Friday, September 22, 2017

Witch - Salem's Rise (1985)

There are obscurities and then there are OBSCURITIES, and being printed in a limited run of a hundred copies on a US imprint that, so far as I can tell, existed only to promote this band and a solo release from one of its members, Salem's Rise is unlikely to exist in its corporeal form for a few friends, family members, and perhaps a tiny pool of hardcore collectors and heavy metal fans that dug it up somewhere. No, it's far more probable that to experience this sole work of Ohio's Witch, not to be confused with California's Witch, or the Dinosaur Jr. spin-off Witch, you'll have had to run across it online like the rest of us schlubs. Now, whether or not this debut even deserves a cursory listen via the intertrons is debatable...

In fairness, this record is a lot less crude than I thought it would be from looking at it. That's not to say that I hate its cover artwork, as it exudes a certain type of base nostalgia and charm around this time of year; but there's no denying that it looks like a high school project; the wispier hair of its subject almost at odds with the finer detail of its eyes and eyebrows, I am almost reminded of DC's Klarion the Witch Boy character if he were a little older, high and paranoid off a fat spliff, and having a disagreeable hair day. But it's got the pentagram straight in the bottom center, the primitive logo and title which look like they were some attempt at stenciling an old English font, and perhaps its most important detail, the Eargasm Productions iconography in its bottom left corner. Ugly as sin, indeed, but all things considered, transports me back to a time in which I'd scribble and color witches and warlocks from my 1st edition AD&D adventures into my notebooks, which, coincidentally, was around the same time this album dropped.

Musically, I was fairly impressed by how polished Salem's Rise is sounding, especially when you consider the limited resources and distribution, and lower budget that must have gone into this. The guitar tone is clear and workmanlike, the bass-lines throbbing and evident, and the percussion has a nice, old school sound to it which pops along with the rhythm guitars. Leads are simple but chosen well, and just bright enough to remain distinct from the backdrop. Vocals are well represented in the mix, and in strict adherence to the practices of their era, placed much in the forefront of the album, especially when you consider that they are hands down the weakest component of the recording. At best, you're getting blue collar, bar-band level quality which wouldn't have stood a chance in hell against the charismatic greats of the 80s, but even prove lackluster in terms of honest hometown, homegrown heavy metal, a mid-range, ambition-less delivery which becomes all the goofier when the singer 'Ace' tries to pitch out a few screams. He's not particularly terrible, and certainly knows how to frame a chorus, but he's just never interesting enough to remember here.

Another flaw on the recording is in its mild stylistic consistencies. Much of the music is a laid back heavy metal or hard rock style redolent of Judas Priest, Steppenwolf and Accept, if lacking the punch and power of the band's precursors. Occasionally, though, some sleazier, lame duck rock groove pollutes the tracks as in "Beckon", which is also one of the tunes where the vocals are experimented with a lot more and sound corny as hell, especially where he seems a little unable to finish hitting the pitch while belting out the song title in the chorus. They also experiment with a little of the proggy synths circa early Ozzy, as on "Will I See You Tonight", but once again the music is spoiled by the higher pitched vocals whose reach cannot exceed their grasp. Salem's Rise is the sound of a band just getting its feet wet, not quite positive where it's going to end up, and there's a lack of confidence and delivery that drag it well below the hidden gem category, not to mention that, even at their most functional, the riffs are just nothing special whatsoever in a year which produced works like Metal Heart, Branded & Exiled, Walls of Jericho and The Specter Within.

I was drawn to check out the record years ago by its potential theme, however, since I'm a huge fan of cult horror, and the band definitely seems to share this passion with anthems of monsters, mythology, and black magic, with subjects ranging from "Loki" and "Lady Medusa" to "Teen of Darkness" and the title track. The bad new is that, beyond the titles and lyrics and the fact that it's heavy metal in the first place, it just doesn't cultivate these topics well enough, or the vocals are just so vapid in their delivery that they ruin the rest, such as the peppy doom grooves of "Salem's Rise" itself, or the pitch issues in closer "Something Evil", which otherwise is perhaps the strongest song on the album. It's never capable of cashing in on its nostalgia with creepy melodies or atmospheres, or evil sounding lyrical lines, and ultimately there's just so little point to listening to when I could just spin Fatal Portrait or Love You to Pieces for the millionth time each and be infinitely more engaged.

Witch was not complete garbage, though, and there are clearly dreams, ideas, and riffs here which with further molding and a better front man might have developed into something cult. There are thousands of such records out there by bands who met for a couple years, in a garage, in a basement, in an attic loft, a studio space, and riffed out some heavy fucking metal, smoked and drinked, played for their friends, their ladies, their dudes, and lived it...if just for a little while, during the Golden Age of the medium. And, whatever their flaws, whatever hurdle they couldn't leap, you can't ever take that away from them. Why would you?

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Entrench - Through the Walls of Flesh (2017)

The first Entrench record, Inevitable Decay, was this awesome slab of Teutonic-infused thrashing nastiness out of Sweden that really impressed me across a score or more of spins, but sort of fell out of my rotation for whatever reason as I was exploring a lot more throwbacks into the whole blackened speed/thrash style, which one might argue they were bordering on the periphery of, including the amazing Antichrist and their debut stunner Forbidden World. Its follow-up Violent Procreation was likewise pretty solid, but didn't seem to get much buzz, and I didn't listen to it quite as much as its predecessor. Forward to 2017, and now Entrench are on the same label as Antichrist (I Hate records), and still spitting out some of the more vitriolic, sincere, atmospheric stuff in this category.

