Friday, November 17, 2017

Samael - Hegemony (2017)

It's evident that the members of Samael and myself seem to agree on the Passage-era being the one most inspiring and interesting to revisit, and Hegemony is perhaps the greatest example of that since that 1996 opus dropped through Century Media. That's not to say I don't also enjoy their earlier, more primitive black metal records or the transitional Ceremony of Opposites, in fact I think those are the more influential by far; yet those machine-driven, poetic paeans to the cosmic which dominated their fourth album are forever my siren call when reaching over to their section of my CD rack. So I cannot at all blame them for attempting to rekindle that particular  style, which they've already done a few times, in particular on the more aggressive Above and its successor Lux Mundi, which for my money was the best Samael album of the 21st century...until now, although I'd argue that Hegemony is far more directly an homage to Passage than its predecessor was.

That's both a good and bad thing, because while Vorphalack and crew are clearly intent on dressing up and expanding those aesthetics, there are numerous moments here where you'll feel as if you're getting deja-vu for a synthesizer or guitar progression, drum pattern or fill that you've already heard two decades ago. For the most part, they're coming up with new chord patterns, which works out really well in a tune like "Red Planet" which is a new take on the warlike space opera of a "Jupiterian Vibe" which will have you marching in similar step. Most of the melody in modern Samael music is provided solely by the synthesizers, which have the same martial, striking, sweeping feel to them here as they cultivate both a militaristic and Eastern sheen. It's up to the beats, lower end guitars and Vorph's distinct, eternally accented snarls to provide the metallic bedrock, and they do so well, with a lore more cutting, kinetic passion to them than you'd hear out of comparable hybrids of industrial and metal aesthetics such as those of the Neue Deutsche Härte persuasion. I also have to praise the bass playing here, from new member Drop, who lays out these awesome, fat, rolling lines that support the clamorous, choppy majesty in tunes like "This World". While the drum programming has long been a point of contention for some fans, I think Xytras does another great job layering in thick enough and 'real enough' percussion pads without abandoning the martial and mechanical coldness.

The lyrics these days continue the themes of social consciousness and social unity that they first embarked on with Eternal, but they're also willing to spark up a little pseudo-controversy with a cut like "Black Supremacy", and if you've seen the video there you'll probably have seen a lot of the responses. Hint: it's not really about what you think it is. There are also some self-referential pieces like their namesake "Samael", or "Angel of Wrath", the former of which is like a giant socialist shout out to celebrate the band's following, and their message. It's a little heavy handed, but not as corny as, say, Reign of Light; and it wouldn't be the first time, since it does fit the band's modernist, corporate or empirical vision and minimalist visual branding which manifests in both the sleek packaging and fattened new logo variant (which I think is an improvement). Samael is just one of a kind, and while I can promise that those who have shunned everything they've released since 1994 will find no end here to pulling out their own hair and seeking sanctuary in the shadow of some inverted cross where no keyboard dares to tread, I readily admit to having enjoyed the hell out of this.

A couple nicks and dents here or there, a few songs not pulling their weight quite as much as others, but they even manage to transform "Helter Skelter" into something of their own, and the bonus track "Storm of Fire" is one of the coolest on the album. They also don't pull back too far on the heavy spectrum, for example "Black Supremacy" would have felt right at home on AboveHegemony might not ultimately emit the level of timeless material that Passage was built from, but it certain does a fantastic job of capturing its ebullient, storming magnificence.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]
(light and force have a name)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Heir - Au peuple de l'abîme (2017)

From reviewing their split with In Cauda Venenum and Spectrale last year, I was already prepared for the sort of onslaught Heir was going to manifest. Now, after surviving their full-length debut Au peuple de l'abîme I can attest to the fact that there are no surprises here, the experience is quite consistent with the previous material, an ungodly amalgam of blasted, rasping black metal and sludgier aesthetics that generally dominate the slower passages throughout the record. Granted, at either of these styles alone, the band proves competent, but where this album goes a little further is to vary up the material even more than that, with slower, atmospheric passes in which the drums die down to a din, and some cleaner guitars and bass lines are allowed to conjure up a realm of graceful contrast.

And I'll say it, if NOT for those particular passages, and where they're strung out about the rather lengthy tracks (all around 7-9 minutes), I might have taken away a lot less from the band. When they are launching into their utmost momentum, you're getting a very stripped, noisy, filthy take on traditional black metal which often errs on the side of pure aggression, with little distinct note variation, like the opening to "Au siècle des siècles"; occasionally with a better, more melodic note selection as you'll hear in "L'heure d'Hélios". The mid-paced or slow parts center in on a lot of jangly dissonant notes picked over steady, simple beats and crashing chugs and chords, sometimes letting the nihilistic barks of the frontman sneer out over a very simple, eerie backdrop. This latter portion of the album is almost unanimously my favorite, a lot more evocative of fear and uncertainty than when they're off into a full froth frenzy, but then again those moments of the album also create a strange psychological give and take, as if you were being lulled with drugs and then jolted back into a heart pounding state of conscious awareness.

Don't get me wrong, there are places where these two aesthetic poles collide down the middle, and Au peuple de l'abîme transforms into a truly well-rounded outing, especially where they bust out some unexpected, warmer feeling, glorious element like the bridge to "Meltem". While not a technical or complex record by any means, there are plenty of ideas here, and the band is cautious to implement them without overwhelming the fundamental sounds of the genres in which they meddle and mash. I don't know that I always felt the patience to enjoy the entirety of these tracks, but at the very least Heir does enough to deviate from excessive repetition and there are more than enough moments of elation through the 40 that they've written. Perhaps this is not quite a band at the level of eclectic aural stimulation as peers like Blut Aus Nord, but they are certainly worthy of reaching more ears than they currently do, and Au peuple de l'abîme is a substantial first album with enough replay value to leave its mark, and enough potential to build off.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Arkhon Infaustus - Passing the Nekromanteion EP (2017)

It would have been enough, after an entire decade, to just have any new release from one of the filthiest, most intense French acts I've ever encountered and enjoyed. But beyond that, this latest Arkhon Infaustus EP, Passing the Nekromanteion hits a greater level of maturity and musicianship, without sacrificing the nightmarescapes of blackened death that the Frenchmen had cultivated with killer records like Perdition Insanablis, Filth Catalyst and Orthodoxyn. Though one could trace their own sound to sources like Morbid Angel or Angelcorpse, I've always found that this band's hybrid of extremity was actually ahead of its time, a huge number of popular acts from North America adopting similar styles about a decade after they first hit the scene with material like In Sperma Infernum or Hell Injection, and while they might be slightly overlooked by comparison to countrymen like Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Nord, I found them just as distinct and formidable an enterprise.

This is a heavily textured, roiling, wall of sound, which paces itself a little less frantically than some of their older albums, but serves as an ideal example of controlled chaos. I'm reminded of Steve Tucker-era Morbid Angel via Gateways to Annihilation, only even more muscular and apocalyptic, as if it had some dystopian industrial sheen to it, with snarls alternated against the guttural vocals and a good breadth of variation. Riffs don't seem terribly stunning individually, but once embedded into the overwhelming force of the tracks, they transform into tightly wound coils of destruction ready to spring into attention with a seconds' notice, lurching and crawling and slithering below the vocals while faint hazes of dissonant atmosphere are created through the interaction of the instruments themselves, with few other adornments needed. When the band hits its faster tempos, the riffing is like a heavier broth of melodic Swedish death and black metal, and the three leading tracks all manage their 7-8 minute durations without lagging into sullen ennui or repetitive boredom, though most of any 'experimentation' is reserved almost exclusively to the 10 minute closer, "Corrupted

This is probably the one 'take it or leave it' track here, but I found myself aligning with the former compulsion. It opens with vaulted, droning guitars that are strummed in different distances from the listeners' ears, and then moves forward with a sluggish, doomed pace, lots of feedback or excess notes ringing off into a solemn, bleak environment that eventually erupts with this glaze of melodic doom/death which feels like a bucket of innocents' tears has just been dumped over your head, only to run down over your sinful flesh and evaporate. A really absorbing, intense finale in its own way, even if the audience might not find it balanced off with the other three tracks in terms of excitement that it generates. All around though, the rich, dense production qualities of this EP and the skilled, seasoned aggression of DK Deviant, the original member who handles all the instruments besides the drums (provided by Sylvain 'Skvm' Butet of Temple of Baal and The Order of Apollyon), really drive home the truth that this was one missed band for the last decade, and let's hope they stick around for a few albums longer. Potent stuff well suited to fans who like their black and death metal boiled and hardened into a seamless genre median of depth.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Wakedead Gathering/Ecferus split EP (2017)

I, Voidhanger records had already impressed me with a split release earlier this year, between the enigmatic Howls of Ebb and Germans Khtoniik Cerviiks, so when I saw the pairing for this next one, two of the label's talents from the Midwest US, I automatically assumed it would be another tasteful, complementary match-up which could very likely cross-over fans who hadn't been exposed to one or the other sides. Aesthetically, The Wakedead Gathering, one of the best American death metal acts to emerge over the last decade, might not seem a fit for the evolutionary black metal of Ecferus, but having been exposed to the minds of these creators on several occasions in the past, I knew they'd find a way to make it work.

