Thursday, June 30, 2016
This record is expansive and modern enough to escape feeling lazy or like a post-midlife crisis, and it's borne on a mix of the band's more tranquil, feely moments with the jarring, jammy metal grooves that almost all trace their roots back to Rush's "YYZ" and other bastions of prog rock aggression that it's purveyors don't seem likely to evade for fear that they'll lose the narrative. Bobby Jarzombek's drumming is a pleasure to listen to, even if this is far from one of his more intricate or experimental performances, he really keeps the momentum going throughout harder hitters like the opening "From the Rooftops" or "Like Stars Our Eyes Have Seen", but still maintains that mechanical/electronic vibe that his predecessor Mark Zonder made a staple of the modern Fates Warning sound. Joey Vera is also a standout on this record, with fat and fluid bass lines that would be fun to follow along with just the drums even if you didn't have Matheos' airier melodies or grooves splattered all over it. The riffs themselves keep really busy across the constantly shifting tempos, and there are generally at least two things going on at a time to draw the ear, though when it comes to the sheer riff power these are just not as memorable as stuff Jim has written in the past. But I will grant him that he keeps the stuff somewhat exploratory and unpredictable as in "The Ghosts of Home".
Ray Alder's own contribution here is flawless, but I have to admit that there were times I zoned out and forgot it was him even singing, as if the years have mutated his vocal chords just enough to rob his timbre of some of the character I identified with it when I was younger. That said, a lot of the tunes seem very carefully fit to his voice, and there's no question that it's all plotted in such a consummately professional way that die-hard fans of prog metal from the last 20 years are not going to find anything to really complain about. The problem I have is just that real lack of memorable quality to the songs...even after numerous spins through the disc I just wanted to break out Perfect Symmetry or Parallels...there is no "Through Different Eyes" or "We Only Say Goodbye" to be found on Theories, even if there is more ambition, technicality and variation inherent in the material that they've assembled for this. I think it's a decent effort, an exhibition of proficiency and competence and loyalty to a fault. There is nothing here I could honestly say that Fates does 'wrong', but it just isn't one I'm going to reach for when I need a fix of Alder-fronted mood music, and I'd really like to have a modern Fates disc on the level of the excellent Arch/Matheos debut.
Verdict: Win [7/10]
Sunday, June 26, 2016
Don't get me wrong, there is more than enough material here for a solid, I daresay even 'great' EP, and much of that arrives in the first four tracks. In particular, "Stranded" is one I'd toss on any mix tape, which does wonders with those chugging patterns as it offsets them with the spikes of higher pitched guitar and a rousing, uplifting, if predictable chorus. I even enjoyed the soothing, cleaner vocal harmonies that came in the bridge. "The Cell" also has its moments with those churning palm mute harmony patterns and the faint melodies they plaster over them, although even this track relies on an extremely primitive groove riff that I didn't feel could contribute much to its overall composure after maybe 3-4 repetitions. But honestly, there is a very consistent opening 15-16 minutes with a lot of subtlety alongside the jackhammering grooves, a few twists and surprises that help augment that banal 'heaviness' forced by a lot of the palm mute focus, very much in the style that they mastered in 2005 with From Mars to Sirius, or its superb successor The Way of All Flesh. Granted, there is no "Oroborus" of "Toxic Garbage Island" among these, but I'd say that the quality does hit the standard of L'Enfant sauvage.
Where it does NOT hit that standard is in the two vapid instrumental tunes, "Yellow Stone" and "Liberation", which have nothing on the excellent "Wild Healer" from the prior album. The first is an oozing, circular, bluesy Sabbath piece with a little bit of ambient accompaniment, which goes just nowhere for me, and the last was a traditional acoustic guitar piece with some percussion that is a pretty boring afterthought to all that came before it. Hell, "Liberation" seems like such a mistake that I thought someone had mixed up the production of the CD. Otherwise, there were some cuts like "Magma" itself, "Pray", or the bass-swerving chug onslaught of "Only Pain" which basically rips its 'surprise' riff off the much catchier "Stranded" that did little to nothing interesting. When Joe is shouting "just wanted to be good" in the middle of that last tune, I was forced to agree with him. "Low Lands" would have been a solid closer for my imaginative EP version of this album, since I like how he works the vocals throughout, and it's constant climbing feel, but even that is just not enough to save this from sub-greatness.
