Thursday, April 20, 2017

Airdash - Vengeance Through Violence EP (1989)

Having seen Finland thrive over the last 20 years in just about every niche of metal that exists, with a particular emphasis in the melodic death, old school death, Gothic and black sub-genres, it is quite difficult to imagine a time in which this was not one of the centers of all metaldom. And yet, the 80s were such a time, with only a handful of heavy and thrash metal bands gaining a reputation through the European underground and potentially whispered about here in the states. Don't get me wrong, there were some GREAT bands from this era, like the mighty Stone, or the classics Tarot and Oz, or A.R.G., or Antidote, but with the possible exception of those first 2-3, you just didn't hear much about this scene over here in the States, and even then only when you went looking. But since I'm occasionally in the habit of jerking some obscurity from the ether, I present to you a limited press EP by another Finnish thrash act known as Airdash, which definitely sounds like a move you'd throw down in an early Street Fighter clone, maybe King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, etc.

Vengeance Through Violence is a three-track vinyl EP released between their second and third records, Hospital Hallucinations Take One and Both Ends of the Path. Or, more accurately, it's a single for one of the tunes off the former album, the title track, packaged with a couple of tracks that are unique to to the 12", or at least one of them is, and another appears to be re-recorded from one of the band's demos. These guys played a style of thrash pretty typical for the time, with meaty riffs that kept busy while hinting only slightly at the technicality other acts from Europe were employing at this same time. I like the brash, raw but brutish tone of the guitars, the winding mute patterns of the title track that keep my head banging up to the chorus with it's excellent gang shouts. But I'll be honest in saying that it sounds a hell of a lot like Belladonna-fronted Anthrax, only with the rhythm guitars more firmly planted in the late 80s Exodus camp. There are plenty of minor differences, but the overall sound is very much an American, urban street thrash rather than the Teutonic brilliance or savagery, and that works for me, because "Vengeance Through Violence" is actually a solid cut.

"Blow Under Belt" is similar, but the guitars patterns here make it feel more like a party thrash version of something that might have been left on Master of Puppets' cutting room floor. Maybe a little Whiplash, Xentrix, or if you can remember the East Coast band I.N.C, it cultivates that sort of silly atmosphere with the way the guitars break up in the chorus. Not a terrible track, but less robust and effective than the first. Sadly, "Cable Terror" with its staggering verse riff progression isn't much of an improvement; despite a great gang shout in the chorus, it just doesn't hook me overall, and I'd even say the production on these two doesn't seem as good as "Vengeance...". In the end, we can figure out why this EP wasn't named after one of those, or why they didn't wind up on the full-length, but I can certainly say that if you're feeling the material, then it wouldn't be a bad idea to check out ANY of their three full-lengths, since it's not a far cry from even the debut Thank God It's Monday. These are hardly top tier, or even B-tier records, but if you're nostalgic for the purity of the scene's underground in the 80s they're nothing I'd scoff at...just make sure you head for whatever you can find from Stone or A.R.G. before bothering.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Lacrimas Profundere - Hope is Here (2016)

For their 11th full-length, Lacrimas Profundere seem to have emerged from the stagnancy of middle-of-the-road Gothic arena rock to produce a sound slightly more compelling, if not entirely vacating the safe zone in which they'd survived for many years. Rather than the predictable, driving guyliner chord progressions, I honestly had no idea what was coming around the bend at any point on this disc, not because it's wildly dissonant or unique, but because it just seems to open up and breathe, to let the band put its ideas to tape without forcing them into corners. Where prior records had offered a slight variation on the accessible Gothic metal common in the Euro countries like Germany and Finland, Hope is Here recalls a hybrid of modern Anathema and elegant British veterans The Mission, with a few flourishes of anything from prog rock percussion to edgy country/folk noir.

It works, and it works fairly well. While the band is still not writing the knockout choruses you'd really need to carry this style into a broad audience, the production is rich and vibrant, the tunes always possessing some interesting undercurrent, and despite how easy it might have been, you can still see a few glints of their heavier, more metallic, chugging roots shining through the emphasis on cleaner strings, pianos, scarce electronics, and subtle orchestration used as an ambient motif to backup the central rock fundamentals that hold up the tunes. Nothing is really off the table, with a track like "My Halo Ground" producing a Middle Eastern vibe through the instruments that steer it, or the title track which is very much a big acoustic/orchestra piece which really feels like you're that kid in antlers staring out over the horizon on the cover. The band knows when to lay into their big chords at precisely the right moment, and they tender those sequences with simple, added melodies. Rob Vitacca reminds me a lot of a mix between Wayne Hussey and Ville Vallo, limited in range but really expressing himself better here than on most of the Lacrimas records I've experienced. The beats are also pretty impressive, using interesting patterns to keep even, simpler, airier moments like the verse of "Aramis" a lot busier than you'd expect, and it pays off once the chorus arrives.

Hope is Here is more or less a modern, Gothic rock infusion of the Moody Blues, just right for those moments driving on an open road or lying under an expansive sky and seeking something that can encapsulate the experience with just the right, moderate level of pacing and depth. Production here is scintillating, thorough, and amazing, and goes a long way to creating compulsion for even the most vapid riffing they might add to it. Lacrimas Profundere have found a way to translate the emotions already present in much of their earlier material to something that is more refined and rewarding, and even if this puts them in a less traveled space where bands like Anathema have divided up their own followings, it takes a lot more guts and dedication than churning out yet another bland effort like Antiadore or Songs for the Last View...not that either of those was an expressly bad record, but they were too easily lost in a crowd of bands that focused in on a sound which was extremely hot for a few seasons and then sort of dispersed, still practiced but never really mastered by anyone who hasn't taken it into a heavier, dirtier Christian Death/Sisters of Mercy direction. This is a good album, and a good place to build from as we follow that balloon across the cloudscape.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (the past is consigned)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lacrimas Profundere - Antiadore (2013)

Lacrimas Profundere is a band which has more or less followed the trajectory of legends Paradise Lost, originating with a Gothic doom aesthetic and then gradually transforming into a far more accessible brand of man-mascara rock which mirrors the sounds that Finnish acts like H.I.M., Entwine and Charon made pretty popular in the earlier 21st century. That's not to say it can't be done well, for instance I really enjoy the band To/Die/For, who brought a lot more of an 80s pop flair to the style with some catchy keyboard lines in amongst the head banging. But there's certainly a trend that a lot of these bands end up with their backs against a wall, using the same familiar chord patterns repeatedly since bands like Sisters of Mercy or Type O Negative made them redundant, and I feel that these Germans, despite having an unquestionable level of class and professionalism, don't really stick their toes outside the safe zone enough to leave much of an impact...and they haven't in a long time.

Antiadore is their 10th full-length record, and it more or less employs the tropes and conventions we've come to expect from this sort of watered down Gothic metal which lacks most of the frills and genuine darkness of the genres which inspired it. Safe verse/chorus song structures, choruses that are not too high in pitch but go for a clear level of radio appeal, solid fashion sense, marginal use of electronics which can add some nuance to the predictable chord patterns. Once you've heard a track or two on a record like this, you're pretty much heard them all, the only variations are in the minor details like subtle shifts in tempo or particular melodies used to layer over the chords. Rob Vitacca has a seasoned, graceful voice, but there is little range, and for that reason a lot of his lines feel rather samey with not only their neighbors here, but the last half dozen or so discs the band has released. The drums and bass are well mixed and appropriate, but never stand out on their own, leaving the full emphasis on the riff passages and vocals, which unfortunately do not deliver much beyond the usual four chords. When the band goes 'heavier', it's simply safe groove metal patterns which are used to get the blood flowing temporarily until another of these maudlin, mediocre choruses...