I didn't know they'd make it work THIS well.

Now, to be clear, the two bands maintain their stylistic distinctions, so there's a clear divide in its presentation; one is death metal, the other black metal. It's obvious; not one of those instances where they blend the styles together in pure collaboration. But I soon got past that, because the tunes here are just SO freaking good that I almost feel sad that the tracks might not gain the same exposure they would otherwise, since in my experience splits don't always get an audience as large as full-lengths. At the same time, it offers a chance for the artists to experiment a little further, which I felt was the case for Wakedead's "The Blind Abyss", a sprawling, 11 minute sequence of roiling, hypnotic death metal patterns contrasted against bleak, minimalistic clean guitars which segment off some of the separate, Cyclopean riffing sequences. Andrew Lampe's gutturals narrate the rhythm guitar swells like text being dictated off twisted flesh, and the riffing selections vary from a crescendo of more mystical, open chords, to churning old school Floridian tremolo-picked morbidity, and some evil grooves that force the head to slowly start banging as it succumbs to the aural oblivion.

Ecferus, on the other hand, deliver three tunes, which in conjunction, amount to roughly the same length as "The Blind Abyss", and Alp does what he does best, scathing traditional black metal threaded with a more introspective and interesting lyrical inclination, not to mention the great balance of melody and savagery that he compels by keeping the riff progressions varied enough that they never lapse into endless, dull repetition. The leads are great, with an Eastern feel as in "Author of Destruction". As I mentioned on reviewing his prior full-length Pangaea, he can really tap into the primal nature of the cosmic and terrestrial themes he navigates, through that noted variation, even though a lot of the actual guitars themselves are inspired by bands like Darkthrone, Satyricon or the mighty Emperor, which some might consider fairly conventional influences. Nonetheless, he adds just enough spark of atmosphere and creativity, topped off with his raving rasps, that I think fans of thorough, elaborate black metal which hasn't flown off into total avant-garde territory should track his records down. Of the three tunes, I couldn't even pick a favorite. All well done.

And the same could be said for the split as a whole. Clearly you'll have no issue here telling the two apart, but I do feel like the material they chose works together on a listen-through, as they both tend to tap into the same visceral, primal forces for their genres and extrapolate similar shadows of the ancient, the mythological, the obscure, the cataclysmic. Production is tight all around, but never so polished that it would turn off underground extremity vultures. Another feather in the prodigious and eclectic cap that is the I, Voidhanger lexicon. Two US bands that continue to deserve your attention and support, who have great things behind and ahead of them. So why are you still here reading my flowery, meaningless scrawl? Go fetch.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Monday, November 13, 2017

Antigama - Depressant EP (2017)

Antigama have always been one of European grind's strongest advocates and ambassadors towards the future, applying slightly more technicality and modernity to a style that often feels as if it's simply composed of too few tricks and variations. Experimenting with chords, atmospheres, and note progressions that aren't so easy to predict in their frenetic presentation, the Polish band manages to somehow find a style to themselves but rarely repeat a lot of the minute details that go into each composition, while never coming close to abandoning the fundamentals that so many listeners will recognize from their early exposure to Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, Terrorizer, Agathocles, and the like.

The Depressant EP hits you straight up with a concept on its cover, a RELEVANT concept, which isn't just mindless political shillery, and then frames it with the sample opening to "Empty Paths", a labyrinthine assault of dissonant guitars and head-spinning blast work adorned in snarls, protracted screams, and yeah guys I gotta mention the drumming a second time in this sentence because it's utterly fucking sick. For a 2-ish minute tune, the band's specialty here on anything but the title cut, they certainly pack in a lot of beating, a lot to think about, and ultimately something more worth revisiting than your average sped-up 4-chord hardcore/punk configuration which has to depend all too much on a charismatic barker. Antigama has the vocals AND everything else in check, with a musical delivery that is for all purposes flawless across the instruments, but never wanky, showy or unapproachable beyond the sheer intensity that this genre unleashes upon your ears.

They also know how to thrive in these post-modern or industrial-feeling elements, through the voice effects or samples or just the odd chords that embellish cuts like the opening of "Room 7" with a loose, jazzy guitar feel. The ambient passages constructed here, like the first minute of "Depressant" itself, or the interesting way they launch the percussion in the finale "Shut Up", make you feel like you're wandering these cold-lit passages of modern living, where each of your steps is guided by debt, family and societal pressures, regrets, guilts. In fact they do such a good job on this element that I wouldn't be opposed to hearing them put out a purely contemporary industrial/ambient record with even smaller flourishes of grinding where they would do the most impact. They've really been on an incline with their prior full-lengths, Meteor nudging past Warning, and The Insolent hitting a new summit, and the material here is no exception, standing roughly even with that latest full-length in breadth and quality, just a slick, interesting and effective 19 minutes of 21st century grind. The blue pill is not even an option here.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, November 10, 2017

Deviser - Howling Flames EP (2017)

Deviser is a lesser known but long-lived entity on the Hellenic black metal scene which has survived nearly as long as its far more popular peer Rotting Christ, if less prolific and a lot less distinct. Their first two full-lengths were pretty good, in particular the sophomore Transmission to Chaos (1998), but the subsequent and scarce recordings showed some growing pains and the band were not able to really define or register themselves against such an exploding European scene. The Howling Flames EP comes six years after their last album, Seasons of Darkness, and does well enough to rekindle my interest in the potential these guys once exhibited, to the extent that if they could pull off a full-length of quality comparable to these tunes I'd honestly be excited.

It's not because Deviser are coming up with anything really unique here, not in style or in actual riffing progressions or overall songwriting. These are just very well-rounded, catchy melodic and symphonic black metal tracks which fluidly balance proficiency and atmosphere. From the guitars you'll definitely notice that Greek streak of majestic, mid-paced riffing you'll recognize from their rotting messianic countrymen, but try and imagine if that were layered up with massive swells of operatic instrumentation. A technique employed by Greece's premiere black metal export on their more recent recordings, to be sure, but this is more like Triarchy of the Lost Lovers or Thy Mighty Contract with that extra layer of orchestra pit paint, and it results in some glorious, solemn shifts in tone over the 12 minutes of material that held up a cool contrast and fulfilling stereo experience. The music is never complex, just robust with how the various strings and keys resonate alongside the meat of the rhythm guitars, while Matt Hnaras barks off with a nihilistic, Sakis Tolis-like growl that blends in very well with the melodies and the thundering of the drums and peels of effects.

These guys don't get very fast, but there's a feel of momentum through most of the EP like you're gliding along the moonlit battlements of some fell castle in a Castlevania game and about to engage some aristocratic undead or Satanic adversary, and so it truly nails what it's going for. Mileage is going to vary as to whether or not you like having such hugely textured, orchestrated accompaniment to a simple black metal core, but Deviser due wonders to never let it overwhelm the basics, and the two cuts here both complement one another and vary it up enough to make a difference. It's short, but right up there with any of the highlights off Transmission, and a lot more tasteful and well integrated than other modern bands who over-employ the symphonics (Fleshgod Apocalypse, recent Dimmu Borgir, etc).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Destruction - Thrash Anthems II (2017)

The original Thrash Anthems collection was hardly a popular item among purists for the band and style, nor am I myself normally a proponent for such re-recording packages. But I was so enamored with The Antichrist era of Destruction's reunion that I was actually pretty interested in hearing so many of the Germans' classics given a more modern, muscular, iron-clad treatment, about what you'd hear them sound like live in the 'oughts, and thus was not at all disappointed in the results. Granted, the newer versions of "Mad Butcher", "Curse the Gods", "Reject Emotions" and other staples in my listening diet don't serve to replace or upstage the earlier ones,  but they're a fun alternative that I might still mix in with a playlist culled from 21st century Destruction for tonal consistency.

