Sunday, September 30, 2012

Gorod - A Perfect Absolution (2012)

This French technical death metal project stole my heart years ago with the excellent Neurotripsicks (been there a few times), and have been in my rotation ever since, establishing themselves deeper and deeper into my tech death database. Not only is A Perfect Absolution a sweet album, it’s one of the finest French tech experiences ever wrought, standing tall in my rotation this year alongside the excellent new album from their countrymen Outcast. I was slightly surprised to see that it’s their shortest work to date, clocking in at a hair under 40 minutes, but once you give this a spin, you’ll know immediately it doesn’t lack for content. Indeed, hibernating within that fiery artwork is an immense showcase of skill, biding its time till it can explode out of your speakers and tear your mouth agape in wonderment.

It must be stated that yes, this is very twiddly, overtly techy stuff, and if that irritates you, it might be best you look elsewhere. However, this is far from derivative, as Gorod reshape that innocuous shell and inject much more substance that your average ‘tech-for-tech’s-sake’ ADD architects, writing some songs that have a very real flow about them. That’s coming from an unabashed fanatic of wanking tech music, though, so take that for what it’s worth. There’s a new guitarist here, who’s inhuman enough to fit right in, as well as a new vocalist, another purveyor of the grunty growl, acting as another percussive instrument in the circus of amazing rhythms barely contained within.

Opener Birds of Sulphur trades off mathematical rhythmic gymnastics and a vast array of jaw/pants dropping leads, letting you know in no uncertain terms that you’re about to get your mind blown, every instrument a consistently flourishing showcase of talent and creativity. Make no mistake, there are riffs here, tons of them, and even the chorus is a fist-pumping, memorable affair. Many of the tracks follow this formula, flexing their muscles with a ridiculous variety of progressions, circling around a couple of central lines. It’s truly a maddening expedition, and one that fans of this kind of epileptic insanity with adore… not so much the old school elite, though, as I wouldn’t really call this dark or menacing. On the contrary, A Perfect Absolution is pretty uplifting at times, sawing its way up toward the skyline and painting it with the brilliant colors of its vibrant notation.

It probably goes without saying that these musicians are absolutely nuts, every one of them. As a drummer, I was often left speechless by the impeccable skills of Samuel Santiago, as you will be by any of these guys if you practice music. The guitars of Mathiu Pascal and Nicolas Alberny swirl and gyrate around each other in astonishing ways, and the warm pulse of Benoit Claus’s bass is perfect, as he both stays in rhythm with the drums and crafts his own unique, curving lines. They integrate some odd elements sometimes to mix things up (the funky circus midsection of Carved In the Wind, the atmospheric bludgeoning of 5000 At the Funeral, the island-breeze eclecticism of Varangian Paradise, the clean, almost Machine Head-like chorus in The Axe of God, and a whole smorgasbord of interesting and varied solos), but mainly they’ll be grooving along to one riff or another at a pretty feverish pace, with the lead guitar constantly needling out a wild array of notes. It’s all pretty similar on the surface, and tends to blend together if you’re not paying close attention (a common tech death trait), but if you have the ear for the style, there’s actually a lot of variety, if that makes sense.

It can admittedly be difficult to recall a great many sections from A Perfect Absolution, a tribute to its density rather than a condemnation of content, but the prevalent shifting of its acrobatic momentum will give detractors of the style all they need to write this off, I’m afraid. However, if you’re into monumental displays of skill set to a progressive death metal aesthetic, you’re going to want to spin this again and again, as I’ve been doing since its release. It doesn’t have the most innate memorability or emotional depth, but it’s an amazing exhibition, and one that does it’s damnedest to write interesting song structures and varied passages, rather than being relegated to the status of ‘tech demo’, a la Brain Drill. What truly matters with an album like this, though, is how interesting it is to go through, and how amazed you are by it that you keep repeating the experience, and for that, it’s a resounding success. I may enjoy them slightly less than I do the more prominent Obscura, The Faceless, or Spawn of Possession, but they’re still among the elite, and A Perfect Absolution is an unmitigated thrill-ride. I’d love to hear Gorod’s attempt at a truly progressive album, as I felt the most captivating moments were the more surprising, outside the box elements, but as it stands I’m more than satisfied with this.