Occasionally you'll hear a harsh vocal, but it sounds really out of place, overwrought in an attempt to channel genuine pain and emotion, where proper Goth rock or Goth metal needs no such gimmick. The lyrics and song titles are generally just cliches or cultivate imagery you've already seen in this niche a million times, and in truth there is next to nothing which separates the songs on a record like Antiadore from commerial, mass appeal rock music, except maybe a little more guyliner or the clubs and crowds that this might be played at or adhere to the genre. Here in the US, this style had very little impact beyond H.I.M. or Sentenced; even when Paradise Lost was nailing this sound with a catchier and slightly 'edgier' record like One Second it wasn't being talked about. It seems like by about 2013 this would feel out of date, or the band would adapt once more into something new, or a blend of their older/later styles for variety, but Antiadore is about as bland and insipid as you can get...I kept waiting for one song to really hook me in, but most of them were simply the sort that might have been memorable if I had heard them 'first', 25-30 years ago. It's far from a bad album, since the band is so slick and confident at playing it safe, but they need to throw a lot more curve balls, atonality or dissonance or eeriness or haunted atmosphere to do their meta-genre justice.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Nocturnal Witch - Summoning Hell (2014)

Summoning Hell might not prove the Next Big Thing in terms of an ever broadening pool of blackened thrash and speed metal, but what it does represent is one of those rare cases where a band somehow manages to improve itself without broadening or diversifying its stylistic or aesthetic portfolios by even a few hairs' breadth. The debut full-length from Nocturnal Witch is simply better crafted, better produced, and better executed than the Into Dungeons EP, as if the members had some infernal flame lit within them that steered their hands, feet and lungs to better riff patterns, harder hammering beats and more grotesque, resonant guttural snarls. None of this is accomplished by reinventing its niche, this is as straightforward as the style gets, but it's fun enough to remind you of the first few records you heard of its type and why they can take such simple, established riffing tropes and a raw, unforgiving atmosphere and carve out some menacing black metal.

Guitar progressions are still mired completely in a hybrid of pure punk/speed metal chord patterns and tremolo picked, mid-paced black metal riffs which have a little of the fell melancholic to their melodies which was a very popular thing in Swedish black metal throughout the 90s. Leads and tinnier melodies are cast about the atmosphere to create an even more dire effect where they appear, and all the riffs just grind off Tyrant's vocals like a bunch of grave soil cascading off a smoldering animated corpse as it crawls out of the graveyard. The whole mix sounds brash and hellish, with simple bass lines and beats that don't offer much by way of interesting fills or technicality, but spur on the galloping hellishness of cuts like "Among the Ruins of the Dead" and "Black Death". The construction of the chords and the overall style owes a hell of a lot to the usual suspects, and you'll hear echoes of Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer, Slayer and early Kreator, but when played with some piss and fire this is simply not a style that I find myself tired of, it almost always engages the angry adolescent hesher spirit inside me unless it's meted out very boringly, which this is not.

Not to say that Summoning Hell is this riffing monstrosity, because it thrives wholly on pre-tested formulae and lacks some of the wilder, frilly intensity that a Deathhammer or Antichrist dishes out on a regular basis, but it's just damn solid and mean sounding and you sound like your rubbing spiked shoulder guards with the opposition at some Abyssal Super Bowl, and that feeling keeps up through the whole 36 minutes, which is a good length, some meat on its bones but never threatening to wear through its warlike welcome. The lyrics also don't bring anything new to the table, amalgamations of many other songs you've read through before, but the conventions and images they produce are once again staples that don't ever fail me provided they are delivered with some vitriol, as they are here. A good effort pays off, and anyone looking into the band, or simply another gem in the bowels of the blackened thrash movement of the last decade, probably shouldn't pass this one up, even if it's not an exemplar of its specific sound.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (burn this planet of sheep)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nocturnal Witch - Into Dungeons EP (2012)

Blackened speed and thrash metal is one of my favorite niches in all of the genre these last couple years, but it relies so heavily on the traditions of its medium that it can be tough to pull off, requiring a certain level of nastiness, personality and catchy riffing to properly pay tribute to its forebears like Venom. To get that influence across without sounding like some sodden, soulless derivative is no easy feat, so I have to say I feel spoiled by how much of it I've been enjoying lately, from Antichrist and Deathhammer to Satan's Wrath and Erazor. Germans Nocturnal Witch seem to have all the hookups for a success at this style. Some of the live lineup is drawn from bands like Nocturnal, Old, Division Speed and Cruel Force, who all have comparable sounds, and they certainly grab the style by its roots here and give it a good tug, the old Satanic collegiate try.

Unfortunately, it bears little fruit on this EP, because Into Dungeons has all the trappings and none of the charisma to spot its spiked gauntlet, bullet-belted figure among the crowd in which it surfs. Cover looks cool, old school, band name is cool, logo cool, songs sound exactly like they should, but its the riffing pattern and lack of any dynamic force which drags this down. There's no real lack of hellish energy being executed, just a dearth of inspired tremolo picking riffs, or at least those you haven't heard a thousand times. Here, they launch from that rapid fire blackened/speed metal sound into some clamorous, even faster bits, and gang shouts erupt everywhere to fuel the momentum, but while it all looks good on paper, they feel like they're just playing by-the-numbers chord progressions which never take you by surprise. There are no good leads or other distractions to steer you away from this fundamental flaw, and the cuts feel thematically 'appropriate' but dry unless you're just seeking out more of the same pseudo-Satanic swill others have peddled for decades.

Drums and bass are efficient, vocals raucous blackened barks that seem enthusiastic but never really evil enough to compensate that it all seems like sheer testosterone, with little to back it up except the right intentions. The recording itself is fairly level, slightly raw but not obnoxiously so. All in all, if this were something I heard off in the background outside at some hell kegger in the woods, where you weren't allowed without a denim jacket or something leather on some part of your anatomy, then this would probably make for passable background noise, whether live or on someone's beat up beat box in which they were spinning a tape recording. Upon closer examination, however, there is just so much out in this field which has more character, better licks, leads, nastiness, viciousness, etc. Having also heard this band's full-length, Summoning Hell, I can say with confidence that you should skip this and head straight for that, because while it's still not exemplary for this style, it both sounds superior and is written better, with some genuinely good riffs and decent songs in spots.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Horde Casket - Bloodfiends (2015)

I wish I could say there was some further dynamic growth for these Oklahoma/Texas brutes, but Bloodfiends doesn't deviate greatly from the formula the band sharpened on 2010 sophomore Slab of Infinite Butchery. Granted, for purists of that brutal death metal window of the mid to later 90s, in which bands like Suffocation, Cryptopsy and Cannibal Corpse had left an indelible impression upon the legions of would-be's and hopefuls in their wake, I don't know that that will prove much of an obstacle to enjoying what punishment they do mete out here. Horde Casket is not a band that defines or pushes at any real boundaries. They seem satisfied with a competent emulation of a style they love, and they keep it about as conventional to that form as they possibly can.

And that style is a midpoint between the traditional brutal death metal pioneered by acts like the ones I listed above, and playing catch-up with the more technical acts that have been saturating the 21st century. With an emphasis on the former. Lots of chugging stop/start patterns set-up bursts of quicker riffing progressions that capture the choppy, surgical and clinical feel of their peers, but they rarely unload any memorable or catchy patterns, and even where they do, that's usually on the first couple tracks on the disc, like opener "Back Country Meth Massacre", a re-recording from the band's 2008 debut Landscape of Cadavers. The vocals are a solid grunt inspired by someone like Chris Barnes, only faster and in syncopation with the rhythmic pacing being banged out on the drums and guitar tracks. Bass lines are punchy, solid and very apparent here, giving the mix an even, clear balance against the other instruments, and I would say with certainty that this is the best produced of their albums I've heard to date, a lot more polished and rich than Slab or the band's cruder debut. Competent, well executed brute-craft...

But it does come with a few flaws. For one, I don't really like the lead tone, which isn't used so often but feels like it stands out and stings the ears a little much against the pounding backdrop. There is very little difference between the tracks in terms of'll get the constant chug/burst I noted above, a staple of the genre, and a few breakdown riffs which at best can give you some death/thrash neck jerking but don't feel much fresher than the hyperactive flurries that cede the songs to them. It's also a pretty short album, at least the new, original songs. Roughly 22 minutes, which is not unusual for this style of music, but not once does it take any chances...the weird, guttural glitching intro to "Cerebral Dissection" (another track redundant to the debut) is about the only time any sort of left turn is implicated, and that's over all too quickly. Bloodfiends is consistent, perhaps two consistent, and those looking for atmosphere or a deeper listening experience will be left dry.