One decade later, we've got another collection in the series, which specifically features re-workings of other older tunes that didn't make the cut the first time. Thrash Anthems 2007 got all of the more obvious choices out of the way, but its follow-up reaches way back to cover material like "Black Mass" and "Satan's Vengeance" off the Sentence of Death album, "The Ritual" from Infernal Overkill, "Confound Games", "Confused Mind" and "United by Hatred" from Eternal Devastation. Twelve tracks in total, so a little less than its predecessor, but I have to admit that this still sounds really fucking great, the punchier, more robust mix of guitars and drums melding together in a thrashing union which doesn't obfuscate the impact of the original riffs or the nuances found on the older recordings. Perhaps they're a fraction more sterile sounding, if you're someone like me who actually loves the little flaws and different production style of the 80s, but that doesn't mean they're not still a blast to listen through, and like the first collection this is not something I'll always shelf indefinitely. When I'm going for full 80s immersion I'll take the full, original albums, but if I just want to score an evening of drunken headbanging with friends not so versed in thrash beyond Metallica and Slayer, I think Thrash Anthems is a damn good option...

Schmier sounds as virile and nasty today as he did back then, still capable of complementing his harsh barking with the higher pitched screams you'll remember from his youth. Mike is a tireless, incendiary riffing machine who maintains the explosive level of excitement that put the band on the map in the first place, to some extent playing it safe, but why fix what isn't broken? Vaaver is by now the de facto backbone of the trio, with three studio albums already under his belt he's just as hard hitting and skilled as any to come before him. The production is cleaner, sure, but you simply cannot cage the violence that this band's songwriting manifests. As for song selection, obviously this is not entirely the band's A-Game. "Rippin' You Off Blind" and "Front Beast" were never favorites of mine, and I don't know that these new versions really up their ante, but I definitely spun through "Black Mass" and "Dissatisfied Existence" a bunch. Ultimately not as entertaining as the first Thrash Anthems, but still damn solid, and I think Destruction has done a far better job of modernizing its material while 'keeping it real', where a lot of their peers have faltered on similar re-recordings.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Blind Guardian - Live Beyond the Spheres (2017)

I had already heaped quite a lot of praise upon Blind Guardian's 2003 Live double-album, and experienced the band's performance for myself enough to know that I didn't really require another live product from their camp. But Live Beyond the Spheres, culled from a long stretch of European gigs in 2015, is yet another impressive feat in this arena, spanning three discs and close to three hours of material both obvious and less so. It also prompts me to ask the question: are these sorts of 'compilation' live discs 'cheats'? Is it swaying the odds in such an album's favor if it's simply preened from a bunch of gigs, where you know the band have only really been 'on' for a handful of tracks? I realize that's unlikely in the case of these beloved Germans, who rarely half-ass anything, and I also realize I've responded both positively and negatively to such efforts in the past, because ultimately I think the final product and how it sounds coming from your speakers is ultimately the measure of its value. But it still seems less impressive than it might have if the band pulled it off on a single night.

Otherwise, Live Beyond the Spheres is another gem in the band's crown, a large amount of material which successfully captures the magic of their instrumentation, songwriting and in general the fun factor that their music inspires in their audiences. That's not to say Blind Guardian clown around, the themes in their music tend to the serious, but head out to one of their gigs and you're very likely to see thousands of folks singing along to almost every word through most of the sets. And I feel that warmth and community oozing through every pore of these selections, which have been chosen to represent a wide range of the band's discography, with newer pieces like "The Ninth Wave" and "Twilight of the Gods" bumping uglies with classics like "Valhalla", "Mirror Mirror" and "Bright Eyes". The guitars, drums and vocals all sound great here, with Hansi clearly at the forefront, domineering the performance and complemented with Olbrich's perky, popping and intricate melodies, just the right amount of crowd response in between tunes, and a good variety of material that ranges from the more frenetic and technically impressive to the good old, simpler sing-a-long.

The mix is so balanced that you won't really pick out incongruities between songs performed at different shows. I did notice a slight lack in energy between the tunes from the latest album at the time, Beyond the Red Mirror, and their predecessors, even as recent as "Tanelorn" from At the Edge of Time, but this is more the substance of the compositions themselves than any laziness on the band's part...the material is simply not as distinct or explosive as that found on earlier albums. There's also the problem of how you approach the listening you really want to sit back in your recliner and listen to three entire discs of Blind Guardian live? There are worse things you could be doing, surely, like the taxes or inflating your sex dolls...strike that, you can do some of these things simultaneously with this album, and it's no less depressing...but the point stands that it's a lot to take in, and I'm not sure that breaking it up into little chunks serves the purpose of the release. I guess if you just want to hear your favorite band perform favorite songs that sound pristine despite the little imperfections and flaws that mar nearly any live performance, and you're waiting for more original material, of you've never gotten to see them for yourself, then this works pretty well. Not as taken with it as I was their prior live album, but there's no debating that they deliver.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Desolation - Decapited (2017)

Desolation were another of many Swedish death metal acts to form in the early 90s, perhaps riding the gravesoil-stained coattails of the 'big 5' of that scene, or maybe just simultaneously erupting into a cacophony of growls and blasphemy from their jam space. At any rate, they only issued one demo to my knowledge back then, and subsequently disappeared for nearly two decades, forming back up around 2012, and having since proven much more productive than in their youths. Two demos later, they've got a first proper full-length out through I Hate records, and while it's a relatively blunt and straightforward approach to their genre, it's not at all bad nor is it irrevocably derivative of their better known peers like Grave, Entombed, Dismember, Unleashed or At the Gates.

Granted, they get a little bit of that churning, brash guitar tone from their peers, but not to the point that we're hearing another of a million Left Hand Path idolators. The riffs here have a far more brash and bruising, atonal feel to them which might be a bit more similar to Seance or Grave, with a deep and dark vibe to the rhythm guitars much of the playtime, except where they'll bust out into a simple melody redolent of classic Desultory. There are plenty of riffs that could equate with a d-beat, and also a number of blasted patterns which border on deathgrind, so you can hear a wide array of influences coming from not only their neighborhood, but the old English death metal scene. One really distinct element in Desolation's sound is bassist/vocalist Mattias Lilja, who has this truly huge and hoarse guttural that sits right atop the music, brutal and abrasive if occasionally a little more overbearing than the mix supports. Never a deal breaker, though, and he benefits from not sounding too close to any one of his Swedish peers, pairing up nicely when they break off into a more searing, melodic passage with the drums throttling away ("Night of the Antichrist", for example).

The disc just thunders from my speakers, and while it's really not anything new under the sun, I think this is one which would certainly trigger the nostalgia of anyone seeking primitive 90s-style death that they haven't already heard. You won't get a lot of memorable tracks, but a genuine experience which will dial back the decades and have you banging your head at the swell of the production and the utter darkness established by the hybridization of ancient Swedish and Floridian ideals. They do have a slight degree of variation here, not only in the tempos but some of the smaller interludes or cleaner sequences they use to dress up the tracks, and overall Decapitated is just a well rounded death metal record, arguably about 15 years past its prime, but that's really the point of this sound after all! Going forward, it would be cool to focus in on more intricate hooks, unexpected note patterns, and a few less 'Death Metal 101' song titles and lyrics, but for the audience that would seek it out, I think Desolation is successful enough, ditch-digging authenticity.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, November 6, 2017

Enslaved - Roadburn Live (2017)

It occurred to me when listening through this that I'd never actually covered an Enslaved live record in the past. I think I remember a bonus disc that came with Vertebrae, and a couple longer format video releases, but not a proper album. Considering that they have toured relentlessly for so many years now, and had countless opportunities to pitch such releases to their labels, I can imagine that it's partly because they, as a band of highly respectable fellas, just don't want to be a nuisance to their fans by putting out a bunch of narcissistic commercial pap. But it's probably also because they were waiting for the right moment, to present a stage recording that sounds immaculate, which this does, and why not from one of the most prodigious and respectable heavy rock fests in all of Europe, the Roadburn Festival out of the Netherlands?

By the time "Building With Fire" had reached its climax, I realized that this was probably one of the best live efforts I'd heard. Granted, it comes with some restrictions...a roughly hour-long set list from a band who could fill a dozen such performances with killer material and not exhaust the highlights of their discography. Enslaved had to be picky and choosy here, and they focus heavily on material that was newer to the 2015 era when this was recorded. So you've got three tracks from In Times, one each from RIITIIR, Isa, Below the Lights and Monumension. Not a problem for me, since this is one of my favorite bands on Earth, and I happen to be more partial to the now-predominant, proggy era of their career, but if you're grognardin' for some Hordanes Land, Vikingligr veldi or Frost then you're not going to be terribly satisfied with this. Which would be a shame, because Roadburn Live sounds fantastic, everything from its atmospheric guitars, organs, drums, and bass grooves resonating at excellent levels over the audience, slightly more raw than the studio recordings but still having all of the minutiae and nuances available across the instruments.