It's hardly novel, it's not without  its flaws, but Through the Walls of Flesh is very enjoyable, hearkening back to that European proto-thrash that developed in both response and accordance with the West Coast US emergence of Slayer and Possessed. We're not talking a shallow knockoff of Pleasure to Kill or Sentence of Death here. There is a degree of that, but Entrench do a damn good job of giving it a fulfilling treatment so that it's something you might not IGNORE in lieu of its influences, but actually want to experience alongside them. Barbaric, fast paced tremolo picking is the go-to, but they keep these rhythm guitars interesting enough, bloodied and fresh even when the style itself seems highly redundant to a hundred tracks you've already heard. Fredrick Pellbrink also has this really caustic, nihilistic bark to him that works extremely well as it navigators the dirtnap inducing speed and volatile instrumentation, like an evil Swedish Razor. He's like an unholy amalgamation of Ron Rineheart (Dark Angel), Ron Royce (Coroner) and Tom Araya, and without him the music might lose some of its sense of immediacy and anger, which is impressive since he's also the guitarist...

I also like the little touches of proto-death metal that rear their primal, ugly heads here in tunes like "Enter the Fray" or "Iron Coffin", channeling a little of the early Death circa "Pull the Plug". The drums are just a raging force throughout the record, driving and blasting with ample thunder, while the bass guitar peals along pretty well so you can hear it right along the rhythm tracks. There's a whole lot of hellish 'hustle' when the pacing picks up, like you're being trampled by a herd of abyssal bulls being driven away from their demonic wranglers, for fear of their damned afterlives. Lots of flavorful, evil little licks here that will thrill fans of Antichrist or Deathhammer, and the leads are well-structured to complement the rhythm guitar riffs while adding just the proper level of escape and atmosphere that elevate the music into a total package. I'm not saying that everything here is equally memorable, but Entrench is another band who seem like they're really on the level, cognizant of where they come from, and translating their influences into something that is still vile, resonant and worthwhile even in 2017, rather than the vapid indistinct pizza thrashing of lesser scum. Good stuff here; I think Inevitable Decay remains my favorite, but this one certainly lives up to its legacy.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Darkthrone - Arctic Thunder (2016)

I've gotten at least a half dozen queries over the last nine months as to why I hadn't reviewed Darkthrone's Arctic Thunder, as I've always been so adamant on covering the rest of the Norwegians' output in the past. The answer to that is I just haven't wanted to admit to myself, or in any kind of official capacity to the public, that one of my favorite bands in the world, who I've consistently lauded for decades, from the traditional sound they are best known for, to the constant subgenre-hopping of their more recent work, had finally released a record...that, well...I didn't really like. Now, previous to this, I would have touted their prior full-length The Underground Resistance as my least favorite of their studio efforts, but at least with that one, I can say I love half the songs entirely, and the other half just had a few flaws which marred them. Arctic Thunder, on the other hand, doesn't inspire me in the slightest...and it's taken me this long to really hash out why, to go back and give it those many chances to prove itself, to find out what I'd been 'missing', which is something rare in my listening. Oh, it happens, just not terribly often.

Now, let me qualify that this is by no means a trainwreck of an album, and it possesses most of the hallmarks of what we come to expect from their sound. Simplistic songwriting, with 4-5 minute long songs, only a few riffs in each. Slightly more introspective interesting lyrics than you'd be expecting from your garden variety trad black metal, though nowhere near the band's most poignant, strange or whimsical. The production, while clean, is kept fairly raw, with the trashy but effective driving rock drums, the sincere but sinister guitar tones, and Nocturno Culto's unmistakable, potent rasping bark that is as fit as you've ever heard it, whether in short syllabic bursts or the more sustained growls that drift over the primacy of the riffing. Style-wise, we're no longer hearing some exploration into a new segment of traditional metal. No novelty speed, punk, thrash, doom, heavy metal, with the exception of how those niches' already intersect instrumentally or thematically, or how they've already appeared in the band's canon (the title track being a great example of this, with a heavy/black metal feel). This seems most intensively like a retrospective of the black and death roots the band was tugging at back in the early 90s, both as a warmup for their debut Soulside Journey and the raw, rustic black of their first few forays into that genre, then CHANNELED into the newer styles. The very narrow and minimalist range of chord progressions is highly reminiscent of stuff like Hellhammer, which so informed their earlier songwriting.

It looks inviting, with the dark woodland and sky, the fire crackling away, the logo displayed much as it was on Total Death, which once stood out for having the color artwork rather than the newsprint grimness. But this Arctic feels like it's populated by only the driest ice, the songs seem put together in the safest and least adventurous ways possible. It's not the first time I might have described one of their albums that way, mind you, but there was a particular darkness, novelty, and menace to older discs like Panzerfaust or Ravishing Grimness which immortalized them to my brain. Here, it seems like a couple of guys sitting around a campfire, dredging up memories of cutting room floor tunes that were a little too dull to incorporate on prior full-lengths, and then deciding to assemble them into one retrospective of work. All the pieces are functional, operate fluidly through the course of the disc, but just never manifest into truly worthwhile tracks. I often felt a little 'faked out', too, like in the tune "Throw Me Through the Marshes" where you get that cool, simple groove of the verse, but then it just never seemed as if it was capitalized on...the song doesn't effectively escalate beyond that point.