The band does round the new and re-recorded material off with a selection of live cuts that swell the length up to around 39 minutes overall, but while these are enough to leave you with confidence that Horde Casket offer a comparable live experience to the studio offerings, they don't sound all that impressive, with the vocals a bit louder, the kick drums almost feeling like coherent static and the guitars, as busy as they are, rather washed out in the back ground. In sum, Bloodfiends feels like a well-meaning and corpulent statement that the band is still flailing its limbs about, but the quality of the material puts a halt to any sense of progression or improvement one might have hoped for after the leap that Slab had made over its predecessor. Not bad at all, but there are a lot of records super similar to this one, on their label Sevared and elsewhere; it isn't really crazy or distinct enough to stand out.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Drug Honkey - Cloak of Skies (2017)

2012's Ghost in the Fire was such an overwhelming paean to human suffering that I doubted in advance there was any 'lower' plane onto which Chicago's Drug Honkey could drag its brand of drudging, urban, emotional doom. I wasn't necessarily wrong with that prediction, but where Cloak of Skies might not exceed its predecessor in some raw torture quotient, it more than compensates with a superior sense of direction, atmosphere and experimental minimalism that creates both a haunting and mesmerizing sonic trip that also had a surprisingly warm side to it, like that feel you get once an Oxycodone has finally hit peak plasma concentration and starts to spread over whatever ails or addiction forced you to pop it into your mouth in the first place.

On the surface, it seems simple, with monolithic, if familiar, slogging chord patterns that feel as if you're watching some rusted, moldering cityscape collapse in on itself, only the occasional flashes of melody created by higher-pitched droning guitars make it seem like the entire scene of decay is being bathed in a radiant, unforgiving sunlight that shines in through the shattered windows, missing bricks and girders on the building frames. Definitely some hints of acts like Godflesh and Jesu here, or on the heavier end of the spectrum the Australian Disembowelment and their highly regarded album Transcendence into the Peripheral. But these comparisons can offer only a starting point, because the specific noises and nuances Drug Honkey mixes into its aural amphetamine don't feel redundant to anything I've really encountered in the past, and I think the industrial, noise and drone influences only strengthen the overall package of this recording so that it crushes you like a hundred simultaneous dystopian nightmares, an album that anyone who survives deserves bragging rights to. There are even saxophones provided by Bruce Lamont which blend eerily well into the composition, as loose as that might seem, reinforcing its urban facade.

For all their minimalist structure and nature, the raw riff progressions here are quite excellent at how they tap into the primacy of the form, as in the depths of "Outlet of Hatred" where a few chords slice through the morass of guttural vocal sustains and other hallucinatory effects that drive the entire, ugly juggernaut forward. Ambiance and feedback are used as sweltering bookends to pieces like "(It's Not) The Way", where Head Honkey exchanges some of his wealth of snarls and gutturals for a clearer, deep, dreary vocal mantra that echoes over the spacious clamor. There are places at which the vocals completely steer and disgustingly define the stoic, sonic backdrop, as in "The Oblivion of an Opiate Nod" which is one of the most grueling and impressive pieces on the whole record. Guitars reach perfect levels of saturation on both the lower ends where they collide with the distorted bass scrawl, and the higher, dirty tones that waft out through the occasional smog-o-sphere. There is nothing clean about this album, it's like a warm bath in rank water, piss, and who knows what else, and yet's it's still a pretty comfortable use of your time.

I'm not completely convinced that the Justin Broadrick remix of "Pool of Failure" (the album's first track) is required to order to round it out as a complete experience, even if it serves as a sort of reprise. So you could cut Cloak of Skies off at at around 44 minutes and be none the worse. But that said, it's pretty fucking cool to have Broadrick himself hack away at one of your tracks, and he does succeed in making what is one of the record's more straightforward pieces a little weirder and more disheveled, while amping up the recognition of his own Godflesh aesthetics. In fact I might like this one slightly more than the original version, but I think it works better when you recognize it as a bonus track and not a core component. Otherwise, I think this is Drug Honkey's best material to date, already on par with Ghost in the Fire about midway through and then hitting that one-two knockout climax of "Opiate" and the title track and dialing it home. Also was impressed with Paolo Girardi's cover art, which seemed a little out of the ordinary for the Italian, but really captures the sounds on display very well. Then again, Drug Honkey is no ordinary client, and the weird, woeful atmosphere they create with just a sliver of ironic grace as well worth pursuing as the end of whatever substance binge you find yourself engulfed in.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Lantern II: Morphosis (2017)

Lantern's 2013 debut Below was one of those debut full-lengths so stacked with both subtle and overt qualities and flavors that it'd inevitably ramp up expectations for anything the Finns might follow it up with. An excellent permutation of the cavernous death metal that has been all the rage these last 5-10 years, it's application of both murk and melody into an unnerving but fulfilling whole set it apart from the lion's share of Incanta-clones who were becoming redundant despite their best intentions. II: Morphosis doesn't quite have the ability to take any listener by surprise the way its elder sibling did, so the duo of Cruciatus and Necrophilos just settled for concocting a damn fine, atmospheric death metal record which replicated most of the strengths of its predecessor but did not by any means clone it entirely. Thus you've got a sophomore which is almost guaranteed to satisfy listeners of records like last year's Blood Incantation full length, Starspawn, in fashioning reliable and well written death metal riff progressions into something of which the sum just feels greater than any individual parts.

Morphosis is not just some roiling, teething, subterranean sounding morass with guttural vocals and no ambition, but instead a sprawling and balanced offering which exceeds the maturity you'd expect after just a few years. The rhythm guitars are less ominous and far busier, the tone straightforward and dry but capable of translating the massive riff set splayed out across the 40 minutes. While they don't perform material which could technically be considered complex, the album nonetheless creates a labyrinthine intensity which never hinges on the predictable. While there are riff patterns in here which might straddle everything from prototype 90s melodic death metal to Scandinavian blackness, the bulk of the chord selections almost felt like a mash-up of the first three Morbid Angel records, with all the speed and hooks of the first and third, with the occasionally slogging malevolence that many associate with the second. Melodies aren't just employed as cheap gimmicks, but often these essential and ritualistic sequences of songs that are often left to their own while light percussion rattles off as accompaniment. They are also prone to a few abrupt stops and starts and occasionally fly off the handle into more chaotic, frenzied moments where there is just enough control that the record hasn't felt like it's gone over the edge into the abyss without a pilot.

The ability to soundscape an atmosphere through the conventional death metal milieu here is just astounding, as in the escalation in the shorter tune "Hosting Yellow Fungi", or the mournful maze of "Necrotic Epiphanies" with all its wailing excess and double kick mashing fury. Lantern take the familiar and reinvigorate by giving it greater breadth and dimension. The vocals aren't just some utterly deep gurgle, but more of a hacked, angry, atmospheric take on something like Barney Greenway meets Steve Tucker only with tons of shrieking and raving for variety. The flexibility of the drumming allows the material to thrive at any speed, whether it's verging on grind or just the more robust, melodic and measured passages. There's also this feeling I got that the record was gradually becoming more immersive and memorable as it progressed, so by the finale "Lucid Endlessness" I felt like I was really hearing the best stuff on the whole album, rapid riffing and dissonant waves spiraling into my ears, until it hits that great, slow and groovy bridge that just carried it off into the nether. Intentional or not, this is a rare reaction I get to an album where it starts off good but then just evolves into blockbuster territory.

All that praise aside, I found it marginally less compelling and resonant than Below, if only because I felt like I connected to that debut's eeriness and its particular melodies slightly more. I imagine for many listeners, it will easily compensate with its more substantial and urgent sense of ambition and its tighter pendulum of structure and chaos; yet I wasn't quite hypnotized as often in listening though. But really we're dealing with apples and oranges, because this band is still at the very summit of the Finnish death metal scene of the present, with so much to offer, a true torchbearer for their forebears like Demilich, Demigod, or Convulsed, only sounding very little like any of those, with a lot more of a US influence to their composition split between the genre's Florida and New York founders. The fact is that Lantern use that simply as a foundation. Where they go with it is anyone's guess, and two full-length records in, they show more practice and potential than a lot of bands with decades more experience, crafting great death metal worthy of the howling planes of Pandemonium.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Overkill & Kreator - Man in Black/ Warrior Heart (2017)

You've got to love how the metal press, particularly the metal press in Europe, finds a way to keep its subscriptions afloat in the digital age, and I think a key element of that is the inclusion of special live or unreleased material from popular bands that attract collectors. Germans Kreator have taken advantage of this exposure numerous times, especially in their homeland, recently with their Violence Unleashed EP in Legacy, Live Antichrist album in Metal Hammer, and now another bonus vignette in Rock Hard, who they've teamed up with before for the Terror Prevails live album in 2010. This time, however, they've got New York's Overkill on board, and both are offering something we might not have heard before. Is that enough to pick up (or import) a copy of the Rock Hard #358?