Sonically, I don't have an issue here, since it sounds as crisp, pulverizing and rich as the couple albums before it, but much as the production emboldens the parts of Magma that I do like, it also accents the parts that I don't. The lyrics are alright, but tunes like "Silvera" rely on a lot of nu metal, groove or hardcore cliche like lines and images that don't do as much for the imagination as even the very basest riffing they perform. So, ultimately, was this worth a four year wait? Half of it is a worthwhile followup to L'Enfant sauvage, but the other half seems like the ideas in the Gojira camp have run dry, and the ironic elegant primacy that fuels their songwriting has petered out to a more neutral plane in which their upward creative trajectory has halted. I'll still slap a passing grade on it, because I get enough emotional resonance out of its stronger pieces, but I can guarantee that I won't often feel a compulsion to listen through in its entirety, skipping those instrumentals entirely and giving or taking 2-3 other tunes.
Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (leave the moment alone)
Friday, June 24, 2016
Production is total brickhouse, with a mixture of thrashy melodeath rhythm guitars that feed into fat-bottomed grooves which themselves teeter between the djent and deathcore niches, without much resolution as to which side of that fence they're going to land on. The bass guitar has this enormous, bouncy tone which you can really feel in your stomach when they bust into the meathead hardcore breakdowns, almost like some heavily tatted GQ dudes are lining up to use your gut as a trampoline for their fists. But they also go for some brief, intimate moments like the intro to "Bring Me Home" where they're attempting to show off their sensitive side, clean guitar sounds and soothing vocals and a progression which almost reminded me of Tool or A Perfect Circle before the requisite clobbering rhythms begin. Tremolo picked melodies are often added as layers beneath the dense, roiling strata of mosh-oriented violence to add a little bit of a post-modern feel to the brocore step that they're often pretty loyal to, and the hoarse and antagonistic vocals of Phil Bozeman definitely sound as angry as I've heard in the past, especially in the lyrics to songs like "Tormented" or "Elitist Ones" where they definitely have a Hatebreed-like social hardcore aesthetic with even a little hip-hop or Biohazard to the syllable choices.
Hell, along with the pork-toned bass in the latter, it's quite funny to the point that I broke out laughing...but you wouldn't wanna get run down by these dudes in an alley regardless. Neither would I. The joke would be over then, as they beat me within an inch of never reviewing a deathcore band again. But yeah, there are lots of little deviations here or there where the aggression will cut out and they'll launch into something which feels progressive by comparison, and that actually creates an air of nuance to what they've recorded here. I can't accuse Whitechapel of not trying to write actual songs, or not trying to better themselves, because I feel like they're doing both. It's whether or not the riffs or the lyrics resonate with me here that matters, and to my chagrin, they really did not. Not for a lack of effort, though, and to their credit, they've done a far better job with this than their shoddy last album, Our Endless War, while still flirting with the more accessible goals of that album and then mixing 'em up with the 'classic' 2007-2010 era and a bit of the finesse of the self-titled disc (which remains my favorite). Hell, my 3-year old was going mental to this shit, jumping up and down on our futon and did a somersault or two into other nearby furniture. So...that there is something. Not a lot. But enough.
Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Their sixth full length, Utter Nihil Worship does nothing to deviate this course. Tremolo picked, dire melodies threaded above hammering chords and harrowed rasps, with a production to the rhythm guitars that is slightly fuzzier and more ear-bleeding than on a handful of earlier recordings. They set up songs structurally so that you won't be constantly bombarded with the exact same riffs and speed patterns that surround them, but that's not to say that when you break down what they're writing on a fundamental level, that it's anything you haven't heard a thousand times before. Truly, only a small selection of the riff patterns here stick to me, like the opening salvo in "Aprophenia", which would have sounded truly evil if joined with some haunting, ancient synth lines as per In the Nightside Eclipse; or the raw and roiling, melancholic tribal war pattern that introduces "War, Father of All", immediately conjured up nostalgia for the fell beauty that even this ugly genre of music can conjure when the mood strikes alongside the toms.
