caves of Eternal respectively. But a few years earlier, there was already an act plying the tepid morass of early 90s atrocity, and that was Necroccultus, whose ranks are in fact strengthened by members of a number of other underground bands from that scene, including a couple of guys from Denial. Solemnelohim, Bringer of Death is not my first brush with the outfit, as I've got some vague recollections of their 2005 full-length Encircling the Mysterious Necrorevelation. What a title, right, because EVERYTHING works better with a necroprefix. See what I mean? Anyway, this latest EP through Blood Harvest has to be one of the most straightforward, down to earth examples of necroretro death metal you're going to hear anytime soon, and considering just how popular the stuff lately, should win them some new fans.

Definitely conjured recollections of the first few Incantation records, only with a more muscular guitar tone, and vocals that are less abyssal, cavernous and unnerving. And when I say 'muscular', I mean that the amps sound like they're about to bust open under the strain of the chords. Most of the material is either molded into steady, mid-paced tremolo guitars that are either muted or writhing open, but they'll occasionally snap off into a solid blast beat, or a seriously weird and evil groove slightly reminiscent of Demilich. The vocals have a dense, bloody brutishness to them which is not exactly dynamic, but rings out like a pastiche of all your favorite death metal front men from the 90s (Benton, Reifert, Dolan, Vincent, Willetts, Pillard, etc). Drums are a bit poppy sounding, especially against the churning necrobulk of the rhythm guitars, but you can still distinguish them through the speakers. Same could be said for the bass, which blends in all too smoothly with the rhythm guitars to stand against them unless you can hear the fuzzy lines alone (like where they hit a few notes in "Aeons of Spectral Morbidity"). But hey, at least the rhythm guitars sound fat and festering, and the frightening, uncontrolled leads that rip off into the atmosphere add a nice ghoulish necrotouch to the proceedings.

I was impressed by the note selection in the first tune here ("Dimensions of Necromancy"), which is also the strongest, since it played with familiar patterns by imbuing some interesting necrolines, but the further I went into the 4 cuts and 20 minutes, the less impressed I became. It's all very consistent in style, but perhaps too much so, and it becomes a bit difficult to pick out much individuality beyond those messy, cemetery necroleads. The last tune "The Equinox of Unburied Ones" had some cool, down shifted 'narrative' vocals that added a nice chill alongside the growling, but other than that this is all straight-to-the-face-with-a-graveyard-spade, wretched death metal that aesthetically, beyond the voluminous production values, tends to ignore any and all developments in the genre over the last 20 years. Which is exactly why some folks are going to love the shit out of it, but I came off thinking it decent yet unable to hold my attention for very long. At any rate, if an unholy union between Incantation, Bolt Thrower, Autopsy, Demilich and Blessed Are the Sick era Morbid Angel sounds necrodelicious, then give these guys a necrotasting. Their music, I mean.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Nocturne - Ave Noctem (2013)

Dan Klein is the sort of musician who pisses me off (in a good way), because the guy's a beast on just about every instrument he lays his paws on. Which is a good thing, since he's the sole member of the Chicagoan project Nocturne. Generally when I'm hearing the first official release from a one-man or 'bedroom' black metal outfit, I am not expecting the level of overall proficiency and attention to detail paid on Ave Noctem. Sure, a guy might be a great guitar player, keyboardist or rasper, but Klein absolutely manhandles the drums and bass guitar, keeping them busy enough that even the most simplistic or atmospheric of guitar chord progressions doesn't hold the songwriting back. I'm not implying that this is an incredibly memorable album or that all its components are necessarily interesting of their own accord, but nowhere is Ave Noctem 'phoned in', and if I were to grade music simply on effort, this would be at the head of the class, because you can just hear the hunger rolling off every riff, groove, and fill.

Aesthetically, the guitars remind me a lot of the Scandinavian camp, in particular some of Satyr's playing on the mid-era Satyricon releases. Or maybe a bit of Quorthon/Bathory's earlier Viking-era riffing, or later Immortal. However, Klein imbues a lot of gladiatorial atmosphere in his chord choices ("Anxiopath", etc), so you feel like you're witnessing the carnal festivities from the side street of a bullfight, or the bleachers of an arena soon to be slaked with blood. Lots of intricate, airy chords being slung around, he's not just interested in pure, unchecked savagery. That said, he also incorporates spurts of fairly technical, dextrous muted phrases that create a contrast against the more solemn, expressive black metal chords. The drums are simply fantastic throughout, whether he's laying out a full-on double bass barrage, blast or something rock-based. Bass lines are imbued with lots of melody that plays to the strength of the rhythm guitar without necessarily copying it, and this circles on back to what I was mentioning earlier about the sheer balance of the record. No one instrument really outshines the rest, which is a rarity for solo acts in this medium. As for the vocals, they're your typical deep retching snarls, but he'll occasionally use some understated, rustic cleans ("Rites of Contrition", "Pain of Purity") which remind me of other folk-influenced black metal acts like Enslaved.