I probably liked the style on "Arctic Thunder" and "The Wyoming Distance" the most, if mainly because I liked how that blackened epic heavy metal chugging bore the bulk of NC's vocals, giving it the sickest, coolest contrast, but even there it seemed like the bridge sections needed something more to them to make them more compelling. Most of the eight tracks seem like earnest attempts at 'one hook' wonders, but those solitary hooks are simply not memorable enough themselves to unlock that achievement. To me, it really did feel like these were all just sort of assembled from scraps of ideas that weren't strong enough to appear elsewhere, and rather than 40 minutes of killer, we get about 30 minutes of filler surrounding the few passable guitars, and the solid vocal performance. Granted, this is still Darkthrone, and that half-hour of median material is something I'd probably listen to over a whole range of other, lesser bands.

Again, this is no disaster. No Diabolicus in Musica. No Load. No Risk. I wouldn't describe it as weak or, even painfully average, but after a dozen attempts to go back and re-invest myself, I can't deny that it's my least favorite of their full-lengths, and unlikely to get a lot of playtime here even compared to Underground Resistance, Plaguewielder, or Goatlord, the albums I would have previously considered on the lower rungs of their studio catalog, which only goes to enforce how summarily smitten I am with the band, because I dig all of those. Arctic Thunder is probably just a fluke for me, a one-off, a record whose specifics just didn't gel with the entertainment center of my brain. Here's hoping...

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (again the moon expires)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Natrium - Vertigo of Abjection (2017)

This is only my first exposure to Italy's Natrium, but they strike me as the sort of medium weight brutal death which more accurately reflects where the sub-genre was headed in the late 90s or earlier 21st century, rather than where it's all ended up now with its clinical wank fests, mechanical deathcore breakdowns, etc. To be more specific, I was feeling some heavy influence from Suffocation and Cannibal Corpse, almost a median between Pierced from Within and Gore Obsessed, with a lot of faster barrages reminiscent of the heavier Floridian hitters, and an exercise in technicality that never sounds like it's simply being flashy or overly indulgent, just a group of guys that know how to play, know how to play hard, and will show you their chops when the writing warrants it.

Don't get me wrong, you can tell by the frenetic picking patterns implicit in tracks like "Vertigo of Abjection" itself that they're capable of some complexity, and they definitely have a lot of stop/start elements and clamorous riffing and percussion patterns that slightly break the formula of their influences, but you're not going to find cheap knuckle-dragging chug-offs, flamboyant and empty arpeggios flitting everywhere, or any cheap tricks whatsoever...this record is about as straightforward a beating as you're like to receive in its style, all punishment going straight through the punctuality and punch of the palm muted guitars, the truly intense dexterity of the drummer, and the deep and functional growls which reminds me quite a lot of Corpsegrinder's lower grunts in how he spits out syllables, as well as Frank Mullen's guttural depth and breadth. Bass is present at some moments more than others, especially when they go for a poppier, funky tone that stands out the most. I also noticed a little more of an interesting dissonance in the rhythm guitars than usual, not so much that it's in the majority of riffs, but enough to keep it a fraction more compelling.

The drawbacks here are few. Sometimes the vocals get monotonous. The riffs, while choppy, busy and varied enough across the eight tracks to keep you from getting bored, are rarely the sort that feel truly evil or threatening, more just a hyperactive, muscular flexing. The only atmosphere here is that of repeatedly taking a piledriver to your cranium, so you're dependent heavily on the tempos at which the guitars are pummeling along, or the busywork behind the kit which almost had my head spinning off, or the sample of Ripley from Alien Resurrection, which you'll find nestled deep at the end of "Inhuman Commodification". It's a truly blue collar, practical sort of brutal death which might lack some of the spastic, relentless, noodling ambition of a Brain Drill, or the jazzy cosmic escapism of a Decrepit Birth, but should pass muster if you've got a lot of fondness for bands like Severe Torture, Gorgasm, Deeds of Flesh, Prostitute Disfigurement, Horde Casket, and so on. Effective if not exemplary, Vertigo could certainly have gained from more leads or dissonant, higher pitched guitars, and some other means to create a creepier atmosphere, with more surprises waiting in ambush, but it's competent enough in terms of sheer concussive capacity.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Vietah - Czornaja ćviĺ (2015)

I've really dug the rural minimalism used on the Vietah covers, and this one, Czornaja ćviĺ ("Black Mold"), might be the strongest of all, with its central figure disintegrating into the titular substance between the graying sky and bleak vegetation surrounding it. I think it truly captures the earnest sadness on exhibition throughout the music, and provides a window into proper melancholic escapism, which is precisely why I turn towards a record like this. It's a little hard to make such a dreary appearance appealing, but I feel this is a case where that works well. As for the rest of the album, it doesn't quite deviate much from its predecessor, but does so with a few key ingredients that actually worked out in its favor.