Beyond those few moments, though, there's just not a lot of excitement. Stronger riffs with cede to those that are decidedly less compelling, and the vocals or general atmosphere of the record aren't vile or memorable enough to overcome it's stylistic loyalty, to a fault. There are occasionally a few nice bass-lines, and the production was well suited to the genre, if a little dry, but the riffs just don't offer much of a thrill if you've heard so many similar efforts before. Utter Nihil Worship is by no means a bad album, it's just going to depend on how 'authentic' of a course you want your black metal to stay upon, or if you've grown jaded. But I have no evidence that there is any other objective here, and if you're solely in the mood for what the album promises in its title, then I can't imagine you'd be all too put out. Utter Nihil Worship did not earn my interest, but Sad does continue to earn my respect.
Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Well, that's not exactly the nature of this release, and I feel both bands distinguish themselves pretty clearly to their own back catalogues rather than rely too much on sounding flush with the other. There is certainly some overlap due to the outsider dissonance practiced by both, but it's almost like a line drawn in the sand where the four BAN tracks end and Ævangelist's 21+ minute opus begins. As for the former, do not expect Memoria Vetusta IV material here, their offerings are more in line with the 777 trilogy, only cast in an even darker pallor redolent of their mid-oughts fare (MoRT, Odinist, etc). An emphasis more on raw industrial or trip hop beats drowned in resonant, gut-wrenching distortion, discordant and unusual effects and guitars, foul whispers and growls, and a general clamor that is in its own way just as oblique and disgusting as any of the harsher recordings they've put out over the considerable backlog. It's almost like a bastard spawn of DJ Shadow and Godflesh, only far more cacophonous and unusual than that union could allude to. Or if the producers of the Silent Hill video game series passed on Akira Yamaoka's eerie proclivities for such beat-driven fare and then greenlit Vindsval and company to 'make it their own' after hearing Sect(s) or The Desanctification. Partly hypnotic, always repulsive.
"Threshold of the Miraculous", Ævangelist's contribution, is rawer still, and spans a much broader gulf of styles within its boundaries than even the four BAN cuts combined. Lots of tinny electronic impulses here, sudden shifts in tempo and instrumentation where the grimy dissonant guitars erupt, and clearer growled vocals than on the band before them. It's par for the course that the band is so disheveled and nightmarish in scope, but I couldn't help feel here that the length of the track was working against it. There were several impressive atmospheric parts, with the French narration and so forth, but a lot of the heavier sequences just sort of randomly appeared and disappeared and it did not gel together as a compelling whole, whereas I've really enjoyed the lest swollen material they've put out on albums like De Masicatione Mortuorum in Tumulis. I was more partial towards the Blus Aus Nord stuff, but even that didn't quite grasp me consistently over its own 20 minute presentation, it was simply fascinating to hear them spew forth those big beats and then slather them in dementia.
All told, this was a pretty interesting listen that is worth hearing if you're deep into either (or both) of the acts involved, but not mandatory when they've got much stronger exclusive material. The two 'sides' of the split function in tandem, yet I didn't feel that they both stood out equally. However, I don't think there's any question that Blut Aus Nord and Ævangelist continue to take chances, and their work will ebb and flow to particular audiences based on what eras or phases of their eccentric histories they were most enthralled by. If you loved the 777 trilogy but desired it to go a little further out on a limb, it's probably worth checking this out, even though it's not quite so immersive and doesn't last the duration of spinning yourself straight through all those records in succession. Daniel Valencia's cover work here is also pretty neat.
Verdict: Win [7/10]
Sunday, June 12, 2016
No, this is about as wretched as you can get for a demo recording with just those two instruments, raw and hostile vocals and absolutely no fucks given. Definitely some parallels to Von, Beherit or the earlier, less pomp-filled Barathrum records, the four tracks here just repeatedly beat you in the fucking eardrums with simplistic low-end note patterns dowsed in so much distorted bass buzz that it sounds like a cacophony angry insects being conducted into taut, bludgeoning swarms. The riffs sort of roil along without much by way of interesting patterns, but that's because the intent here was just to throw off the shackles of anything resembling melody, intricacy or innovation and just being as belligerent and anti-life as fuck. Drums are as obnoxious and splashy as you can imagine without losing the ability to support the guitars, and the vocals are a scathing but otherwise featureless bark which exhibits almost no variation in pitch or lyrical-line development, it's very level in its delivery and again, just no concern at all for diversifying its arsenal.
