Thursday, June 15, 2017

Hädanfärd - Evil-Minded (2012)

Sir N. is a rather prolific figure buried in the Swedish black metal underground, who might be recognized by some for other projects like Grav, Svartrit and Grifteskymfning, but in general seems to be settled into an interesting niche in which a traditional old school songwriting style is affixed with a fraction more atmosphere than you might be accustomed to by all your garden variety Mayhem, Hellhammer and Darkthrone adherents. This manifests quite prominently even on this earlier compilation, Evil-Minded, which collects materials from the first few years of Hädanfärd's activity, well before he would release the debut Smutsiga sinnen and its several subsequent EP recordings.

Now, where a lot of demo or rehearsal or 'early days' style collections get by on little more than the novelty of hearing a band's roughshod roots, Evil-Minded is actually quite consistent and possibly even worthy of being considered a debut album in of itself, at least in terms of the material. The production values seem to bounce around between the metal cuts and the more ambient pieces, on both ends of the album, but I think despite this tonal disparity the tracks work in lockstep and present an appropriately mournful, dismal sound which lives up to the translation of the band name, which would be either 'departed' or 'passing from life'. Sir N. excels in crafting very simplistic peaks and valleys of driving, primal, grooving black metal via some of the bands I mentioned above, and these ominous or melancholic instrumental segues which focus a lot on haunted synth tones plus a little bit of percussion and guitar (listen to the close of "Vanhelga ljustes gestalt" to hear a good example).

Rather than an impish rasp, he uses a broader, more tortured growl which adds a weight of suffering to some lighter, more melodic elements in the chords ("Ohelighetens helgonbild"). In addition, while the percussion here is very tinny, it's satisfying, and his bass lines are just thick enough to matter rather than get drowned out by the rawness of the mix. There's also a tendency towards these hazy, shimmering guitar passages which fit snugly into the mold of blackgaze, or post-black metal, as if Hädanfärd was dipping its toes into that style but grounding it in the Scandinavian conventions of the black metal medium. It makes for a listening experience that holds its value through 35 minutes, with almost all the tracks held down to 3-4 minute experiences which don't overstay their welcome. The one issue I had is that some of them seem to cut out or end too abruptly, not necessarily by mistake, but also not in a very satisfying way. Ultimately, though, like a number of Sir N.'s works over various bands, this is a relatively immersive and underappreciated album which will appeal to those who use the genre for introspection and soul-searching more than emotional church-burning.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kâhld - No Fertile Ground for Seeds (2017)

Kâhld might have a slightly difficult time standing out against the swollen hordes of European black metal, which are ever increasing and rarely culled. I say that because I feel like it's somewhat of a crime, for while this German outfit is hardly bringing much to the table by way of novelty, they do a fairly thorough job of crafting a varied and interesting debut album with a lot of the strengths we associate with the genre's fundamentals. To be fair, the chord set carved out over the course of No Fertile Ground for Seeds is one that the ardent listener of the medium will find mildly redundant, but it's how they incorporate these floods of dissonant, feverish aggression into the strong bedrock of percussion, slower, sure footed tempos interspersed with the blasting, that lends this album a sense of well-rounded, well-honed songwriting, which the first time through was hardly the most predictable thing I've heard lately in this or any other genre.

The sound here is best compared to Swedish and Norse acts ala Dark Funeral, Marduk and 1349, but where Kâhld deviates is in their unwillingness to commit too seriously to convention alone. For instance, the track "Existence - Environment - Experience" segues into a strange bridge of organ tones, percussion exploding everywhere, feedback and sparser broken riffs and bass lines that are quite unusual given the rest of the song's context. You'll find this happens often, as in the intro to "The Step Outside" which also grafts those shimmering, evil, dissonant chords to some rumbling and potent fills before escalating into a real black/thrashing head jerker. While the Germans can easily just launch into a blast beat where it serves them, the way they put tracks like this together gives the material a more curious, urban, post-industrial feel to it, especially when they incorporate those deeper clean vocals to create an atonal chanting effect, another component they have in common with a lot of what the Scandinavian bands evolved into for the 21st century. This isn't all wolves, moons and serene, cold woodlands, but staring at cracks in the pavement of civilization, gaps that if left too open swallow cultures whole.

No Fertile Ground for Seeds also sounds pretty damn clear, perhaps not the most neutered or polished production in its field, but extremely fulfilling, with both the bass guitars and the incredible drums making their mark against the rhythm guitar and rasped, angry barking. It's an album just unique enough to create a particular mood beyond the necro newspaper-print baseline of its genre, and I think for that reason that it lives up pretty well to the recent, more outward branching records by bands like Enthroned, Merrimack or Marduk who have attempted to evolve their sounds, if ever so minimally, into something studied, semi-intellectual and borderline esoteric rather than just endlessly recycle their roots. As such, this was a fairly compulsive introduction to a band with some degree of potential, perhaps not the strangest or catchiest in their niche, but certainly one that can go the considerable distance of an hour of black metal and keep my interest level in the black. Another promising entry into that newish German wave of darkness which also features Entartung, Sarkrista, Dysangelium, etc.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hats Barn - N.A.H.A.S.H. (2017)

