Thursday, April 11, 2013

Amiensus - Restoration (2012)

What drives a lot of the innate dynamism in metal comes down to elemental disparity, and this is a lesson that Amienses have taken to heart in crafting their debut album, Restoration. Similar in fundamental aesthetic to bright, snowy entities such as Wintersun, Borknagar, and the up-and-coming Xanthochroid, theirs is a landscape of semi-blackened beauty, where violent, desolate riffs are punctuated by gleaming streams of melody and aching cleans. Amiensus reside more on the calmer, fundamentally accessible side of this well-wrought dichotomy, with a panache and talent that belies their relative youth, conveying a good degree of passion through these somber, naturalistic compositions. If at times it all felt too structurally simple, with an overreliance on repetitious catchy choruses, there are still some really good songs, hopefully liable to ingratiate them to a sizeable fanbase. Unfortunately, their sound is a bit too ‘scene’ to be rightly appreciated by the more traditional black metal barons, but more forgiving, pop-friendly extreme metallers will find a lot to like.

What cannot be downplayed when considering all potent aspects of Restoration is the meticulous gravitas in its adherence to memorable melody. Moreover, these brain-pleasing lines are often hewn into a thick-as-fog atmosphere, composed of the distilled essences of their cumulative awe and despair. That makes this album perhaps sound more epic and perfect than the reality of it, however, as I stated there is a propensity towards structural simplicity and choral repetition, often of lines that may be too sugary to your average maven of extreme metal to appreciate. And truly, I did not like some of the choruses here, which felt almost too sweet, existing in defiance of what is otherwise very good music. Millenium, particularly, which features vocals from Ken Sorceron of Abigail Williams (who also produced), is a song I found at continual odds with itself, where strong, riff-driven darkness exists in jarring juxtaposition with the candy-sweet, sentimental chorus. The stylistic choices of these types of moments ironically clash with the basic idea of accessibility, since extremists will find them off-putting, but the relative sophistication and density of the rest of their material will likely be beyond the appreciation of the average metalcore crowds, as well. Restoration is a beautiful conundrum.

Aside from a decent list of examples such as this, I found the record pleasing. It passes through storm and subsides, enveloped by an array of growls, howls, and persistent emotional cleans. The album secedes to a too-prevalent calmness in its second half, but there is no shortage of soulful licks or atmospheric pulses at any given moment. At 40 minutes, it’s not particularly long, and I’d have liked to hear some more progressive attempts from Amiensus, but what’s here is varied and mostly entertaining.  The production is laudable, both clear and warm, and it’s worth noting that one can hear the influence of Abigail Williams in many musical aspects. That’s surely a condemnation for some people, but I would be remiss to dismiss it to you based on those bounds. It says a lot about their ability that I like them despite the choruses drenched in emo-core sensibilities.

It’s tough to know who to recommend this to, to be honest. I’ve expounded on an array of negative aspects because they’re so forefront and frustrating within an album that I feel could have been great. I think Amiensus have the degree of skill, passion, and songwriting ability to write a potentially brilliant album, if only they could learn to mesh their clashing realms of tonality into a more seamless whole. Dialing up the intensity and scaling down the corn-syrup content the choruses are clearly mainlining would work wonders. Still, Restoration is worth a listen for more open-minded fans of melodic black metal, as it has some moments of genuine awesomeness that bear repeating multiple times (mostly in the first half). It feels like the kid brother of a great like Borknagar, just entering his teens, still high on the developmental phase of radio-rocking youth, but attempting to play his bro’s kind of metal nevertheless, nailing some aesthetic wonder without fully understanding the core concept. I state this not with condescension, but a level of encouraging admiration for such a generally strong first step, and a genuine interest at witnessing the next step in Amiensus’ evolution. 

 7 / 10 - Like Ashen Memories

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hour of Penance - Sedition (2012)

There’s something to be said for unceasing brutality. Though naturally lacking in dynamic range, it can be incredibly cathartic, especially when the riffing is strong and the leads are memorable. Such is the general experience here on Sedition, the 5th such excursion from Italians Hour of Penance, a non-stop Christ-slaying, blast-beating, blood soaked half an hour that continues to refine the raw hatred the band have purveyed all along.  This will be instantly appealing to anyone with a proclivity towards a number of other occult death metal projects, such as Behemoth, Krisiun, Nile, Azarath, Chaos Inception, Vital Remains, etc. etc. etc. on into the sunset. If that seems to imply that this is not a very unique battering, that’s because it isn’t… but that doesn’t mean it can’t be satisfying, and thanks to both extreme instrumental skill and well-written songs, it most certainly qualifies as such.