8.5 / 10 - Captivate and Consume

Within the Ruins - Invade (2010)

Though not opposed to metalcore on general principle, like the majority of my peers, I still find the value of the vast majority of today's core bands to be utterly negligible. Due to the endless recycling of palm-muted break beats, trendy, simplistic songwriting, and little else, there's not much of interest. What is essentially Limp Bizkit in wolf's clothing doth not brutality make (ahem, Winds of Plague, cough...). Within the Ruins do their appreciable best to break the cycle and worm their way into the tech death section of my heart. To an extent they succeed, as Invade is a consistently entertaining venture. However, though flashy and interesting in a moment to moment context, the lack of a soul, or meaningful songwriting, ensures the limitation of this musical powerhouse.

I freely admit that endlessly twiddling guitar and technicality for its own sake don't really bother me as much as they do others, as I thoroughly enjoy musical wankery, but these elements sandwiched with a side of the expected breakdowns make up the entirety of Invade. Instrumentally speaking, this album is tactful and impressive; every note is carefully plotted and executed with mathematical efficiency, and the result is an incredibly consistent display of technical deathcore that is certainly anything but boring. Invade is literally packed to the brim with spectacular, often classically inspired lead guitar lines and bludgeoning grooves, and this is what the show is all about. Yes, yes, there are one-note breakdowns, all over the place in fact, but their inclusion didn’t make me groan so much in this instance. I still dislike the trend, but they feel like an essential part of whatever underlying groove is present, and never feel tacked on like an afterthought for the sake of being as trendy as possible. This alone makes Within the Ruins far more refreshing than the stagnant majority.

The problem I have is that it all feels a bit soulless, as the songs are devoid of compelling structure. There's no momentum building, no atmosphere... no real meat, if you will. It all feels super familiar, just a more twiddly and acrobatic variation of established core aesthetics, with horribly stupid, self-affirming tough guy lyrics. The songs run together into one big (admittedly interesting) marathon of technical grooves and lead guitar wizardry, never creating a captivating fog in which to lose one’s self in. In the end it's essentially a circus sideshow, rather than a Shakespearean play. You will be wowed. You will be entertained. But what you will not find is anything that penetrates the heart. Invade is never really boring, but neither is it memorable.

Whatever nagging I might level at Invade, I feel that Within the Ruins probably achieved exactly what they set out to do, and I can't really fault them for doing what they do so well. These songs are mosh-friendly displays of wowing technicality and spectacular, twiddling leads, meant to get kids in skinny pants and backwards hats swinging their extremities around like assholes, and that’s about as far as the aspiration goes. That sounds mean, but essentially, I'd call it a decent record, suitable for anyone with math-metal inclinations. I certainly had a bit of fun with it. However, keep in mind that this is really only spectacular on the surface. It's like a beautiful girl with no personality. Nothing offensive, per se, which is itself certainly a step up from the ugliness of today's insultingly vapid deathcore movement, but no real depth to speak of, either. That said, it’s certainly skillful, and as I’ve no doubt stated too often already, certainly more compelling than your generic jock mosh bullshit like Carnifex or Hatebreed. Not something I’ll keep listening to, but not bad, either.

6.75 / 10 - Math Problems and Energy Drinks

Abigail Williams - In the Shadow of a Thousand Suns (2008)

In crafting their first full-length, Abigail Williams have adopted a style of music I generally enjoy far more than their previous metalcore tinged (but still ferociously fun) EP, Legend. In eschewing that element, however, they have lost the incredible variety of sounds that came with mixing melodeath, symphonic black, and metalcore sprinklings into one insane package. While lacking the genre-blending appeal of yesteryear, Abigail Williams more than makes up for this with their devotion to more mature soundscapes.