The structure here is laid out a lot like the previous album, with four lengthy tracks, immediately throwing up the red flags that it's going to be an uphill battle to succeed. The sound is a fairly stock atmospheric black metal, with slower, drawn own chord patterns that speak more of fell majesty and lost longing than they hell and viciousness and savagery, and this has been a hallmark of Vietah for years. Black metal for wanderers. Hermits. Erudites. You don't come here for 666 posturing and photo bombing horns over your friends' heads on social media...this is for psychic sponges that soak up the decay around them and channel it into diabolic grandeur. Antarctis takes his damn time with you and draws you slowly into each invocation, and this time out he does so with a rawer sheen on the guitars than the clarity of the last, an improvement that I acknowledge, even though I wouldn't say that the actual riff quality is far above its predecessor. It's simply a more potent, primeval feel here without sacrificing the other instruments.

Speaking of which, there are more light flourishes of keys here than on the third record, and in mid 90s Burzum way, or Lifelover on Konkurs; they help to add a strange sense of grace to the slogging epic-Bathory pace of the 10+ minute cuts. In fact, Czornaja ćviĺ attains a lot more atmosphere all around. The drums splash a little harder, which fits this rhythm guitar tone better, and the whole mix seems more resonant and resilient, like its crashing off the sides of valleys and peaks before arriving in your ears. The snarled vocals, although still very sparse and minimal, also seem more fluid with their surroundings. The record does have a tendency to focus on very slow, churning, roiling riff patterns, with some of the higher strings struck for ambiance over the chords, and also a little more of that primeval Hellhammer of their older material returns with some of the straight chugged sections. Overall, though, I think it rewards this patience more than on Tajemstvy noczy. Not enough to really justify the longer compositions, but we at least end up with a slightly superior, solid and dependable experience through the murk and fog and depression.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, July 14, 2017

Vietah - Tajemstvy Noczy (2014)

Tajemstvy noczy ('Sacraments of Night') is the third Vietah full-length seeing a vinyl reissue through I Hate records of Sweden, and it continues the Belarusian's solidification into a professional and consistent one-man black metal force, without adding any sort of dramatic mutations or progressions to the style he honed over the earlier albums. Surely, this is the crispest, cleanest of recordings he had released to its point, with a great rhythm guitar mix, audible if subversive bass lines that cling loyally to the procession of chords, and a more subtle but effective use of drums which don't seek to supplant the melodies with brutality, but to remain a driving background element to support them, thus allowing for a more hypnotic, rustic sense to the repetition rather than a thundering blast furnace you expect out of a lot of traditional North European black metal.

Vietah is no stranger to longer tracks, with a handful populating the previous releases, but for this record it's the rule and not the exception...four tunes, 41 minutes, each ranging from 9-12 minutes individually. Now, I've gone over this many times before, that bloating up a song structure is by no means any sort of guarantee for success, and I'll say up front that Tajemstvy noczy suffers a little from this, since the riff composition isn't always so fresh or inventive that it sticks to you, and there are not nearly enough dynamics happening within the bounds of each of these behemoths, nor any sort of meandering randomness, epic ascension/descension, or any other distraction. They remain all too consistent in pacing and in being purely riff-driven works that exist on a dry, level plane, without creating a lot of tension or emotional impact. That's not to say they're all scrap-worthy, since a lot of the guitar patterns are of the caliber you might have expected on an earlier 21st century Satyricon disc, but there's no real escalation here, or any surprise lurking anywhere.

But that's not in itself a massive flaw, since there are points where the album really does work, in particular the closer "Kałyhanka dlja njabožczyka", which is no more complex than the other tunes, but has a much warmer, more addictive flavor to the melodies that most effectively captured the melancholic intentions of the material, and didn't seem to have any sort of lull in my enjoyment. I do feel that Antarctis could work a little more on the range and rasp of his vocals, here they are sparse and workmanlike, not unlike Satyr but less venomous or vibrant; but the songs might be better suited to a protracted sort of scream, or echoed effects that create a greater sense of urgency, suffering or poignancy. As it stands, everything is a little safe and dependable, and that's ultimately the reason I didn't feel like this one was as cold and affecting as its predecessor Smalisty žah. Still, it's a solid effort, and if Vietah can dial up its atmosphere, take a whetstone to its guitar lines, and maintain this level of production, then the next level could really be attained.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Darkthrone - The Wind of 666 Black Hearts (2016)

Do you long for those old tapes of yourself jamming in the garage or basement and laying it all down with a cassette or perhaps even a poorly-implemented 4-track recorder? Are you such a purist that only the rehearsals will do, that every band has officially sold out after its first demo or album? Do you like to hear the roots of black metal with none of the frills, none of the polish, none of the studio wizardry it took to pull off some of the genre's most successful records? The Wind of 666 Black Hearts has a lot of this in mind, and Peaceville Records is banking that enough of you will find at least a collector's item out of these Darkthrone rehearsals over two 12" records, priced reasonably enough as far as these bound-to-be collectibles are vomited out onto the market.

