Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Autothrall's Top Metal Albums of 2014...aaaand other best of lists you don't really care about either.

The Top 20 Metal and Vaguely Metal-Related Albums of 2014

01. Hail Spirit Noir (Gr) - Oi Magoi (95) 
02. Sólstafir (Is) - Ótta (95)
03. Thantifaxath (US) - Sacred White Noise (93)
04. John Gallow (US) - Violet Dreams (93)
05. Thy Darkened Shade (Gr) - Liber Lvcifer I: Khem Sedjet (92)
06. Funereal Presence (US) - The Archer Takes Aim (90)
07. Fallujah (US) - The Flesh Prevails (90)
08. Emptiness (Be) - Nothing but the Whole (90)
09. Occultation (US) - Silence in the Ancestral House (90)
10. Behemoth (Pl) - The Satanist (90)
11. The Dagger (Se) - The Dagger (90)
12. Calm Hatchery (Pl) - Fading Reliefs (90)
13. Opeth (Se) - Pale Communion (90)
14. Spectral Lore (Gr) - III (90)
15. Morbus Chron (Se) - Sweven (88)
16. Varathron (Gr) - Untrodden Corridors of Hades (87)
17. Ripper (Cl) - Raising the Corpse (87)
18. Horrendous (US) - Ecdysis (87)
19. Howls of Ebb (US) - Vigils of the 3rd Eye (85)
20. Halberd (Inter) - Remnants of Crumbling Empires (85)

You can find a much larger, 100-item RYM list here.

Yet another year in which I didn't come across anything I rated a perfect 10. I think the last time was Enslaved in it's been awhile. Regardless, in a year where thousands of metal records are released, there is bound to be a creme de la creme, and this batch topped my coffee. The Greek scenes absolutely crushed it this year, with a fantastic record by veterans Varathron, yet upstaged by relative newcomers like Spectral Lore, Thy Darkened Shade and Hail Spirit Noir, who took the lead for me early in the year and never exactly lost it, though my feelings on Ótta are roughly equivalent. Oi Magoi is just something else. And yes, I know that and Opeth's latest might have about 3-4 actual metal riffs between them, but since they're 'ex-metal' bands and still beholden to that crowd, I threw them on the list anyway. Otherwise, a very diverse year...creative retro-death acts like Horrendous and Morbus Chron proved their debuts were no flukes, Behemoth released a triumphant album that I really feel is their strongest to date, and there were a lot of interesting black, doom and heavy metal hybrids. As I spend more and more time with my infant son, I have increasingly less time to write reviews, but my listening list for this year topped 440 new albums & EPs anyway. These were the ones that hung in there with me the most.

The Top 10 Not-Metal Albums You Could Catch Me Brooding or Dancing To If You Were in the Right Place. Don't Tell Anyone.

01. Raison D'etre (Se) - Mise en Abyme

02. Kimbra (NZ) - The Golden Echo
03. Aphex Twin (UK) - Syro
04. White Lung (US) - Deep Fantasy
05. Perturbator (Fr) - Dangerous Days
06. Killer Mike & El-P (US) - Run the Jewels 2
07. Little Dragon (Se) - Nabuma Rubberband
08. In Slaughter Natives (Se) - Cannula Coma Legio
09. Todd Terje (No) - It's Album Time
10. Liars (US) - Mess

A lot of electronic and ambient music, plus some post-punk, not a surprise since this is where my tastes generally run when I'm not headbanging and hailing Satan. As much as I dug the new Aphex Twin, it was Raison d'Etre's latest I found myself completely lost in on multiple occasions. UPDATED: Added two fantastic pop albums (Kimbra and Little Dragon), pushed back Julian Casablanca and the Voidz and Phantomgram (which are both still very much worth your time).

The Top 10 Movies That Didn't Suck This Year. There Were Others That Also Didn't Suck, but These Sucked...Less?!

01. The Grand Budapest Hotel
02. Birdman
03. The Raid 2: Berandal
04. Whiplash
05. The Salvation
06. Calvary
07. Nightcrawler
08. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
09. The Zero Theorem
10. Guardians of the Galaxy

I made a concerted effort in the last two months to check out just about every possible movie I might have enjoyed throughout the rest of the year, and I think I came damn close. 

The Top 10 PC, Video and Handheld Console Games I Played. And Played.

01. Shovel Knight (PC/3DS/Wii U/PSN)
02. Wasteland 2 (PC)
03. Civilization: Beyond Earth (PC)
04. Transistor (PC/PS4)
05. Costume Quest 2 (PC/PS3/PS4/360/XBox One/Wii U/iOS)
06. World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor (PC)
07. LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham (Everything)
08. The Banner Saga (PC/PS4/iOS)
09. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft (PC/iOD/Android)
10. South Park: The Stick of Truth (PC/PS3/360)

Less time than usual devoted to video games, thanks to a blossoming interest in designer board and card games which has led to a fairly large collection. But I still got around to most that I was interested in, and having acquired a new PC, phone and tablet I was able to check out a lot I had missed the last several years.

The Top 10 TableTop Board, Card Games and RPGs

Sort of a new category here...I mean I've played many tabletop RPGs over my life, and a healthy heaping of classics and collectible card games, but late 2013 through 2014 has marked an increased obsession with designer board games to the extent that it's currently my #1 hobby. Most of the stuff I tried out was older, since I had about a decade of classics to catch up on (including many Euros, which is why I haven't tried many of the new ones). There are likely a dozen or so really interesting 2014 titles I haven't tried yet, so the list is subject to change, but these are my early favorites.

01. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (RPG)
02. Fields of Arle (board)
03. Star Wars: Age of Rebellion (RPG)
04. Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deckbuilding Game (card)
05. The Strange (RPG)
06. Dead of Winter (board)
07. Abyss (board)
08. Doomtown: Reloaded (card)
09. Onward to Venus (board)
10. One Night Ultimate Werewolf (party)
The Top Novels and Comics...or Not

I'm afraid I've got to leave this mostly blank, friends, since there were only a handful of 2014 fantasy and science fiction novels I actually enjoyed, and I spent most of my time reading older series like The Horus Heresy or a lot of pulp sword & sorcery short fiction & comics. Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance was a nice addition to his Stormlight Archives series, Joe Abercrombie's stab at 'young adult' fantasy Half a King was nearly as engrossing as his earlier stuff. Also I really liked the latest Burton & Swinburne steampunk novel The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder. If I manage to read a bunch more and formulate some sort of list in the coming year I'll update this.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Til Det Bergens Skygenne - Vandringen II (Lynnelandskap) (2014)

Far from the rustic scenery of its predecessor, Vandringen I: Skoglandskap, released in 2012, the latest Til Det Bergens Skygenne cassette released through Voldsom promises little but nihilisim: a gray, impenetrable haze staring at the listener who happens upon the cover image. So I was entirely taken aback when I started listening through this, because while it's far from a bright bout of sunshine, it's not nearly so bleak and dark as I had guessed. The material is certainly a departure from the Til Det Bergens Skygenne tapes before it, which were a naturalistic infusion of woodland ambient and dungeon synth in the vein of cult recordings from Mortiis, etc. Here Lord Vravenorn has offered us a less structured, more psychedelically intimate fusion of ambient minimalism, lo-fi beats and synthesizer lines which hearken more to his old synth influences...for instance you might hear some Tangerine Dream, but he's not exactly implementing the same pads, with a fraction of the rigid mechanical structure of Kraftwerk.

Previous recordings, while simplistic, were very consistent and felt a little more prepared than the material on this, which really feels as if he set up a few aesthetic parameters and began to unwind, layering in the varied synth textures to create something a little more alien. This was not unlike the parallel development of another of his projects, Yearner, although I feel like The Second Howl was a much more frightening and unusual effort, while this is honestly pretty smooth in parts. The three tracks create an overarching ebb and flow of psychedelia pointing straight at the 70s, a decade in which the keyboard was being developed with so many new tones; with the caveat that some of the grimier indulgent tones, beats and ambient swells were not in fashion during that time, and these tunes (like "Part III") definitely have a tendency to simmer into a climactic point. Fuse that sort of nostalgic miasma with colorful, spacey imagery kind of like you'd find as the backdrop to various antiquated science fiction shows and you'll find the appropriate headspace from which you can properly appreciate the hallucinatory terrain Vranevorn is digging through.