True to the established book of occult death metal tropes, Hour of Penance really hate Christianity, and boy do they want you to know it. Practically every lyric here is about some form of conquest, bloodshed, godly regicide, and allusions to torture and rape. Objectifying of women as wombs to be forcefully conquered aside (if you’re not already numb to this mongoloid aspect of death metal), the lyrics are generally well-written, and serve as an effective figure riding high on the wave of savage riffing. While the tonality and tempo remain much the same throughout, thus innately blending a lot of the less vibrant riffing patterns, they’re universally effective as a means of conveying the Eastern-tinged leads, which are both fun and delectable. Some of these progressions really stick to the ribs, while others simply blast by with the force of a stampeding unit of legionnaires, but you can be rest assured that Sedition never even comes close to boring. It’s one of those records that works in a very narrow field of appeal, but does what it does so well that anyone that could conceivably enjoy it based on predisposition to music of this nature most certainly will. The aesthetic here is just so dark, celeritous, and downright hateful that a good portion of the death metal populace will definitely want to take note.

Despite the direct, clubbing repetition that is this album in a nutshell, or more perhaps more accurately because of it, the entirety of the product is pretty damn satisfying. It’s short, stormy and brutal, contains fuck-tons of ancient-sounding, seismically pissed off riffs, and is monstrously well executed. It’s a consistent pleasure to bask in the raw talent here, especially of drummer Simone Piras (who has since departed the band), more a cyclone than a man, lending violent intricacy to an already tactful armada of riffs. Despite the inherent similarities of many of these selections of notation, flowing like a tsunami of blackened ooze over Jerusalem, they’re without fail well-constructed, and it’s important to note that there are also about a thousand of them. Giulio Moschini has also written a sizeable array of ungodly reptilian leads that snake out and overlay these celeritous storms, and these help define each track, as well as imbue a large amount of excitement to an already punishing production. Vocals are the expected pulverizing growl, for all intents and purposes acting as another percussive instrument, and the production keeps a firm balance, save for only vaguely intelligible bass lines.

Essentially, Sedition of a safe bet for most any propagator of brutal, fiery death metal. True, it harnesses a very limited range of influences, and doesn’t do anything particularly unique, but its selection of riffing is so dark, sweet, and downright explosive, it might as well have been forged in a chocolate volcano. This brand of Eastern-infused, conquering death metal is pretty popular these days, and there are a number of sources from whom to get your fix, but Hour of Penance do it about as well as anyone. If a single parallel were to be drawn, it would be to Behemoth, as Sedition truly feels very close to the more intense conjurations from its Polish peers (if less compositionally dynamic), so take that as you will. Personally, I think if one is going to channel modern influences, they should take them from the best of the best, so I’m alright with this outcome.

Truly, Hour of Penance have gone from strength to strength, and anyone who has enjoyed them in the past, or just likes the newer breed of brutal death metal in general (this is a pretty far cry from throwback cavern-core or old-school Swedish) will find this a dense, satisfying record. It’s great to see this type of riffing, fundamentally rooted in the precepts forged by Morbid Angel, and tempered in the steel of strong modern brutality, being so widely utilized, and so well, at that. As this trend (and I mean that word in a good way, for once) continues, we should be seeing even more punishing, diabolical releases such as this, and in a metal world clogged to the tits with 90’s-fondling throwback material and the generic bro-slammings of deathcore (which is almost unanimously undeserving of the moniker ‘death’), that’s an increasingly pleasing scenario. That said, I wouldn’t mind some innovation, but in this world, I’ll take what I can get. So long as that’s not a required selling point for you, though, Sedition is satisfying in both proof of concept and legitimate application, and is a worthy addition to any ravenous death maven’s collection.

8 / 10 - It's Raining Locusts

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Xanthochroid - Blessed He With Boils (2012)

It’s not often, or rather often enough, that a band manages to sound intrinsically unique, particularly in the realm of symphonic black metal. This is especially true when the majority of their disparate elements are inspired by other well-known entities generally within the same aesthetic sphere. Thus, it’s my genuine pleasure to present Xanthochroid, a group of Californian lads that have struck me rather dumb with their pleasurably, legitimately epic amalgamation of melodic/symphonic/progressive black metal. Blessed He With Boils is the band’s first full-length release, and a monstrous one at that, both in terms of composition and general ambition. This is a concept album based on a self-created fantasy world, with well-written lyrics from the point of view of multiple characters, dealing with issues like power and betrayal. It’s the music here, however, that really lends majesty to their conjured universe, as this is a diverse, exciting album literally full of ideas. Even if many of these are harvested from more visible groups, the approximation of it all is immensely pleasing, and quite distinct at that.