Sadly, I'm probably making it sound cooler than it really is, because other than a pure flossing of all the gray matter between my ears with its barbed-wire battering production, I don't know that the bass lines really come across as evil sounding, which might have been accomplished with just a few shifts in the note patterns. It's ominousness relies almost entirely on its raw recording, and so a sense of ennui kicks in once it's clear that no surprises or interesting riffs are ever going to occur. Granted, you can definitely develop a hostile, hypnotic reaction to this which doesn't make it completely unpleasant, especially in the bowels of the last track "The Pact", but the whole experience feels just a little too monotonous, and I even feel like the full-length, which took no strides in composition or style beyond this, just sounded a little better, where this is more of an intentional clamor. If you're really into the rawest of war metal, the ugliest of black metal's muddy originators, then this might harbor some curiosity or collectibility for you, but I found it only functioned all too well as intended, as hideous, repetitious, nihilistic noise.
Verdict: Indifference [5/10]
Friday, June 10, 2016
Spry, well-developed thrash pieces with a little bit of that clinical depth and 'edge' that the band picked up for their sophomore Heresy in 1989 but have been meting out with modern, ironclad force throughout the last decade on killer discs like Electrify and Riot Squad. The busier riffing patterns on the album are redolent of Artillery's uplifting vortex of complex power/thrash, with cascades of atmospheric melodies affixed to the meatier undertone, thick and thrumming bass-lines and a drum performance which is just as electrifying as it needs to be, with forceful kicks driving the bottom end and balancing out against the higher pitched tonality which is the guitars' focus. Just a galloping, swollen arsenal of progressions that don't feel exhausted or mindlessly retrospect in nature, even where they tie back to the band's legacy of 27-30 years back. Leads that are carefully threaded over the rhythm guitars in the bridge, seemingly a lost art where many bands seek to smother the most boring patterns they can with wild frivolity. In listening through Pangea, I had a basic idea of where the songs would twist and turn, largely because I've got all their earlier records and listened to them often, but even despite that, it never otherwise felt predictable or lazy at any point here.
Charly Steinhauer still maintains that fragile, mid-to-high pitched voice which sounds more like he's recording desperate scientific research than barking at a crowd, and this has long been one of the factors which stood certain of these bands (Deathrow, too) against their more popular snarling and sneering countrymen. But that engaging level of tech power metal also thrives in their sound, a style not incomparable to Americans like Heathen and Forbidden which exhibits a parallel development from when all these bands were on the cusp of being the 'next' big thing, but fizzled out once the genre was subverted by groove metal, rapcore and grunge in the 90s. Consistent, ambitious, and yet varied enough to form one of those prehistoric concepts: the actual ALBUM worth of songs you might give a damn about. I won't claim that every single measure here is pure ear candy, many of them simply serve the whole as best they can, but there are no duds among this bunch and it's every big the equal of their prior benchmarks like Heresy and Electrify. Awesome. I've listened to this a dozen times already, front to back.
Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]
Sunday, June 5, 2016
One might argue that the album plays it fairly safe, and I can't argue that, but it does so with a solid slew of engaging riffs and well-developed vocal lines and choruses that almost all integrated into my memory even on the first flight through the record. Pounding, mid-paced thrash rhythms capture a lot of the 'gladiatorial' feel you'll recall from No Place, and a few of the tunes were supposedly written in that era, but here they are clad with the clarity and pomp of the guitar productions they've used on a lot of their modern albums. There is the occasional deferral to the meaty groove/thrash that bands like Pantera or Machine Head made viable in the 90s, and that's a minor distraction, but even there the material is handled tastefully, serving as a means to an end that is achieved with glorious confidence, or a neck-pumping exercise to make bands like an Exodus in its prime proud. Workmanlike rhythms are affected with NWOBHM-like melodies that strive and attain a good balance, and the leads whip into their furors with cautious ease, slightly short of remarkable but light and entertaining. The fact they've got a tune here called "Iron Maiden" sort of tapes into the self-referential genre examination which highly characterized their 1997 effort High, but without the disposable mediocrity.