For much of the playtime, I felt as if I was floating weightless through some strange Limbo where the weird tones and melodies created a sense of serenity that was occasionally being marred by the more obnoxious little sounds that occasionally present themselves. The synth lines often feel playful or communicating with one another. The stark, sparse interruptions feel like astral garbage scows sifting through the puffy, purple emptiness for emotional salvage. But this is my own hyperbolic reaction to the may feel as if you're watching a patch of multi-hued mushrooms bloom, or in some forgotten underground space where you're watching fluorescent slow motion waterfalls. It does occasionally have its moments of gloomier atmosphere, generally when the keys are more minimal and deeper tones ring off into the emotional void, but in general I found this to be really consistent, trippy material which is not at all an unwelcome shift from the canon predating it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rotting Christ - 25 Years: The Path of Evil Existence (2014)

I don't have nearly as many expectations for a pack-in anthology disc as I do for a label-wrought compilation...the former is usually added as a gimmick, and at least you might be getting a half decent rag along with it...the latter is often nothing more than some I's being dotted on a bottom line. Metal Hammer of Greece is arguably one of the more 'legit' versions of that particular rag family still in print, and so it makes a lot of sense that they'd collaborate with countrymen Rotting Christ, the most successful dark metal band of Hellas, to put this forth, but let's call a spade a spade: this is reprinted material spanning the band's career, no matter how you try to dress it up and act like it's something unique, or 'exclusive', or 'chosen by the band itself'. It's not like you're going out and paying $18-20 for a pretty new booklet with a bunch of recycled cuts you've already heard, but it's still not nearly as important as going through this fantastic band's catalog and experiencing these songs in their original environments, along a lot of other great songs...many GREATER...Sakis and company obviously might not have the best taste in their own music, I'm putting that out there.

Do the songs 'represent' each of the group's many stages of evolution appropriately? I would say yes to that, and they're laid out here in a reverse chronological order, with one cut each taken from all the full lengths, beginning with "In Yumen Xibalba" off the disappointing Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού and then touring back through their better material up to track #11, "The Sign of Evil Existence" off of Thy Mighty Contract. But it doesn't end there, for the next few tracks ("The Forest of N'Gai", "Feast of the Grand Whore", "Vision of the Dead Lovers" etc) are taken from the band's earlier EPs, they are not exactly hiding those primitive origins and why should they? They close the selection off with another cut from Genesis ("Astral Embodiment") and then a live version of "Athanati Este", which is possibly the only thing the diehard fan hasn't heard (outside the studio), but that's exactly it...and like so many of these collections, I felt myself scratching my beard at the level of missed opportunity. Why not replace most of this with rare or live material, and offer someone an imperative to purchase the magazine? Clearly the only people this is going to possibly sway are complete newcomers who have no history with the Greeks, and even then I'm not sure they selected the best tracks for that job.

As for someone like myself, who has been following the group forever and enjoys the overwhelming majority of their full-length recordings, I can't think of a better use for this than smelting. Maybe I could eke out a brief few seconds of kindling from the cover art, though to be fair it's far superior to their last album which is one of the most shockingly amateur examples of 'minimalism' I've seen from a professional band that should know a lot better. If somehow, you are a Greek metal fan buying Greek Metal Hammer and you've missed out on Rotting Christ, then congratulations on this amazing find. I hope it gives you 70 minutes of enjoyment only before you head out and buy some of the band's actual albums, but as a 'product' this has all the substance of the aether. Inhaled it, exhaled it, got on with my miserable life. If I wore makeup I might use this as a mirror, but as it stands this won't even function as a rewritable CD. Hope there are some good articles in there... Perhaps there aren't a flock of ravenous label shills laughing behind the scenes, their fangs glistening as they drink the vitae from your wallets, but it's unfortunately just as much smoke blown out the proverbial ass. I'd rather marathon Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού while being served as kibble to Cerberus' spawn than take another look at this.

Verdict: Epic Fail [0/10]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nachtreich/Spectral Lore - The Quivering Lights (2015)

Usually you have me at 'Spectral Lore', but The Quivering Lights split has done the favor of also introducing me to another talented act, Germany's neoclassical black metal mash-up Nachtreich, who have produced a few full-lengths in the past that for some reason I have not previously experienced. Probably because there is an almost labyrinthine number of Nacht- (night-) bands and I get too easily lost amongst them, but after hearing the material here I'll have no problem retaining the duo's sound in my memory. Their eloquent melancholy manifests early on the piano/violin duet of the intro piece "Lights", which later erupts with a few distorted chords to hint at the forthcoming study in contrasts that will define this collaboration in full, but I should add that theirs is a heavy emphasis on the classical instrumentation, with the metallic pieces serving as an emotional discharge or even a diversion.

This also leads to a slight snag in the recording, since the violin and pianos seem so clear and bright as they wander their own course, but when the more primitive black metal rasps and chords come in they seem a little more muddled. That's not to say it was a deal breaker, because really Nachtreich is using the added texture of the electric guitar and vocal as an icing to what they're already best at. The music definitely takes on a theatrical climax, like you're watching some foreign film with a classical score and it just begins to swell, only here in a more misanthropic direction. The composition is not necessarily 'minimalistic', but they use quite simplistic chord motifs to forward that choking sadness, which is hard not to feel moved by even if you're already feeling a sense of familiarity to the notes on exhibit; almost like a Kronos Quartet threaded with tints of raw black circa Burzum, I feel that the Germans might find an audience with fans of stuff like the recent Quebecois recordings by Gris or Sombre Forets, though the music is a little less sweeping and more grounded. They have three pieces on this split, and I have to say the pure, atmospheric instrumental "Greyness" was my choice.

What's even more interesting about this release, though, is how once again Spectral Lore rises to 'meet' the partner on their level, providing most of the more metallic components of the 46 minutes, but also interlacing these with the pianos and such that Nachtreich excels in. Ayloss is no stranger to incorporating all manner of ambient and classics influences and instruments on his records like III and Sentinel, but here he does so in a way that complements the other act's compositional choices. You will certainly encounter his penchant for blissful, interesting tremolo picked melodies and then that sheen of ambiance and vocal variation that he continues to hone, but he too errs on the side of 'raw' when it comes to how the rhythm guitar chords are balanced against the other instruments. All three of his tracks are really on point here, but "Vanishing" was my pick of the three, and 11 and a half minute beast with eerie acoustic/ambient guitars and strings that gradually evolves into this airy monument to drifting black metal with speech-like vocals being barked off in the background, and then a flux between these sorts of elements and the great clean guitars. His final piece "Reflection" is more New Age ambient classical guitar than anything, but it's as worthy a closer as Nachtreich's barren, absorbing intro.

The Quivering Lights could hardly be considered 'colorful' in its stylistic choices...much like the black & white toned cover art it gives me the impression of some nature-inspired sort of chamber music in which the corners are haunted by wraiths and shadows. Though I'm not sure which leaves a more gloomy impression, the black metal edge or the pianos and strings... At any rate, this is 100% mood music, and it might not be a mood I'm as often called to as I was on Sol, Spectral Lore's split with Mare Cognitum, but nevertheless both of the acts really commit, and intermingle seamlessly without eschewing their individual identities. And that, my friends, is far more effort you'll hear in a split recording than so many 'you take this side, I'll take that' recordings that feel like meaningless advertisements more than collaborations that breathe organic life into their creation.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

King Diamond - Dreams of Horror (2014)

Should a release like Dreams of Horror really even exist in 2014? King Diamond and Mercyful Fate might stand beyond criticism in the eyes of many fans due to their respective legacies and longevity, but in the age of Bandcamp, YouTube, Torrents, etc. when most people can't even be bothered to purchase new original music, how will a compilation of previously recorded material fare? The fact that the tunes here are 'handpicked' by King Diamond doesn't really matter for me, that's been done a hundred times by various bands/musicians and any claims to the contrary are hyperbole. 'This is the first time a band has EVER cared enough achieve this monumental accomplishment!' Get stuffed. The fact that they are considered the 'ultimate versions' of these songs is also irrelevant. No, my friends, the 'ultimate versions' of these songs are the ones that the fanbase experienced as they were being recorded and released since the 80s, that stuck with us and entertained us for decades. Or, really, fans of ANY age who first took an interest in and tracked down the first legendary five records, which still stand head and fucking shoulders above anything this musician has released in his solo act since 1990.