I’m most heavily reminded of Ihsahn, both in the progressive, wintry nature of much of the riffing, and the fantastic vocals of also-keyboardist Sam Meador, a vibrant scowling rasp that sounds kingly and violent, with points garnered for both extremity and pronunciation. However, the entirety of the group must be lauded for the vocals, as they trade off leading positions to marvelous effect. There are the aforementioned Ihsahn yowls, Abbath-like croaks, some ravenous death growls, a bevy of choral arrangements, and even a generous host of soaring, avian cleans, lending favorable comparisons to ICS Vortex or Vintersorg. These don’t just take turns leading, but are often intelligently and passionately layered to create engaging, often dualistic sensations. When the reptilian scowls reach an apex over momentous, resonant chorus sections, or overlay the atmosphere-piercing cleans, it feels fucking good.

The level of compositional differentiation is not limited to vocals, either, as the music itself shows a similar attention to variety and detail, utilizing a host of techniques to manifest exciting, dynamic songs that manage to feel distinct from each other while still serving the over-arching motif of royal, almost classical darkness, of forlorn wintry majesty. There are sections of snow-storm tremolo blasting, creeping valleys of dense atmospherics, and colorful crescendos. Aesthetically, it most resembles the later works from Emperor, but not nearly as avant-garde. Not so much black metal, as it is blackened metal, if you will. Whatever tone or pace the band shift to throughout this near-on hour of music, however, it’s always compelling, and moreover, has an impeccable sense of flow. By virtue of variety and well-composed structuring, Blessed He With Boils actually feels like a story, each song a chapter unto its own, building and releasing a great amount of tension with ease. Xanthochroid remind me of a black metal answer to Rhapsody, if more in concept than delivery, an epic fantasy metal journey laced with choruses, keys, pomp and vibrato. Xanthochroid, however, rather than feeling punishingly cheesy, hold true to the classic fundamental feelings of their chosen genre, conveying both ornate grandeur and stirring, snow-blasted chaos in equal quantities. For these reasons, they will also strike the fancy of those enamored by groups like Borknagar, and even Wintersun.

Assisting the structural integrity in remaining dynamic are a number of more spacious, relaxed interludes, both in the form of legitimate interlude tracks and effective down-tempo sections within some of the more lengthy compositions themselves. This can make the album feel like a bit of a slow starter, admittedly, as only roughly 7 of the first 15 minutes are actually metal, but everything is just so well-written, performed, and produced, that it’s a negligible concern. Through minimal, brooding choir segments, acoustic guitars, and atmospheric keyboard summonings, the material all feels exciting and natural, and you just know something awesome is around the next corner, without fail. It also sounds damn good, as this journey is conveyed through an extremely polished production soundscape. The riffing swirls, ripples and pulses like bright, icy energy, ornamented in the classical-minded keys as they intertwine to emanate vast vistas. The drumming is punchy and creative, and as mentioned prior, the layering effects of the vocal styles feel great. The bass tends to get overshadowed during the more harried moments, and could have been mildly more pronounced in general, but its pulsating curvature is satisfying enough, its lines hovering just below the surface like bulbous pockets of warmth in the icy tundra.

As for other knit-picks, a few of the riffs in and of themselves weren’t equally exciting or memorable, but it's realistically the difference between great and awesome, and given the amount of interesting happenings at any given point, I’m totally reaching here. Really, I never got a sense of boredom or disappointment with this album, at any point. Blessed He With Boils is just so good. It’s just so absolutely fucking good, any mild complaints fall by the wayside as you’re swept off into this land of blackened escapism, of royalty and winter, into battling storms and warm, creative piano embellishments. Xanthochroid have proven their music to be utterly engaging, and moreover, exciting, not a sensation I get often with this genre anymore. Though many will likely disagree with the exact tag, as this is effectively closer in spirit to Blind Guardian than it is to Gorgoroth, this is absolutely one of the best black metal releases of the year (or black’ened’, if you prefer), standing nearly shoulder to shoulder with Eremita from the mighty Ihsahn himself. It’s that good. Is there room for improvement? Of course, as just with virtually any other album, some parts feel stronger and more memorable than others, but the quality here is so consistent and pleasing that it’s become a fast favorite, and likely will not leave my ‘go-to’ rotation for years to come.

Blessed He With Boils is one of the biggest treats of 2012, an unknown band knocking it right out of the park on their very first album. It’s classy, explorative, varied, and addictive, not to mention incredibly musical. It often feels transcendental of metallic borders, tastefully dipping its toes into many classical streams, and integrating those influences with passion and care. Those of you with inclinations toward epic, progressive, blackened textures in your extremity will definitely want to give this band your attention. I’d even recommend it to open-minded power metal fans who can handle some harsh vocalizations, as the flavor of fantasy runs hot through these veins. I’m ridiculously stoked this band sought me out, and I’ll be spinning this all winter long, a perfect companion for the cold lonely months. Bands don’t often reach (or even come close to) the level of quality of the bands they emulate, but in Xanthochroid’s case, we could be looking at one of the brightest futures in the whole genre. Hopefully they can get out on tour with some bigger bands and show the world what they're made of. So, with finality, I tell you to go buy this fucking album, because that way maybe we can get a follow-up, and I’d positively love to see this spark of creativity and ingenuity become a legitimate inferno, rather than just another funeral pyre.