The disc doesn't suffer from the production pratfalls that even their fantastic sophomore fell victim to, but at the expense that it definitely feels a little overly clean, like you'll hear from a lot of the modern efforts from these veteran acts (Overkill, Queensrÿche, etc). That said, it has its benefits, like the fluid thump of Michael Spencer's bass lines or the concrete consistency of the drumming, which is simple but effective at helping hammer out a lot of the record's simpler, 'been there' riffs. The MVP here, however, is Erik A.K.'s vocals, which sound emotional and detailed on nearly every line he spits out over the 55 minutes. The lyrics are often loaded with tireless streams of cliches, but when he hits the choruses in tunes like "Time to Go" or "Verge of Tragedy" he really shows a seasoned patience and mastery of exactly what ranges to strike to drive a tune from just 'alright' to one I wanted to hit repeat on numerous times. He might not have the wailing, brash rage of his youth, but the voice still has a lot of that same character we can remember from Doomsday or No Place and its certainly a far cry better than his performance on the latter's remake two years ago.
And better, by extension, than the long procession of disappointments I've experienced at their hands over these last several decades. To be clear, Flotsam & Jetsam HAVE put out some decent songs in the interim. Albums like The Cold or Dreams of Death had their moments, just precious few of them, whereas this disc is the first in forever where I'd actually play straight through the track list and then do so again, without any desire to skip over anything. That doesn't mean all the riffs or songs here are written equally, and the album still lacks in a few areas where the energy lags, or the lyrics just seem effete that they drag down the music below them, but it's very much enjoyable and if not a classic for a new generation, it's at least a solid enough execution that one can hold out hope that the fires have not now, or may never fully wane for the Phoenix elite.
Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (a bed of spikes for eternity)
Thursday, June 2, 2016
I consider Flotsam & Jetsam's sophomore No Place for Disgrace (1988) to be their seminal work, unrivaled by anything else they've ever recorded. Maybe they felt the same, since they saw fit to spend the effort re-recording it. Granted, if I had one complaint about the original, it would have been in the production department, since it just doesn't hold up quite like other albums I own from its era. The guitars and bass seem a little thin, and it's lacking some punch. However, the fantastic tracks there easily overcame, and continue to overcome such nitpicking, and that's sort of what I meant above. It's 'flawed', but despite that one of the more memorable second tier US thrash albums of its day and age. I didn't hold out a lot of hope for this remake once becoming aware of it, because this is just not a band that has really delivered consistently, and I expected them to flub it up. They've had a couple good songs strewn about their substantial discography of the 90s and 00s, but they were vastly outnumbered by all of the disappointments. Reviewing this now, after hearing their latest eponymous disc, which I actually enjoy, I think they might also have been trying to fire up some inspiration by revisiting this material...
And to its credit, the 2014 No Place for Disgrace doesn't suck. It's not good, not even really worth the while, but I've certainly heard bands shit all over their histories, when this is just sort of taking a long leak on one. The rhythm guitars are 'richer' and have a little more punch commensurate with their most recent material, and certainly this lacks some of the issues with the original. But it also springs up more...Flotsam & Jetsam just doesn't sound as vital and hopeful as they once were. Part of this is in Eric A.K.'s performance, which doesn't seem as engaging or high pitched as it once felt. He's firing for a wider range on these recordings, and a long-time fan will notice the gulfs where he missed the mark at some of those critical moments. The clarity of several guitars seems to have leeched the speed from a number of the riffs, and this might even have been intentional, I didn't sit there keeping pace with both simultaneously, but the vivacious energy is missing, especially during slower parts like the the breakdown in "N.E. Terror" which feels like a slog, and in which Knudson's voice does seem a little processed (as it does elsewhere here).
Now, there are a few sequences in which the remake does feel solid, as in the intro to "I Live You Die", but even there I don't think I'd choose this over the old one. The drums and bass are much better balanced, especially the latter, which is all over the thing...so I might not have reminded a 'remaster', maybe using this bassist (he had appeared on a prior demo, but only rejoined the band for this and their new album). On the whole, though, this just feels like a band trying to tap into a prior impulse and coming up slightly short. It's not offensive, and a lot of the note patterns come together with that same magic they once did, yet I don't really think I'd ever require another listen to this after jotting down some thoughts. Fortunately, the band has since produced some newer material which is a lot more exciting to me, but I hope there are no plans to give Doomsday for the Deceiver such a treatment.
Verdict: Indifference [5/10]