Now, there is some novelty here in that they've managed to score the licenses to include the old material from Roadrunner/Warner. So while there have been comps before, this one is the most 'complete'. Yet it really just seems that KD and Metal Blade have gone out of their way to snake-oil this collection as the 'studio versions of a live set', as if that is supposed to render some legitimacy to purchasing more music we already own and take the individual tracks out of their respective stories. How about if we want to experience a live KD set, we just go to a goddamn live set? In reality, while the mastering on these tunes might sound crystal clear and evenly distributed across various eras of the band, it's just another pocket picking with a collage of prior album covers, high production values on the package, the same old same old from a major metal label which is just not going to dupe anyone except 'gotta catch 'em all' collectors or the who might mistake it for a new collection. So it's your basic set up of several songs taken from each of their studio albums, the career retrospective anthology, with the first disc consisting of their career hot streak from Fatal Portrait (1986) to The Eye (1990), and then the vast majority of the second disc, with a few exceptions from The Spider's Lullabye and a handful more, being almost entirely avoidable. I mean, there are tracks from the horrendous The Graveyard on this thing, which no amount of studio wizardry can transform into quality music, so I find it nigh impossible to consider this the ultimate representation of the King Diamond catalog.

Any and all points I give here will be for the work put in remastering the songs, which retain a lot of their original crystalline clarity, in particular King's falsetto lines and the elegant, wistful leads that characterized the better half of their discography. Clearly they took some time doing this, and were intent not to just reproduce the material 100% off the older printings. I'm not entirely opposed to re-recordings of stuff with modern, evolved sounds just for fun (like a few German thrash legends have done successfully), but this is not one of those cases. That said, I still do not find these to be superior to experiencing the songs in their original format, in among their neighbors which helped relay the narrative of each of King's horror sagas. Sure, you can have favorite KD tunes and put together a playlist for yourself, but removing "The Family Ghost" and "Black Horseman" just isn't going to cut it for me when I want to immerse myself in Abigail. If it's a live show, and they want to pick and choose for the set, that's fine, but I just don't need to plunk down the dough on something which doesn't feel authentic. I'm not sure if this was some sort of contractual thing with the label, but I wish any effort expended towards this had simply been put into new material, because it's been well over a decade since they were turning out material I actually enjoyed (Abigail II, The Puppet Master) and I know on some of that I'm probably even in the minority.

Really cannot recommend this whatsoever unless you absolutely must own every single item with the logo on it, to the extent that you're like a KISS collector maniac, only for one of the other face painted rock stars. Or maybe if you're an audiophile who loathes some of the original recordings, but then you'll be left hanging since there are only snippets of the total backlog included. Granted, there's a little more here value than in your average, soulless big label anthology, in that someone or several persons sat on their duffs and tweaked a few knobs. So I doubt I'll slap a massive zero on it, but as such a huge fan of all that unforgettable music Petersen and LaRocque released through the 80s and earlier 90s, I can only implore the new listener to experience their legacy within the proper perspective. The proper context. You want to support the band? Start at Fatal Portrait. BUY Fatal Portrait. And then the next, and the next. Go to a show. If you can't, try and check out a video of a gig (I don't believe there are many official DVDs you can choose from). I can't wait to hear a new album personally, and I do hope it's a triumph, the best thing they've done in 25 years (specially after King's triple-bypass surgery). But this just isn't going to tide me over, and I find it pretty useless since there is just no chance I'll listen to this over the albums. And if I want a playlist for driving, I can always just press 'Shuffle' on the first six.

Sparkly backwash is still backwash.

Verdict: Why Bother?! [2/10]

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bloodbath - Grand Morbid Funeral (2014)

I admit to being a little swept up in the 'guess who our new singer is?' gimmick Bloodbath was spinning up until the announcement of Nick Holmes earlier this year. Not so much that I was obsessively checking for clues, but when they were presented I would follow them to the natural conclusions, one of which was that the veteran Paradise Lost crooner was going to shed off his Goth Hetfield tone and return to the growls of his mainstay's formative period, which if you ask almost anyone still remains their most notable phase, self included. My immediate reaction was 'this is going to sound like Vallenfyre... Nick is a little jealous of the attention Gregor has gotten, and so is taking up the reins of nostalgia himself.' But of course Bloodbath is already a well-established act in its own right, having produced a number of great albums which don't rely solely on the retro thing but actual riff-writing, genuine energy and excitement. So this was actually quite an interesting team up...and it works to a point.

Musically, where Bloodbath have come up in the past with a number or fairly ingenious grooves or melodic spearheads that characterized their songs among a very busy flock of Swede impersonators and throwbacks, I feel that Grand Morbid Funeral is their album most interchangeable with a huge number of their peers...the songs here could have been written by Revel in Flesh, or Entrails, or any other bootlickers of Entombed and/or Dismember and nobody would know the difference. Like the breaks in "Total Death Exhumed", or the opening barrage in "Famine of God's Word" where the guitars go off on their own for a few seconds to showcase that thick rhythm tone; both could have appeared on a hypothetical Clandestine 2.0. But that's not to say they aren't written at a slightly higher level than the standard knockoffs in the sound, and where Bloodbath balance it out is in the amount of variation. You could trace all the songs to particular sources, perhaps, and yes many of those would be Swedish, but one area in which the record excels is how each of the tunes does not seem like a repeat of the others. They'll go for dire, brooding atmospherics in one tune, gut tearing tremolo guitars in another, and nary a tune goes by without some sticky riff erupting somewhere. 

The leads and melodies are solid, and unlike Vallenfyre they don't go too far into old Paradise Lost worship, preferring instead to incorporate a more airy, light death/doom sense to bridge elements in tunes like "Mental Abortion" which prove among my favorite individual moments of the recording. Solos might feel frivolous, but they definitely reek of the excess we used to love in the 80s, albeit shorter here. The guitar tones wrap the entire affair into a very consistent feel, despite the gulfs in pacing and structure. Despite the seasoned craft Anders exhibits in creating an album as a whole, I did feel there were a number of excessively bland note progressions, specifically in the d-beat driven parts, which sort of balanced off my appreciation for the better bits. Had I stopped listening to death metal of the Swedish inclination after about 1993 and then picked it back up with Grand Morbid Funeral, then I might find it more of an engaging memory trip, but I've been inundated with the stuff for a good decade now, 100s of bands clinging to the same tones and riff techniques without even a spark of imagination, promos piling up. Color me jade, and for at least part of its run time, this record just doesn't deal with it more spectacularly than the majority. Granted, Bloodbath have arguably more rights to this than others, and have excelled within the same parameters in the past, but they often tempered the sound with more Floridian or mildly brutal influences and it just felt fresher...

Grand Morbid Funeral, while good, just doesn't have a bunch of songs I want to keep coming back to time and time again. It's a worthwhile 46 minutes, and won't disappoint you if you're really dying for more of this, but I had higher hopes going in than enjoyment coming out. Now, this is no fault of the vocals whatsoever. Nick Holmes certainly delivers, he's still 'got it', and his more gravelly, ugly, imperfect timbre makes for a refreshing alternative to Akerfeldt's broader guttural palette. The drums and bass sound fine, Renkse owning up to the Swe-tone with fatter, plunky bass lines, but apart from 4-5 of the tunes where Anders and Per make more compelling choices with the guitars, I found myself 'zoning out' more often than the other full-lengths. I should mention that it is slightly darker and more atmospheric...the tongue-in-cheek quality of the prior albums is somewhat supressed, and it strives to capture the din of that old late 80s/early 90s death metal production rather than the 'punch' of previous albums. The lyrics are decent, slightly more thoughtful than you'd expect. I also like it more than either of the Vallenfyre albums. I guess the real question is: when do we hear retro death projects from Stephen Edmondson and Aaron Aedy? Gauntlet has been thrown, guys.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (the pulse receding)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cripper - Hyëna (2014)

Cripper has always been a decent modern German thrash band that just hasn't taken it to that next level of songwriting prowess, and I believe their fourth full-length sums up exactly why: despite the wide arsenal of weaponry at their disposal, they just cannot write songs at the level of their 80s forebears, and all too quickly when I hear one of their albums, it just fades away from memory. One might bill them as the 'new Holy Moses', since both bands feature an aggressive female vocalist, but alas these guys don't have a bonafide classic behind them like a Finished With the Dogs, something that came to mind after reading the canine title and seeing the cover artwork for this. But while Britta's a competent barker and growler, she just doesn't possess that same viciousness that felt so carnal and in your face back when Sabine Classen was in her prime. And as for the rest of the music here...rather a step down from the last, 2012 effort Antagonist, which was and remains their best, though the first two albums are also solid.