These Frenchmen are one of those unfortunate bands who have chosen a name that, within the proper cultural context, actually sounds pretty cool, but OUTSIDE of that, for us ignorant English speakers, actually sounds quite funny, like a discount clothing outfitter. Having said that, there is nothing quite so comical about what Hats Barn are playing on this fifth full-length album, a strain of straightforward, orthodox black metal which hearkens directly back to the genre's emergence in the 90s and doesn't even border or attempting to broaden or refine those parameters whatsoever. This is both a positive and negative, because while these guys do attain a sense of cult hostility through the production and rasped vocals, the riff set is just not that interesting...

We've heard these streams of chords, with only slight gradations, tens of thousands of times at this point and the material on N.A.H.A.S.H. does little but entertain the most predictable patterns, even if they are delivered with a genuine frenzy and ferocity that might still please some diehards who have just mentally never left that space for fear of abandoning its purism. I don't personally have an issue with the most primal and conventional black metal, provided its simpler note progressions clench on to a sense of timeless cruelty, a harsh catchiness which betrays the ages, but here I just felt like the selections were so lacking, affixed to the clamorous, often clumsy beatings of the drums which felt like a soulless charge for 50% of the record. Don't mistake me, this is one unrelenting duo and they don't perform at a level far below most of their peers, and once in awhile the chords become a flood of jarring aggression that makes its point despite its crudeness, but apart from the occasional segue into something more atmospheric and vague, like the cleaner guitar in "Fallen Angels from the Sky", it's altogether too obsessed with setting and sticking to its Satanic status quo.

I'm not in love with the production here, either, which sounds fine for the rhythm guitar and the vocal but doesn't score many points elsewhere. The drums have a very forward, crashy, thudding jam room feel to them which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but betrays the potential atmosphere they might lend the rhythm guitars if they had been more distant and echoing. Bass guitar is buried somewhere in this, but it's just never creating any interesting lines, and is suborning to the guitars and adding little other than ballast. Most will find the mix here more up front and approachable than on prior albums like Primitive Humans Desecration or A Necessary Dehumanization, and surely this has a more robust, less dry feel to it, but I think I rather preferred the more level, cold and sinister feel on their 2012 effort Voices of the Ultimate Possession. Ultimately, where my tastes in French black metal tend more towards the esoteric and outside thinking bands like Peste Noire, DSO, Blut Aus Nord and Merrimack, I didn't get much from this, but it's not a bad record if you're seeking a stock, savage 1992-1996 black metal sound with little nuance or nonsense.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Tankard - One Foot in the Grave (2017)

Tankard has long since hit a benchmark where they could fairly effortlessly equip the nasty brand of alcoholic thrash (which put them on the map) with more epic songwriting endeavors and a lot more of a traditional metal feel, resulting in some of their better 'modern' efforts like The Beauty and the Beer or A Girl Called Cerveza. I think a lot of that strategy of taking their roots and rendering them into a more glorious form is quite dominant here on their 17th full-length as well. And yes, I'm fucking grinning ear to ear that a band like the mighty Tankard is on it's SEVENTEENTH album, and has never really taken much of a break!!! Good things CAN still happen in this divisive and confused world, and the fact I can still look forward to new records by Gerre and crew is one of those, even if they don't always ultimately end up in the eternal hard-on I've got for classics like Zombie Attack or The Morning After.

Perhaps not so surprising that One Foot in the Grave functions best when it IS trying to define a little more of a melodic sound, as in the intros to "Pay to Pray" or the title track, which seem like really excellent setups for some great, memorable tracks. Alas, once we get to the actual pounding and thrashing of the tunes, they become a little more indistinct, and suffer from a sameness to the band's prior material which I've honestly been feeling on and off since this 'modern era' of Tankard had started with Kings of Beer when Andy Gutjahr joined on guitar. Now, don't get me wrong, I think Andy's a fucking ace riffer and a hero, and I credit his tenacity for a lot of the long-term relevance of survival of this band against the trendier nu-thrash landscape. But it might just be the band's very consistency itself that causes its own problem, because very rarely do I get super excited about the riffset being used through the verses or even into the chorus parts. Leads are well done, and there are some points where I feel that intensity and excitement, but it just doesn't completely scorch me.