Occasionally the harsher growls get drowned off against the other sounds, but they're still readily audible, and the cleans even more distinct. The track selection is not void of heavier breaks, but the overall intention of the set choices here are to let the audience bask in the atmospheric swells and clarity of the riffing, and it does quite a grand job of that, allowing the sort of engagement and escapism you'd probably experience at pure prog gigs, just dowsed in some snarls and distortion. All the tracks form a seamless set, but I was quite surprised to hear that the finale was a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song", which plays it somewhat straight but adds on a lot more of the same fulfilling atmosphere as their own cuts, so it sounds nearly as much as an Enslaved tune as it does the original piece. Not as kickass, no of course not, but at the very least an interesting interpretation of a track that I think we've all heard plenty enough. I especially dug the bridge there, and it really rounds out a highly focused, smooth performance which is a great representation of where the Norwegians have been traveling lately and where they're headed.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Cannibal Corpse - Red Before Black (2017)

How much is too much of a good thing? For years I've wondered when Cannibal Corpse would finally strike my threshold for redundancy, since they don't exactly offer a lot of variation between studio releases in terms of production, presentation or songwriting. For many, I'd imagine they've already collided into such a barrier years ago, with people still touting their nostalgia for the 'classic' Chris Barnes era recordings, and very little chatter about much that they've put out over the last couple decades, despite a string of consistency and excellence that encompasses works like Gallery of Suicide, Bloodthirst, and several more recent efforts. After hearing the first advance track, "Code of the Slashers", watching the cheesy video and then catching a glimpse of the rather mediocre Vincent Locke artwork here, Corpse's most uninspired cover outside of Kill and Evisceration Plague (both of which I enjoyed a great deal anyway), I did not have high expectations for full-length #14.

As it turns out, I shouldn't have doubted them, because just about every song on this disc is another brutal and energetic exercise in what the band does best. Mid to fast-paced barbarity rooted firmly in the death/thrash of the group's origins, piled on with tireless proficiency by one of the most seasoned acts in the genre. That's not to say there's anything truly fresh or exciting anywhere to be had on Red Before Black, it's hardly an encyclopedia of their most memorable riffs, but once in awhile they'll pull off a few note progressions I can't recall them using before ("Shedding My Human Skin", etc) which fuse perfectly to the alternations between chugging grooves, sinister tremolo picked patterns and the roiling lead and bridge riff pairings that offer up all the album's most atmospheric and engrossing moments, which is how it should be since the mauling momentum of the verses builds up so well towards them. You've heard all these performance levels before from these five individuals, and they never exactly surpass themselves on any of the 12 tunes here, but for a band to be this far along in their career, limb advancing in natural atrophy, it's a marvel that they still hit so fucking hard, the thrashier rhythm guitars like punches to the mid-section, the quicker material evoking sheer carnage.

Nary a chink in the armor, with the exception of the aforementioned "Code of the Slashers", a rather dull piece until its own mid-section, and even some of the most simplistic progressions like the bite of the guitars that open "Firestorm Vengeance" just make you want to punt someone's head clean off their neck-stump. Red Before Black is every bit as pit-ready as their classics, without eschewing the slightly clinical technicality that musicians like Webster, Barrett and O'Brien seamlessly integrate so as not to bore themselves with too much repetition. Corpesgrinder's Target shopping excursions have certainly given him some focus and relaxation, so when it comes time to belch out the latest round of lyrics he still has the same level of flailing, ogreish presence that he's brought to the group since Vile. The violence invoked through the prose isn't highly distinct from a lot of Corpse past, but tunes like "Heads Shoveled Off" still conjure up some grisly amusement as they yet again expand their lexicon of serial killers, body horrors and other outcomes that are not exactly optimistic. In short, you know what this sounds like, and while it's hardly one of their best studio efforts, you are getting what you pay for, a pound for pound visceral onslaught by a guild of veteran executioners.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (dead beyond dead)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Acid Witch - Evil Sound Screamers (2017)

The Midnight Movies EP was an interesting distraction, but not one I really got into much more than just its novelty, instead pining for the next of Acid Witch's original full-lengths, since they had been on an incline from Witchtanic Hellucinations through Stoned to the Spooky split they put out with Nunslaughter. With Evil Sound Screamers, Slasher Dave and company retain a chunk of their original doom style and then dress it up with a lot more silly horror/Halloween influences than ever before, to the point of utter absurdity. And you know what? If you're in the proper mindset, with a couple dripping candles, a pipe or bong, and a stack of the cheesy yet unforgettable horror VHS tapes, I don't know how you listen through this without at least smirking, if not just having an outright blast as it lurches along with goofy confidence.

The focus here is on a hybrid of Sabbathian stoner-doom with the slightly more refined, melodic strains of riffs that hail from European Gothic doom bands who were themselves inspired by those forebears, but took it to another level of atmosphere. Trad metal and rock influences abound, but these are woven into the measured, patient pace of the album's deep, raw grooves. But that's really just the bedrock of the recording, because they proceed to smother it with synths and organs and all manner of growls and higher pitched, witchy vocals to the point that it almost would seem as if it were cluttering up the mix if it weren't so damned, ironically alluring. I wouldn't say that any of the individual guitar lines were all that remarkable, and in fact a number of them are really predictable, but the sum of this album is just one that feels unique to Acid Witch, because it doesn't take itself so seriously and instead smears you with a face full of over-the-top atmosphere, and a riff set that at least tries to diversify itself so you can discern individual tracks from one another and not just have some overlong, samey slog which is not uncommon in the subgenre.

I really enjoyed the use of the samples here; when combined with some acoustic or keyboard they seem to manifest this strange meta-commentary on cult horror, while ceding the album completely to the heavy metal elements. The synths really are a dominant force, generally used to convey the mood of campy haunted houses, theme parks or the sorts of pads and pitches you'd expect from b-grade horror scores of decades past, like thick distorted runs that will often be matched up with Dave's growling (as in "Cheap Gore"). Or sometimes, they'll ramp up the fuzz on the guitars as they do in "Nain Rouge (The Red Dwarf)" to a super-desert-stoner-rock degree just to keep the listener from roiling over in any form of redundancy. Evil Sound Screams is far from complex, but the panoply of sounds it manages to sneak in there keep it fresh and compelling and in their strange way present a band on the precipice of some form of progression, no matter how crude its core.

That's not to say it's without its annoyances, since some of the harsher growls can fall a little flat, or some of the shrieked vocals just make it feel like the band is fooling around too much. "Enter At Your Own Risk" is almost a pure crone-like narrative piece, for example, where each word evoked might have you keel over laughing, but even here it's really flush with the theme of the album, the tongue-in-cheek sorcery the band as always clad itself in. It's not going to be for everyone, because it's a dense, sloppy mess at points, and some might not get its sense of humor. But by the time the album bursts into "Hardrock Halloween", which opens with the album's sleaziest upbeat metal number, drizzled in bluesy lead syrup, I couldn't stop the time it hit the titular closing track, its best and most epic, I just didn't want the damn thing to end. That proggy horror bridge is amazing, and it gets super doomed out at the end before ending in some cinematic ambiance and PSA funk. After which, I go on and spin the whole thing again, because it's an album that embodies so much of my generation's nostalgia for Halloween...the night before Halloween...and the most fun I've had with Acid Witch yet.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Van Helsing's Curse - Oculum Infernum: A Halloween Tale (2004)

Large-cast rock opera records have been quite the rage in metal for years now, popularized by acts like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Ayreon and Avantasia just to name a handful. For the considerable repertoire of its constituents, Van Helsing's Curse seems to be one that was highly overlooked, the brainchild of Twisted Sister and Widowmaker frontman and American icon Dee Snider, to pay tribute to his love for Halloween and horror classics. A so-called 'soundtrack' to the holiday, metalized and populated with a roster that I hesitate to call a 'supergroup' beyond Dee himself, Al Pitrelli, and a couple unsung veterans like bassist Greg Smith who has performed with everyone from Alice Cooper and Vinnie Moore to Hellion and the Plasmatics. Much of the lineup here is instead comprised of ensemble musicians, with trombones, trumpets, french horns, strings and a slew of backing vocalists to further its operatic nature and narrative.