What remains when the elements of metalcore and melodeath are stripped from the musical soul of Abigail Williams is straight up symphonic black metal, and some ripping good music at that. Despite my chagrin at the removing of melodeath flavors, everything else feels like a natural evolution, and I feel it’s basically unfair to expect a band to continue forward without variance. Based on its own merits, In the Shadow of a Thousand Suns is consistent and beautiful, worthy of your time if you have the imagination necessary to plumb its depths.

All musicians on In the Shadow of a Thousand Suns are total beasts, particularly the variety of drummers, and the vocals are an inhumanly dry, unbending rasp. They work well, and the sparsely used clean sections are appreciated, eschewing the cringingly whiney tendencies of Legend. The production brings out the crisp iciness of the performance to its full potential, and the songs themselves are suitably epic numbers, with twinkling keyboard lines brightening the snowy skyline. Songs run together a bit, and could use some more variety, but have a cutting, ethereal desolation to them that evokes great mental imagery. Despite lacking the stylistic songwriting variance of their Legend EP, it’s a testament to the group that they still remain interesting with this more streamlined formula.

Songs generally shift back and forth between harsh blasting and mid-paced atmospherics, with a reliance on keyboards and tremolo picking to generate atmosphere. I really enjoyed it when the songs slowed down and let the keys take the lead, as these sections really imbue the compositions with the mysterious magic and wonder that this type of music excels at creating in the minds eye. Shouting from the top of towering spires of ice, dragons swooping down to incinerate the last remnants of life in a landscape of nuclear winter, and other epically nerdy themes continually grace the mind. At first I had trouble distinguishing the tracks from one another, and to be honest they still blur somewhat; this lack of potent variation is really what keeps the album from reaching greatness. However, I enjoy In the Shadow of a Thousand Suns more with each listen, which is a great sign for any album.

All told, In the Shadow of a Thousand Suns is a good symphonic black metal album, and should appeal to any fan of the genre, provided you don’t a hate-on for them based on snobbish principle. Its solidity helps make up for any perceived repetition, though I can’t help but ponder on what could have been, had the band kept the awesome, dynamic elements of Legend. While I readily admit that everything here sounds great, it sadly does not hold me in the same rapture as the genres very best works tend to do. Emperor, this is not. A number of spectacular moments, such as the midsection of Floods, nearly accomplish the feat of consuming me, but don’t last long enough to seal the deal. As I stated earlier, I feel the album gets better with repeat listens, as there’s a lot to sink ones teeth into, but I have yet to feel completely at one with it. Had the compositions had a bit more variety, I might have been in love.

What I cannot stress enough is that this album feeds on imagination. The more you allow it to just be itself, and let yourself get lost in it’s epic landscape rather than constantly projecting judgment, the more the music comes into its own. I suppose that’s good advice in reference to any music, though. In any case, I appreciate this album immensely, and I desperately want to yield to its charms, but at long last I feel like I’m watching an epic hurricane from afar rather than basking in the eye. I strongly urge you to give it a chance, no matter your genre of choice, as it may draw you in even deeper than it did me. Even though it’s not musical perfection, I feel like there’s more to be gleaned from these depths, and In the Shadow of a Thousand Suns won’t be gathering dust in my vast collection anytime soon. Clear your mind and enjoy.

8 / 10 - Cutting Ethereal Desolation

Abigail Williams - Legend (2006)

Before ascending to the realm of full on symphonic black(ish) metal, Abigail Williams walked a fine line between these embryonic symphonic elements and sounds rooted in metalcore sensibilities. However, this is by no means as offensive as the palm-muted bro metal that crowds the genre’s arteries today, and Legend is actually quite an enjoyable little excursion.