9.5 / 10 - Born of Ashes, Born to Rule

Monday, December 17, 2012

Infidel - Eviscerate Yourself E.P. (2012)

And Poland cranks out another extreme metal super-soldier. I honestly wouldn‘t be surprised to learn that their government is conducting some kind of elicit research, breeding a legion of heavy metal commandos that cannot falter, such is the degree of awesome they’re pumping out, seemingly on the daily. While Infidel doesn’t come across as the most unique or memorable of these metallic death squads, they nevertheless provide a satisfying fit of hellish black metal that harnesses aesthetics from the past and present staples of the genre, as well as some mild infusions of death metal to complete the package. Eviscerate Yourself is the group’s first EP after their debut full-length, and at nearly 26 minutes of thick, soupy anger, there’s a good amount of material here.

Most of the music here on Eviscerate Yourself is highly redolent of Marduk, but with vocals that often glide into more LG Petrov territory, gruff and drawling, but shifting into more conventional mid-toned inflections when the need arises. It works very well with the inferno of notation, which is mainly comprised of open chord tremolos that lend the sensation of evolving fields of lava, very in line with a lot of modern black metal. However, the odd sequence seems more intent on fondling black metal past, and certain riffs attempt to convey some stark minimalism. These balance the album, keeping it from being a non-stop blast beat skullfuck, and are appreciable. Nothing in this short record is really going to surprise you if you’re familiar with the genre, but at no point do Infidel ever really falter, as the overall sensation conjured is quite hellish, and varies just enough to maintain the attention throughout. However, I’d draw the line between my being ‘attentive’ and ‘engaged’, as the latter was not a completely prevalent sensation. Sure, it grabbed me at various points throughout, but it wasn’t constant. Some of the riffs here are gorgeous, but many of them tend to feel incredibly similar, and at length, I can’t say very many of them stuck with me.

Another mild irritation was the drum sound, particularly the snare, which just did not feel fitting. Its hollow hammering was distracting for me, and even though I got used to it, it still felt out of place with the rest of the tones, which are admittedly excellent. The guitars in particular are wispy and searing, practically emanating intense, diabolical heat, which fit incredibly well with the Satanic lyrics and overall motif of invasive diabolical storming, all of which helped draw me in to this world. It’s also worth noting that this isn’t an album that will work if you listen to it casually, for better or worse. My experiences with it while driving, and then while sitting down, reading the lyrics, and clearing my mind were almost completely different, and became the difference in this EP morphing from mildly curious but forgettable to a solid, if somewhat flawed experience that I would recommend to stalwart modern black metal mavens, as it’s quite probable that they will glean more than I.

So, I like the motif here in Eviscerate Yourself, dark and evil and fiery, and it has a number of solid riffs that will help it endear itself to the listener, as well as decent lyrics and percussive death/black vocals. Nothing here is really unique at all, given, but it works, and often pretty well. If you’re into this type of well-produced, fiery damnation, and enjoy Marduk, Ragnarok or God Seed, or other strong Polish underground bands like Hell United, Stillborn, or Pandemonium, you’d do well to give Infidel a chance to work their damning magic. I won’t claim it’s the most exciting or memorable black metal release of the year, but it has enough going for it to warrant the attention of some of you, and I’d be interested to see what they can do next. It would be easy to damn Infidel with dismissals based on familiarity and repetition, but that would be doing an injustice to the obvious care and malevolence that went into this performance, and if you just put a bit of effort into absorbing their world, you won’t go unrewarded.

7 / 10 - Familiar Fiery Fun

Friday, December 14, 2012

Depopulate - Till Man Exists No More E.P. (2012)

Another young pup in the rapidly expanding back yard of Polish death metal, Depopulate actually feel fundamentally American here on their debut EP, having more in common with Suffocation than Behemoth, when all is said and done. While they are as fierce and frenetic as one would expect from an aspiring Polish monstrosity, it reeks more of meat-headed slam than innate evil or otherwise dynamic sensations. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a technique, as groups like Dying Fetus continue to both thrive and impress, but despite some obvious instrumental skill and a palpable will to dominate, Depopulate feel pretty stale practically right out the gate. Yes, it’s brutal, but in very banal, predictable ways, with little in the way of variation or interesting ornamentation, just picking some chords and hammering them out with little consideration for flow, as even the better riffing selections (and there are some) get kneecapped by the mundanity of the consistent, contrived breakdowns.