Speaking of the 'narrative', it's dictated by Snider himself, and one of the components of the album I found the most cheesy and imbalanced with the more swollen seriousness of the orchestration. To be frank, this sounds about as basic as a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album in terms of how uninspired and straightforward the guitars are, and how obvious the rest of the instrumentation plays out, only its got that wannabe John Carpenter feel to it that is often nigh indistinguishable from a lot of films that would bite off the Halloween score long ago (I think there's even a bonus track for a later edition of this which covers that very piece). That's not to say it doesn't hit some original notes, in particular the vocal arrangements and a few Al's guitar fills that you might not expect going in, but they're all washed out by the terribly boring use of plodding guitar mutes or chord progressions that require literally no effort except plugging in a guitar. The production of the record is expansive, often giving it the feel as if its being bounced off the ceiling of some epic cathedral, but most of my issues came with the fact that it's an extremely consonant, uplifting, never appreciably dark or creepy, and just how many times do I need to hear re-interpretations of the Halloween tune or the opera staple "Carmin Burana"? Oculum Infernum just does not go far enough into the thematic territory it so wishes to capitulate towards, and settles for far too many generic thrills.

It gets a little more exciting when you get Al jamming in the bridges of pieces like "The Child", but even then it sounds awfully you've heard some other rock opera bands he plays with. Some of the horns blare out in an appreciably moody fashion, as in the swooning "Tortured Soul". The Van Helsing family theme throughout is flimsy at best, a kind of generic 'good vs' evil' scheme, pitting off the monster hunters with vampires and other beings reduced to 'darkness'. A whole lot of the lyrics are presented in Latin to adhere to the album's operatic nature and the ancient struggle it presumes to represent. And, sadly, the most evil sounding part of the whole affair is the "Black Sabbath" cover near the end, threaded with lots of little proggy and symphonic touches, and operatic vocals that don't exactly expand upon its inherent darkness, but still manage to transform the piece as most worthwhile cover do. Apart from the corny voices Dee is doing, in true horror-circus fashion, I actually think most of the instruments sound pretty clear and full, but apart from an occasional bass groove or pick-up in the drumming, some of them don't have much to do.

Now, I like Dee Snider, not only as a singer but as an outstanding human being. I still spin a lot of Twisted Sister stuff and I like a few tunes from his other projects. But this one was clearly a miss, not of gargantuan proportions, but the effort in putting it together just doesn't justify the results on the disc itself. You could take almost any random Therion record from the mid-90s or beyond and get a more effective experience in the same vein, and those can often feel genuinely gloomy and evil, where Oculum Infernum struggles. Heck, Music from 'The Elder' crushes this. I can't say it's a great soundtrack for Halloween when there are just so many others available, either quality horror scores, goofy dance songs, or King Diamond and Alice Cooper albums you could rock out to. So who is this for? I guess if you're a HUGE fan of Dead Winter De...I mean Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and you want a fractionally more 'dark' version of the same, or perhaps TSO to swap holidays, then this might scratch your itch. I just found the whole thing too obvious and uninteresting, and thus I'm not too shocked that the project had such a brief shelf life.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Monday, October 23, 2017

White Zombie - La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 (1992)

La Sexorcisto was a pretty interesting turn of events for the New York based White Zombie, trading in a lot of the grit and grime of their asphalt and trash-soaked Soul Crusher and Make Them Die Slowly for something more notably upbeat and accessible, which drew upon influences like groove metal, stoner rock and probably a lot of Slayer riffing of around that early 90s period which I hear a lot of tonal nods towards. Where the older material was more like a driving, dirty heavy/doom, and distinct in its own rite due to Rob's unmistakable, grating roadkill vocal style, it didn't have a lot of potential in terms of giving the band its breakthrough, which this record did in spades. While Devil Music Vol. 1 wasn't my own first rodeo with the band (I had picked up Make Them Die Slowly since Rob Cummings grew up in the town next to mine), but I can imagine for a lot of folks this was the initial exposure to their sound, specifically "Thunder Kiss '65" and its video which were popular and fairly well-rotated on the radio and MTV.

I had enjoyed the sophomore to an extent, despite its flaws, but for me the real attraction to Devil Music Vol. 1 was how it created this entire universe of horror, exploitation, smut and schlock and then seamlessly fused it to the riffing and vocal styles. It was like Zombie and crew created their own dialect out of Hollywood sleaze, creature features, pornographic kitsch, slasher flicks, Halloween parties, acid trips, and well-placed cussing, which was then offered up as an hour long language lesson you could bang your dreads to...or for the sellouts like myself, your freshly-cut High School graduation hair. There really was very little like this at the can hear some clear inferences to the aforementioned Slayer, Texas' Pantera, who were also blowing up at this time, and perhaps a metal counterpart to My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult's seedy dance club aesthetics. There are samples and atmospherics splattered all over the record, expertly placed to give maximum impact to the themes imparted through the lyrics, and also a foreshadowing of the more industrial direction they'd take with their fourth and final album Astro-Creep 2000 in 1995.

More importantly, it all works so well together here that this quickly became a shoe-in for one of the most entertaining metal records of 1992, a rather barren year in many scenes, as thrash was on its way out to be replaced by grunge, rap-rock, and the ever increasing brutality of death metal. In fact it's STILL fun, a quarter century later. White Zombie were one of the band's that managed to ride out that transition, by honing in on simplistic, catchy rhythms, chugs that were often laden with bluesy wailing, Southern rock personality circa Clutch, and an image that looked like apocalyptic voodoo hippies had gone on a shoplifting spree through Vegas and the Sunset Strip. The music might seem a little basic these days, but it's also timeless, hitting climaxes like the wah-wah smothered lead bridge of "Thunder Kiss '65" over that unforgettable, evil groove. Sean Yseult's bass lines were nothing too special, but they have a good flow to them, and their audible presence in the recording helps to fatten up Jay Yuenger's rhythms which aren't all that leaden or heavy by themselves, ranging between slow to mid-paced heavy/thrashing to a semi-sludge sensibility with a slightly neutered production.

Ivan de Prume's also play an enormous role, steady rock beats pepped up with lots of cymbals and a feel like he's smacking his kit on the back of a pickup truck rolling down a highway, but if there's any real star here it has to be Zombie, truly establishing the syllabic and thematic blueprints he would stick to all through his successive solo career, a voice that feels like a posse of enraged bayou hunters on the trail of a runaway drug addicts. Harsh and goofy in equal measures, howling with sustain where a verse or chorus calls for it, but delivered with an almost funky pace and inflection, as if he were a reincarnation of James Brown that had watched too many John Carpenter flicks as a child and abused every substance available. His range is admittedly limited to a few notes and verse patterns that he uses over, and over, and over, but there are so few front men I can think of who leave who could leave such an immediate impression (for better or worse). Maybe Jet from Boston thrash hardcore locals SamBlackChurch, who was even more schizo in delivery, but on the world stage?

This really felt like something new had shown up. Even the way the lyrics channel these old racing films and horror concepts (like Richard Matheson's I Am Legend which is paid tribute by a tune of the same name), it seems so stream-of-conscious and lovably absurd, barked out beat poetry, heavily threaded with Zombie's timely uses of 'fucker' and 'motherfucker' and 'YEAH!' The lyrics in tunes like "Cosmic Monsters, Inc." and "Starface" are just incredible. The tough part is deciding whether I like this album or Astro-Creep 2000 better. That feels like a heavier and more existential experience, with some really surprising moments, where this is the more low-down, cheesy and amusing, the real catalyst for Rob's career in both music and as a film director. I can't be the only person who was getting psychic flashbacks to the songs on this record the first time I watched The Devil's Rejects, and even when screening the more recent, mixed-bag that is 31, I was mentally referencing this shit. I don't listen to this in full as much anymore, but it was a good time then, it's a good time now. La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 is just one of those metal anomalies whose shadow I am fortunate to get to stand in from time to time, especially around Halloween.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (you shook the devil's dig deep hand today)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Temple of Void - Of Terror and the Supernatural (2014)

Death/doom of the variety played by Temple of Void always seems to be a highly lauded niche in the wider metal medium, but I'd be lying to say that I'd heard many bands coming along over this last decade who do anything truly unique or interesting with the style. As cool as it looks, Of Terror and the Supernatural is not quite an exception to that cycle of aesthetic repetition, but that's really one of the only complaints I could launch against it, because this is a confident, consistent debut with enormous production that should resonate off the walls and vaulted ceilings of whatever ancient ruined structure it transports you to. What might have turned out to be another dreary, dull and redundant collection of growls and vapid chord progressions is instead something measurably more.