Overkill are no stranger to paying homage to their influences, what with their decent 1999 release Coverkill and various tunes added to other releases, like their rendition of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" on Horrorscope, or more recently Thin Lizzy's "Emerald" on The Grinding Wheel. That said, I can't recall hearing them perform a country cover, and what's more, playing the song IN that style, rather than metalizing it. And so they have done here with Johnny Cash's "Man in Black", spun out with Bobby Ellsworth's unhinged screams in a duet with more a straightforward voice. The lyrics aside, this has never been one of my favorite Cash tracks, and so I can't say I was thoroughly impressed by the band playing it close to the original, when a heavier injection might have at least proven interesting, but overall it's a passable version and it's nice to hear Blitz at least try to apply his own distinctness to a pretty mundane musical exercise.

I was far more interested to hear "Warrior Heart", a new Kreator track with a driving melodic death metal feel to it that would not have been out of place on the recent Gods of Violence, or perhaps on some comparable excursions like 2001' Violent Revolution. Granted, there's nothing exceptional here either, and you feel like you've encountered the melodies before across a number of Swedish bands, but it's wholly competent and never a detriment to hear Mille's voice grating over the grace of those airier harmonies, or the straight heavy metal thrust of the bridge and its substantial leads. So this is the side of the split which ended up appealing to me a lot more, it's at least on par with some of the other recent tracks and one could get some value out of ripping an .mp3 of it and tossing it on his or her Gods of Violence playlist.

Overall, it's a decent gimmick that rewards the integral symbiosis of musicians and press, even if the content is rather scant and not all that great. Nothing on the level of Sabbat's brilliant "Blood for the Blood God" flexi in that old issue of White Dwarf, but Rock Hard isn't leaving you with nothing.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Overkill - The Grinding Wheel (2017)

New York wildmen Overkill have hit a late career stride that must be the envy of so many peers, with an endless reserve of energy that most younger bands seem unable to match, while keeping relatively loyal to the body of work they built up over the previous decades. To be truthful, you could trace a fairly straight path from their 1985 debut to this latest, 18th full-length album, and the only enormous differences would be the production and a few of the influences that crept into their songwriting, particularly in the 90s. Essentially, The Grinding Wheel serves as a paean to both their high-octane urban thrash and groove metal, proving they still have what it takes to write engaging, violent music that actually surpasses much of what they were putting out 20 years ago, even if it's not quite elevated to that benchmark set by beloved classics like Feel the Fire and Taking Over.

This is a band long driven by the restlessness and street wisdom of its front man, Blitz, and it's par for the course that his performance can make or break even a wholly average set of guitar riffs. And here he turns in an angry, confident, flailing effort right on the level of 2012's The Electric Age, with a lot of snarl and flexibility to his timbre that doesn't rely entirely on the higher range, and excels once the band hammers into some more anthemic, melodic chorus in a tune like "Our Finest Hour". I can't say there is anything here he hasn't hit on in the past, but he sounds great whether the band are meting out faster paced pavement justice or one of their fattened, predictable Sabbath grooves. The rhythm riffs, on the other hand, are really hit or miss, most seeming like they're just paraphrased from a grab bag of the band's prior ideas, and relying heavily on both the lyrical execution and the fat production, but once in awhile one or two will prove a little catchier and more unexpected than their surroundings, and that helps boost the structure and reliability of the songwriting, especially in some of the longer 6-7 minute cuts.

Drums and bass are bedrock here, especially D.D. Verni who's trademark, clean and huge tones are bouncing and twisting all over the mix. Leads have a very classic 70s rock feel to them, not only in the excellent bonus track cover of Thin Lizzy's "Emerald", but even in the original pieces. The range and the variation on the record is quite good, from pace pushers like "Goddamn Trouble" or "Red White and Blue" to leaden, bluesy groove like "Come Heavy" which recounts late 80s Trouble quite well, or the epic, measured mid-gait headbanging title track. The album dishes out just enough breakdowns to keep the tough guy crowds slamming while never becoming too trite or repetitious, and while the thrash here is more inspired by the band's 90s offerings than the clinical late 80s style, I think it's punishing enough to temporarily satisfy those who might have been seeking the latter. Even within Ellsworth's performance, he doesn't keep aping the same verbal patterns repeatedly, but offers seasons, explosive craftsmanship that makes every line seem like it's being taken dead seriously.

Will this stand out against the band's stacked backlog? Hard to say, since it lacks the insanely memorable choruses and riffs of the band's youth, or even that cross-generation appeal of 2010's Ironbound, which was a pivotal release that cemented their legacy as perhaps the U.S.A's hardest working band in the genre, whilst in the midst of the pizza thrashing craze of younglings who were getting into the stuff for the first time. I didn't like that disc quite as much as the rest of the crowd, but its sense of newfound inspiration has seemingly abated over these following three records, all of which have been varying shades of green, and varying shades of good. The Grinding Wheel is no exception, and it is not short on enthusiasm, spirit or craft. After a couple lukewarm listens, it's grown a little in my estimation so that I'd rank it firmly between its two predecessors.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (here's to the liberation)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Obituary - Obituary (2017)

Apart from the first two records, both excellent, I've been fairly ruthless with the Obituary catalog. There have been occasional tracks of note permeating the last 27 years of material, but so much of it felt phoned in, lazy and lacking in the menace and savagery of Slowly We Rot or its groovier, more minimalist and memorable follow up Cause of Death. The band experimented with a more hardcore, mosh oriented sound and audience at one point, which had mixed results, but have since come back around to exploring their roots in detail, trying to figure out what made those early records stick as classics. I'm surprised to say that the eponymous 10th album has done a better job of that than the last seven, by reaching right back to that wretchedness of their formative years and supplementing with something I just didn't expect, a more pure 'heavy metal' sense of melody and structure to several of the riffs, in particular the bridge and lead sections.

So rather than some dissonant, whipping frenzy of a solo, they'll break out something a little more blues based or accessible sounding, and stunningly, it works rather well. That's not to say it's the first time they've crossed that line, but here it actually complements the more ruthless and ripping rhythm guitar tracks throughout the verses, most of which are more or less paraphrased from the band's huge backlog with an emphasis on the earliest material. A few chords are tweaked here or there, but you'll pretty quickly identify where a lot of the note progressions or grooves are hailing from. Only, because I've felt so long parched for Obituary that I enjoy, I'm a little more forgiving here, especially with how angry and vicious John sounds with these vocals in cuts like "Kneel Before Me" or swaggering "Lesson in Vengeance". He's not belching out anything out of the ordinary, but there's a caustic and mean balance between how his voice is mixed here and the sheer might of the rhythm guitars which totally overpowered my speakers and had me rictus grinning from cheek to cheek.

Granted, it doesn't hurt that cuts like "It Lives" feel like they were taken from the Cause of Death sessions, my favorite record from the band, but this has never been a band that flaunted a lot of progression or originality once they had first made their mark with a more gruesome if simple brand of thrash-infused death metal that their statesmen like Death first created. You're still hearing a few of those meaty, Hellhammer-style groove breaks and fat, oozing bass lines, but a lot of the material here is just this wall of mortuary flesh strengthened by the double kick batteries and the cruel symbiosis of Tardy's grating growls and the murderous bent of his lyrics (love that sustained growl that opens "Turned to Stone"). Obituary isn't a total success for all its retread ground and a few tracks seeming staler than others, but it's for sure the first time in a great many years where I have been so thoroughly entertained by one of their releases, and I've already listened through the thing like a dozen times without getting tired of it. Beyond that, it's got enough of an internal variation that it should sate both fans of the more ripping, faster material or the gym-busting bro-groove. Cool.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Panikk - Discarded Existence (2017)

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to come up with the sound that Slovenia's Panikk are going for on their sophomore outing Discarded Existence. Those familiar with the second tier of Bay Area thrash from the 80s will remember a certain, violent debut album which also featured an individual being sucked into a swirling vortex, only this time it seems more like a tornado than a series of toothy maws. Sure enough, once you've actually given this a spin, you'll encounter a lot of the frenetic, high strung thrash metal which dominated that unsung masterwork of the genre, and I'm not going to sit here and tell you that's a bad thing, because there while it might take a few pointers from their predecessors, this is solid improvement over their 2013 debut Unbearable Conditions, and proof that putting a little effort and a fraction of complexity to the songwriting can vault you well over the shoulders of much of the useless and redundant pizza re-thrash of the last decade.