Let me try and sum this up: the reason Cripper just can't hit the mark of bands like Kreator, Sodom, Destruction and Tankard is because there is an ever-pervasive stench of 90s groove metal influence which infects what is an otherwise tightly-knit, true thrashing experience. They write punchy and well produced rhythm guitars, but too often devolve into some bland chugging progression which owes itself to a whole lot of bad American and German post-thrash which was never even in the same league as the Teutonic masters. That hasn't really stopped the band from doing a decent job on the prior releases, because there was just that much momentum and pent up aggression, and they were kind of filling an empty niche in a scene that relied, and still relies far too heavily on its older bands, with so few treading appropriately in their footsteps. I hadn't really minded the more contemporary flourishes to the music, like the super clean mix of the guitars and drums, and Britta's controlled savagery, because I feel like those things are to be expected in the 21st century, and as long as the guitars, leads, and general level of hostility remain consistent, I just won't write off a record. But perhaps it's gone on a little long now without a real success of a record, because Hyëna went straight in one ear and out the other...

The band has always been sort of sociopolitical with their lyrics because, hey, relevance, but hearing some of the 'narrative' vocal lines used here seems a little too goofy to take seriously. The vocals in general just seem too clean, like they punch in and out and even though she's got a decent natural growl to her voice, it feels bland and ineffective here more than on prior outings. Guitars are quite mathematical in execution, and occasionally even waltz out a succession of decent charging notes akin to Artillery's style or post-reunion Destruction; or an explosion of almost melodic death metal as in "A Dime for the Establishment". But so many of the guitars seem to be formed or half-formed from a lot of Pantera-like passages (Cowboys From Hell, A Vulgar Display of Power-era) yet without the ability to 'pop' like Abbott's compositions used to. It's got some groove to it, some forward sprinting attack, but so little of the music develops its own personality since there already a million other bands with the same setup and most of them aren't worth hearing to begin with. The drums and bass sound fine, they are not really the focus in's the riffs and vocals that just didn't sink in for me.

To be fair, Cripper has sounded like this almost from the beginning...but it left more of an impact on me with Devil Reveals or Antagonist, the albums I'd most recommend to new listeners who want to hear where they've taken thrash metal. Those just have better choruses and better riffs, and that is what it all comes down to. But that said, people into the more modern, sterile recordings by bands like Onslaught, Exodus and Holy Moses might find this adequate. There's nothing obscenely negative or offensive about Hyëna, it simply feels more formulaic than inspired, everything here has been done better, and I really want them to just shed that comfort zone and go into a more raw and ape-shit direction where the imagination and aggression gel into something I'll remember. There is a reason I am still thinking about "Current of Death" after a quarter-century but can't recall a single chorus on this disc 25 minutes later.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Decimation - Reign of Ungodly Creation (2014)

It's a slick touch to kick off the third Decimation full-length with that mono sequence, because when the stereo brutality arrives, you are likely to experience the most fulfilling moment of the entire album. Not because the rest of it is bad, by any means, but on the whole, Reign of Ungodly Creation very rapidly escalates (or, if you're not into tech/brutal death metal, deteriorates) into one of those records which feels like so much focus is put into its aural presentation as a series of workouts or exercises, rather than a bastion of effective songwriting. Like so many albums of its niche, it is content merely to beat on you relentlessly, but without leaving much of a bruise beneath the surface of the listener's emotions. It will mug you on the street, steal your wallet and bus pass, sure...but not keep you up at night haunted by what you've just heard...

Partially this is due to the large amount of derivation gone into this: the taut, violent death thrashing of the faster-than-mid-paced picking progressions is redolent of Cannibal Corpse in a frenzy. The clinical intricacies play out like a hybrid of Suffocation and ancient Pestilence, and you can season the rest with a lot of Morbid Angel and Deicide influence filtered through a Deeds of Flesh lens. None of that renders the album insubstantial, inefficient or unlistenable, because those are usually considered the 'right' inspirations going into an onslaught like this, but it just doesn't seem that Decimation is ever interested in taking them further or elsewhere, and when it comes down to the raw value of riff composition, most of the 37 minutes of material seems more reliant on form and function above poignancy. It's surely abusive on the limbs and joints of the guitarist's hands, and the drummers entire body, but no matter how busy the riffing gets, so few of the note patterns ascend into anything truly compelling, beyond the few segments where they play the more atmospheric and dissonant chords (often at the beginning of the tunes). The bass is peppy and hectic to collude with the rhythm note placements, but I wish it had a little more body to it, because it might help offset how the album sounded like a scalpel being repeatedly stabbed into plastic and not flesh. The vocals are exactly what you think they will be: incessant gutturals, unforgiving, but simultaneously average.
Lyrically, this is highbrow mystical stuff with wordy song titles like "Psalm Carnage in the Ghoulish Chapel of Gehenna" or "Aberrant Ablution by Filthy Excrements of a Grotesque Crassamentum", and this pseudo-pretentiousness makes it a little hard to discern whether or not Decimation takes this seriously at all or if they're just taking the piss on us. It's like a bookworm's alternate reality spin on the first Morbid Angel album. Musically, though, it's all mechanics...the mechanics of brutality, without the flavor or the personality of the hideous imagery and rock-bottom human depravity that inspired such a genre to form in the first place. The Dan Seagrave cover on this thing is fucking stunning, one of the coolest I've seen all year, but again we've got an instance where the artwork inspires us to think of these ominous, cyclopean dimensions of fear and majesty, and the music itself seems far too grounded into the surgical ward which mass produces a lot of bands with the same sound. You want to enter that otherworldly reality depicted there, with alien beings floating around a horizon of imposing castle towers lifted free of their gravitational anchors, but you get nowhere close.

I don't mean to come down too hard on Reign of Ungodly Creation, because it is clearly a kinetic and competent afternoon spent at the death metal gymnastics, but apart from a few moments in songs like "Mystic Transformation in Encrypted Scrolls of a Grievous Sermon" and "Psalm Carnage..." where the dynamics occasionally hint at something far more frightening, I just felt like the album was running cycles in a hamster wheel or performing endless calisthenics and repetitious lifting regimens, and it never really capitalized on what these musicians are obviously capable of if they just took a few more minutes to analyze what made their own inspirations so damn cool. I've enjoyed albums in this wheelhouse before. I mean, there is a place for stuff like this, and it lives up to those crucial brutal and technical expectations that its targets audience needs to check off the list, dotting its i's and crossing it's. Yet a little more experimentation, a slightly altered angle/vector of approach, and in some cases, measured restraint could go a long, long way for a group like Decimation.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dire Omen - Wrestling the Revelation of Futility (2014)

Dire Omen's continued development has metamorphosized them from fairly humble, Floridian-tempered death metal roots to the more chaotic and calamitous death and black extremes in the wheelhouses of their countrymen Antediluvian, Mitochondrion, Aurochs, Adversarial and so forth. In fact, as of their 2012 Severing Soul from Flesh EP, the band had really transformed into another branch of that twisted tree, with some clear connections to its neighbors, like the morbid and esoteric cover artwork by Tim Grieco (aka Hassiophis) of Antediluvian, and that same sense of unhinged unpredictability tempered only by the certainty that you are in for one graven, subterranean onslaught, characterized by the ominous guttural vocals which are suspended just behind the manic instrumentation.