This is the majority of A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Under a Funeral Moon, or at least 10 of their 14 tracks, but in a cruder rehearsal form that lacks some of the frostbitten force you will have come to know from the studio incarnations. Raw, Hellhammer-spawned guitar lines moving at a moderate clip, back when that was their thing, back when they had switched out of death metal mode into a style that was quite new and fresh for the time, the same style that they would become royalty for over the ensuing decades. The guitars lack some of the coldness of the LPs, and the drums are even more tinny and crashy and amateurish, the vocals a paint-peeling rasp that appear less than you'll expect them to. Leads are an unwholesome mess. I did like that you could hear the bass, it gives the jamming a nice low end anchor and some contrast with the rawer rhythm tones, but on the whole I'd say that, at much as I love these songs on the albums, they seem a little less potent and atmospheric in this format, and I say that even as someone who is constantly dragging out such old demos and gladly ignoring their flaws in the name of nostalgia.

Only collectors and purists need apply here, especially if you want to hear the band with the lineup that included Dag and Zephyrous. This isn't just some dumpy compilation of pre-released album tracks being plucked at random and sold back to you, I'll grant it that, so there is some nostalgia in that it shows the band in the buff, at its most 'vulnerable' if these corpse-painted Scandinavian deviants could give a fuck about vulnerability. That said, I can think of no honest reason why I'd ever spin this over the 15+ good to great to perfect Darkthrone discs I've already got in my collection, all of which benefit from a better production and atmosphere. This is just such a sincere, raw band to begin with that an even more primal package like The Wind of 666 Black Hearts can't do it much justice, the songs lack that haunting and impressively defiant feel that I experienced when listening to them back in the dawn of the 90s, and it offers little more than history.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Monday, July 10, 2017

Darkthrone - Burial Bliss/Visual Aggression 7" (2017)

This 7" should prove a tempting little collector's item for those interested in it's B-side in particular, a cover of Celtic Frost's "Visual Aggression" which was recorded with the former Darkthrone members Dag Nilsen and Ivar Enger, before the band was rendered down to the two-piece formation we've so come to know and love. To my knowledge I don't think this has been released on anything before, not as a bonus track on any of the full-lengths, not even on the myriad of compilations, worthless or worthwhile, that the band's labels have ground out through the years. It's paired up here with a mildly rawer take on "Burial Bliss", a track from their latest full-length Arctic Thunder, which I have surprisingly not yet reviewed, though that will be remedied soon.

So I'll cover this in reverse..."Visual Aggression" is a rough track, but far more potent than you'd expect from the era in which it was released, more formidable than your average lost rehearsal track or cutting floor demo, and probably wouldn't have been out of place on their death metal-oriented debut Soulside Journey. Now, it's no secret that Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost were a huge influence upon the Norwegians, both their formative death metal era and A Blaze in the Northern Sky, which could be described as a frostbitten Hellhammer taken to extremes, so to that extent this version of it is played almost too closely to the original, with the only mild disparity coming through the vocals and the bulkier mix of the guitars; but it's a nifty little piece of history regardless of whether one is going to listen to it much with the original available, and nearly any of Darkthrone's more interesting and awesome original tunes.

As for "Burial Bliss", I have to admit that it's possible this is my preferred mix for the song, a pure barbaric mid-paced crusher which is aesthetically flush with "Visual Aggression", just a little more bloody and rough-edged than the one they settled on for the full-length. It's not an amazing piece in of itself, but travels at a workmanlike pace that likely pleased a lot of fans of the old Panzerfaust or Total Death era Darkthrone, grim as fuck with no surprise twists anywhere in its five minutes. In terms of being consistent, it's actually one of the better songs they could muster to partner up with the cover, so as a result the 7" makes a lot of sense. That said, it's really not worth much if you're not in the market to collect...the cover doesn't justify itself beyond pure tribute, and the original, while a little harsher than on Arctic Thunder, is also not unique enough to go out of your way for. But if you collect everything they release, and yearn for those old, primitive days, it's borderline satisfactory.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Selcouth - Heart is the Star of Chaos (2017)

There are few real instances of originality left in metal music, to the extent that even when you hear that band that sounds 'original', you can attribute that to an unconscious smattering of influences from half a dozen other weirdo bands that you knew from a decade ago. To a degree, I could say that about Finland's Selcouth, the eclectic construct of several members of another band called Khanus (who put out a pretty nifty EP last year called Rites of Fire, which I have also reviewed on these pages). Sure, if you're familiar with the Norse post-black metal/progressive outlets like Arcturus, Virus, Ulver, and especially Solefald, there will be a few aesthetics carried forward, and yet even beyond that I would say there is plenty about Heart is the Star of Chaos that feels strikingly unique within the envelope of bizarro left-of-center metal hybridization into which this debut will be signed, sealed and delivered.

Imagine if you will a bevy of grooving bass lines, distorted or smooth, jazzy lounge-lizard pianos and nuances, carefully threaded and mute-picked electric guitars, and a percussionist who can seamlessly cultivate all these various strains into a cohesive, tribal, rhythmic whole. Now atop this sundae of sonic eccentricity, place a vocalist who is both burly and fragile, clear and crackling, expressive and emotive and oftentimes hypnotic, like an unconscious amalgamation of Czral and David Bowie, but don't stop there...harmonize him with all manner of breathy intonations, add in an equally intriguing female singer who has a nice, modern acid jazzy nightclub vibe about her but can curve all that into a snarl when the talons come out, slightly reminiscent of Monika from the underrated Atrox. Mix the results so that no two songs quite sound alike, but all of them weave together like dyes onto a lucid canvas upon which dreamy, haze-like states are being translated directly from musical brain patterns into actual, audible sounds. I know of no real other way to accurately describe this Selcouth record, it's essentially an reverse explosion of shattered fragments back into an introspective mirror, a chaos made congenial by its weavers' ability to reign it all into a drugged warmth.