Not a deal breaker, of course, because elsewhere, Tankard still sounds so amazing. Gerre's venomous voice works equally well with its more sustained phrasings over the more melodic, almost power metal feel of a lot of the riffs. The bass can't compete with the rich rhythm guitars, but it does sound fat and formidable where it can pop its presence out into the mix. The drums also sound extremely potent and, really, the production of One Foot in the Grave in general is just so excellent and well-balanced that it sounds perfect coming out of my speakers at any level. Lyrically this one doesn't focus too much on the pub crawling, but more on current events, which again is nothing new for this band, since they've always been about 25% getting smashed, 25% utter goofiness and another 50% singing to the choir about things that actually might matter in the world. To sum it up, this is yet another 'good' record from the Germans, just not necessarily great. Nearly on par with its predecessor R.I.B., but no cigar. A lot of the core riffing could benefit from a little more risk and unpredictability, but the stuff just sounds so pure and professional that it compensates a little for not having the most ear-sticking verses or choruses.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Time Lurker - Time Lurker (2017)

A lot of the albums I've listened through and covered from Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions excel within the atmospheric fold. That's not to say that I've enjoyed them all equally, but this is an area which the label clearly has good ears for, and consistently signs and releases acts which adhered to that virtue perhaps more than serving as riff machines alone. Time Lurker, a one-man French act, is perhaps the best representative of that trait which I have yet heard from this particular stable, and the eponymous full-length debut is an effort likely to satiate a large cross-space of extreme metal listeners who fancy both the sludgier side of the black metal spectrum or its blackgaze constituents.

This is a spacious, assured album swollen with memorable moments that are created merely by the shifting of note progressions, and just slams you with walls of emotional, dramatic atmosphere that aren't the product of too many gimmicks within the instrumentation...only its presentation. The vast, painful rasped vocals serve as just another icing atop the cosmic, drifting currents manifest through the guitars alone, often just tremolo picked with a natural ebullience, or plotted out in simpler chord structures that carry the lower end, nigh-on-droning weight. It's another of those albums in which the objective might seem strictly darkness, but those lighter, pervasive, 'warmer' elements of the songwriting narrative are what provide its most catchy components. This contrast works even where the album takes an instrumental turn, as on "Reborn", which is naught but shimmering guitars hitting a crescendo that takes them straight into the evening stratosphere. Sonic override, and you can even hear little hints of New Age guru Vangelis in the backing synthesized tones near its climax!

8+ minute tracks justify their duration by having just enough of these little tectonic, riveting shifts that you never grow too tired of them...even the staggering 11+ opening piece "Rupture", which sets the stage for a lot of what occurs afterwards tonally. Note phrasings don't always themselves seem so interesting or catchy, but it's how the musician (Mick) fashions them into the greater picture which makes it so impactful, and it even seems that the deeper into the track list you go, the better the album the cathartic and twisting "No Way Out from Mankind" which cultivates a more frenetic and black metallic presence but still segues into these tremolo picked, careening passages that help accent the thundering percussion beneath. Time Lurker might be a disc that requires a few spins to appreciate, since it's not gunning with genius riffs nor is it distinctly original, but once you mold yourself to its peaks, valleys, contours, it's a trip that becomes well worth taking repeatedly.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Satan Worship - I'm the Devil (2017)

The debut from this German/Brazilian collaboration could hardly ever be accused of not wearing its heart on its sleeve...a black, pulsing, just torn from the chest of a preacher heart. Satan Worship is the product of a couple guys you may know...Marc Reign, skin beater of the mighty Morgoth, laying down the bedrock for a couple of dudes from Sodomizer, whose mainstay's style more aptly fits the sounds of what you'll hear on I'm the Devil. Baseline punk/speed metal with a lot of mandatory nods to Hellhammer,  Motörhead and Venom, performed with a consistent, light-hearted enthusiasm that relies a lot on the character of the vocals to give it a more robust, menacing atmosphere than you might here on a lot of comparable albums...and there are countless of those to choose from.

To that effect, of course, it does possess some charm, as Leatherface's enormous, growling tone leadens down the procession like a gluttonous, obese daemon who emerged from his cave to find that the morning newspaper had already been incinerated on his lawn. Big, dumb, barking, raunchy and lovable gutturals belched out over a riff set that can't have taken more than 3-5 minutes at any point to conceive, hyped up by Reign's bombastic drumming. The tones here sound good, and I actually like that the vox are delivered with such a voluminous swell that lets its ugly sustain carry over the slightly less muscular rhythm tone. Bass is fat as fuck, just listen to that breakdown in "Azrael's Hand", but generally it just tags along with its brother instrument, but the mix of the drums and guitars really hits a shuffling sweet spot that will warmly remind you of a lot of your fave old school punk and hardcore discs given a more ironclad vision. Not every riff pattern on the whole disc is terribly generic, they'll occasionally throw me for a loop, and they also layer on some flimsy but atmospheric leads to round things out.