Coincidentally, as the Canadians have matured, so too has the quality of their music, which despite its fits of frenzied abhorrence is still highly riff-focused, with blocky palm-muted rhythm guitars used to break up the blasting, frothy tremolo picked patterns. At the heart of it, this is still very much rooted in the Morbid Angel, Deicide and Incantation styles of the earlier 90s, with reference points in Blessed Are the Sick or Onward to Golgotha, but where those bands sounded at the time like men who had caught a glimpse through some tear in the space/time continuum to a Lovecraftian void of horrors, these Canadian groups seem to treat the aesthetic as if its their home terrain. The listener really feels like he/she is being transported through some claustrophobic corridor of filthy flesh, pressing in everywhere until asphyxiated by the ugliness. Kinetic entropy. Sporadic tempo changes erupting in the pure chaos of Limbo, untold anatomies reproducing at alarming rates into squamous anomalies that leech and suck and devour. This is not pretty music, and when the guitars are blitzing along to the very raw, organic drums during blast parts it will grind your fucking socks off.

I'm not going to claim that Dire Omen have really yet grasped the art of brilliant, memorable riff construction, but there is no question that the progressions here are kept very busy, with churning dissonant fills between the unclean beatings that the more obvious chord choices produce. You can't really get bored or exhausted because its too effective at stirring your gut in an uncomfortable way. The bass lines are corpulent, like swollen corpses, and Rolando Rodas' vocals are used more as a 'filler' between the gaps of the notes and percussion, a looming threat that seems to promise that even if you can survive the brawling guitars, there is still this impregnable wall of dead flesh trapping you forever, which really lends some credence to the title of the album. Unhappy, unhealthy stuff here, an unholy, raw conglomeration of their cavernous peers and influences with faint traces of that forgotten, ogrish riff-salad reminiscent of old, old Kataklysm, Disharmonic Orchestra, Convulse, and other bands you might have experienced in the 90s. Madness. Still room for this band to 'flower' into an even more unwholesome, suffocating entity, but this is their strongest material yet.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Job for a Cowboy - Sun Eater (2014)

Man, where to even start with this one? Sun Eater, the lesser of two death metal-related albums to bear that title in 2014, and Job for a Cowboy's fourth full-length, is an exercise in variation and ability which at the very least sounds like it required a lot of effort in both its conception and execution. The question is, whether or not that was all worth it? My answer is very, very nearly. This is not a band that I'd ever accuse of having a 'personality', despite the quirky name, which many have already ranted over but at least isn't just another -tion, -tory, for you to file away under redundant. Once they shifted away from their insipid meathead deathcore roots into a more decidedly West Coast approximation of modern, semi-tech death which traced its lineage to all the 'right' acts in the field (Suffocation, Morbid Angel, Deicide and Cannibal Corpse could all be heard in the controlled chaos), they seemed to translate into a more respectable, though still highly divisive act. I've enjoyed a few of their efforts (Demonocracy, Genesis, etc) to an extent, but greatness has ever eluded the Arizona quartet, and despite a very painstakingly wrought effort here, it still does...

Much like Fallujah transformed into a modern approximation of classic Cynic, with whirlwind technicality alternated against a more ambient/jazzy fusion, Job for a Cowboy have done the next best thing and decided to channel Atheist. Alright, not exactly, but a number of times I was sitting through this I kept getting Unquestionable Presence impressions, with some of the cleaner guitar patterns reminiscent also of Gorguts' Obscura. This is an acrobatic, eccentric slab of technical death and thrash metal which goes to great lengths to try and distinguish itself from its aesthetic ancestors, applying a modern studio context to their now antiquated, but once innovative ideas. But like so many other young death metal bands with athletic instrumental skill, it seems to rely a little too much on its own frenetic diversity and not on the strong songwriting chops that will make or break a death metal record throughout eternity. I'm not saying Sun Eater is void of a few gorgeous lead sequences, or riffs that perk my interest, but where The Flesh Prevails became this largely consistent pendulum of ethereal melodies and butchering brutality, this one just never develops much of an identity beyond the 'hey, wow, listen to that' mentality, where you're temporarily blown away by a band's proficiency set and not at any risk of remembering what they are actually setting down.

Oh, don't get me wrong, this one is an extent. Jonny Davy's gruesome snarls and growls are splattered all over the polished, punchy instrumentation like cattle organs in some spit-shined slaughterhouse whose death machines are fresh off the assembly line. But did I like them? Nah, they try really hard but accomplish little since he just can't contort them into interesting syllabic patterns. Danny Walker's guest drumming on this is technically brilliant but I found a few of the components like the snares and toms to feel a little too Tupperware at points. The bass is amazing in general, with lines highly similar to those used in prog thrash and prog death classics like Control and Resistance, Unquestionable Presence, Focus, etc, and there are parts of the album where I really felt like I could just listen to Nick Schendzielos isolated from the rest of the band and be happy. But at the same time, it's actually the Glassman/Sannicandro guitar duo which keeps the busiest, and offers us the most contrast and variation between the different levels of distorted excess. The album boasts a Jason Suecof production with Eyal Levi and several other engineers, so you know it's going to have that pristine, clinical 21st century death metal gloss that most of the 'forward thinking' acts strive towards, but then again that's just not anything new at this point.

Effort was extended towards the lyrics, also, but they end up the sort that feel like they're waxing all philosophical about the digital age, moral relativity; poetic and neatly scrawled imagery, sure, but for some reason it felt like a bunch of fancy words strung together which are ultimately as meaningless as taking a hearty poop. But I guess I could say that about almost any death metal band that dares transcend the serial killings, gore menageries and so forth. Job for a Cowboy tried, it's just such a fine line between an actual message of substance and mere pretentious twaddle. I felt like these were keeping one foot on either side of that line. And that's sort of symptomatic of Sun Eater in general: a Herculean attempt to progress and expand one further circumference beyond the burly BroStep brutality of the band's origins than even their last few albums dared. Nothing to scoff at, since tunes like "Buried Monuments" rank among their better compositions, but ultimately I just felt hollow after a few spins, like I was watching some flashy action movie which had a couple impressive stunts but no quotable one-liners like Commando or Terminator. This is more like the last four Jason Statham flicks you caught. Huge, kinetic, smarmy, lots of explosions and special effects, but more of a rental than a purchase.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (my relentless knocking is constantly ignored)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Yearner - The Second Howl (2013)

The second Yearner cassette is something quite different than its predecessor Winternight, comprised of three longer untitled pieces and not so much going for the 'chill factor' as it exhibits a more curious and bizarre collection of sounds over fuzzier rhythmic synthesizers. It's at once both noisier and more experimental, especially the second piece with its acid, head-melting tones and throbbing subtext, but I wouldn't go so far that it feels entirely unplanned and sporadic. It seems L.V. sat down with a bunch of sounds he hadn't explored in other ventures and then tried to formulate them into something more coherent...there are some stabs at melodies here, so it's not entirely unfriendly, but this is certainly 'on the edge', more left field than the stuff from Astral Order of Impurity, for example.

That said, it's equally evocative of a lot of obscure and strange imagery. The second track reminded me of late summers in my youth when I'd watch in fascination at moths fluttering around the bug zapper lights in my grandfather's back yard...but mashed up with spending an evening at S.E.T.I. listening to the radio signals from space. The third track has these distorted pads which almost create a form of percussion under the prime, buzzing melodies, and I found that this was easily the most glorious and memorable among the three, though once again it's more a mood piece despite it's more easily discerned 'riff'. There are also some points in that one where the haunted organs of the first tape return for a few seconds, almost like L.V. is switching radio channels and tuning in to his earlier visions. A weird self-awareness that emerges among all the roiling, fuzzy tones and experimentation.

While it was successful at reincarnating some old memories, and an intriguing listen, The Second Howl did not quite live up to its predecessor as something I'm going to want to break out time and time again, nor was it as strong as the rest of the Voldsom tapes I've been covering. But I wouldn't dub it a disappointment, because what I did like about it is how it almost seemed like L.V. was using this as a further launch pad for a project that involved 'grounded' technological feedback. Where Astral Order of Impurity was a veritable lunar lander or space station, this is more a soundtrack for a being lost in a labyrinthine landfill of ancient computer game cartridges, radar dishes, and other antiquated computer or arcade machinery, factory castoffs and all sorts of outdated paraphernalia. Strange, but sometimes soothing if you like a little challenge in your minimalistic ambiance.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, November 21, 2014

Yearner - Winternight (2013)

Winternight is all too apt a title for this tape, Yearner being another project in the Voldsom lineup, composed and recorded by musician L.V. But I might have gone even a bit further with that imagery, dubbing it Winter Nights in a Fell Church Buried Beneath the Snows, for this is hands down the most longing and isolated piece of work I've yet encountered from this musician, and my favorite release to date among the Voldsom catalog. Nostalgic, horrific, completely lonely and heavily repressed due to the subdued, submersed production sensibilities that will probably be exponentially more pronounced when you're actually listening to the cassette on an old tape deck (I am listening to this digitally). Proof yet again, that in a world of overdubs, heavily layered orchestration, pop melodies refined to a bleeding edge and/or Pro Tools guitar rock, it's a wonder what a guy can do with a few organ and synthesizer tones and a metric ton of sincerity...