It's bloody fucking awesome...

and it's all about the details haunting almost every moment of the recording. Those frenetic little guitar licks driving the 'verses' of "Querencia", or the pluggy, bemused but strangely threatening bass-lines crawling and scaling along beneath the lush keys and strings "Of Hopes and Lost Treasures". Or even when the band lets its 'extreme metal' (ooooo) roots through in "Below Hope" and then STILL manages to weird them out to oblivion and back. I can't say that every single lick or vocal line is equally poignant or impressive, but considering what a wide span of influences they bring forth, from the old and cheesy operatic Gothic auras to the nuanced, almost improvisational jazz beats and textures, this debut is nothing less than a monster of creativity, a Frankenstein of mind-fucking experiments in rock, rampaging across its cosmos, yet never so out-of-control that the mad scientists which created it lose their leash on the lightning that gave it life. Certifiable, and certifiably cool at the same time.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.25/10]

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Antichrist - Sinful Birth (2017)

Being that the Antichrist debut album was one of my favorite metal recordings of the last decade, I was naturally chomping at the bit for its inevitable followup, slavering over the tracks I could scope out in advance of the actual release, and feeling entirely too satisfied by what I was sampling. Now that Sinful Birth is in my paws, and I've gotten past the whole 'it's probably not going to be as good as the first one' hurdle, I can honestly tell you that I've spun this sophomore a dozen full times in only a handful of weeks, and I'm happy to report that it takes the aesthetics of its predecessor and splays them out into an even more dynamic, threatening form with enormous replay value without sacrificing even a fraction of the intensity and entertainment meted out through Forbidden World.

This is essentially a pure, undiluted window into what an alternate timeline brand of blackened, sickening speed/thrash would have sounded like were it released back in the mid 80s. That's not to say it couldn't have existed in our own continuum, because the influences are worn upon its bloody sleeves like so many dripping spike-bracers. Slayer, Venom, Possessed, Kreator, Bathory, and Kill 'Em All era Metallica all stroll into a bar together to watch a band called Dark Angel performing Darkness Descend, and then some unholy, drunken amalgamation of those bands' rosters go back to a nearby jam space and try to replicate and record what they the process managing to one-up just about everything I loved about their individual sounds. If I hadn't already been exposed to hard rock and heavy metal since an age shortly after I could potty, a record like Sinful Birth would have made a convert out of me every. damn. time. Vicious, unforgiving, like trying to balance on the edge of a razorblade through almost its entire playtime, and possessed of an absolute disregard for just about anything that is currently cool, polished, or comfortable.

That's not to say it's the heaviest fucking metal you're going to hear anytime soon, but Antichrist, more than any other throwback thrash band, really feel like it belongs to the era it draws upon for its inspiration. These guys aren't trite, or trendy, nor are they sloppy. Buzzing guitars flurry past at a rate of nearly ZERO forgettable riffing progressions, with something even more exciting than the verses always waiting within their eaves, and leads that perfectly match the unhinged, frenetic pacing. A drumming performance that is arguably the MVP here...stacked to the roof with bruising beats, crazy fills, and militant cadences often used to escalate something like "The Entity", which is almost like a John Carpenter composition filtered through electric guitars and savagery. The bass lines might seem like the rear-guard to this formation, and they do their support duty well, but you can constantly hear them pounding and thumping away right up front in the mix and it just generates even more of a hellish, pugilistic atmosphere to a record that only lets up when it wants to surprise you, like in the melodic bridge of "Black Pharaoh" which sounds worthy of top shelf Deceased and would probably do even King Fowley a proud.

The one contentious element I've seen thrown about the intertronz are Steken's vocals, which seem to spoil the experience for some listeners...but not this one. The guy sounds absolutely volatile, oozing sinister and awesome serial killer lyrics all over the guitars, with a timbre that I could really only compare to vintage Don Doty excesses vomited out over Tom Araya's syllabic structures. Raving, barking mad, the antithesis of most thrash and death metal bands that place it safe with overbearing, overproduced gutturals and barks that sound like they're practically automated. No, Anton Sunesson is the real goddamn deal, a front man that I can instantly distinguish from the herd, and even though he doesn't exactly have the widest array of tricks in his repertoire, he doesn't need them, because this violence sounds sincere, and that ultimately lends Sinful Birth its timeless quality of dirtnap speed/thrash godliness, and if you don't agree I will gladly tear your patches off your sleeves and throw you in front of a train. Okay, I wouldn't do that, in reality I'm a pussycat, but listening to Antichrist MAKES ME WANT TO, and that counts for something. A lot.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (the hunger is too strong)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Damnation - Resist (2000)

By the later 90s, death metal had been inundated with so many more accessible traits via heavy and thrash metal that it might have made a lot of sense for an underground group like Damnation to boost their signal, but to their credit the only thing they really cleaned up here at all was arguably the production values. More than any of their albums prior, Resist feels like a gestalt of the Floridian extreme death that went into the band's older albums, primarily of the Morbid Angel or Malevolent Creation variety, with a few Deicide rhythms, but it also maintains that mild sense of atmosphere and experimentation they had used before with the admission of a few scant ambient/instrumental passages to flesh out the faster, harsher fundamentals employed.