Indeed, this 15 minute celeritous beat-down thrives mainly on palm-muted chugs and breakdowns, appropriately cornering the jock mosh market with a hailstorm of anger. Problem is, outside of the few strong riffs sprinkled conservatively throughout, Till No Man Exists is almost entirely unexciting and unmemorable. The vocals are a typical, unvarying percussive bark, which isn’t really much of an issue considering the genre is brutal death, but the muted slabs of notation fail to elicit much feeling outside of a bored sense of monotony. The breakdowns are even worse, with no aspiration beyond inspiring fits of Neanderthal headbanging, and serve to break the flow of what could have otherwise been a decent spasm of brutality. The few riffs worthy of mention make fitting use of some higher frets and tremolo picking, which when combined with the taut and belligerent drum performance display a modicum of raw talent here, but the vapid nature of much of the songwriting cripples the longevity of this already-short 15 minutes. Some solo’s or leads would have been nice, something to shine outside the blandly textured, uniform concrete chugs, but alas, there’s none to be found. One song does show promise, however, the closer Harvesting Human Flesh, which shifts through a variety of paces and riffs, displaying the fact that the band could indeed be good, if they put some thought into it.

At length, I found maybe 6 minutes of this worth listening to, but it’s spliced so evenly into the regurgitated breaks and mutes that the whole thing ends up feeling pretty uniformly bland. I must make the distinction, however, that I don’t necessarily think Till Man Exists No More is bad, exactly; it just almost entirely lacks any dynamic touches. It’s functional enough to probably work well in the live setting, and if you’re the type who enjoys both the brutal bloodshed of Suffocation and the jock-core slamming of Haatebreed, you might find this an appropriately battering little jaunt. However, functionality does not inherently breed memorability, and despite some good intentions and appreciably violent instrumentation, this does pretty much nothing for me.

5.5 / 10 - Uniform Concrete Secretions

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Candlemass - Psalms for the Dead (2012)

For all intents and purposes, this is the last Candlemass album. Thus, it’s a sad day for metal, as it bids goodbye to the prospect of fresh material from one of its most important formative entities. The band has not broken up, mind, but they’ve stated with relative finality that they do not wish to grow stagnant, and thus are ending their full-length legacy here at number 11 with Psalms for the Dead. While I would not qualify this as one of their very best records, it nevertheless draws upon all of the things that make Candlemass truly great, and proves a very solid goodbye. Personally, I think Leif Edling and co. have the potential for another masterpiece in them, and hope for a follow up down the road, but as far as legacies go, this is a more than satisfactory requiem.

Psalms for the Dead exists very much in the same realm as the last few records, and continues to be fronted by Solitude Aeternus front-man Robert Lowe, whom I’ve always felt has fit the band perfectly, particularly in the astonishing King of the Grey Islands. His dynamic range continues to serve the vast, epic compositional nature, with charismatic yet melancholy bellowing rising above the dark, ornate slabs of riffing. He may not be quite as impressively maniacal or varied as Messiah Marcolin, but I’ve had no issues with any of his performances here.  As for the record itself, you can expect a healthy 50 minutes of thick, lumbering, Sabbath-influenced doom, drawing from the well of fantasy in both lyrical and atmospheric strati. As always, the tones here are just crushing, a dense low-end crunch that proves full and resonant. Edling’s bass is particularly satisfying, like rhythmic shifting of tectonic plates beneath the fiery oceans of riffing.

Speaking of riffing, the quality here is incredibly consistent, with a strong breadth of songs that nicely encapsulate what exactly Candlemass is. Overall, I felt the compositional tendency was a bit on the safe side, with relatively predictable structures for verse, chorus, and refrain, but the tone of the individual tracks shifts enough to be engrossing, and as always, there are a good number of addictive choruses present and accounted for. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that I feel an opportunity may have been wasted here to delve into some more progressive variations, paying tribute to the adventurous nature of their earlier material. Black as Time is the exception to this, with more unconventional tactics, and is incredibly satisfying as it morphs through varying incarnations. Regardless, any real fan of the band is going to find a lot to like here, as it’s all unmistakably Candlemass, in all their ornate mythological grandeur. It’s noticeably less oppressive than fans of their earlier material might want, as the songs don’t always have that weighty, menacing quality many look for, but it’s highly functional and memorable nevertheless. There’s some organ-like keyboard additions scattered throughout as well, adding some unique flavor in a creepy, vaguely Castlevania-esque style. It’s easy to feel like one is trapped in a haunted cathedral, beset by looming fantastical creatures, and other such imagery. In essence, its doom metal, conjuring the level of atmosphere one would expect from the guys who virtually wrote the fucking playbook. Heavy, unique, dark, and addictive, there is a lot to like here.