In fact, 90s/00s Enslaved is a great comparison for Ave Noctem overall, even if this is less atmospheric, progressive or mind-blowing. Riffs are varied to prevent even the longest tracks from becoming boring, and melody and aggression are meticulously counter-weighted to keep the composition fresh. You definitely get an epic heavy metal undercurrent in some of the tunes that might remind you of I's Between Two Worlds or the last two Immortal discs. The writing is both glorious and hostile in equal measures, especially some of the faster runs in "The Prodigious Plight", and the album's got itself at least a good dozen riff patterns that stick in your thoughts well after listening. I'd like to hear some exciting, sticky leads in here, but the fact that he's already pulling quadruple duty sort of exempts their presence. There aren't a lot of heavily experimented touches that change styles, with the exception of the titular interlude "Ave Noctem", spacious but brief post-rock piece with drifting, cleaner guitars. Lyrics are actually a bit unusual for this genre, since they are deeply internal/personal and have a doom-like quality about them. But ultimately, to think that it's all just one person is pretty shocking, since you don't usually get such a complete package. We're not talking the intentionally under-polished, grimy atmospheric depressive BM like you'd expect out of Striborg or Xasthur. No, if someone told you this was a new four-piece from Norway, you'd be hard-pressed to disbelieve it. Klein is THAT seasoned, and this debut is an obvious labor of love, which I obviously liked.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, May 13, 2013

Zom - Multiversal Holocaust EP (2013)

First heard of ZOM a couple years ago when folks were buzzing over their demo, and admittedly there's a certain novelty to the fact that they hail from Dublin, Ireland. Not the first place one thinks of when mentally referencing hotbeds of ugly, harrowing, old school death metal darkness, but this particular trio is obviously not privy to such generalizations, since they evoke one of the most wretched and entertaining sounds I've heard in this entire 'return to the roots' movement so popular in the past five years. Fusing together elements of raw black and death metal with an occasional death/doom sense of motion, I can only imagine that the  Multiversal Holocaust 7" EP resembles the sound of the devil in the throes of a terribly painful bowel movement. You might think I mean that as some sort of 'slight', but no, in fact, I think this is quite genuinely fucking awesome. ZOM throws all sense of intricacy, caution and taste to the wind, and it blows back septic, sulfurous and eminently rotten.

The title track ranges from ritual, dark intro ambiance, to a noisy, blasting epileptic seizure, to a morass of monolithic, dreary crushing doom over which a searing, depressive melody ranges, like watching cattle graze on some fiery plain of Hell. They even bust out a monstrous, roiling thrash passage near the close of the tune (and another in "Terror of the Cosmos"). Guitars have a tone the consistency leprous, festering flesh, while the bass lines are so corrosive that they could probably cleanse the nastier tile grout on your bathroom floor. Drums manifest a steady, crashing diatribe that functions beautifully alongside the genuine rawness of the riff progressions, and the vocals here are like a mixture of Martin van Drunen's coarse, grotesque guttural sustain with fits of unintelligible raving that reminded me of early filth-grind like Napalm Death's Scum, or some of the most suicidal post-Burzum black metal you can imagine. In fact, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to imagine the creators of this limiting their influences to that record, as well as the early works of Autopsy, Nihilist, Repulsion, Slayer, Possessed, Asphyx and Carcass. Nothing here sounds as if it was conceived past maybe 1991-2, with the exception of the vast, tumultous vocal mix with loads of reverb echoing out over the primal foundation.

Granted, there are only two tracks here, being a 7", and a few folks might already have them from the extremely limited demo they handed out last year, but not a second goes past on this EP in which I don't feel genuinely terrified, or at least as shaken as this style is going to get me being that I'm no longer 12.  I can't also claim that the individual components of the sound are also that original or perfect, whether being the choices in production or the riffing choices. Yet the way it all comes together like the mismatched limbs of a composite corpse in some Frankenstein lab definitely feels fresh and revitalized despite its hideous throwback stench. Few such younger bands are capable of such ugly songwriting that manages to retain itself in the listener's memory, even without the presence of novel melodies or terribly impressive riffs, but ZOM is so meticulously balanced on the precipice of revulsion and control that I just can't get enough of these songs. A win for Iron Bonehead Productions and for anyone who enjoys a whiff of a freshly opened tomb or unearthed grave. Death and puke forever.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Ogdru Jahad - I (2013)

At the risk of alienating my saner readers, the best means I can find to describe Ogdru Jahad's debut album is to imagine if your local public sewer system, due to some toxic evolutionary tampering, gained its own sentience and then wrote a metal record influenced by whatever barbaric shit it could find lying around, like long abandoned copies of Bestial Warlust, Blasphemy, Havohej and Teitanblood albums. That the members of this Danish act hail from the ranks of other acts like Sadomator is no surprise, since this is a match in ugliness for just about anything else you have ever heard from that particular country, rivaling even Undergang, and therein lies its charm: for whatever I lacks in riffing strength, it makes up for utter disregard for warmth and melody. Flagrantly disgusting blackened wardirt deathfilth that rivals another Iron Bonehead act (ZOM) in its primal, antagonistic girth.