You'll pick up a whiff of the early British forebears of this style, particular a Paradise Lost or My Dying Bride circa the earlier 90s, especially in how the use of simple melodies serves as bleak lamentations over the rhythms beneath, but at the same time I felt like this band was traveling in a more purely old school, slower paced death metal direction akin to Bolt Thrower or Asphyx. The popular band Hooded Menace would be a more direct comparison, but Temple of Void seems a lot more solemn and serious than those Finns were, at least on their first few albums. They also seem to sidestep the more cavernous equations of so many of their peers today; you can draw a few lines to an Incantation, but these guys aren't quite so churning and dynamic. You could play the shit out of this in some underground warren, but it's far more about patience and developing each track to sound so huge, and it needs to be played out to some dark, brooding sky.

Simple, open chord or chugging sequences are accented by glazes of dour melodies, and a guttural vocal perfection that is mixed to perfection. Sure, the delivery can grow a little monotonous, but the levels of reverb against the other instruments are simply amazing, and once it cedes into a pair of gloomy harmonies you really get nailed with the full, doomed potency of the performance. That Temple of Void are so unafraid to use leads, or other melodic details like the organs and synths, is a huge part of why I was engaged throughout the entire 50 minutes of the experience, and in some instances, like the instrumental "To Carry This Corpse Evermore", they'll go even further, with an acoustic folk piece that feels, in its own way, just as massive as the heavier chunks of the material. Bass is kept at a solid level, and while the drums mete out the simpler beats you usually come to associate with the death/doom or funeral doom styles, they're another well produced component that adds a good level of power, splash and gravity to the procession.

Musically, it doesn't feel quite as creepy as the excellent Bruce Pennington cover art or the album title would suggest, but certainly morbid and sorrow-spun in the wake of its growl-doom ancestors. By giving the riffs and melodies space to breathe, and not stocking up too highly on dissonance, they help crack open the imagination to those dank, shadowy corners it might have not visited since those formative 90s. Most of the chills will come through the lyrics, which are well penned to cover their classic scare subjects, like lycanthropy, undeath, and hopeless isolation, with maybe a little cosmic horror lurking through the eaves. Of Terror and the Supernatural took me a few listens to really digest and appreciate, not because it isn't immediately accessible, but just because it's not the easiest mood for me to attain in my increasingly hectic family and social life. Once I did, it was like a cold win blew out the sun like a candle, and I felt like I were experiencing it from the vantage point of a stone coffin. A strong, if not highly original debut here, and I'm eager to check out the follow-up.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (you too have died)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Exhumed - Death Revenge (2017)

Innovation is an unlikely event at this point in the trajectory of California's Carcass-inspired death-grinders Exhumed, but I'm not sure if it's even needed. If they can consistently deliver the goods like they have with their 6th full-length (discounting the comps and re-recording of Gore Metal), and sound like they're having a whole lot of fucking fun doing so, then I just don't see myself growing the least bit bored listening to it. This is not a band which has ever let me down, not to say that all their records have been equivalent with one another in quality, but there isn't one among them that I'd put on and not enjoy to some extent. Having said that, Death Revenge is the most entertainment I've had since Anatomy is Destiny in 2003, and it wisely carries forward a lot of the little permutations they first made on that album to glorious results...

In fact, I think Death Revenge serves as a sort of retrospective of all their output, perhaps never going quite as visceral or heavy as Gore Metal or Slaughtercult, but certainly putting the pedal to the deathgrind and keeping pace with some of their faster canon when it needs to. Much of the writing here is of a mid paced, clinical death/thrashing variety, consistent with Necrocacy and All Guts, No Glory before it, very heavily focused on eking out memorable riff patterns and then splattering them with all manner of wailing, amusing heavy metal leads. Exhumed started to take on a more melodic quality on that third album which they've maintained, and it simply adds so much more variety then had they just kept channeling Symphonies of Sickness or Necroticism. They never quite go full on heavy metal or rock & roll like their inspirations did as the 90s wore on, but keep the progressions punchy and intricate, with lots of flash and flair, as in cuts like "Defenders of the Grave" and "Dead End", busy and kinetic enough to mask the fact that you've probably heard most of these riffs before, and not afraid to splay you out with the meatsaw blasting when it fits.

The mix is clean and balanced, maybe a little too dry or polished in places, but to make up for that it delivers clarity between the rhythms, leads, percussion, snarls and gutturals, even the bass as it pops and plunks and thunders along, often using a lot of simpler, sustained notes under the kinetic guitars to give the sound a nice roundedness. The leads here are every bit as precise and competent as on a Surgical Steel or At the Gates' At War With Reality; a component of the band that has become so important in that it precludes them just endlessly aping their first two albums, which were much more unhinged in that department. The blasting is furious enough to balance off against the headbanging mid-speeds and breakdowns. What's more, there are lots of subtle little nods here to thrash and death metal icons of past and present, specifically a few evil Slayer-like progressions or moments where you feel like you've been submerged in some long lost Death track from the late 80s. Lots of details for something that is essentially as straightforward as past outings.

Furthermore, this is just aesthetically satisfying, with an orchestrated, cinematic piano/synth/string intro well worthy of horror classics in the 70s and 80s, reaching a huge crescendo before the bands kicks up the grave dirt and twists your head off in its zombified arms. The artwork choice is really fucking awesome, a folded up poster look from some cult US or Italian cinema which is more than likely gonna involve mobile corpses or some psycho you're not going to want (or get) a second date with. The lyrics are genuinely excellent, with a lot of effort put into them and a lot more elaborate prose than your typical gore mavens, a really cool grave robbing theme and narrative set in early 19th century Scotland! All the pieces are in place here, perhaps not for a true classic of the decade, or even a year's end contender, but just an extremely competent, seasoned record that seems rather timeless in its appeal despite the fact that it doesn't have all the best riffs and vocals exactly where you'd want to shove them. I even kind dug the cover of Exodus "A Lesson in Violence", if only because it was cool to hear them try some blasting and Schuldiner-like growls in it, instead of copying it straight up.

Just a great album for applying your Halloween prosthetics, or kicking back some drinks while you wait for your buds to show up for a slasher marathon. Easily recommended to fans of Impaled, early 90s Carcass, Ghoul, Ex Dementia or the last three records by this very band, Death Revenge proves yet again that Exhumed is one of our very best, dependable American death metal acts, where so many of its peers and precursors flicker, falter and occasionally fuck right off.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (Child of the grave in name and fact)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Force of Evil - Black Empire (2005)

Force of Evil was a project I had pretty high hopes for back when it was active, largely because I hadn't been truly satisfied with a lot of the later Mercyful Fate and King Diamond material, save for 9 and the Abigail sequel, so hearing a 'supergroup' that would bark up that same, twisted tree was promising. That the project was almost entirely comprised of alumni from those two Danish greats was an even greater reason to be excited...Denner. Shermann. Patino, and Holm. Three of those names I'd follow off a cliff, even with the possibility of impending disaster. Well, Black Empire is not quite a disaster, and superior to the eponymous record from 2003, but it does have one obstacle in vocalist Martin Steene that it can never seem to shake...

I'm not saying Martin Steene performs poorly here, this is a guy with more than capable lungs who simply seems to lack focus. When he's on point, as he is occasionally in his mainstay Iron Fire, he delivers a kinetic, frilly, unique pitch that might have distinguished him among the crowded Euro power field. I just think he goofs off too much, or he goes overboard, attempt to ape a lot of different vocal styles and exhibit his range, and some times the screams get a little try-hard when he's going full King Diamond or Ripper Owens mode, which is unnecessary over a lot of this music. I get that he's got the Mercyful Fate guys in the band, and maybe there was a particular set of expectations that this was some sort of proxy for them, but Black Empire only really comes together when he's just absorbing the music and complementing it with his mid-range and pacing, whereas on tunes like the titular opening he's just all over the place trying to develop a more orchestrated, schizophrenic performance that just loses me entirely. This happens on roughly 50% of the album.

Vocals aside, the music here is generally consistent, varied and interesting enough that the listener's attention won't lapse too long. There is a good deal of straight-ahead, mid-paced Germanic power metal rocking, mixed with a lot of the dingier, haunted grooves of the Shermann/Denner team that one would have come to expect from 90s Mercyful Fate fare like In the Shadows or Time. A lot of cool, cleaner guitars and audible bass hooks (like in "Days of Damien") help to round off the metal edge, and you can tell the band put a lot of thought into their choices, attempting to find a common ground between that reunion Fate era, and Steene's own band. However, while the music is well enough written, I often found that the grooves lacked the atmosphere and memorable chords that were so important on much of In the Shadows, replacing those traits with a more modern polish that doesn't do much for me. When they pick up the pacing towards power metal, the riffs also just seem to fly by without sticking to me.