Psalms for the Dead is divided pretty well into subsections that all resonate with spiritual trappings of classic heavy and doom, but with appreciably distinct variables innate to each. Prophet has a dreamy midsection with addictive vocal lines and some beautiful guitar-work, a strong opening piece that conjures classic heavy metal with its thick, elegant licks; Dancing in the Temple of the Mad Queen Bee thrives on simplicity, but provides the hooks necessary to snare you in as it bounces between organ-ornamented marching and vibrant, memorable leads; The Lights of Thebe feels like some traditional Candlemass, displaying a creeping, permeating grandeur through thick, epic chords and some powerful vocal work from Lowe; though not quite reaching the overwhelming quality of Nightfall, Ancient Dreams, or even King of the Grey Islands, there are truly no losers here, as each track proves to be both satisfying and memorable, all but demanding multiple listens.

You know, it really doesn’t get more iconic than Candlemass. It just doesn’t. While Psalms for the Dead may not be the stunning masterwork many were hoping for, given the finality present here, and doesn’t really herald many surprises for those familiar with their work in the last ten years, it’s hard not to feel swept up in the dark fantasy epic that this band still weaves with ease. In 1986, these guys took the heavy blues of Sabbath and imbued it with a billowing darkness and a propensity for absolutely crushing riff-craft, literally changing metal forever, and in this reviewer’s opinion, have barely even stumbled since, even in the harder times around the turn of the century. Pslams for the Dead delivers on this promise with spirit and grace. It’s achingly sad to say goodbye to a band that’s given us so much, but it’s simultaneously admirable that they chose to bow out before they could descend into a caricature, though personally I find that instance virtually impossible. Candlemass are one of the best, most important metal bands of all time, doom or otherwise, and Psalms for the Dead is one last love letter displaying that fact, one that every self-respecting fan of heaviness should experience, if only for its significance as the closing chapter in an absolutely stellar career.

It’s with a heavy heart and a cheeky adherence to cliche that I bid Candlemass a fond farewell, but I think we, and they, can be satisfied with the fact that they’ve created a host of undying musical worlds, a self-contained, ageless universe of heaviness that will continue to awe and inspire future generations to unleash their own unique emanations of heavy metal, on until our psychotic race inevitably destroys itself. Whether that’s later this month, or in a thousand years, at the gallows end or at the killing of the sun, may the hammer of doom pound on, eternal, through the infinitive halls of death.

8.5 / 10 - The Sound of Dying Demons

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Aura Noir - Out to Die (2012)

For those unaware, Aura Noir are an extremely fucking good blackened thrash (or is that thrashened black?) metal band out of Norway, comprised of 3 ridiculously talented individuals that have shown their mettle in various other projects, with varying degrees of resounding success. Aggressor played in Satyricon and Ulver way back in the long long ago, likely before many of you were even born, but now rains fury on the world with the excellent Virus; Apollyon has another day job with Immortal; and perhaps most importantly/visibly, that ferocious bastard Rune Erikson, aka Blasphemer, of ex-Mayhem infamy, now key proponent of all things awesome in both Nader Sadek and Ava Inferi, the latter of which has a tendency to thrill and chill me right to the core with unique panoramas of eerie, forlorn majesty. This is their 5th full length as a unit in going on 20 years, but alas, only the second I’ve heard, having fallen head over heels with 2008’s Hades Rise, but not having had the time to dive into the murky leavings of their past… yet. To be brunt, in case long walls of text don’t jive with your Ritalin-addled brain, this album absolutely slays. If you’re in any way a fanatic of either of its constituent genres, of which I must tack on a spiritual channeling of classic extreme metal, such as Venom and Celtic Frost, or just plain strong metallic riffing, Out to Die is going to impress. Impress may be a bit of an understatement, I admit, as the aesthetic and composition here is so primally pleasing that it should leave fields of cowering posers practically evacuating their bowels with each sharp, muscular blast of riffing ordnance.

Of the above-listed groups, Aura Noir feel most heavily like heirs to the throne of Celtic Frost, though arguments could also be made for resemblance to newer Darkthrone. The dry, cutting gusts of riffing are like the sheering wind of some ancient desert, while the shouted vocals are nicely redolent of older Tom G Warrior, a gruff, kingly wraith commanding armies of the damned.  Though the overall core aesthetic of the genre here is blackened thrash, Aura Noir channel the strength of pure old-school heavy metal just as prominently. The barbaric strength of the riffing, the often pounding, war-like pacing, it balances all three of its chosen influences in perfect harmony. This lends further weight to the Celtic Frost argument, as they themselves did not seem to belong to any particular genre, instead utilizing various strengths from each and molding them into something altogether different, advancing each in its own way. While I wouldn’t say that Aura Noir are similarly groundbreaking, or really innovative at all, at that, it simply doesn’t matter when the songs are this good. Whether slicing along with icy blackened tremolo precision or stomping out a banner-waving, mid-paced war march, the combination of pure, excellent riffing and violent, swarthy, charismatic vocals paints a compellingly bleak, ravaged landscape that is just fucking punishing. I must also note that there are a number of fantastic soloes here.