This is not some lost suite from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It's a putrid excretion of murky, churning rhythm guitars whose riffing tropes are drawn from a plethora of archaic extreme metal and hardcore sources, driven by an often monotonous, moderately paced blasted drum kit, and then smothered in guttural vocal corruption which is little more than a primitive war-bark which varies only in how long the singer decides to sustain his wretched, gravelly intonation. Spurts of tremolo picking and an occasional, lurching sequence (like those in "Hobo of Nazareth" or the closer "It Is Done...") are about the intercessions the listener will receive from the constant battering, and this is not an album one should seek out for exquisite musicality or even a small dynamic range. The merest of variations is provided, but in general they're not beyond a one trick pony. Experienced in strings of two or three songs, I didn't sense much tedium setting in, but listening straight through the entirety of the play length does strain on the nerves. Then again, I'd argue that the audience for this strain of aggression is rarely interested in balanced musicality or rampant tempo shifting, and to be fair, there are brief moments of pure atmosphere (like the intro or the male chant opening "Hobo...") which seek to break up the all too-streamlined songwriting.

As hinted above, I didn't love a lot of the individual riffs. They're efficient and bruising enough, and changed up through even the shorter of tracks, but feel like a pastiche of familiar progressions culled from the black, death and grind precursors of the 80s ranging from Hellhammer to Repulsion, configured with aesthetic choices redolent of Canadian war/death of the 90s. The note positioning is rarely evil or menacing sounding of its own accord, that only comes into the picture through the sum nihilism of the rhythm section and vocals. I think some wailing, nasty melodies or more dissonant chords would have added texture and dimension, since the album is too earnestly dry and dirty. Also, the bass lines exude a turbulent presence but often just support the rhythm guitar to the music's detriment. Despite these setbacks, though, I was able to enjoy the record on a purely visceral level, where the revulsion is also the attraction, and there's something quite honest about its bare-flayed, hostile intentions which is sure to appeal to a lot of bands on the Nuclear War Now!, Hell's Headbangers and of course Iron Bonehead imprint.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Death Karma - A Life Not Worth Living EP (2013)

Death Karma is a new Czech extreme metal project likely to draw a large amount of attention due to the presence of drummer Tomáš Corn, who performed on Lykathea Aflame's full-length Elvenefris, which has developed a massive cult following online in the decade plus since its creation. He is partnered here with multi-instrumentalist Infernal Vlad, who along with Corn has performed in the live Maniac Butcher lineup, and the duo sets out to create something equally punishing and riveting but not necessarily an imitation of their prior works. A mesh of death and black metal aesthetics which explores haunted atmospheres delivered at a generally high pace, a technique which I admit is rather rare, since most practitioners prefer a snail's crawl or mid-speed rock delivery. I've heard a few other acts that attempt to integrate blasting excess into the Cyclopean, cavernous themed extremity we so often hear in recent times, but few are quite so oppressive as this pair.

Enormous, blocky, over-the-top rhythm guitars pummel along with dense patterns of tremolo picked notes and mystique, Eastern flavored chord progressions, while the drums thunder under as if they were triggered fault lines about to unleash cataclysms upon the surface world. Meanwhile, the vocals take on a more ghastly guttural intonation that occasionally is interspersed with an ominous, cleaner male choir effect that takes A Life Not Worth Living into the realm of unnerving ritual. Further texture is applied with faint backing organs that hover over the breadth of the riffs, and the result is as if you were trapped in some cathedral that had sunk below the Earth, in which twisted, deviant clergy conducted arcane rituals with no regards to morality. The drumming is potent and raw rather than seeking a brickwalled exhibition of technicality, but Corn is still just as capable of letting loose as he was on Elvenefris or Maniac Butcher's Masakr. He merely chooses not to overthink the structure of the riffing, and let the warlike fills and suffocating blasts beat in the listener's head like giant, ugly wooden hammers, which is rather effective when Vlad is pursuing a more punkish chord sequence as in "G.G. Funeral". And even more potent alongside an engrossing, simplistic tremolo repetition like that in the heart of "A Dead Oracle".