The production sounds great, even when Steene is performing his theatrics, the tone of the rhythm guitars has a nice, clear cut to it that beautifully sets up the leads, and allows the drumming and the bass to hover through. The songs are all paeans to various horror stories or films, and they don't just stick with the safer choices either...Damien and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are paid tribute, but there are also tracks here devoted to movies like Candyman or In the Mouth of Madness, to name a few. "Disciples of the King" is just dedicated to Stephen King in general. Heavy metal and horror movies have had a relationship for all the decades they've existed together, but I often find that the music just feels too bright and glorious to truly convey the themes expressed in the lyrics. Like those other Danish legends which supplied the band's lineup, Force of Evil does focus a little on getting this right, with mixed results...the moodier sequences with the cleaner guitars are quite well done, but often erupt into lackluster melodies and riffs.

The cover art also looks pretty hot, but I'm not sure that it has much to do with the music. A pretty package, all told, but not really living up to its potential. With all the great Fate albums between Denner and Shermann, this one doesn't hold a lot of appeal, not even against the middling Dead Again. Or if you'd like to see more hard hitting material from the duo, their latest collaboration for the album Masters of Evil has better riffing than what you'll find on the two Force full-lengths. This is far more than a trainwreck, committed to its subject matter, and competently executed, it just doesn't add up to something I've ever wanted to listen to repeatedly.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (it's a long walk in the dark)

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mystic Circle - Damien (2002)

Mystic Circle had a fairly substantial career, starting in 1992, as one of Germany's earlier black metal acts, and dropping a number of albums on fairly visible labels like Last Episode, Massacre and eventually Dockyard 1 for their swan song. Through this period, their progress ran parallel to the rise of black metal to its mid-90s popularity, but they were often critiqued of having a lot of vapid and unmemorable records that were lost in the shuffle of the genre's explosion and subsequent over-saturation during that era. That said, as you'll hear on this or a number of their other albums, it was not for lack of trying, because these guys hit fairly hard and maintain a level of consistency that suffers only through its lack of any real distinction; nothing that really stood out against their peers from the Scandinavian countries; nothing unique like what you'd hear from the Greeks, Czechs, French, etc.

Damien, it should be said, is one of their stronger, more intense efforts, and like on a number of their other albums, they're quite capable of grabbing a concept from either horror or the occult and then committing to painting it into a tempestuous landscape. This record features a lot of traits which you would expect from any album celebrating our favorite Satanic love-child, from the organs and synths that lend it a sacrilegious shade, to some evil, thundering black metal which makes you feel as if you're being torn apart by demon-driven attack dogs. Mystic Circle were a band often heralded as a Teutonic alternative to a Cradle of Filth or Dimmu Borgir, and this comparison does hold for this particular album, which threads a lot of leads and keys in with its rhythm guitar riffing, and a heavily symphonic structure and bombast, though they don't layer that on too thick, and permit the intensity of the blasting, chugging and chord patterns control the tempo, which ultimately gives this disc a slightly different feel than those more popular acts.

This album really has a pummeling, forceful low end to it created by the grimy tone of the rhythm guitar, which seems to hone in on the bottom strings rather than the cold, razor-tinted chords that thrive among the many traditional black metal acts. It's almost like a death metal battery at points, but glazed over with the snarled vocals, thickly embedded synthesizers and slightly audible spurts of shredding guitars that give it a nice, frantic effect. A great example of this is "God is Dead, Satan Arise" which beat me to a pulp, even if it doesn't escalate into anything truly unforgettable. There is a slight monotony to the album in that so much of it seems to consist of the same, tirelessly thundering pace with only small variations in the note pickings, synth lines and vocal patterns, but when it gels together it really is something you can feel in your gut. A more visceral and brutal aesthetic than you might expect from the climbing, almost operatic evil of The Omen itself, but lyrically this album is more of a direct invocation to some Satanic apocalypse, and uses the film as an inspiration towards that end rather than a strict narrative outline.

The intro and interlude pieces are brooding, and lovingly cheesy, with deeper string sounds and then flurries of chiming dissonance. They merge pretty well with the bulkier disposition of the guitars. I doubt there are even a half dozen riffs throughout the album that stick to my memory, and some are painfully generic and predictable, but many others are at least smooth and sinister enough that they are engaging for the ears to follow. It's a textbook 'solid' sort of album, which I can still listen through 15 years later and enjoy to an extent, but would rarely choose it over those examples of its genre which I find preferably inspired or original. If anything, it's evidence enough that these Germans could perform, and in better times might have spread greater ripples were there just not so much competition overshadowing them. A moot point, now that they've been broken up for nearly a decade, but in some alternate universe I wouldn't be surprised to see Mystic Circle clinging on to some esteemed veteran status, having survived the backlash against the more mainstream side of the black metal spectrum and garnered respect from even the lowliest heckling cellar trolls.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (even now he's in the world)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ex Dementia - Crack the Coffin (2017)

Crack the Coffin is a record that honestly surprised me, not that I had any doubt as to Ex Dementia's musical ability, but because it's just so well written, accessible and fun for its style that I'm shocked it isn't being spoken about more, or at least being released officially through a label. Whether or not you're into its style is a matter of personal taste, but this is an album that can easily insert itself into a cross-section of metal audiences who will appreciate it for the level of clarity, catchy riffs and leads, and adherence to the themes offered through its colorful comic book artwork that will instantly draw your attention if you're into classic horror graphics ranging from the Marvel and DC magazines of decades gone, Rob Zombie animations or even the Mignola-verse of Hellboy and company.

Yet the music is even better. Some will brand this melodic death metal, and that's not an invalid label at all, but unlike a lot of music of that medium its components are more clearly extricable from the typical morass of genre-smash ups. The rhythm guitars are almost entirely thrash metal based, and smothered in tasteful, rock star lead work that constantly ramps up the excitement level while not leeching away from any perceived punch of heaviness. The exceptions are tremolo picked passages or chord selections more reminiscent of thrash's evolution into the formative, Floridian style of death metal, in particular the first few Death records, only the production here isn't quite so abrasive or raw. You'll get a pretty wide variety of riffs, from straight up Exodus neck-bangers, to faster palm muted thrusts and eerie melodies that were highly redolent of the pair-up of Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick over the classic Testament discography. Where it gets grimier and more intense it can verge of the Carcass-fed death metal style that bands like Ghoul, Impaled and Exhumed worship, but the mix is just so clean that it doesn't aesthetically feel too much like any of those.

The majority of its death metal element centers on the vocals, an entertaining guttural which is often slathered in snarled or growled 'harmonizing', again in that age-old grind-borne Carcass camp, or akin to Deicide in places. However, while sustained in spots, the vocal patterns are more punctuated, coming off like a mix of David Vincent, Max Cavalera and the front men to the thrash acts I had previously mentioned. At any rate, they never feel lazy or sloppy, but precisely plotted to give the riffs a maximum of amusing impact and to balance off against the slew of leads. Speaking of which, these are almost to the point of transforming Crack the Coffin into a 'guitar hero' sort of record, not because they're glaringly original or innovative, but because they clearly show an influence from bands like Megadeth, or again, Testament, who always emphasized the importance of this to their own classic compositions. At no point do they feel wanky and excessive, but they're obviously a huge part of this record, even more so than when bands like Carcass or Impaled would use them.

The drums sound great, mixed for adept heaviness, and the bass guitar is fat and audible plodding alongside the neck straining guitars on tunes like "Splattervision Channel 3". The introduction to the album, "Trials and Exhumations", opens with a great horror-style intro that's obviously a play on the classic like Carpenter's Halloween theme, only enriched once it transforms into melodic guitars, not unlike something the Swedish band Raise Hell would do. The cover of the Misfits' "Skulls" is a bit bland, but only because it's much the same as the original, with the vocals changed to growls, but little other metalization, something I'm always fond of hearing on these sorts of tributes. Thankfully that's just the end of the record, and the 22 short and sweet moments leading up to it are incredibly consistent, engaging and well worth your time if you're into the sort of stuff I've compared it to, or you just want a fun Halloween thrashing with death metal tendencies. Prior albums were far from slouches, but this kicks The Red Mass in the pants, indicative that the eight years since that time were put to great use as these Jersey boys honed their chops.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cardiac Arrest - Cadaverous Presence (2008)

Cardiac Arrest is another of those hard working Midwestern acts which never seems to quite catch a break or generate a ton of buzz despite being capable at its craft. While they've never really put out anything that blew me away, records like Haven for the Insane and Vortex of Violence have been serviceable, competent and entertaining old school death metal platters that stand out to me mostly because they pursue a style that is simply not heard too often in the realm of brutastic boor-wankers, Dismember addicts, cavern core drillers and Floridian acolytes. Instead, they've got a sound strikingly reminiscent of English death and grind circa early Carcass and Bolt Thrower, perhaps with a little Repulsion in there and a whole lot of horror influence rather than songs about medical processes or Warhammer.