Not all of the tracks on Winternight are uniform in mood, but there is enough linking them together that by the end you've felt like you just wandered through some German Black Forest Odyssey during the snowfalls and lowest temperatures of the year. The organ tones here, especially in a piece like "Silent Nocturnal Snowfall", resonated with me incredibly well, as if Captain Nemo had been forced out of his undersea vessel and made to perform among the evergreens at absolute zero. It's chilling and also evokes a hint of nostalgia for cult Gothic horror films, and to be truthful would not make a bad accompaniment for some silent black & white replete with imagery that someone might have felt was pretty creepy in the earlier 20th century, or even today if they actually have perspective. These passages are played in repetitive waves, joined by antiquated synth tones which would have belonged more to a Tangerine Dream and/or Vangelis, which bring a little more of a Technicolor palette to the atmosphere, like whorls of deep purple or crimson snow erupting over a monochromatic landscape. This is really where the record transforms and transcends beyond the reality of a guy and a keyboard.

But Yearner also disembarks from this motif, with more dissonant, jarring pieces like "Obscurity" which have a more immediate, brooding horror appeal with some electronic pipe-like sounds that really freaked me out, or "In Days of Yore" where the synths feel more saturated and distorted beneath a more glorious wouldn't be out of place in some dreamy 80s film like Legend. "Winternight" itself has a slightly more Medieval folk/castle feel to it, adding yet another facet to the album's ability to successfully manifest fragments and scenes of the imagination. Combined with the murky, raw mix, all five of its tracks function entirely as intended and were a perfect mood-setter for a few brisk New England nights here in mid-November, though I definitely have the feeling I'll be breaking this out in another month or two repeatedly as I become increasingly surrounded in frigid whites and darkness. At 20 or so minutes, it never wears out its welcome, and probably more than any of the other tapes I've heard from L.V's other projects (Astral Order of Impurity, Til Det Bergens Skygenne, etc), grants a haunted, seasonal escapism.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Astral Order of Impurity - Dimension (2014)

One risk that ambient artists face is that their recordings can often become so samey, so redundant that it feels like one or two ideas are being chopped up into a number of slices and then fed to the listener individually in lieu of offering a more fulfilled, variegated experience. One might immediately gaze upon the cover art to the tapes of Astral Order of Impurity, hear a few select moments of the pads and effects the creator has implemented, and decide that there isn't a whole lot of difference between them. One might not always be wrong in that assumption, not even when comparing and contrasting Dimension with its predecessor Portal. However, those differences DO exist, and not always in the most subtle of contexts.

Dimension is a more cathartic experience than the prior tape, with a greater intrusion of dissonant noises and effects that inhabits its depths and become immediately more alarming, while the usual background tones themselves become even more innately alien and frightening. This is not always the case, and there are indeed a few lighter points in the first half of the 41 minute track which were crucial in setting this one up as an almost more asymmetrical 'cinematic' recording. A few hints of weirdness abound, but it all takes a slightly darker, more chaotic turn as you reach past the 20-25 minute zone, after a more ominous, subdued middle section with some subtle electronic or radio signals rattling off against the swelling background...I thought I even heard something like a guitar distortion pop into one ear, but I often lose my mind when I become so embroiled in a record like this that it wouldn't surprise me if my own mind was casting shadows. But, lo and behold, just like the alien bursts out of the victim's chest, or the space heroes realize that planet they just landed on is not actually a planet, or that the void is just in general not a friendly place...this one grows a little more haunting and fucked up, and it really pays off in the listener's emotions.

Again, material like this is the Anti-Beat. It's not going to get you laid, and if it does, well you've found yourself a keeper...either that, or someone who is going to probably kill you in your sleep (one eye open, friend, one eye open). It eschews the conventional structure of rock or even classical music instrumentation to more directly mimic the sounds of open space, technological equipment or even just what a human brain might 'think' it is hearing. You're not straining for the next harmony here, you're just dreading what might be around the next corner of a derelict extraterrestrial space-craft. L.V., the sole craftsman on this recording, is channeling his own trepidations of the unknown onto cassette, for a few brave souls to witness themselves. But the funny thing, people, is that this is ALL around you, always has been, and always will be. Stop to listen for a few seconds, ignoring the wagging of tongues, the invasive ring-tones, the grinding of construction equipment on every urban corner, and you may just hear it. Or, better yet, just let Astral Order of the Impurity do the work for you. Dimension is the music of Infinity, filtered through one consciousness trying to translate it into pure aural emotion. It's the better of the two Astral Order tapes I've listened through, by a small margin, granted, but it's at once both more sublime and horrifying.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Monday, November 17, 2014

Astral Order of Impurity - Portal (2014)

I've listened to hundreds of musical genres across my decades, but one that always strikes me as the most personal is ambient. And when I say 'personal', I'm not referring to the schmaltziness of romantic pop and rock lyrics, nor how most of the drones feel they can 'relate' towards their Taylor Swift records. No, the undiluted practice of raw musical expression in a niche that hasn't been cool ever, isn't cool now, and if the stars are right will never, EVER, become 'cool', tainted or passe. Labels like the German imprint Voldsom are so underground that the devil himself might give you a blank stare when you ask him where to find them, but we have the Internet now, and no need to rely on His bad direction sense any further, though his fashion sense will never go out of style.

Speaking of directions, Astral Order of Impurity depends on only one. Up, up, and away, unto the weightless distortion of space and time. Gravity be damned. Gravitas, on the other hand, paramount. One of the more recent projects of musician L.V., who you might recall from my coverage of Til Det Bergens Skyggene, a more rustic example of ambiance which some might brand ambient, others might dub 'dungeon synth', but struck through with tints of folk abandon and isolation among both the depths and surface world of the Known World. Portal is rather the opposite, a solitary, 43 minute, consistent excursion into what feels to me like an extraterrestrial plane. Perhaps resonating off the hull of some cyclopean World-ship cruising the void between galaxies. Or something your imagination might produce as a feedback loop during nostalgia for lunar landscapes, ancient science fiction concepts (pre-colorization). Free of the convention of percussion and other rock sacraments, the spacey synthesizer pads embark upon an oft empty, oft ebullient discourse. This is not a vacuum which entirely lacks in warmth; he is constantly supplanting the thicker, murky, fear-induced strains with cycles of more radiant non-melodic tones and effects that seem delightfully spontaneous.

I told you: deeply personal. One human being experimenting with sounds foreign to the herd-mind misconception of what music might encompass or become 'defined' as. That's not to say L.V. is the first cosmonaut out in this stretch of universe, but due to its general lack of rules and scripture, this stuff always feels fresh and unpredictable, even if that sporadic nature arrives in the form of subtler sounds than chaotic, blazing grindcore guitars or acid-trance crabcore keyboard harmonies. Mood music, absolutely. Not something you're going to appreciate much if you can't set yourself up to receive it. Park your posterior on a hill at night, stare off into the darkness, and come to terms with your smallness in the face of it all. Dream of satellite dishes signaling off into the interstellar range, where they most likely will reach nothing. The tape format only adds to that nostalgia, that horror, that antithesis to sentimentality which such cold and distant music revels in, but the real joy of Portal is how, upon the precipice of becoming lost and frozen forever, you'll experience this peel of light, a far-off sun erupting, and know that somewhere, someone is still breathing, dreaming. And goodnight.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, November 14, 2014

Whore of Bethlehem - Upon Judas' Throne (2014)

If the lurching, roiling pace of the intro riff in the title track of this album sounds a little similar to Domination or Blessed Are the Sick era Morbid Angel, I don't think that's such a coincidence, because the Floridian death metal gods are clearly the chief inspirations for Texans Whore of Bethlehem, and that's probably not such a bad thing if you crave a lot more of that sound and less of the New York subterranean gloom or Swedish soil churning, which individually or in unison represent the two primary camps of retro death metal that are so prominent in recent years. That's not to say this exact style hasn't been resurrected quite a number of times since the masters mastered it in the 90s, but in general I find that the inspiration of bands like Morbid Angel and Deicide seems to have translated largely to the more brutal and technical sect of bands who at one time were forcing at the boundaries of the genre.