To be clear, while the primary propulsion here is a style akin to records like Eternal Nightmare or Oppressing the Masses, I'd actually draw a closer comparison to Japan thrashers Ritual Carnage who have a storied history of translated those same 80s influence into a more modern context. The vocals in particular have that higher pitch in which a lot of the lines spit out the same notes over and over to create a disaffected style first pioneered by Joey Belladonna of Anthrax. In this case, though, while the vocals are certainly well suited to this jerking, thrashing mix, it's really the riffs that take center stage and manifest the rich intensity of the experience, each track being loaded with a good share of variations and occasional subtleties which range from the viciousness of a Destruction or Vio-Lence to even the turbo fueled power/thrash of Artillery that I so admired coming up. It's not insanely technical or unique, but cuts a nice line between clinical neck-straining and familiar but not wholly bitten off riff progressions that you'll recount from both the German and US scenes, from primal S.O.D. mosh to the scalpel-thrash of the aforementioned Schmier and company.

Discarded Existence is carefully calculated to give you both that richer impression of thrash and its musicianship, with soaring, sailing and wailing leads as well as a whole slew of mid-paced pure head banging riffs that keep the experience a lot more grounded than the victim on its cover. Drums and bass provide an accurate level of support, but are never able to take the reins away from the axes for any length of time, which has never really been the point of this genre. Thankfully, that rhythm tone is just excellent, precise and full-bodied enough to satisfy the production gluttons who want a record which sounds 21st century. While I can't say it produces endless replay value or tunes that are likely to become classics, the whole thing is consistent and entertaining to listen through, with lyrics that stick to the social and political topics thrash has long touted, and a level of energy that never lets up, but leaves plenty of room for variation in tempo and lead-work. If you fondly recount the vitriol and testosterone of records like Signs of Life, Eternal Nightmare, Product of Society, Release from Agony and others of that critical 1986-1990 period, Panikk does a swell job of refreshing the formula.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Bannerwar - Anthems of Blood & Soil 7" (2017)

Nestled deep into the Hellenic underground, Bannerwar is a band which must be almost forgotten after a decade plus absence in the wake of its solid if unheralded sophomore Centuries of Heathen Might. And while I can't quite claim that the two tracks present on this Anthems of Blood and Soil 7-inch are going to reverse that fate, it's certainly not because the band is lacking in the hellish energy required to perform the sort of orthodox, traditional and spiteful black metal they employ. But apart from the band's NSBM roots, which may or may not persist in their inspiration, there's just not much of a 'gimmick' to this style, or any single component which can separate them from so many others performing in such a similar, straightforward realm.

If you've never experienced them, it's more or less charging European black metal with a strong 90s feel to it, very basic riffing structures spat out at a faster pace or brought down to a might, barbaric charge. The chord progressions are quite predictable here, but that doesn't really diminish much of their savagery, with the guitars loud and frontal, the vocal rasps doing a good job of providing an evil impetus towards the uptempo blasted sequences. Definitely a classic Swedish or Norse black metal vibe here circa bands like Marduk and Satyricon, but occasionally with "For Blood and Soil" itself they hit a glorious stride reminiscent of vintage Rotting Christ off Thy Mighty Contract or Triarchy. The drums are rather on the tinny side in the mix, but nonetheless efficient, while the bass is good and think, but doesn't otherwise do a lot to carve its own existence from the solidarity of the rhythms.

The two songs are reined in at about 5 minutes each, so thankfully Bannerwar has no interest in beating the listener over the head with ceaseless repetitions of tired riff patterns, and I feel that for the length of the 7" there is enough variation represented, assuming on a hypothetical third full-length they'd have an even broader range (as they did on Centuries). But the question is, at the end of the day, when the onrush of the night is inevitable, do you want another pure atavistic black metal listening session which offers you little to nothing new? If the conventions continue to attract you, then these Greeks are an adequate vehicle for vengeance and ferocity, but although the material here is just as solid as the stuff on their albums, they still just don't stand out against the crowd.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Six Feet Under - Torment (2017)

Despite it's Bleeding-era, trilly little fakeout riff, "Sacrificial Kill" is hands down one of the dullest album openers I've had sitting on my review pile in quite some time, and although it tries to pick itself up with a hustling end section, the riffs being meted out are the kind of low caliber, Six Feet Under material that one would all too quickly delegate to the dustbin as soon as possible, the boredom that at least half this band's albums in the past have choked themselves to death on. Thankfully, elsewhere, Torment gets a little peppier, marginally more ambitious, in that it offers up some more energetic simpleton death metal infused with some groove and nu- metal sequences, but the songwriting overall is just not on the level that they hit with their rare gem Undead or the previous full-length, Crypt of the Devil, which was solid if only because of the temporary roster involved with it.

Speaking of interesting guests, I was interested to hear that ex-Brain Drill bassist was contributing more here than he did on the last one, and once more impressed that he was able to chill out and maintain such a level of restraint throughout the mind numbingly boring half of this disc which is comprised of about 3-4 songs where the idea is to contrast repetitive, barebones primal mugging death metal riffs with the slightly more tech side revealed on Crypt. He doesn't get nearly as flashy as he would in his alma mater, of course, this music couldn't support it, but unfortunately I felt like the content of Torment is just so dry and lacking in real inspiration that it's all for nothing. While a good chunk of this album is far from bumbling or incompetent, I could narrow it's finer moments down to just a couple tracks, like "Schizomaniac" which has some nice thrashing carved out through it's death acrobatics, or the straight neck-jerking base-level death/thrash in "Slaughtered As They Slept", which functions despite how 'heard before' the whole thing plays out. Other than that, there weren't many tracks I enjoyed through and through.

Chris sounds better here than on the previous year's Graveyard Classics IV compilation, where he did an abysmal job of covering Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson with his grunting. Here the battering, bludgeoning timbre of his voice cedes itself to the concussive drumming and viler riff selection a lot more than when he's trying to front such classic riffs; and there are more than a few stylistic nods here to The Bleeding, his finest moment in Cannibal Corpse, but infused with the stoned groove style of riffs that dominated early 6FU recordings like Haunted or Warpath. The mix of the album is quite straightforward, a little dry and doesn't really lend itself well to atmosphere unless Hughell is filling in the blanks with some busier bass lines, but this is par for the course for much of the band's career, and in the end you've got a product here which is the least composed or interesting of their post 2010- works, an era in which they finally seem to most closely have flirted with and even dated some level of quality. Undead, Crypt of the Devil or even Unborn would be more worth your time, but it's not a complete dropping of the ball, just a near-fumble.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Six Feet Under - Graveyard Classics IV: The Number of the Priest (2016)

Chris Barnes' mainstay has been on a strange trajectory these last five years, first stunning me with an album that was actually good, 2012's Undead, and then proceeding to not exactly follow that up with anything worthwhile (Crypt of the Devil was decent), playing some musical chairs with his band line-up, and ultimately deciding for whatever goddamn reason to release another entry in his band's abysmal 'cover tunes' album line, Graveyard Classics. Although this time, it doesn't appear that he's even bothered to come up with a halfway decent cover concept, not like the records predecessors had anything resembling eye candy. IV: The Number of the Beast is, as if you couldn't guess, exactly as lazy as it looks, and it's a collection of strictly Judas Priest and Iron Maiden covers...

...given the 6FU treatment, of course, and by that I mean transformed into bludgeoning low rent death metal lite where the only possible entertainment value is hearing Barnes' caveman grunts fart out the lines of scream-gods Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson. Musically the trio on this disc attempts to pair up to the originals as much as possible, only with a sluggish, chunkier rhythm guitar tone that is meant to construe some heavier aggression but winds up feeling rather dry, since the record as a whole lacks that reverb and atmosphere that helped immortalize the 70s and 80s material, which this album largely consists of. The bass and drums do their parts over the album, and I won't say it's the least competent of these Graveyard Classics offerings...the focusing on only two bands kind of helps tighten the experience, and the leads feel frilly and fun, but then you go and plaster them with these monotonous grunts, which feel poorly recorded like someone was playing the background music at a karaoke bar and Chris just grabbed up the microphone. It's a little funny to hear Ray Alder appear as a backup on the "Invader" cover, but one wonders why Chris didn't just hire Ray to sing the whole thing...that might have proven a more passable experience.