I won't lie, I had a lot of fun listening here, especially to a handful of tracks like "The Girls of Manson Family", where the vocals and thrust of the instruments concoct a genuine, headbanging elixir I kept putting on repeat...but that is the SOLE reason I'm giving it the positive. When it comes to nuance or genuine nastiness, it falls behind a great many other acts in its niche, so I wouldn't want to mislead anyone into thinking it's glorious for anything beyond its own primal, bloated absurdity. The lyrical subjects are all painfully obvious, few tracks strive for anything beyond a few riffs, and certainly there are tracks which blend into one another on the memory. But when I turn off my expectations, dig the cool logo and cover art, and just want an acceptable hell-blast of leather and spike-endowed excess, then I'm the Devil evoked more than a couple smiles from me and so on some level it's both amusing and successful.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Schattenthron - Der alte Thron, sichend im Schatten (2014)

The members of Germany's Schattenthron ('Shadow Throne') exist at a nexus of various other bands including Seelenfrost, Dystertid,  Ulfsdalir, Dauþuz, and Idhafels; most of which are fairly good, unsung acts amidst a massive underground which I don't think gets enough credit, likely because the Teutonic black metal just never had a distinct cultural 'sound' developing like its European counterparts in Greece, France or the various Scandinavian territories. I've spent countless hours mining the German obscurities and more often than not come away impressed, not by the level of nuance or innovation so much as the scene's ability to produce so many genuine, atmospheric works that leave me wrung out emotionally or longing from the wake of the 90s when this second wave style was still in its larval stage.

On its surface, Der alte Thron, sichend im Schatten ('The old throne, in the shadows'?) doesn't seem particularly unique, being a more highly ambiance-focused work rather than one dependent on the strength of riffing patterns, but it benefits from sounding just like it looks, a grim woodland voyage against a sky whose moonlit shades vary between black and gray hues. The mix is very distant and windswept, with simplistic chord pattern and keyboard-enhanced motifs meant to be heard as if they were coming at you from the bleak hillside or rebounding off cold stone castle walls. The album consists of only three tracks, two of which are twice or more the length of the other, but thankfully this hugely atmospheric niche lends itself well to the swollen compositions, and it doesn't feel so barren or pretentious as it does a means to let its fell, glorious mood set in on the listener and thus manifest a more resonant effect. The drums are faint and weak in the mix, despite how the riffs will storm and surge, and bass guitar is practically a nonentity, I could only barely make the instrument out at all beneath the streaming tremolo picked riffs or the choir-like keys that carry the music.

The snarls are heavily sustained so that they feel like clouds grafted to the landscape rather than busier poetic pronouncements, and the entire album seems to feel like it's been channeled through a speaker or pipe so that it creates a faux-monotony. And that's really the charm here, the ability to craft material so simple that somehow leaves me with that majestic pit in my stomach that groups like Summoning have traditionally thrived at. Even where Schattenthron drops out the metal content at the end of the playtime, and just lets a few keyboard notes ring out as a mighty, melancholic mantra, I found myself transported to its universe, almost like a paean to the Dark Ages penned by exiles living in rustic retreats. An enjoyable time, despite the 33 minute length, and whilst I have no idea if this is just some one-off concoction in the brewery of bands/ideas that the band members are involved in, I hope for a little more in the future, though I can also heartily recommend the Idhafels debut.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dom Dracul - Cold Grave (2016)

I've been probing the underground lately for 'roots' black metal done right, that is to say bands I might never have heard before putting a fresh spin on a genre I still enjoy to this day, despite it's clear level of over saturation. The hunt has turned up some really amazing results so far, like Swedes Bränd Jord, and another act I had set my curiosity on is a one-man project called Dom Dracul, whose covers give off a vibe of primary and purism akin to maybe Craft, Darkthrone or Black Witchery. Therramon, the individual responsible for this project, certainly does not betray the aesthetic on Cold Grave, a record that was released simultaneously with another in his catalog called Devil Dedication.

A really solid setup here, with eerie and tinny sounding guitar melodies set to the sounds of wailing, screaming and a slow, beating drum, but then he doesn't really knock it out of the park with the riff that launches "Mighty Winter", a fairly predictable chord pattern that is only given some levity by the mechanistic cold created by the beat patterns. The song takes a turn later with a more glorious and less evil bridge riff that gives off a more folksy, pagan impression, and this sort of creates a blueprint for how most of the tunes on the album proceed. Bold if standard black rasping over a sequence of 2-3 riffs that, while catchy enough to thrive in the record's dim, airy atmosphere, don't exactly thrill, nor do they sound unusual or off the cuff enough to really demand a listener's attention when they've been schooled in so much of the genre prior.

That's not to say I didn't occasionally enjoy a bridge or a breakdown here like the melodies of "Sons of the North United", or that evil lick in "Blackened Sight", but most of the tracks just needed a fraction more tweaking and ambition to stick in the brain. I'd also state that Therramon does create enough variety in the riff choices so the album doesn't become a dullard. Some won't like the drum presence that much, which reverts to a mere phantom against the backdrop to support the obvious focuses of vocals and riffs, but I felt more of a lack in the bass department. Some groovier, morbid lines that deviated from the rhythm guitar could have put a murkier, psychedelic twist on even these guitar progressions that would have left more of a mark. All told, though, even if Cold Grave is not an album I'm like to reach for over many others in its field, I did think it was a competent stab at the sort of 'back to basics' vibe I was seeking, and I dug the production overall.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bifröst - Schlachtklänge (2006)

Once the Spring arrives, and New England receives its inordinate amount of random, record-setting, deep summer temperature days, I find myself playing a game of 'beat the heat' within my listening habits, and thus I search for the most wintry, Nordic stuff lying around in the various plastic piles or on the dusty, forgotten drives on the periphery of my music collection. Having an insane May afternoon at 94 degrees Fahrenheit, I settled my ears on the debut from this relative unknown Austrian commodity, Bifröst, who certainly sound like an antidote for the sweating inferno outside and the two energetic children I spend so much of my time with. Or at least, it should seem that way on paper, but what I wound up with was only a means to amplify my discomfort...