Yielding to the pull of melodic deathcore rather than the full-blown epic nature of the band’s later years, keyboards still add a layer of grandeur to compositions that are generally of a melodeath slant. Though the obligatory breakdowns do surface, they do not ruin the experience. The musicians are good, and the music itself is fiercely energetic, featuring a good variety of towering, icy passages, slower theatricality, and some sections of all out hurricane blasting. The production is very warm and clear, which imbues a lot of feeling to the compositions. There is a slight classical aspect to Legend as well, lending it brief moments of almost power metal flavoring. All the separate elements emerge into a short genre-blending excursion that should appeal to anyone with an open minded approach to their metal. Vocals are a shrieking blackened style, but channel the attitude and brevity of metalcore barks, sometimes reaching an impressive higher register, akin to Cradle of Filth, though not as abrasive. I was not so fond of the inclusion of emo vocals (I struggle for better descriptors, but ‘emo’ is entirely too accurate), as their whiney nature sounds extremely out of place within this musical context. Thankfully, they aren’t prevalent.

All told, this a pretty good EP. It shows Abigail Williams’ undeniable promise; the roots of their cold, harsh ethereality are present, and Legend forges its own musical identity through a well-done variety of elements. They would end up removing this dynamic juxtaposition, for better or worse, by the time their next outing surfaced. The only negatives brought to the table are a few uninspired breakdowns and some whiney crooning (which is really, really bad; I cannot stress this enough), which are definitely a blemish on an otherwise stellar EP. What I appreciate about Legend is that it just feels like Abigail Williams were having a blast. There’s a sense of youthful excitement abound within Legend that their later projects, though more musically mature, don’t quite capture. It’s that spark that makes the despotic elements forgivable, and makes Legend so much fun.

7 / 10 - Melodic Symphoblackore

Pandemonium - Misanthropy (2012)

Misanthropy is the aptly-titled 4th album from another sweet Polish outfit calling themselves Pandemonium, and a brief glimpse at their history reveals that they’ve been puttering around since 1990, under both this moniker and that of Domain, under which they also released 3 albums. Well, this is their newest, and the first I’ve ever heard, or heard of, this cadre of lunatics. I’m pleased to say it is also a bit indefinable, in terms of genre, which is always interesting. However, in breaking down its constituent influences, one can hear strong emanations of both death and black, but with spiritual intonations of doom. Misanthropy is an unnerving experience, bathed in black slime and leering menacingly at you from its oddly beautiful boudoir, a place wreathed in sickness and stirring with the occult. There is a heavy eastern influence, calling pyramids and ancient horrors to mind as it creeps into your consciousness, tendrils wriggling with ominous delight. The supreme evil in its avant-garde nature reminds me of the mighty Akercocke, in spirit if not sound, but more fitting comparisons might be Septic Flesh, or even more appropriately, Ava Inferi, but this is far more filthy than any of them.

Right out the straight-jacket, Misanthropy oozes atmosphere. The Black Forest is a treacherous mid-paced gust of blackened melodies and grotesque, drawling vocals, like Peter from Vader if he ate an ounce of bad mushrooms. In fact, the vocals all over this album are insane, a varied and tortured array of growls, rasps, snarls, and even some tasteful female additions. The only problem with this is often the complete lack of enunciation, as the monstrous quality makes it largely impossible to follow along with the lyric sheet, a consistent irritation. However, the vocal styles add so much to the album’s prevalent oozing decrepitude that it matters little.

God Delusion is a murky swamp of hefty, trudging riffs, really serving to draw you into the bands nightmarish world. Necro Judas oozes venom as it crawls along, the drums a show of pure finesse, the guitars rising like a cobra out of the low end muck, circling with hate radiating from it gaze. Stones Are Eternal almost has a swarthy black and roll feel to its inaugural strumming, before a chorus of madness claims your mind. The arabesque female vocals hang poignantly above the morass of ghastly growls and dry serpentine hisses, like some demonic snake charmer summoning her minions to come and devour your shivering soul. I also especially like the titular closer, a panoramic view of avian middle-eastern leads and more haunted female vocals, like a goddess of the desert soaring above the harsh, unforgiving, endless sands. I think you get the point by now, and truly, each of the 8 tracks here is like a glimpse into different rooms in the same homicidal, fecal-smeared insane asylum. It’s very tense, and very unsettling, almost inhumanly so, and these slimy depths are countered magnificently by the hefty, uplifting ‘ancient Egypt’ sections.