I'll give Barnes credit, though, he at least has a fairly good taste in songs by these legends, and does not simply offer up the most predicted or obvious choices in their catalogs. I normally wouldn't expect to hear someone's take on "Prowler", "Flash of the Blade", "Starbreaker" or "Genocide", and these are all included along with "Total Eclipse", "Night Crawler", and "The Evil That Men Do". I don't think there's any question the track list was carefully pored over, and without renditions of the bands' most popular tunes, it affords 6FU a little more breathing space for their interpretations. Alas, they are just not very good in the end, and it's largely the vocals and production of the rhythm guitars that don't do these versions a service. If Barnes had excused himself from this, then you might have an average album of its type, but this is just too laughable to take seriously, and the joke loses its humor about 2-3 tracks in when it just becomes sad and boring. Slightly more consistent than the first two such 6FU cover anthologies, but I would say this project 'peaked' with Graveyard Classics III. Granted, that's like saying my lunch peaked when I projectile vomited against the nearest wall, rather than just puking it into its normal porcelain receptacle. Enough already!

Verdict: Fail [3.25/10]

Friday, February 24, 2017

Vendetta - The 5th (2017)

Undoubtedly a promising second stringer during the Golden Age of German thrashing, Vendetta have sadly not had the best comeback streak among their countrymen, being heavily overshadowed in this last decade much as they were in the 80s, with bands like Kreator and Destruction still soaring fairly high over followings that have been cemented for decades to come, if they can keep on kicking out the same competent continuity. Their latest, creatively titled record The 5th does not do a hell of a lot to cultivate either the catchiness of Brain Damage nor the savage velocity of their debut, but that's not to say it's entirely rubbish, only that the band continues to let a little of that 90s groove/thrash influence inflect upon the dynamic riffing and mildly melodic intensity of their prime, and not to the betterment of the finished product.

There are certainly riffing phrases across the tracks here that recall some of the earlier material, and vocalist Mario Vogel once again tries to do his own spin on the original Vendetta style from decades before he joined the ranks, but in the case of the former, they're just not memorable or quirky at all, and the latter seems a little disheveled and sloppy, unable to really drive home a good chorus, not that the rest of the band have really provided him with much to go on there. The riffs in cuts like "Deadly Sin" exhibit a little of that uplifting thrust that you'd recognize from Brain Damage, Destruction or perhaps the power thrash of Danes Artillery, but too many of the progressions rely on rather boring payoffs that don't catch the ear. The production is rather solid, with a good bite to the rhythm tracks and a nice, over the top atmosphere created when the leads enter the fray, providing for some of the better moments on the albums. But then you layer in those vocals, and the lack of a real money shot riff anywhere in a 3-4 minute track and it's average at best, goofy at worst.

It's nice that the band still maintains a fraction of that adventurous spirit they held in their youth, and for instance the classical guitar interlude "The Search" is quite nice, and you can close your eyes and just imagine if they balance that out with vintage Vendetta or Deathrow-quality heavier material, but while this does in fact set up "The Prophecy", which owns 1-2 of the more agreeable riffs on the whole record (before devolving into some lamentable breaky groove thrash), it's buried too deep in the track list to leave much of an impression. There's also something up with the drum mix here, in particular the snares which popped and hissed out of the mix a little much to distract away from the nice, warm crunch of the guitar tone. The bass guitar also doesn't really stand out to me, curving along behind the other guitars but incapable of really standing forth unless it's hitting up the good old slap and pop sound (near the end of "The Prophecy").. All that said, this is a slight bump up from 2011's Feed the Extermination. You can hear some genuine character attempting to seep through the cracks, but it's just not enough, and combined with the relatively weak cover artwork I just think this is an album that's going to be easily overlooked with so much stiff competition. And rightly so.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Friday, February 17, 2017

Witchery - In His Infernal Majesty's Service (2016)

If Witchery had put out much of any value over since the 90s, I might have felt slightly embarrassed to have ignored the existence of this latest album for the last 3-4 months. However, my interest in the band has just waned that much that any and all expectations or excitement over having any sort of relapse back to Restless & Dead era greatness lie smothered in the tombstones that they emerged from on the cover of that masterful, timeless debut. Efforts like Symphony for the Devil or Witchkrieg were mildly entertaining, or at least a couple tracks on each, but they've just failed to hit it out of the park and have thus sunk into near obscurity. Nobody seems to talk about the Swedes these days, being far more interested in the other projects of the band's constituents, and it's hard to argue with that reaction, because while they continue to set up really cool, varied cover aesthetics for each new album that pique my interest, the music contained on these discs has been inconsistent at best. I am sad to say that In His Infernal Majesty's Service doesn't instill confidence that this is a rut they can ever crawl forth from...

Now, let me back that up a step, because we're far, far from a disaster. This is without question a passable album, better than the last two, and possesses a certain rawness of structure to it that occasionally manifest some nostalgia for their earlier albums. The new vocalist Angus Norder has a fairly standard but efficient guttural rasp which, like his earlier predecessor Toxine, tends to bleed into the rhythm guitar but gives the material that same nasty feel as yesteryear. In truth, there were a number of riffs on the album that felt straight from the 1998-1999 playbook, with the caveat that they really aren't all that catchy or distinct if you span back over the catalogs of bands like The Haunted, Raise Hell and this one to compare or contrast. I.H.I.M.S. vomits forth a balance of 80s German and US thrash, ranging from Sodom to S.O.D., tempered with some clear nods to punk and speed metal. The bass tone is nice and springy, the leads are just about right, never too flashy or overextended, and the drums are crashing everywhere and on fire through much of the track list...but when you just lack those central, impressive riffs to hone in on, the rest of the attempt seems rather fruitless.

Tracks like "Nosferatu" aren't shy about their influence, a pretty direct bite on late 80s Slayer, but even then they can't rise up and compete with the original in any way, shape or form, and they seem like pretty safe tributes to the nostalgia of their remaining audience. "The Burning of Salem" does a similar deed for Dark Angel's ruthless athleticism, and I definitely took away an impression that the Swedes were consciously meting out their influences like they were a checklist written in marker on their sleeves, once again distracting me away from a band that was once in its own right pretty goddamn good. So if you just shut your mind off for a dose of unmitigated death/thrash with no aspirations to anything but survival, I think the tunes here are functional enough not to scoff too hard at. However, the elements that made the band so damn fun and memorable in the first place seem a bit exhausted and watered down to the point that in my review run-throughs I kept wanting to skip about half the songs because the Jensen/Corpse riffing choices were so banal and uninspired. Again, I found it a little superior (if less energetic) than Witchkrieg, but only by a slim margin; it's hardly an offensive experience, but another moderate letdown from a group capable of so much more.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Friday, February 10, 2017

Deserted Fear - Dead Shores Rising (2017)

Deserted Fear have carved a pretty solid path for themselves on their first two records, and also managed to place their sound into a position which cross-pollinates with several death metal audiences, and should find a warm enough reception with all of them. Not so terribly old school that they're surviving off the aping of a singular band, and not entirely participating in the overabundant trends of early 90s Swedish Left Hand Path/Dismember death or cavernous death, their material is born of a more melodic, hook-laden core and then caked in the heavier aggression via rhythm tone and brute vocals. Certainly they sound like a peppier Bolt Thrower in places, but I think they also have a clear path to the ears of Amon Amarth's considerable fandom, or the Dutch blitz of Asphyx and Hail of Bullets, while cultivating a lot of the more melodic Swedish influence borne off the 90s melodeath explosion (At the Gates, Desultory, Hypocrisy, Dark Tranquillity, etc).

However, they're not flashy or fiddly, reliant heavily on the rhythmic backbone of the meatier guitars and the drums in lockstep. You know where a lot of their riffs are going as soon as you hear them, but they vary up the writing enough that the tunes still feel fresh and leave a moderate impact, provided you aren't averse to the warmer feel the note selections generate. This is hardly an evil sounding death metal record, despite what the skeletons on the cover might otherwise hint at, so it ends up as a more brutal and accessible strain of the style heavily loaded with ceaseless double bass patterns and a really thick and effective tone which operates largely at a mid-pace and then occasionally spurts into a more uplifting, faster tempo like the one that drives the verses of "Open Their Gates". Atmospheric and restrained leads are used to complement the battery beneath them rather than provide vehicles for their performers to show off, and this just adds to the highly structured feel of the Germans' writing, an orderly artillery unit that lays waste in cohesion rather than in spurious, chaotic skirmishes.