The caveat for Whore of Bethlehem is how they also fuse traces of archaic Scandinavian black metal into that matrix of morbidity, in particular through the desperate, dissonant chord patterns that erupt during blast sections, slightly less through the rasped vocal which is used to contrast against pissed off Dave Vincent/Steve Tucker growls. So, while Upon Judas' Throne might sound derivative to a fault, there are at least a few riffing patterns that come out of left field, and in general they are just really damned good at what they do. Guitar progressions are pretty catchy, especially when you break them down to their individual components. The rich, bulkier rhythm tone carries well into the chugs, but is constantly being offset by a lot of more intricately evil, airier ballast which really resonates over the pounding, frenzied undercurrent. Leads are sporadic but elegant, and while the Texans are playing in a fairly mapped-out niche of the death metal genre, I definitely experienced dozens of instances in which the precise direction the tunes and riffs were taking did not play out quite as I predicted. And in this day and age, where jaded veterans have heard the same shit a billion times and then some, the value of that cannot be underestimated. I'm not trying to imply that they consistently throw you for a loop, only some refreshingly solid ideas which implement with confidence.

The drums are great, the bass a fraction understated but functional, the vocals abusive and the guitars almost always on point. I really can't imagine anyone who counts Morbid Angel, Marduk, 1349, Hate Eternal and Dark Funeral among his/her collection not finding something admirable in the obvious effort, and love for the craft on parade here. Plenty enough variation between the outright stormers like "Castle of Meth" and the more brooding pieces like "Leviathan's Crown", and the band sounds eternally pissed off rather than phoned in, a positive quality that goes a long way towards compensating for any real lack of innovation and ingenuity. For an unsigned debut, it's astounding just how professional this sounds, and how well they play, even if the guys have been involved with other Texan acts like Scattered Remains or Disfigured which operate in a more bluntly brutal, contemporary arena. I frankly haven't heard a wealth of albums in this vein that I've enjoyed since Trey and crew dropped Gateways to Annihilation, so this definitely helped fill that void, plus the seamless integration of the black metal stuff gave it the benefit of the marginally unexpected. As the band develops I hope they'll branch out even further, but this is a sinister, rock solid start.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Decapitated - Blood Mantra (2014)

Though Blood Mantra is far from the return to form I had hoped it could be, it at least sounds like the band assessed their second-rate 2011 effort Carnival is Forever, and then gave themselves a series of kicks in their own asses to provoke a little more genuine anger and energy into the inevitable followup. That's not to imply that this is in any way a 'good' record. It has proven even more forgettable with each successive listen, but if all hope had been lost through its predecessor, at least there is a spark now...maybe. Of course, when I see band members claiming "Blood Mantra is the most heavy and mature album we ever did in our career" amidst the usual shitstorm of metal press hyperbole, I have to wonder if the Poles are listening to the same record I'm hearing...because these guys were writing far more intricately sculpted, mature death metal when they were in their teens...Blood Mantra is the sort of disc that could honestly just turn up from any band with its feet soaked in death, grind and groove metal, and then straight to the bargain bins in the late 90s. Competent in its performance and production, but soulless in its pursuit of that timeless quality we attribute to top flight death metal.

It's a concussive affair which alternates between bland, robotic blasting passages, chugging queues beyond which the bass guitar is allowed to roil around in its distorted flatulence, and then various post-industrial atmospheres are strewn about, marking a return to the Organic Hallucinosis period. Frankly, it's not such a bad idea, and that was the last Decapitated disc I actually enjoyed, but alas, they don't do much with it beyond pay it some lip a whole, this album never steps beyond the bounds that they've ever set before, and if you're expecting anything by way of compelling guitar progressions that characterized their first few albums, you are almost shit out of luck here. There are a few which achieve the syncopated, precision punch sophistication you'll recall from Nihility and "Spheres of Madness", and those are surely highlights here, but sadly the banal groove/nu-thrash metal elements arrive in the form of "Veins", etc which might as well just be textbook Soulfly or any of a number of other mediocre bands who tried to capitalize on that whole thing. I won't fault these guys for lacking variation or versatility...Blood Mantra is pretty carefully balanced to provide its audience with a number of mood shifts, but the issue for me is that none of these moods are capable to provoke memorable atmosphere beyond the LCD neck-strain and pit-flexing requisite of popular metal bands.

Based on raw musical proficiency alone, this stuff does deliver. Michał Łysejko is flawless on his debut, but perhaps a little too flawless, since his aptitude is so resoundingly mechanical that you wonder why they even needed to hire a human. But let's not write the guy off completely, because he's also capable of showing some restraint where needed during the more progressive side of the record where the guitars take on far more importance. The guitars are somewhat technical, and do often go into some minute detailing, but the issue is that the notes are just not that interesting in succession and I felt that, even with all the considering meandering between tempos, I was still staring at some level, unbroken, not-too-creative plateau. The bass tone sounds great, but there are never any lines that catch the ear, and the leads just feel like runs through scales or structures rather than efforts to explode with either orgasmic emotions or frightening industrial dissonance. Man, it just got matter how skilled these guys seem, how many endorsements they receive, how many tours they embark upon, there's something to be said when single songs off Winds of Creation are more interesting and memorable than all of the content combined on an album 14 years younger...

Rafal's vocals are just as bog standard here as on the last album, a pastiche of Cavalera, Anselmo and Greenway cliches which basically just fill in the spreadsheet of what needs to be grunted and barked and utterly indistinguishable from a thousand other front men. Your friendly neighborhood corner groove metal guy. Not all the lyrics here are bad, but it's particularly funny when he's grunting out the 'fuck for money/fuck for name!' lines in the song "Instinct", during a groove over which I kept finding myself reciting Flava Flav's chorus in the old Public Enemy track "911 is a Joke", for whatever reason. Parts like this simply feel like they involve more pandering and rabble rousing to those whom only the exclamation of profanity can inspire from their shoddy lives, which is a little frustrating because half of what the band has to say here about the disenchantment of the Millennial internet generation (which has been the subject matter for about 3 albums straight) carries some weight. If only Blood Mantra wasn't, itself, contributing to that very same sense of futility, anxiety and impotence. Everything in the world at your fingertips...all that history, all that information, and no cause or purpose with which to approach, nothing whatsoever to do with it all...just like the musical chops on exhibition here. An inoffensive, competent musical battery? Sure. Superior to the band's career nadir to date? Why not? The once-bright future of death metal? Extinguished.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (find me a faith)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Vomitory - Rawhead (1996)

I was able to cover Hour of Truth and Baschlasophobic a few years ago as I was doing my massive examination of the Teutonic thrash scene through the decades, but the German Vomitory's third full length outing Rawhead was unavailable to me at that time for listening purposes. As it turns out, leaving this one in the dust would not have made for much of a difference, because while the album does have a share of appreciably brutal moments as far as thrash goes, the whole affair reeks of another of those countless attempts to 'adjust' thrash into the nu-mosh, groove mentality so dominant throughout the 90s that it rendered the careers of so many hopefuls inert. Vomitory's 1991 debut had been an acceptable if far too late to the game example of thrash will little to no distinctive characteristic with which I could separate it from hordes of other hopeless bands attempting to fill in the gaps left behind by infinitely more unique and inspired predecessors. The sophomore dropped off considerably in quality from even that, and Rawhead doesn't do a lot to improve matters...