Misanthropy is a real treat, an absolute win for anybody interested in extreme metal with impenetrable atmosphere and an ear for stirring, poisonous melodies. I especially enjoy how unique these emanations are, truly akin only in my experience to Ava Inferi, but so much more psychotic and violent… not physically, but mentally, which is much more intrusive and poignant. They utilize the overlaying melodies and drawling, wretched vocals to maximum effect, and this stands as one of most uniquely virulent releases of the year, subtly working its way into your consciousness like a sweet sickness, until you can’t help but yield to its prevalent, diseased charm.

8.5 / 10 - Beware the Swamp

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Unleashed - Odalheim (2012)

When you think of Viking death metal, I’d be willing to bet the majority of you immediately and unerringly bring to mind Amon Amarth. However, the more deeply involved in the scene will be quick to point to another distinct entity, a marriage of those sky-seeking melodies and the decrepit rollicking of early Entombed, one who has been toiling away to perfect this style for years before their more popular Viking-styled countrymen even began, and indeed, when the scene was still a fledgling, defined by only Bathory and a handful of others. To my knowledge, they were the first example of pure-blooded Viking death metal, using the trademark buzz-saw melodic nature of the Swedish scene to bring forth Norse battle cries unlike any other. The band I speak of is Unleashed, whose 11th and newest record is just as good as anything their melodic or (now) death n’ roll counterparts have released, but with a blazing tenacity that acts as a dynamic middle ground to those more widely recognized soundscapes.

Constant comparison is largely a lazy review style, but bear with me, I beg, as it’s just so fitting in this case. There is a decent amount of crunch one would find in the typical Amon Amarth song, but there are layers of riffing here that exude a more complex flow of melody. The songs are not as anthemic or accessible, but contain an unflappable ferocity that burns its way into your gray matter and sets the spirit aflame. If Amon Amarth exemplifies the even, rhythmic pounding of Thor’s hammer, than Odalheim is a lightning storm straight from Odin, punishing the whole world over. However, despite differences in delivery, they provide innately similar experiences, grim-bearded brothers carrying different weapons to the same battlefield, prepared to fight and die to protect the glory of Yggdrasil. The ceaseless, pounding march of Odalheim's chugging, gloriously violent melodies also draws parallels to the formative works of Dismember and Entombed, and indeed, Unleashed main-man Johnny Hedlund was actually a part of the latter in the early days, when they tearing up the underground as Nihilist.

The compositions lean toward flowing layers of fast-paced, windy melody, much more so than the chunky, muted slabs you may be used to, though those certainly manifest themselves more than a bit as well. The riffing is simply glorious, and there are roughly 3 zillion to choose from, so you never end up bored, or feeling like a section is too often repeated. It’s like a roaring river (or an ever flowing stream), or a blazing fire, essentially constant, yet ever-changing.

Fimbulwinter blasts like a storm of ice shards, its driven proclamations of winter savagery immediately vicious and infectious. The titular Odalheim is a hammer-pounding call to arms, flowing with melodious anger into a soulful, memorable solo and another spine-tingling chorus. White Christ is a testament to the historical inhumanity of Christianity, and alternates between a choppy, rhythmic stomp and cutting layers of riffing that veritably shave the skin off your bones. The Hour of Defeat is gallops hard into the angry Gathering the Battalions, where guitar leads blow through panoramic mountains of pounding, muscular notation. Rise of the Maya Warriors has an amazing dual-harmony near its end, and The Soil of Our Fathers is a blazing march for glory and revenge. Every song here is memorable in its own way, concise and epic to the nth degree.Of this short 43 minute length, every moment achingly sweet, the simple purity of spirit belying the thoughtful, intelligent song construction, each riff carefully placed for the maximum possible impact.