Spoiler: having traveled to the future beyond 2006, and survived, I can assure you that once this group signed to Germany's Einheit Produktionen for their sophomore, they gradually improved to the point that I would call their fourth (and potentially final) record Mana Ewah a solid and entertaining entry into the burgeoning field of European pagan/folk metal, checking off all the right boxes for my ale binges and pretending I am from an Era I am not. For Schlachtklänge ('battle sounds?) that was just not the case, as it suffers from a number of 'rookie' shortcomings that render it ultimately forgettable, if not a complete heap of oxen leavings. Before even listening through the album, you can tell it doesn't look like much, with its muted tree photography, bland logo, but just enough of the right symbology and font to clue you in on what style of music this might be...or at least to point you in the right direction. Really, the middling production and values and appearance hint that this is more or less a demo in album-length, one which sets the ground game from which the band could later sprout some more competent and memorable ideas.

Listen to any record from Turisas and their ilk and you'll hear that they go with the bombastic, sweeping sort of intro which synthesized horns, a clarion call to the goofy warfare that ensues, but strangely the Austrians place a three-minute guitar instrumental, which is surprisingly the best produced piece on the record, but has a kind of bluesy, incidental feel that doesn't quite match up the rest of the material. But then it's off to some mediocre, shuffling, middle placed power chords that are dressed up with folk melodies, all of which would prove passable if the mix were a little more even. The vocal growls feel too muffled, and not even mic'd properly, as if the guy might be blaring the backing tracks and then recording it onto tape. In fact, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if this whole thing was done simultaneously live, it has that sort of boxy, jam-room aesthetic which just doesn't capture for me the frolicking brazenness of what this niche should be all about.

This process is repeated through much of the remainder, with the band struggling to shift up its pacing enough to give the album the variety it deserves. Certainly some of the harmonies, which pitch far over the dingy rhythm guitars, stick more than others, and they show a lot of influence from both the Finnish and Swedish ethnic and melodic death metal scenes, but the production and lack of deviation or risk truly fucks everything over from having a positive impact. To me it sounds like this debut was the product of some well-meaning blokes who heard a couple records by Amorphis and In Flames, but were really into their Finntroll, Ensiferum and Eluveite and felt like bridging these two paradigms into a whole, which they might have done under better studio conditions. Don't get me wrong, there are a half-dozen sailing guitar melodies over the 41 minutes which do take you that glorious inner castle, but the weak, slathering vocal mix and the pedestrian crunch of the rhythm guitar, paired with the submissive drumming and lack of interesting bass-lines, detract severely from its potential.

Again, I don't want to come across too harsh on Bifröst, because they took the right strides to become a better band on their subsequent releases and I'd count myself a fan of at least their last two (in 2013 and 2016). If you're new to the band or just looking for more of that festival folk metal you might enjoy off the European territories, I'd head straight to Mana Ewah and then trace their trajectory backwards for as far as you can stand it. The debut is no diamond in the rough, nor particularly majestic or wintry, desolate or mighty, but a rough template from which the group could throw out the scraps and then run with the strengths. Not totally awful, if you think of it as a demo, but nearly tragic in how some of its melodic components really nailed its vision more than everything supporting them.

Verdict: Fail [4.75/10]

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Au-Dessus - End of Chapter (2017)

Au-Dessus is a Lithuanian band which is branded as post-black metal but only encapsulates such a sound in vaguely atmospheric terms, due to the bright, powerful emotions its chord patterns tend to evoke alongside the streaks of more conventional savagery that it often fires off into. The layout and packaging certainly seem to be left of center for the medium, with gorgeous imagery and 'class' in the vein of many recordings from the French label Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions; but they don't perform too heavily into either the shoegaze or post-rock styles, and keep the material routed very much in the parent genre, which might not feel hip or fresh enough to some listeners, but personally I found that they offered up just enough individuality and spin on the sound to really hit home.

It does take a couple tracks to really win me over, and with the songs labeled as Roman numerals, you can tell they were going for a sum experience rather than picking out individual highlights. But straight from the start of "VI" (the enumeration continues from a prior EP release), and its slower, biting rhythm and an ominous low choir tone rolling out in an almost meditative manner, you can tell that they're going for a little more of a fulfilling, dynamic range than your garden variety necrotic European black metal entity. This is really brought through in the production, which is huge and clear and bright without sacrificing the aggression the group is capable of ripping into when they explode into a blast beat sequence. The vocals, a familiar, enormous and often sustained rasp, might seem a little more traditional to the style than some of the riffing selections, but I loved how they anchored both the faster and slower progressions with this level of sickening angst that smoothly transitions the two. I think it's the rhythm guitar tone on End of Chapter, however, which exemplifies the record's balance of the jarring and fluid, with a slightly post-hardcore motif embedded in the dissonance of various chord selections.