I love the guitar tones; thin but searing, like bolts of hot iron slicing through the skin, or fiery winds cutting across the smoky skyline. In fact, the hugely natural production is quite befitting, with punchy, earthy drums and a good stringy pulse to the thankfully semi-audible bass. It doesn’t really favor the low end, but I have no complaints over sound quality here, a great means to communicate such monstrous, hellish patterns of notation. Out to Die rocks the fuck out for Satan, and if that’s something you’re into, beware the safety of your neck if you acquire it, as it’s liable to inflict severe headbang trauma. At 33 minutes, Out to Die is admittedly quite short, but it’s surprisingly varied in pacing, and remains consistently thrilling all the way through, even if it’s more fun in an immediate sense than it is eternally memorable. I also prefer to have a short record packed entirely with killer material, rather than a longer one with a nice dose of filler. If there’s one thing that holds the record back, it’s that as excellent as the riffing patterns are, they don’t burn into my spirit as perfection. This type of record lives and dies by its riffs, and the guitar work here is crazy good, but it’s not quite amazing to these ears. I’ve got to say though, it’s damn close.

Truly, Aura Noir are here to kick your ass, simultaneously blending aesthetics of vile extremity and embodying the aura of indomitable warrior strength that pervades the best releases of classic heaviness. It’s short, violent, disgusting, and ultimately grand as it batters along with conquering ferocity. Above all, perhaps the most fitting adjective I could foist upon it, like some brazen mantle, is that it’s undeniably fucking metal. It’s just absolutely, completely fucking metal, and that’s both its core strength and perhaps a perceived limitation, in case you’re a vagina. Admittedly, if you’re looking for complexity, depth, or subtlety, they are certainly in short supply here, and some of the patterns are more innately memorable than others, but if you’re looking to get thrashed, this will do it with passion and class, and it’s one of the best of its kind I’ve heard this year, and indeed ever. This is primarily due to the conjured aesthetic and to application of riffs, and more so than any other band, Aura Noir resurrects the dry, vile, pounding quagmire of To Mega Therion and Morbid Tales, modernizing that style without sacrificing any of the barbarous, decrepit spirit that made them so special to begin with. It feels uniquely its own, however, which is the difference between ‘heir’ and ‘pretender’, where this aforementioned throne is concerned. Out to Die may not be an epic, creative masterpiece commanding slack-jawed adoration, but what it does is slacken that jaw anyways with the force of an obsidian hammer, before commanding its undead legions to decapitate and sodomize your family, all for the fun of it. Yes, it’s absolutely metal, and an absolute blast of a listen.

8.75 / 10 - With Razors, With Will, With Fire

Saturday, December 8, 2012

God Seed - I Begin (2012)

More so than the vast majority of metal bands, even those rooted in the fundamentally fucked up psychology of black metal musicians, God Seed had turbulent beginnings. Founded by bassist King ov Hell and singer Gaahl after their failed coup of the Gorgoroth dynasty from founding member Infernus (a rightful outcome, if you ask me), the project seemed to have ended before it ever truly materialized. The outspoken, media-loving Gaahl announced his ‘retirement’ from black metal, and King instead focused on his Ov Hell project, a decent if unambitious partnership with Shagrath of Dimmu Borgir, leaving potential fans to ponder if the band would ever actually bear fruit. Well, come 2012, and the (not exactly surprising) return of Gaahl, we’ve finally an album to sink our teeth into, the suitably titled I Begin. Those who enjoyed with the duo’s albums with Gorgoroth will feel right at home here, as it feels like a natural extension of the material on Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam, but there are pleasantly distinct elements here that lend credence to the fact that this is, in fact, a new band.

What I Begin completely nails is atmospheric density. With great guitar and bass tones and a generally open-chord riffing style, not to mention the addition of a keyboard player, whose work tastefully embellishes the riffing, this album feels incredibly thick, washing over you like a swampy tsunami. Most of the material is mid-paced, with layers of richly-textured riffing that feel both thoughtful and innately diabolical. God Seed pull off both hellish intensity and ritualistic, hypnotic patterns of lower tempo with aplomb, and I Begin, at length, feels both distinct and mildly inventive. Considering of course you don’t hate these guys based on general principle, a prevalent perspective, and don’t mind your black metal sounding damn fine production-wise, this is an incredibly solid offering.