Once again, a real shitty cover artwork which doesn't gel well with the forgettable script they used for a logo, which coincidentally never fit at all with the music on their releases. Once you get past that, you are presented with an acceptable, ambient intro which might have proven the spark for a more interesting, progressive sort of album, only it doesn't, because you're in for 50 minutes of banal, meaty thrashing which honestly sounds like a more bouncy late 80s Sepultura; not only in the structuring of how they put together riffs, or the more grueling, growling, grimier and bulkier spin on Cavalera-like vocal barks, but also the brash rawness in the guitars which gave me a distinctly Beneath the Remains impression. The real down side to Rawhead is not that the group isn't occasionally capable of throwing down a genuinely mean rhythm for putting on camouflage pants, bouncing around the steakhead moshpit, but but that so many of them can be seen coming, redundant patterns rooted in nu-metal jump da fuc up and that strain of NYHC brand throwdown redolent of Biohazard. The riffs do seem to subsist often on an uninteresting chugging base which functions strictly off the grooves of the drummer, but then will shift off into some more hardcore-inflected chord choices.

That's not to say they don't have a few songs on this which manifest into a more traditional thrash anthem, with some frivolous but not unengaged leads for good measure. They even pattern some of their selections with a hint of more interesting post-industrial dissonance, but in general the stuff is just so predictable that the only excitement ever comes when they shift tempos, but then that is soon joined by the disappointment that what happened next was equally as boring. To top it off, you've got vocal patterns as in "Downfall" where wiggy repetition is used to low yields, almost as if they had gotten a guest spot with some poor man's Jonathan Davis impersonator and thought it was a good idea to enhance the brand with a little Korn, since that was all the rage at the time. So you are definitely hearing some Life is Peachy, some Roots here, and it kind of dilutes what traces remain of true, clinical German thrash...they exist on this album, but not enough to turn back the 'cult of the new' vibes that Vomitory was obviously surfing on. The album is also way too long...52 minutes, even if three of the cuts are under a minute; with nothing reward awaiting in its depths. Is it worse than Baschlasophobic? That I can't say, since it at least feels meaner and they very rarely latch onto a better riff than was found on the 1993 album. It's just the very definition of mediocrity, and had absolutely no prayer of making an impact even by '96 standards.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Friday, November 7, 2014

Thy Darkened Shade - Liber Lvcifer I: Khem Sedjet (2014)

There are precious few bands towing the lines of technicality and progression within the bounds of black metal, traits that make a record like Liber Lvcifer I: Khem Sedjet valuable far beyond the fact that it's just a superbly written, kick-ass exposition into the more clinical side of the medium. But I don't mean to get across that this is simply some soulless exercise in musical proficiency. This is not some wank-fest or shred exposition. No, the key to Thy Darkened Shade's sophomore is that it is just as heavily focused on the band's occult lyrical paradigms, not to mention the delirious level of variation and contrast between the bristling, hyper picked black metal assaults and the layered, atmospheric moments in which the monk-like chant of the clean vocals announces its presence...the album is so good that it throws the band's already-great debut Eternvs Mos, Nex Ritvs off the nearest rooftop to be trampled by the traffic below.

Liber Lvcifer I: Khem Sedjet might not exactly be setting a precedent, since there's an entire history of Scandinavian black metal bands like 1349 and later Emperor with an emphasis for taxing the raw technical levels of the field, but it does the deed just as well if not better than most of those that have come before it. Agile rhythm guitars spitting out spikes of dissonant, eerie melody amidst impressive picking sequences that almost never let up when the pedal is to the metal, accompanied by effortless blasting that keeps the slower to mid-paced passages of the album just as busy with involved double kick patterns and powerful fills that transition seamlessly into the next rush of aggression. Most of the guitars are played with that perfectly lean tone which allows all the notes a presence, and this album more than any other in 2014 has the highest ratio of quality tremolo patterns that force innumerable replays just to confirm what you thought you heard. But that's not the limit of the technique here...the ever prolific Semjaza has his fingers all over that fucking fretboard, like an insane architect who is attempting to disprove the notion that all practical structures have already been built. Even when the brickwork being laid out here isn't all that novel, it's still mindbendingly great...

But the songwriting and guitars are not the only area in which the guy is excelling, he also populates the tunes with a bevy of curving, climactic proggy bass lines that are the equal to almost anyone else in the black metal genre. It's difficult to rationalize how the guy could come up with such intricate and well honed craft within two years of the debut album, so I'm just going to pretend Semjaza has six arms and two or three extra brain chambers. I'm not saying that this is the greatest work of music known to mankind, or that it exhibits such a level of complexity and depth that mere human wisdom cannot interpret it, but you must understand that I receive so much extreme metal in a year's span, and an overwhelming percentage of the stuff doesn't even show a quarter this much effort in its execution, never mind its composition. And the thing is, I kept waiting for it to get boring...for it to become so cluttered with its own ambitions that it stopped engaging anyone other than itself...but it doesn't. Fuck, some of the later tracks like "Deus Absconditus" are among its best and most intense.

78 minutes, and there is ALWAYS something happening that fetches the ear. 10 minutes songs surge past the listener like a rush of sheer revelation. Bored yet? Not a chance. Few blanks are fired, ever, on this album. The polished production levels are never sterile nor superfluous, but rather mandatory to make out everything happening in the mix. Vocalist 'The A' has his work cut out for him, and to be truthful, his guttural ravings, which somewhat supplant the traditional rasp of the style, can't even hope to compare with every other component of the recording. But with all those chants and cleaner vocals throw in for balance, I still really enjoyed the album as a whole. It's not perfect, there might be a few moments inferior to the rest, and it's not the sort of 'catchy' kind of's more like an experience you have to find the specific mood for. The frenzy of these ideas, old and new, whirring past like papal hornets into an abyss of their suppressed sins. Unfuckingbelievably good.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Aenaon - Extance (2014)

Having not had the most favorable reaction to the first Aenaon record Cendres et Sang (2011), I was hesitant to check out its followup. But thanks to at least three individuals who prodded and poked me in the right direction, that has changed, and I'm glad it has, because Extance reduces its predecessor to a mere stain within the first three tracks, and its another robust example of how Greece has developed this worthy, dynamic black metal scene in which bands seem to foster and excel in individual sounds without having to invade each others' wheelhouses for anything more than a few fleeting aesthetics. That's not to insist that Extance consists of a wealth of novel ideas we haven't heard, but how the band fashions it all together and plays to its strengths results in an inspired, professional, memorable experience which immediately inverted my sense of indifference from the prior outing.

The piano intro to this was so outstanding that I wouldn't have been put off if the entire album had been just that...but for the most part the material sort of reminded me of Moonspell's louder and more black metal-oriented material...not just from the similarities in that loud, fulsome rasp, but also the pacing, desperation and melodic structures they're writing. All of the sweeping Romantic abandon, with none of the Goth cheese that other band embraces. I suppose you could also name drop Rotting Christ here for the general tempos, but the vocals are slightly different and Aenaon cultivates a more progressive, modern edge. They're also a lot more eclectic, Solefald-eclectic; using saxophones, harmonica, cellos and other instruments to great success, since they sort of weave them into the black metal terrain as if they always belonged, rather than just writing these boisterous 'look at how different we are' pieces where you feel like you're witnessing two entirely different bands grappling over album space. The entire flow of Extance is fluid, the dynamics shift from soaring moments of cleaner vocals used like wind over the strident riffs and hammering double bass, to outright blasts to the face which eschew none of the richness elsewhere. The band even incorporates a few passages of djent-like chugging progressions ("Closer to Scaffold"), but the guitar tone and how it fits into the remainder of the song make all the difference in it coming off lame or contrived.

I'm not entirely in love with the vocals, they definitely seem a little overbearing and lack the eerie and evil traits I enjoy most in the genre...but technically they are well executed and there are plenty of points at which other tones, backing barks, etc are used to layer and vary them so they don't feel one track. Some of the higher pitched female howls (as in "Funeral Blues") seem a little forced, strange but not necessarily in a good way. Pianos and keys are consistently great, beyond just that intro or the later instrumental ("Algernon's Decadence"), but it's the drumming and constantly mutating patterns of rhythm guitars and melodies that achieve the strongest presence here, rendering a potential 65 minute overlong nightmare into something pretty easily digested in full. The riffs do not have a perfect ratio of catchiness or inventiveness, and I'd hesitate to dub this the band's 'masterpiece', but to me it seemed like all the components they had meddled with on their debut have been reconfigured into something which is a far more coherent and compelling listen, especially the enormous closer "Palindrome" which is an engaging 13 minutes. You'll find no reluctance here to dive straight in to whatever they come up with next.

Verdict: Win [8/10]