First couple tunes are solid, no doubt, but once you get into that opening groove of "IX" you're starting to encounter the album's finer moments, where the riffs just cling to your memory with a bit more rock & roll charm. "XI" is also a favorite for its modest but driving, creepy potency. The production and moving nature of their songwriting also has the power to overcome track lengths that I might otherwise find too swollen, especially on the songs near the middle of the order. As with their labelmates Deluge, these guys are extremely consistent, but I find this record a lot catchier and more emotionally resonant. If you're looking for the next Deafheaven or Ghost Bath, you'd be better to seek them elsewhere; likewise, Au-Dessus doesn't get as spastic or grating as modern NYBM like Krallice, but if you'd be interested in what Blut Aus Nord's post-industrial material might have sounded like if it were more vocal-driven and packed a harder punch, track this down.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Rebel Souls - The Forces of Darkness (2017)

Rebel Souls is a project related to another little known German act called Dead Entities' Realm, whose sole 2009 disc To Reconciled Solitude was one I covered some years ago here at the site, a competent approach to progressive and melodic death metal which sort of angled off from the early 90s Death era with some other inspirations that made it better rounded and more robust. This new album, The Forces of Darkness heads off into a far more abrupt and aggressive terrain altogether, a vicious smattering of Polish and brutal death metal over a dependable framework of traditional death metal, with heavy emphasis on riff composition as well as a balance of flailing solos, relentless beats and churning chords patterns that explore a little more of the fret board than you might expect.

I bring up the 'Polish' angle again, because similar to bands like Vader, MasachistHate or Trauma, Rebel Souls are quite adept at giving you that balanced strain of death metal which doesn't veer off into the too wanky or showy area despite the obvious level of confidence and competence here. Loads of frenetic, pinpoint rhythmic chops delivered through the mute picking sequences, prominent and audible bass tones that move with an agility to rival the guitar, and beats that stick effortlessly to the furious level of energy the band generates across almost the entire 28 minutes of playtime. They do not entirely eschew the melody of their other project, but here it's used more like a subtext to just balance out the dizzying levels of punishment, and I'd point out that a number of the riffs here have a clear lineage to thrashing, neck jerking material from several decades ago, only clad in the brutality that the guttural growls and more intense drum patterns offer them. The only place this really lets up is in the album's intro, and the intro to "Doomsday", which are moody, glinting acoustic vignettes set to haunting storms or ambiance, setting up the ensuing onslaughts accordingly.

I don't know if The Forces of Darkness wins a lot of marks for originality, and the riffing choices aren't always going to resonate within your memory forever, but the level of proficiency here in both the performance and the production of the material easily rivals that of bands with decades more professional experience and exposure. For veterans who appreciate this sort of gestalt style which draws on several aspects or categories of its parent sub-genre, this record is the business, and I doubt you can spin it without reveling in its tight execution, never once threatening to overstay its welcome or stray from its clobbering course even when it gives you those few precious breaths of air. Discs like this are almost like the natural evolution of the whole Reign in Blood shtick; just a fast and furious exercise in violent aural art that understands itself all to well, and rather than trying to rock the boat, it sinks it with as much ordnance as the two band members can muster. Did I mention it was just two guys? Yeah, and many groups twice that size don't play this hard. Extra credit for name dropping the German counterpart to Thor.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (shorn of every virtue and passion)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Damnation - Rebel Souls (1996)

While not an enormous shift in style, Rebel Souls was a clear step forward for this Polish underground act, a more atmospheric and savage application of their Floridian-bred sound to a level that hinges on the brutality of more technical acts of the 90s but does not shake that utterly old-school appeal that the debut generated. They still weren't on a level which could gain them the fame that countrymen Vader had begun to achieve around this same period, but this sophomore was a dependable second stringer on that scene and a record I'll still break out to this day when I'm picking through various obscura from that time period which probably could've garnered a greater cult following if it had the exposure.

In some ways this can come off as a more dense and confusing effort, as if you're being stuck within the flumes of magma on its cover and are being suffocated and immolated simultaneously. The riffs hit harder, a barrage of claustrophobic, almost grinding distortion that channel as much Napalm Death in spots as they do the Morbid Angel and Deicide influences that populated the first record. Bass tone is fatter, the tempos shift on the drop of the time but manage to pull off some stronger transitions even though the rhythm guitar tone can get a little clunky in the recording. The focus here is on more blasted material permeated with atmospheric/ambient passages; a contrast which works well as they set up "Son of Fire", for instance. Overall more intense and musically proficient than prior material, but most importantly I felt like the growling was mixed off better against the lava flows of dextrous percussion and carnal, writhing guitar chords.