When I say 'reminiscent', I don't mean that they completely ape those bands' tones, but rather feel like a parallel, North American development to them, with some similarities in riff construction, chord choices, and pacing. For example, the instrumental intro, "The Inevitable" sounds a hell of a lot like something you'd hear Karl Willetts growling over, a slow and churning piece with groovier drums that almost can't support the fuzzed out rhythm guitar tone. The title track definitely has a couple of roiling riffs, as in the bridge breakdown, which would have fit right in on Symphonies of Sickness, though they also break out into a lot less distinct grinding and blasting, faster patterns that are in the Morbid Angel camp, and then some leads whipping their tendrils about that feel a bit aimless but not out of place. You can hear traces of a few other influences in here, like old Pestilence or maybe even the first Entombed record, but that constant grinding to grooving ratio evokes a whole lot of the Earache camp circa the late 80s or early 90s, which is surely a nostalgia trigger.

As for production standards, this is naturally a little weaker than the records to come after it, with the drums a little weak in the mix to support that excessively fuzzy guitar tone. Combined with the distortion levels on the bass, this is where part of the Repulsion comparison comes in, and you could make an argument that Cadaverous Presence is a more dynamic alternative to Horrified, those dynamics taking the form of the riffs and progressions which sound like the other bands I've brought up. This is ugly, hostile and ultimately punishing, with just barely enough polish to place it beyond the live or rehearsal category of recording. But, at the same time, that actually lends it some character and forces the listener into a more terrifying, grotesque dimension in which they've got to earn their appreciation a little more. The range of riffs, which aren't terribly catchy on an individual basis, is another strong point, since it's interesting and varied enough to prevent this from being some slog saved only by its disgusting tones.

Alas, that's not to say I think this is an album as good as those to follow it. The gutturals are rather monotonous and sound more like your average brutal death frontman, both in tone and the patterns of syllables being belched out. Half the riffs are exciting, the others are entirely forgettable, while the balance of the guitars and drums doesn't exactly allow them to properly complement one another. Apart from the sheer visceral nature of the music, the titles and artwork, there is very little here that rises above the horror level of your average slasher. That said, its truly fuzzy and abusive nature will certainly appeal to some that miss when death and grind bands reveled in raw production, and there are least the inklings and intentions of cool songwriting ideas buried across its twisted, fleshy canvas.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Friday, September 29, 2017

Horrific - Your Worst Nightmare (2009)

Many will recognize Slasher Dave immediately from his more visible band Acid Witch, a cool mash-up of death, doom and marijuana haze with a heavy lyrical emphasis on the horror genre. However, that wasn't Dave's only ticket to the creature feature, as he put together this very short-lived pet project called Horrific, which dropped an album on Razorback just a little after Witchtanic Hellucinations was unleashed. Your Worst Nightmare is a perfectly appropriate album to populate the basement of that label, a love letter to the camp and sleeze and nostalgia of the horror genre, for folks who loved flicks with really bad monsters, serial killers using signature items like guitars with drills on them, or whatever kept you up late at night watching cable TV throughout the 80s.

The style here is a departure from his mainstay, fueled heavily by rock & roll and barebones late 80s death metal, and yet rarely at all sounding like the Swedish 'death & roll' scene spearheaded by acts like Entombed or Desultory. The death metal element comes directly through the raunchy growls, carrion snarls and a few of the riffing selections that might burst into a tremolo picked passage, a few evil chords or a wailing, unhinged lead, whereas the rest of the material is purely 3-5 chord driven punk or rock rendered a little heavier just by nature of the vocal style and the genre Slasher is used to playing in. Guitars and straightforward, with a functional, sometimes boxy tone to the rhythms. The bass is a bit of a nonentity in the mix, and the drums are your basic rock and roll pace with perhaps a little added splash to support the weight of the vocals, which are overall the most prominent force across the album, matched only by the leads. A little bit of reverb on the growling so it occupies a cavernous plane slightly above the mix of the instruments, and Dave will apply snarls or weirder growling sustains just to give their presence more character.

This record has a lot of spunk to it and it's fairly fun to listen to, but most of the riff construction is entirely too generic. There are exceptions, tunes like "The Ultimate Sacrifyx" and "Orgy of the Bloody Parasites" which had moments that rocked my face off, but I feel like a little more creativity would have gone a long way towards what is otherwise an inoffensive, charming, nostalgic effort. The production seems a little dry, perhaps not due to the isolated instrument tones but just how they're all brought together, and a little more variation and dynamic range to the drums and bass guitar would make it feel more like a raucous stereo attack. The album has a few less riotous moments where the guitars are used to build more mood as in "Metal Cemetary", one of the other better tunes, so it does do the service of avoiding monotony, and the shit kicking punked out parts, as predictable as they seem, don't lack for energy, especially where the leads are applied.

Slasher Dave's head was in the right place here...with cool titles that pay tribute to some great horror cheese, and lyrics that, while almost painfully simple, really stick to the graveyard partying and a paean to playing metal and horror itself, with colorful poetry like 'Zombie fuck freaks attack!' He doesn't dress it all up with a bunch of samples or incidental horror music bits, or tackier synthesizers, not that these are things that couldn't work in conjunction with the stripped down rocking, but this is Guitar Driven 101 metal devoted to partying, killing, and spooking. It's not as good as Acid Witch, and so it makes sense that this project would evaporate while the other persisted, but if you're in the mood for stuff like Ghoul or Frightmare but simpler, it might fit the bill.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (absorb the carnage collages)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Nightshade - Autumnal Equinox (2008)

The biggest crime committed by Autumnal Equinox is that it's just so aesthetically scatterbrained, where from appearances alone it looks like it could have been a fun, campy Halloween metal romp which capitalized on the cheesiness of its themes. Essentially a one-off project by Rick Scythe, who you might know from the Midwest black death metal legends Usurper, and more recently the decent black thrash outfit of his namesake, Scythe; with a couple of his friends, and a drum machine, Nightshade seems like a primitive array of beats programmed to support over-saturated guitars and a mix of vocals that range from his nastier, familiar snarls to a deep Gothic timbre reminiscent of Andrew Eldritch and Peter Steele.

Stylistically it ranges from thrash to heavy metal, to punk riffs that recall The Misfits only clad in a heavier level of distortion and feeling too inorganic because of the drums. Although they lack the distinction that a few threads of Goth rock melody or unpredictable dissonance would give them, the rhythm guitars aren't written all that poorly, only configured into patterns you've heard before that aren't really enhanced or complemented by what's happening around them. The deep, clean vocals are effective enough for that style, but in several of the verse lines or choruses it almost seems like the band is letting us in on the joke, as they become increasingly goofy. Granted, there is no possibility a listener is bound to take Autumnal Equinox seriously. It's meant as a fun recording, but the lyrical content, samples, titles and so forth aren't actually that amusing or even sarcastically humorous, and the cleaner vocals come off like barely intelligible mumbling across half the songs.

It's a strange mix, and frankly if I didn't look at the date it was released out through Sempiternal Productions, I'd have thought it was some bizarre drunken bedroom reel from sometime in the 90s I had stumbled across, so it seems a little displaced from an era where it might actually feel like a lovably bad, sarcastic success. The song titles with subjects like "Midnight, Down in the Lab", "13 Spiders", "It Lives in the Lake" and "October's Scarecrow" all sound like they could be pretty entertaining if they adorned some fun horror punk songs, or even campy death metal like the sort put out by bands like Crypticus and Ghoul, but there's just not enough 'theme' dripping through them, despite the limited use of samples, haunted house keys, etc. The metal aspect of the record seems to be its driving force, but at best the riffs and drum machine make it sound like scraps from the cutting room floor of a Ministry or Rob Zombie record from nearly 20 years ago.

I can't hate on it all that much. It doesn't seem to be intended as anything more than an oddity, I've heard worse, and Rick Scythe seems like a genuine guy with some great material in Usurper and Scythe, just kind of screwing around here. Much of the disappointment for me comes by the aforementioned lack of focus, and because...just look at it. The crones on the cover with the dorky fonts look pretty entertaining, and the music that ends up on the album just isn't anywhere near that...imagine it were a fun Goth metal record with a huge kitschy influence from old punk and rockabilly, or just a really cheesy, awesome horror speed metal record from when they took cover photos like this.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]