Awake ignites the record with a militaristic conflagration that is actually one of the more intense tracks on the record, with gushing gouts of magma-like riffs surging out over machine-gun drumming, framed by a deep, resonant bass tone that continues to satisfy throughout the journey. I feel it could have been mildly more pronounced, as it tends to get a bit overshadowed in some of the more intense moments, but the production here is otherwise excellent. It’s incredibly thick and soupy, befitting the ‘in a cauldron’ feel without blending tones into obscurity. This From the Past is like being in the midst of some kind of devilish summoning, with tangential flights of nocturnal keys and an appreciably vile vocal performance from Gaahl. Say what you will about the man (and yes, there is a lot to say), I’ve always enjoyed his maniacally vicious emanations, and he shows a lot of range and charisma here, a leading voice befitting the suffocating timbre of the music. The track ends in a hypnotic march with flowing, twisting synths and cultish chant, a tantalizing taste of the ensuing ritualistic conjurings.

Alt Liv is a genuine plodder, a steady, swampy, rhythmic march with dramatic use of keys to conjure a horror film aesthetic, something they seem to do quite well throughout the record. Their involvement lends a feeling of distinction to an already interesting release, and is used as a primary compositional trait rather than an ornate garment. From the Running of Blood is dense and misty, weaving a creepy, minimalist melody line that bursts through the fog like a lone ray of diabolical red light, before things kick up a notch for a tense, violent storm of a finale. Aldrande Tre once again thrives on ritualistic tendencies, with a marching, circling, choppy rhythm and some sparse spoken word from Gaahl, giving way to a cleanly sung chorus that feels appropriately cultish. The pace doesn’t change much, but the continual textural shift of the riffing builds tension up until the very end. Hinstu Dagar brings back the violence with some vibrantly evil, almost Eastern-sounding riffing and effectively tense, taught drum work. It feels like the summoning of an ancient Egyptian plague, and the varied, maniacal vocals feel suitably ungodly. Lit is another slow burner, giving way to some dark, dreamy synth patterns that took me by surprise, but certainly were not unwelcome, especially seeing as the song quickly transforms into some more measured, demonic force, with riffing so thick it veritably swallows you whole.

The Wound feels more overtly Gorgoroth-like than the majority of songs here, but may be the only song I would clip a bit, as it utilizes roughly 3 riffs, and feels like a retread of the haunted, repetitious patterning that some other songs on the album did much more effectively. It ends on a high note, however, as God Seed once again unleash blast-beat hellfire. The closer, Bloodline, is not a cover of a bad Slayer song, but rather an odd experiment in only quasi-musical atmosphere, a very minimal, gothic electro number with some vampiric breathing and simple electro-pop beat. It’s an odd way to end the album, but not entirely unfitting, considering the odd atmospheric splicings throughout the album.

A good many people will likely write this off due to the musicians involved, but that would be a tragedy. True, I Begin is not a legendarily good album, but it’s incredibly solid, stamped with a pervading sense of encroaching dread, utilizing the strengths of all the members to conjure a pretty memorable morass of depravity, with an array of tricks that never stagnate or bore throughout the 42-minute run time. If you like your black metal a certain way, and only a certain way, then you’re probably the type that should stay away from God Seed, but anyone else should give it a try, as it’s one of the most distinct releases within the more visible side of the genre this year. They’ve harnessed a host of murky aesthetics here that, in conjunction with strong, dynamic compositions, makes for a pretty damn intriguing record. It’s subtly evolved from their previous work, but not so much that it feels like a betrayal of principle.

If I had to level complaints, not many individual sections jumped out at me and commanded instant replay, but the stifling, ritualistic nature of the album essentially demands it be listened to a whole anyway. I also don’t know how much more attention I’m likely to give it, but that’s more due to the overwhelming quality of other releases this year than any innate failing on God Seed’s part. I Begin is a pretty involving journey, even if it’s not all equally memorable, but I can see it growing with more spins. If you have the time and inclination to really explore this record beyond cursory examination, it’s likely to snare you much deeper. There’s a lot of texture and depth to be found here. In the future, I’d like to see God Seed go even further with the more outlandish, eerie qualities presented here; maybe even dip into some more progressive song structures, but this is a strong beginning.

It’s rather inevitable that an outcry of poseur-hating rage will resonate throughout the land in reaction to any positivity garnered by this album, and I think this will inevitably come from the sect of black metal barons who hold everything up to unfair standards that may not even apply to the album in question. This is not ‘true’ black metal, methinks, so judging it by that standard is pretty worthless, but if you care not for your credibility among the armchair elite, and have a hankering for something vile and blackened along the lines of Gaahl/King-era Gorgoroth, I Begin will most certainly fill that void.

8 / 10 - Dense Volcanic Conjuration