It's not without a few flaws. For instance, the bass on the album is fluid and functional, but generally used only as a support for the rhythm guitars, rarely sputtering out a line of interest. Manuel Glatter's vocals do feel somewhat samey after a couple tunes, even though he uses a more abusive and emotional, almost hardcore approach to his gutturals which render them less monotonous than a lot of the band's peers. There are a lot of points to the record where I was headbanging appreciatively in the midst of the experience, but couldn't remember a single lick minutes later, because a lot of the material flows a little too well into its neighbors as well as some of the other bands I mentioned earlier. I felt like, even though it wasn't a far cry from this, the sophomore Kingdom of Worms was a bit more interesting and risky, and even their debut was a bit more crushing, where as this is more safe, solid and dependable from the opener to its close. However, if you like long-time veteran bands like Grave or Unleashed who perform old school death metal with a fair amount of balance to it, not shying from melodies where suitable but also keeping one foot firmly planted in the graveyard dirt, then Dead Shores Rising is worth a listen.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, February 3, 2017

Warloghe - Lucifer Ascends EP (2017)

Warloghe has long garnered respect as an infrequent, raw, and wholly vile entity on the Finnish black metal circuit, with an unbent and uncaring attitude manifest through raw production and evil composition which could make some Horna records sound like you were sitting by a warm fireplace toasting marshmallows. Womb of Pestilence is probably the better known of their two full-lengths, and going on about 14 years of absence, the group has decided to issue a 7" with material recorded around that period in the earlier oughts, but not previously released. With this and the band's Dark Ages Return compilation last year, it's possible that a lot more interest is being kicked up through the dust of both the band and listeners, so some might look at this as a 'feeler' for what might lurk around the corner...

Lucifer Ascends is pure Warloghe, raw and caustic black metal which is produced with the guitars at a fuzzy distance from the foreground, the drums transformed into a clanging din, the bass lines an unbroken throb of notes that contribute a lot to the music's sense of fell majesty and melancholy. The tempos here shift between desperate, driving moderate blast-beats, prevalent in the titular A-side, to a slower and more glorious warrior march that dominates "In Hunger And Thirst", which I happen to find the stronger of the two tracks, specifically for how those melodic lines drive into these primal, cutting cords steeped in nostalgia for old Darkthrone, Burzum, Horna, and their ilk. Eorl's vocals are just this wretched, unhallowed rasp which is not news for its genre but seems so perfectly sick and slathered in suffering over these riffs, especially where it creates a contrast against a rhythm guitar line that seems more dignified than the vitriol being spewed onto it.

Nothing involved is a revelation of any sort, these songs are roughly comparable but not entirely equal to the content which actually made the cut for the Womb full-length. The audience here is simply going to be that coven of purists which doesn't want excessive distractions that it feels might detract from their experience. Grim, rime-encrusted and shadowy orthodoxy, on vinyl, through a respected imprint in its feel. There are less than 10 minutes of content here, but while that may seem skimpy, it also means that Warloghe don't pad out their performances to the point that they'll become really boring, and while I don't feel that much of the material here is all that impressive or even really that good (the A-side didn't phase me at all), it's more or less exactly what the band's fans will be seeking out and working as intended. If you're seeking out the band for the first time, however, I would set a course straight for Womb of Pestilence and develop any further interest from there.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Monday, January 30, 2017

Bullcreek - Osschaert (2017)

Osschaert is a rather simpler sort of death metal record that you won't hear very often these days, being that it doesn't conform too strictly to the dominant trends of the genre nor does it attempt to blow you over with any level of impressive technicality. This is primitive, choppy death loaded with basic hooks that keep you engaged without offering much nuance. I think a lot of listeners will draw some parallels to Amon Amarth, in how some of the riffs convey just the proper balance of glory and force, but I was feeling a real Asphyx or Hail of Bullets vibe for the most part, only with a vocalist more guttural and less distinct than Martin van Drunen. I also felt a few nods to other low-tech death metal bands of the past like Crack Up, Six Feet Under or Hypocrisy, but even more massive sounding.

This is in no small part due to the crushing rhythm guitar tone here, the closest approximation to their Dutch peers that I mentioned earlier, which grants even the most basic chord structure or voluptuous chugging a level of potency and attention-wrestling. They like to thread these meaty riffs with a lot of solos, which sound rather tiny by comparison but help fill another level of atmosphere, whether they spurt out some bluesier bits or structured harmonies wailing off into the night. The riffs can vary from more straight-up flows of melodic chords to slightly more charging, involved palm mute patterns and this creates a nice variation and contrast across the album that kept me absorbed, especially when they also toss in some melancholic, cleaner guitars or storming grooves. Even though the entirety of this debut remains within the bands stylistic portfolio, I feel like they give you enough fulfillment and deviation from predictability that you won't quite guess everything that follows, and so it just paints the record with a fresh coat of excitement, rather than the dull, dry plodding of a Jungle Rot.

Drumming and the low end in general is really tight here, but apart from affecting the mood of the record it's not all that impressive nor does it really stand out from the production of those guitars. As I mentioned, the vocals weren't super unique sounding, but they do their job if you just want no-frills growling which thrives on a lot of sustained lines which hover over the warlike battery and the fat of the rhythm tracks. Songs get fairly catchy but not to the point that I was thinking much about them after a few spins of the whole thing, and there's just a seasoned restraint about Osschaert which feels like they could fly further off the handle if the band wanted to, but they keep it reined in, and I was not all that surprised to find that the lineup was partially from the cult classic Dutch death metal act Burial, whose Relinquished Souls was a record I used to listen to from time to time. Bullcreek is not quite at the level of a Hail of Bullets, my favorite act from this scene performing death metal at this pacing and level of intricacy, but this is a solid enough start.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, January 27, 2017

Kreator - Gods of Violence (2017)

Gods of Violence reminds me a whole lot of Sodom's latest record in how it tries pretty effectively to be everything for nearly every generation or tier of the band's audience, and it does so with a close approximation of success. Granted, if you're pining for a tip of the hat to Endorama, Outcast, Renewal or Cause for Conflict then you might be largely left out in the cold, but that would at best comprise only a literal handful of listeners on this entire planet, and Kreator would be wise to do so if they want to pump up their base. They also don't delve back into the primacy of their demos or debut. However, if you're interested in hearing an amalgam of their later 80s, involved riffing patterns with the melodic overtures of records like Phantom Antichrist and Violent Revolution, all wrapped up in the accessible thrashing echo chamber of an Enemy of God, then this should fit rather snugly to your interests. Hell, even the TITLE here is drawn from some of those...

Yes, there are a handful of riff progressions here which certainly reflect back upon records like Terrible Certainty, Extreme Aggression and Coma of Souls, but they're all trussed up in an elegant penchant for melody which alleviates some of the sinister evocations of Mille's raving, barking vocals, giving a more uplifting, anthemic feel to even the harshes thrashing. This is actually most prominent in the architecture of the leads, which are generally pretty feel-good to the point that even some of the rhythm guitars backing them shift to a more accessible direction than the verse riffing. There's no question a level of nerdy progressive metal has infiltrated the band's sense for extremity, much like it did on Phantom Antichrist, but one could make a strong case that the band has reached 'peak proficiency' here, since the sheer number of notes and leads flitting around the 11 tracks and 52 minutes seems to exceed anything that has come before it. Bound up in the elegant, slick production values which make it effortless to experience every individual breath or note, Gods of Violence might not live up to its title in terms of the expected brutality, but it's one frenetic record with plenty to take in across a good number of listens.