The record is essentially a lot of jerky, tremolo picked rhythms with a lot of stop/start patterns that are capitalized on by the drumming, which is likely the most intense and audible across their career. The vocals follow the David Vincent style of intonation, harsh and guttural, nihilistic barks, but with the advantage of being a good decade later than our inauguration to that style, so they're a little more muscular in nature, though the patterns are often quite as sloppy, vaguely following the rhythmic patterns beneath them, giving their implementation a little more of an unhinged, asylum aesthetic which actually suits the music well. Never before have I heard the Damnation guitars this clearly, and while the wealth of the progressions they write are nothing terribly nuanced or special, they really dig into those strings here, with some of their most involved and rapid fire patterns, not to mention some of the best, wild lead lines they'd used to this point. The bass guitar also keeps a pretty solid presence in the mix, though it does get buried beneath the snare, fills, vocals and rhythm guitar whenever they are all firing off together into one of the more intense sequences.

Resist does lack some of the suffocating atmosphere of the sophomore Rebel Souls, and I also feel it comes up slightly short of that album in overall memorability, but note for note they are pretty close, with this, the band's swan song depicting their most intricate guitar work with a carnal clarity. The riffs do possess a variety I had not heard before, with a little bit of a clinical thrash element there in the intro to "Absence in Humanity", and some other tracks which reach slightly outside the comfort zone. Dark, ambient passages like "Voices of an Unknown Dimension" help lend a sense of evil and gravity to the track list, though the electronic and sounds used seem a little claptrap and cheesy, and most of them are embedded into the metal tracks without much of a strong purpose. The simple fact of the matter is that Damnation were a band reaching for something, and while they arguably got there in the 90s, they had more to their material than the already dulling proto brutal death and gore being pimped; a fusion of old school aesthetics with a slight regional spin. No, they weren't writing on the level of Vader or Behemoth or other countrymen, and it makes some sense that they got lost in the shuffle, but overall they had a good run as a solid second tier act which can still evoke a little darkness if you listen to them in the proper mindset. Rebel Souls and Resist were a pretty convincing one-two punch combo for such an unknown.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Spellbound - Nothing But the Truth (2015)

While their first two records could hardly be dubbed impressive, Germans Spellbound have consistently proven to be purveyors of a fairly rare, lost art among the thrash crowd. That is to say, the full-package, dynamic songwriting style that birthed some of the largest names in the genre, Metallica at the foremost, but this was a skill often mirrored by other West Coast acts like Testament and at the very least attempted by bands worldwide, from Australia's Mortal Sin to England's Xentrix, to several of the Germans' countrymen, even if the faster, nastier Trinity of Teutonic Thrash held sway in that particular court. To be more specific, the composition's goals consist of big hooks, verse/chorus interplay, meticulously crafted leads that could hold their own with the rhythm riffing, enough of a neck jerking energy to keep them well within the genre's parameters, and approachable standards which held more of a mass appeal than the dirtnap speed and thrash existing on the niche's edge.

Nothing But the Truth accomplishes all of these to an extent, while rarely cocking up the formula that structures its more successful songs, a trait that sadly eluded the older efforts, which had only a scant handful of memorable cuts at best. The riffing is powerful, albeit familiar enough that a lot of the individual progressions will remind you of this or that and then twist it slightly away from the pure predictability a lot of us dread when listening to today's latest wave of pizza-thrashers. The leads here are very well balanced to offer an emotional payoff without completely outdistancing the blue collar, 'mellow' or melodic, mid-paced thrash rhythms that make up the bulk of the play length. When they pick up the thrust, you're remind purely of the picking patterns made famous by bands like Exodus, Testament or Metallica, but the overall mood here is 'steady wins the race', and that can often give this a laid back feel, sort of similar to New England's own Meliah Rage, only I feel like the writing here is a little more optimistic and immediately sticky on the ear. Reinforcing that comparison are the vocals of David Maier, melodic and edgy in the Hetfield vein which front men like Mike Munro, Chuck Billy and Mat Maurer ran off with.