They vary the pacing up just enough so that it doesn't become monotonous, and often accent the harder rhythm sequences with cleaner, ringing guitars that give it a more arching, massive feel to it, almost an early experimenter in spots with a style that bands like Ulcerate and Gorguts would take to a far broader, dissonant extreme. The atmosphere is constant without ever choking out the meat of the metallic undergrowth, and the drums are fast and mean and prominently featured. Occasionally they've got some riffs here which are stronger than the rest, redolent of old Death and Obituary and Malevolent Creation, but I'd warn that this is still not the catchiest material of its era...the rushes of leadwork and overwhelming aggression help create an 'overall package' sort of record which doesn't really age all that poorly, seeming just as sinister as it did in its day, especially on cuts like "From the Abyssland" where those eerie low piano keys and choir-like cheesy ambiance inaugurate the serious, punishing turbulence of the band's limbs. Arguably the peak of Damnation, and an album easy to recommend if you're chasing down unsung Polish gems or simply bands in the same wheelhouse as a Sinister, Vader, Morbid Angel, etc.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (let's soar to the sky in red)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Desperadoz - Call of the Wild (2017)

One of the issues I've taken with most of the Desperadoz records beyond the debut is that I'm a pretty big fan of both the Western and Weird Western genres of film, comics, and so forth, and thus would really like to see bands deliver it unto heaviness...Western Death Metal, Doom Metal, Black Metal, Power Metal, whatever the niche it can burrow itself into, like rounds from a Colt. So I secretly root for bands like this one to take it to the next level and achieve that rare integration of lyrical and musical aesthetics. Yet, a lot of what I hear on their records seems more like worship of big arena hard rock and metal lite from those glorious 80s, as if the idea was inspired more by Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive" than sticking spurs into something far more potent and aggressive.

Now, to be fair, I think these Germans at least touch upon that Western appeal superficially, as much of their discography feels like you're about to pop in your Silverado or Young Guns DVD, a clear lineage from the sort of big, bright, burly 80s entertainment some of us grew up on, along with Alex Kraft and company. Plenty of bluesy acoustic guitar sequences. Cliche-ridden lyrics that speak to you of the hard life on horseback. The rather obvious saloon fonts used for the rather effortless cover artwork. A solid, atmospheric intro piece that feels exactly like you're strolling into a town alongside some tumbleweeds... whistling, guns being cocked, and a natural swagger to it that simply belongs to this thematic genre. They even manage to draft a couple semi-heavy power/speed licks circa their German heritage mixed with a little late 80s Zakk Wylde-driven Ozzy ("Hell & Back"). Sadly, this level of energy is the exception rather than the rule, and most of the writing is cemented in safe, run of the mill hard rock rhythms that generate little more vitriol than Skid Row; both the riffs and the vocals, with some grooves, some slide guitars layered in there, and not a lot of surprises.

That doesn't make it bad, per se, and 80s MTV purists might revel in how it takes that throwback sound and mixes in a heavier dose of Western, but this and most of its predecessors just don't seem to have a lot of ambition, and I come away feeling as if it was just too snug and comfortable. It's not because Desperadoz bite off any particular band too, even Alex's vocals mirror a little bit of Sebastian Bach attitude, only with a lower range edge akin to Peavy Wagner of Rage, a higher melodic sustain reminiscent of The Cult's Ian Astbury, and some harmonies that remind me of the mid or slow paced hits from the Alice in Chains lexicon. The drums and bass sound bright and clear, and the riffs do possess a degree of variation to round out the album from sounding too samey. The country ballad material ("All the Long Way Home") is a bit tacky, but fits the concept, and the instrumental pieces here actually spin a competent cinematic narrative which I'm sure several directors of 80s and 90s flicks would have loved in their soundtracks.

The thing is, I don't really want Silverado or Three Amigos! in hard rock form. I want The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, or Once Upon a Time in the West, set to some tunes that can thunder across the plains like a desperate gunman and his steed on the run from some pissed off outlaws. Not prim, proper, stadium anthems, but a gritty and grimy orchestra of bullets and knives. Not just 'one shot for the road', but stinking drunk and pissing itself with fear and tension. Call of the Wild has a modicum of spit and fire by hard rock standards, but it just doesn't take enough chances, and ends up with their last couple efforts as an example of good production standards and professionalism without the extra oomph that surpasses an average listen. Plenty of qualities, and thematic qualifications, but every time it spits a little tobacco, it feels like a janitor rushes in to clean it up all too conveniently. Far from a complete bust, but I feel like I'd enjoy these Desperadoz better if they were more pissed and trigger happy.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Damnation - Reborn... (1995)

It's easy to pore over the Polish death metal scene of the last decade and admit it's one of the very best in the world, with acts like Vader or Behemoth or upstarts Decapitated having vaulted well beyond any barriers to underground legend status, even to penetrate into the mainstream in some instances and territories. But I find it even more curious to dial back the years and observe how such a 'scene' developed, and for the region that birthed the aforementioned there seemed a pretty solid expansion in the 90s when the influential Floridian, Dutch, British, Finnish and Swedish sounds were being intensified or outright upstaged by the emergence of more technical, extreme or brutal strains of death. Damnation seems a band long overlooked, along with peers like Devilyn, Dead Infection, and Atrophia Red Sun; a band who gradually evolved into a potential contender but just never broke the surface membrane of that scene to grow a large audience throughout the rest of Europe and beyond.