Ultimately, while not devoid of a more glorious surge of melody here or there ("DeathKaos"), the EP is best suited to when you just want a fast channel to the abyss. Like the cover artwork, you can envision yourself plummeting directly into some rocky, corpse-strewn cervix of damnation, and any attempt to spread your wings ends with their quick, atmospheric incineration. Death Karma does not skimp on the variation, and there are a lot of slower breaks that help round out the overall momentum of the 18 minutes, as well as a nice balance of death-based muted low-end riffing to help balance out the more brazen black metal explosions; but trust me, the burden here is quite claustrophobic and consistent across all four cuts. Definitely something that will impress those who enjoy calamitous, but layered productions, or something more forceful and vivid in its destruction than a lot of other throwback death/black metal hybrids. Imagine a mix of Marduk or Enthroned's more modern (21st century), unhinged atmospheric output with bands like Muknal or Incantation who use a lot of faster riffing in sync with their subterranean inclinations, and you may arrive at A Life Not Worth Living. Should prove interesting to see how the duo might fill out a full-length of material, but this is a suitable start which will no doubt win some buzz.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Friday, May 10, 2013

Backyard Mortuary - Lure of the Occult (2012)

Lure of the Occult was like having some temporal burglar sneak into my basement in 1991, steal all of the tapes in my rapidly expanding death metal collection, then return to his/her hideout in the present, study all of the loot, and record an album which perfectly combines all of the material's strengths. I bet y'all wish you had come up with that particular machination! Granted, what this means is that the Australians' debut is not exactly filled to the gills with innovative songwriting, but I think that's pretty forgivable when the results are this entertaining. I like that I could never pin Backyard Mortuary on aping any one particular band; no, this is Death, Autopsy, Incantation, Morbid Angel, Entombed, Gorguts, Immolation and Obituary rolled into one, mighty, zombified joint and then blown into your face through the mummified breath of ages. In other words: awesome, and while, like myself, you might have missed out on this last year, there's a snazzy new vinyl re-issue coming from Blood Harvest records (out of Sweden) that should give it a well deserved 'second wind'.

Have to admit, from the cover artwork I was expecting some raw, primitive recording of black/death or black/thrash/war metal, so imagine my surprise when it was actually tightly executed old school death metal with a reasonable level of polish to the guitars. Probably the most uncouth and out of control element would be the vocals, which temper an ominous, deep guttural punctuation with loads of reverb and atmosphere, plus a more impish rasping edge that applies some variation and character. The guitars, though, have a very focused, low-end crunch to them that immediately recounts the more slamming sensation you felt from the earliest of 'brutal' death metal ("Beyond the Grave"), but then they'll intersperse all these diabolical Slayer school melodies, or some haunting and possessed tremolo rhythms that frighten me almost as much as the first time I heard the bridge to "Chapel of Ghouls". Despite the fact that much of the riffing integration would feel simplistic to today's death maven who has been exposed to far more technical material, nothing here is so debased or primitive that it feels thoughtlessly calculated. There's a lot of texture and pacing over the course of Backyard Mortuary's debut. Time was spent writing this: and thus, my time is not wasted in listening to it!

Lure of the Occult has everything. Slower, churning grooves in which you can really feel the breadth of the chords as you once could for a band like Obituary on Cause of Death. In a few places, it might even pass for a death/doom hybrid. But then there are the more clinical, taut, accelerated passages which seem like an unholy merger of Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and Immolation near the dawn of the 90s, with these harrowing and dissonant fields of possibility that feel like a hundred tombs being cracked open at once. The bass guitar has a good, clean tone which ramps up the meat of the rhythm guitars, while the drums can easily spout out an interesting blast or fill or some great, cadence-like structuring to the palm muted grooves (like in "Mutation"). No two tunes sound quite the same, but the vocals really gel them all together, so ghastly and huge and grotesque whether they're mounting the slower, Cyclopean surges of "Deprivation" or the thrashing repulsion of "Macabre Butchery", which is hands down a great tune and one the best singular retro death pieces I've heard lately.

No, it's not all so insanely catchy, nor does it surpass the many albums it owes its own existence to, but it's a great example of how nostalgia doesn't necessarily need to take on the form of some horribly underproduced or cavernous atmosphere (though the vocals fit that bill) to feel appreciably archaic. Death metal bands of that era were generally striving towards better mixes and sounds themselves, and Backyard Mortuary does honor to the realities of the period rather than a skewed perception many younger fans might have. I loved that nothing on this record felt underdeveloped. The leads are well placed and exciting, the rhythms varied up and rarely ineffective, and even the longer numbers like "Mutation" and "Demons Blood" managed to fill out their britches without wearing out their welcome. Ultimately, Lure is quite a good album, and those of you who have enjoyed the quality roots death metal of acts like Nocturnal Torment, Necrovation, Skeletal Remains, Disma, Horrendous (among many others) would do well to sink your fangs into its articulate, engaging flesh.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]