Personal favorites here included "Army of Storms" and "Lion With Eagle Wings", just for striking that perfect balance of aggression and melody, and in the latter case even providing me with something that felt fresh and new in the Kreator lexicon. And Gods does that quite a lot...for every callback riff there's another here which simply has never existed before in their catalog, and while it's not going to prove very welcome for folks who feel like the band died off or sold out after Pleasure to Kill, I'm not ready to give up on the notion that these veterans have something left to give us as they continue to forge on through another decade. For a band over 30 years into its existence, this material doesn't entirely rest entirely on its laurels, lazily subsisting on nostalgia alone. Rather, it's inspired. Mille still sounds great, and the clarity with which his vocals can adhere to the more melodic guitars behind them is a real stunner. Drumming is efficient, and the bass is fine, but really this is ALL about those intricate, harried guitar lines, and how you feel about that will make or break your experience. So far, the songs don't rank among the most memorable in their canon, and no amount of busyness or proficiency can really make up for that, but Gods of Violence is enjoyable from fore to aft while I wait for whatever they summon up next.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (these battles can be won)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Warpath - Bullets for a Desert Session (2017)

Several years ago I did a sweeping review project covering all the German thrash I could find, partly to track it across the decades as one of my favorite scenes in the subgenre's history. Warpath is a band I was not particularly kind towards, an average at best analog to the 90s wave of American groove metal pundits who contributed greatly to the depreciation of the style, but which managed not to succumb entirely to the lure of nu-metal. They still left on a sour note, even by their standards, with 1996's Kill Your Enemy, but when I saw that they had reformed after 20 years of inactivity and gotten a new deal through Massacre, with several new members, I was curious whether they would be barking up the same tree, or perhaps benefit from all that added experience and listening that the decades might bring to their core style, and while I can't say that they've improved a great deal from their initial run, Bullets for a Desert Session is without question a near equal to their 'better' works.

That's not saying much. Sure. This is still the meaty, straightforward thrash metal you might have remembered them for in the 90s, but perhaps the gulf of time makes it a little more tolerable, or that they've just written material which is slightly more appealing to the ear. When I hear the gruff vocals and creatively deficient riff-set here, I'm reminded a lot of those years when Sacred Reich dropped the ball on their later albums, or perhaps a little Machine Head or Exhorder (bands I'm not terribly fond of). Nuance and variation takes a backseat to chugging and muscle, with a limited array of chords to balance it out, so the only elevation real here comes from a chorus like "I Don't Care", where the guitars slide up a little higher from the palm mutes to provide an almost punk flavor to contrast against the mad dog vocals. If you're just out for a stroll through the mosh pit and jonesing for records like the legendary Speak English or Die from S.O.D., then you're probably the target for a record like this, only it's even slower and more simple in some aspects than you might even expect for baseline testosterone thrash from those Golden Ages.

The mix here is really dense and potent, that I have no issue with. The bass tone is nice and fat, and vocalist Dirk Weiss definitely sounds like he can put back a few pints, with a grating, angry sustain, but beyond production values there was just too little to appeal to me. The formulas employed in the songwriting seem a little too safe, bouncy and dated, with even the gang shouts forecast from a mile away. Within those parameters, though, Warpath still has an ability to come off as slightly catchy and charismatic for such crude, pummeling music. But it's just too easy to pinpoint where a band like this couldn't break through where countrymen like Kreator, Tankard and Destruction excelled...the level of musicianship here is simply child's play by comparison, a couple of chords that don't sound like they took much effort in creating. And, look, that's probably the modus operandi here. These guys wanted to put together some bulldozer metal and bang some heads with a crowd while pitching back some's just unfortunate that so many others do it so much better. Bullets for a Desert Session is a textbook 'loyal to a fault' comeback album. If you were into their older stuff, then it is probably not a terrible listen, but not only has thrash moved on from this dingy period, it was already significantly better even 7-8 years before the band originally dropped their debut.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Monday, January 23, 2017

Saqra's Cult - Forgotten Rites (2017)

I was interested in Saqra's Cult for two reasons. Firstly, both of its cultists were also present in a blackened thrash act Maleficence which release an EP last year that I covered. Secondly, and perhaps the more important, this was purportedly a band themed around the Inca Empire. While that might not be a completely novel theme, at least a few Central American bands closer to home having delved into it, I'm not sure I've really heard it implemented in a way that satisfied me as some sort of ethnic, atavistic manifestation of the subject matter into the metal medium. Granted, these guys are from Belgium, but hell, Nile are from the USA and they have well developed their Egyptology into extremity by this point, so I don't really think your entire band has to hail from a particular region or culture to experiment with its history as a musical outlet.

Now, after listening to Forgotten Rites a few time, I'm still not too sure that I've gotten the 'Incan Fix' that I seek. Certainly this album looks beautiful with its gold and dark contrasted artwork, but apart from a few tribal ambient pulses like the intro to opener "Solemn Sacrifice", it's a rather straightforward mid-to-fast paced black metal effort with some tangible death metal elements as well. That's not to say it's not a solid metal album on its own right, but it functions more along the usual tropes. Rhythmic batteries steeped in double bass drumming and speeds that are often quite tame for the genre. A hybrid of growls and snarls which is not uncommon these days in a lot of French and Belgian. A thick and viscous tone to the rhythm guitars which reminds me of bands like Aosoth or Saligia, rather than the airy and tinny aesthetics present in a lot of pure necro black metal. There's also a fat, ruddy bass tone here which works well to anchor the production and keep the record nasty and beating on you; this is most deliberate in "Mesak" but you can feel it throughout

The riffs have just enough of a tear to them in general to remain engaging, though they only rarely bust out a hook or an individual pattern of notes that really makes me want to go for a double take. A lot of the chord progressions are fairly commonplace and predictable, and while executed effortlessly they don't conjure up enough of the cultural mystique or ancient fear that I would have hoped for. It just seems like it needs a few more unique sequences to break up the bulk of its riffing, especially in a longer (10+ minute) track like "Solemn Sacrifice" which just doesn't have enough interesting content to fill itself. To be fair, the rest of the tracks are considerable shorter, but even then there were parts that I didn't feel terribly inspired with. The limit here is that the themes are delivered to you too much through the lyrics and your own imagination, rather than what you actually hear on the disc. That said, it still feels suitably ritualistic and dingy enough to transport you somewhere, to some fallen, shadowy space, and there is firm groundwork here which could be engineered into a more fulfilling escape into the annals of myth and history. One to watch.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, January 20, 2017

Mosaic - Old Man's Wyntar (2017)

With their first proper full-length in a decade-plus career, Germans Mosaic hit a pretty interesting, atmospheric stride early on and then maintain it through almost the entirety. You've got some almost laid back, lo fi black metal fundamentals here, with a decidedly raw take on production that places it within the margin of what you might expect from a lot of depressive BM. Super tinny sounding drums and lush, cascading walls of tremolo picks chords that rely heavily on melody and melancholy. Yet there's far more tangibly enchanted and naturalistic about how they compose their contrast of swollen metallic sojourns that capture a more naturalist environment which, safe to say, definitely feels a lot like it looks. If you're a bearded old scruff like me who wants to trigger some atavistic tendencies within yourself for the idyllic North European winter that's constantly hovering in your imagination, then this is without question something you might want to check out at least once...

Make no mistake about it, Mosaic can come across as mighty pompous due to the manly ravings and barks that boomerang around the middle and upper atmospheres of the album, with the traditional black metal rasp only erupting over some of the more conventional and purely folksy, atmospheric bits (of which there are many). But the practice gets a pass here, because like I hinted, if you think in terms of that mythic, imaginary, endless season of frosts and moons and winter skies, it is effective in feeling like the vocalist is a pack of wolves panting into the frigid air, or wounded men crying out their last before frostbite claims their extremities or they bleed out into the snow. Add to this the very tribal brand of percussion which dominates a lot of the playtime, where traditional rock beats are dropped for a small set of steadily beaten percussion, and the airy, jangling and icy tones of a lot of the cleaner guitars that ring out above the dying campfires, and you've got an experience which is appreciably transcendental at how it slowly transplants you into that headspace before beating it into you permanently with the blasted, aggressive progressions during the longer tunes.

It's not a very bass-heavy record, but it's there, and the other instrumentation here, like the swells of scintillating synth ambience, ancient percussive clamor, chants and cleaner strings all accumulate in pieces like "Black Glimmer" that wouldn't feel out of place on the more rustic half of the Bindrune Recordings roster. Tunes like "Silent World, Holy Awe", have an almost droning folk structure, with maybe a little Current 93 DNA in there only the less prominent, rougher vocals that you'll hear on the rest of the record. Even though the pure black metal itself seems dwarfed by the other goings on across Old Man's Wyntar, there is still a pretty fair variety of sounds and rhythms to keep the mind engaged, including the vocals which drift between solemnity and biting anger as the riffs transition from a tranquil tribalism to mid-paced, cold floes of chords that envelop you in glacier-space. If your idea of escapism involves building a campfire to ward off the deep evening chills in a snow-heavy, coniferous woodland, and you like taking long, solitary hikes when others around you would rather be cuddled up snug on their futons with the radiators near, then this is one hibernal trip worth taking, even if the band's titular spelling of the season seems like an intentional goof.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]