Reborn... was the first of the three full-lengths they'd produce, and for my ears, the shabbiest, but not for a lack of trying. The clear inspiration here was early Florida, with a guitar tone and riffing style not unlike veterans Deicide, slightly muffled in the mix on the tremolo mutes, but not enough to hide it's frantic pacing. They branched out a little further than that, though, with a more atmospheric use of the strings in tracks like "Maldoror is Dead", and also possessed an explosive edge on some of the faster tracks which will no doubt bring to mind Morbid Angel or Malevolent Creation. Leads and transitions are often rough spots on this recording, with the former occasionally nailing a degree of evil resonance, but more often a little awkward and undeveloped. The latter sometimes just coming off more sloppy than intended as the drummer throws out some brutal fills, or perhaps it's just the production casting some untoward attention in the wrong places, creating a bit too broad a gulf between the percussion and the guitars. That isn't a complete detriment, however, since I'll grant that Reborn... does gain a boost to its atmosphere thanks to the combination of clarity and crudeness.

Vocals are a voluminous guttural, punctured only by a few sparse snarls, and they too help to round out the mean and murky feel they're going for, spitting forth lyrics about darkness, sorrow, and the occult which were all fairly comparable to other early European death metal acts, with a little of the overt Deicide/Slayer sacrilege for good measure. Some samples and ambient sections are used to decorate the record's playtime, and these feel a little uncouth and undercooked much like their metallic for the cheesy, ominous horror they allude to, but could have been better implemented to rocket off into the metal segments. All told, for its production flaws and lack of really interesting or memorable riffs, I have to hand it to Reborn... for at least sounding like one of those 'genuine' retro death metal experiences that you can place to the year of its own conception. If you're only seeking to thrust yourself back into that earlier 90s mindset, to submerse yourself in the morbid humours of that decade, then you could probably do much worse...however, I would note that the busier sophomore Rebel Souls is a superior album in most every way, the real hidden gem of their catalog.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (I trample the cross of hypocrisy)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Horde Casket - Xenopocalypse (2017)

Horde Casket's fourth album Xenopocalypse proves to me a more unified, conceptual bludgeoning which pays homage to science fiction horror invasion scenarios in what must be the most direct and unforgiving manner ever...30+ minutes of ceaseless, staggering brutality that at the very least offers some oneupmanship of their prior full-lengths, even if it's not the heaviest and fastest act in the genre that you've ever experienced. One would hope that this might give it a little more of an edge in such a crowded niche of the death metal genre, but where I feel like this one is clearly superior to its predecessor Bloodfiends, and has superior production to their very solid sophomore Slab of Infinite Butchery, it still doesn't stand too far above the heads of its peers as far as songwriting or ambition.

That said, I would not be quick to write this off if you're a purist for the sort of brutality developed in lieu of groundbreaking acts like Suffocation and Cannibal Corpse, or in particular if you're a fan of Californian acts in the medium like Deeds of Flesh, Flesh Consumed or Inherit Disease, because if nothing more, it's well enough crafted stuff that keeps you entertained, if not guessing. I liked the use of the ambient instrumental parts and samples here, they help flesh out the atmosphere of the record, but I only wish they'd include a little more variety in the meat of the material, the death metal itself. Sure, you'll occasionally hear little guitar bits that veers off to the unknown in cuts like "Blood Scorched Earth", but this is all rooted in the blasting, chugging, tremolo picking you'd expect, and while the riffs are better executed and mildly more memorable than on the album previous, and the tempos a little more varied, so much of it treads on familiar ground as opposed to the alien or 'weird' that you'd really hope for when delving into subject matter with such potential as Xenopocalypse.

But it sticks enough landings to make it to the scoring round...the leads, while not catchy, flail around above the roiling, pounding, punishing low end of the riffs like eels or snakes cut in half. They rarely if ever settle for cheap slam grooves here, instead relying on constant brickwork and fret exercises to perk up the listener's attention and never let he or she get quite comfortable. Even were they do, as in the verse of "Planetary Obliteration", they thread enough in there so it feels like the groove isn't too cheap or effortless, more like an engine breaking down and then repairing itself as they thrust into another volatile blast. Small waves of arpeggios and such might seem a little passe for the style, but they keep the listener apprised of which side of the death metal spectrum Horde Casket strives for. The vocals are unrelentingly brutal gutturals, but they seem a little more empowering than in a lot of cases where it becomes monotonous and boring...these give me an Immolation feel which works well contrasted against the far more spry and energetic instrumentation. Along with Slab, this is one of their better albums, and where its so difficult to make a name for oneself in the sub-genre, these guys are another band who seem like they only need a fraction more of a distinction...certainly the raw materials are here through their ability to make the punishing performances seem easy.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

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]