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)

https://www.facebook.com/Darkthrone-101075189934422/

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] 

https://www.facebook.com/NATRIUMBAND

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]

https://www.facebook.com/Vietah.Official

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]

https://www.facebook.com/Vietah.Official

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'...as 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]


https://www.facebook.com/Darkthrone-101075189934422/

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]

https://www.facebook.com/selcouthconglomerate/

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 heard...in 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)

https://www.facebook.com/antichristsweden/