The guitars sound great on this album, clear for the various leads, melodies and excess rock hero squeals while potent and punchy enough for a pit of intoxicated 40-somethings reliving their glory days, which I'd imagine might be the primary audience for this band, or those younglings who are trying to emulate that demographic. I happen to be among that first crowd, only somewhat less intoxicated on an average day, so I felt the pangs of nostalgia. Bass isn't a strong point here, but enough else is going on that you'll be distracted away from noticing, especially when the dozen or so really strong guitar riffs set off, forcing more replay value than I would have expected from my experience with either Nemesis 2665 or Incoming Destiny. There are a few slight misfires here, like the obligatory power-thrash ballad "Dying in the Dirt" which doesn't quite hit the payoff it wants to, however they aren't quite awful, and easily forgiven by the wealth of improvements they've made elsewhere. If you're into the more accessible spectrum of trad metal-tinted thrash I've mentioned above, or younger bands like Evile and After All, then this one is worth a listen.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Damnation - Coronation EP (1997)

Keeping themselves busy through the latter half of the 90s, Poland's Damnation capitalized on their very solid sophomore Rebel Souls with a four-track EP that sounds a lot like it looks, which is to say that it's blasphemous, savage occult death metal with a Baphomet cover image nearly indistinguishable from many others in its class. That's not to pass judgement too heavily on the music, but it does not seem that the band was aesthetically interested at the moment on building up further momentum from the prior album, which had shown a good degree of growth from their 1995 debut. I suppose I can give it a pass here, but only because they saw fit to record a tune called "Spell Master", and because the material itself does exhibit the ferocity and fortitude of Rebel Souls.

The mix is set at about the same level of epic murk as its predecessor, with the roiling guitars that just seethe along beneath the broader, guttural growls that crown the experience. The drums are tinny and on the lower side of the audibility range here, but it comes together like decent underground Euro death from its day and age, and one can't expect so much more. As for the riff structures, they are generally fast-paced and give off a similar Morbid Angel vibe that they'd done on the full-lengths, only some of the chord progressions used on these tunes most remind me of the Altars of Madness era, which happens to be my favorite from Trey and company. Atmospherics are still used with some sparse use of organ-like synth tones ("Spell Master") or a turbulent ambiance (intro to the title cut), so in that way they keep in line with their vision on the earlier records, and I also found that the lead work and melodic accompaniment here was kept at just the right ratio to keep the material from growing dull, because honestly not a lot of these riffs are that amazing to begin with.

The compositions do feel a fraction cluttered, especially (and sadly) on "Spell Master", but I feel that there's enough going on through the tracks, enough of a vibrant, hellish energy that it doesn't mar the quality terribly. Also, there's a big contrast between the business of the guitars and the vocals, which are almost all delivered with those broader phrasings. The bass tone has a good distortion on it but still seems to bury itself once the writhing guitars are on full thrust, and ultimately I think this EP exhibits the consistency of Rebel Souls, while slightly suffering from the clamor of Reborn... I also can't say I'd listen to it over either of those albums, but like the debut it does a moderate job of putting you into that 90s headspace, before production values were heavily polished and when death metal still maintained a natural, evil vibe to it that wasn't nostalgia-borne, but carried the genuine, black pulse of that formative age. Damnation is no Vader, but they'll do in a pinch if you want to dance on tombstones while you're sloshing your brain with vodka.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bereft - Lands (2017)

Prosthetic Records is a label I generally equate with the popular or trendy strains of metal, having championed a lot of metalcore or melodic death or technical death thrash, often to some great results, and often to some forgettable ones. But in truth, they do cultivate a pretty wide variety of artists, so when I saw that they'd picked up an act going for a more atmospheric sound, I thought it'd be cool to check out for myself what had piqued their interest. Add to that the really awesome cover here, with a skull split by an axe and a rune against what seems to be a half-felled forest, and I figured I might be in for a treat here. I know I had heard another Bereft record in passing, and forgotten about it, but I think that might have been from another band out of the L.A. area.

I've seen Lands described as a mix of doom and melodic post-metal, and I think that's a somewhat accurate brand, though the 'black metal' aesthetics I've also heard seem restricted solely to a vocal style that is no longer exclusively found in that category, and an occasional blast sequence which reminded me a little of something Goatwhore might throw into a tune. They use broad, gnarly snarls, but with a lot of sustain to them, and often doubling up the voice with one that's deeper and louder in the mix. The rhythm guitars are enormous and crushing, but with a seat of groove to them that helps them set up the more dynamic melodies which earn all the credit for making this sophomore album catchier than it might otherwise feel. The fundamental riffs here are all extremely simple, panning out over a wide span of influences including both their sludge contemporaries and the grandiose Gothic doom style pioneered out of England, rarely anything more than predictable, but how the band builds upon them or doesn't rely on them exclusively is what makes this ultimately listenable, with a lot of cascading, higher pitched guitars, often with some effects to give them a more lamentable or bluesy vibe.

Now, when I say it's listenable, I'm not saying it's great, just that it doesn't become too boring, a danger when you've got only four tracks in 45 minutes. There's nothing here that really sticks or stands out on the mind, but I was able to process through the entire record numerous times just because of how it manages its valleys and summits. The production on the thing is just so huge that it feels like you're listening through it in some canyon space, and I like the fattened subtext of the bass guitars and the pairing of the rhythmic drudgery with the ascending, sorrowful melodies. Vocals do work better then they form their own grisly fusion, or rare harmony. The percussion on the whole disc is like balanced thunder, with fills that feel like a tribal war is about to break out, yet a lot of more subtle, crashing symbols and thudding, effortlessly shifts into blasts for the scarcer fast material. I'd say that this was a very well put-together record which just lacks nuance in its riffing schematics, if these Wisconsiners can dial that quality up then they'll be a bonafide beast. As it stands, they already sound like one is forming in some abominable sonic womb, but hasn't fully gestated into a distinct form.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

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]