Johnny Hedlund’s vocals are somewhere between the barking drawl of LG Petrov and the lion-esque roar of Johan Hegg, having evolved from the simple, percussive death grunts of the early years to a more scarred, clearly enunciated delivery, snarling in both lower and medium-high octaves, his natural pride and venom matching the spiritual weight of the notation pound for pound. He also pulls off an impressive performance on the bass; nothing overly technical or insane, but boasting a nice, warm, audible tone, and he doesn’t miss a beat in providing a thick, warm pulse for the guitars to rest on as they cut like a winter wind. And indeed, they are the star of the show here, an inspired array of chilly, battle-ready note progressions that slice through the snow with a bead drawn on your throat. I’d even go so far as to call this lightly blackened death metal, as Odalheim practically oozes ice, both in notation and clear, crisp production.

I’ll admit, both to you and myself, that I never gave Unleashed quite as much credit as they no doubt deserved, always playing second fiddle to other, more visible Swedish death projects, but all that’s changed now. It has led me to re-examine some of their other albums I hadn't given enough time to sink in, and I’ll likely review them all at some point. More important and immediate, though, is Odalheim, one of the best albums I’ve heard all year, very nearly as infectious as the new Kreator, and somehow eclipsing it in terms of sheer excitement. Their signature sound is like a call to battle, stirring the Scandinavian in my blood and imparting mental imagery of galloping warrior hordes, of severed Christian heads lining the stained crimson snow, and epic, valorous war wrought by hordes of axes and snarling storms of ice.

If there is anything negative here, it's that a few of the melodies and choruses feel similar to each other, and this sense of pervasive familiarity does hold the album back from being perfect, but it's a testament to the overarching quality that it does very little detriment to the end result. The level of magnificence in each track is astounding, but just a bit more differentiation could have made Odalheim truly immortal. As it stands though, it's still impeccable, a fucking monolith of battle-hardened, memorable material.

Many are keen to compare Unleashed with their more lauded adversaries, and not always favorably. This is particularly true of Amon Amarth, a practice I obviously can’t condemn, and while this is rather inescapable, what with their gigantic popularity and the obvious similarities native to both, I like to think of them as savage warriors championing the same cause, side by side rather than rivals, crushing your feeble skull for the glory of Asgaard. In conjunction with the flowing melodies, the pure violence and often crashing pace are redolent of the very best aspects of works like Left Hand Path and An Ever Flowing Stream, and this easily eclipses the competition as the best unerringly Swedish death metal album I’ve heard in years, melodic or otherwise.

Odalheim is the most resounding, savage, epically memorable attack these warlords have summoned thus far, and will likely stay in my rotation for years to come. Frosty, bearded, and hammer swinging with divine fury ‘til the bitter end, Viking metal just doesn’t get better than this.

9.5 / 10 - Immortal Battalions, Bearded and Brave

Centurion - Serve No One (2012)

Centurion is another heretical death metal mercenary in the growing army of the Polish underground, a scene of huge talent and ferocity at this point in time. They made an attack on the world 10 years ago with their first full-length, which I’ve not heard, then just sort of dropped off the map. They’ve now returned with a new application for the firing squad in 2012 with Serve No One. While it’s unerringly brutal, and provides a primal pummeling satisfaction, it’s too low on memorability to leave any distinct mark on either the scene or the consciousness, which is too bad, considering the band’s considerable skill.

This sort of barbarous, bludgeoning, blasting death metal is the type one would expect to find from Angelcorpse, Deicide, or the early works from Morbid Angel. Rarely do the band relent from their endless wave of Christ-pounding punishment, and while this kind of muscular work ethic works for some (the latest from Chaos Inception comes to mind), in this case it feels too familiar, and not dynamic enough to really stick to the ribs. That said, Serve No One is still an admirable, appreciably brutal attack that certainly doesn’t fail to exert some degree of force and blasphemy. The riffs are a roiling morass of decrepit, choppy progressions, rooted in the slime of Altars of Madness and storming ahead at Mach 10, and while a great many fail to differentiate themselves, they’re strong enough as to not make this album anywhere near bad, and even lightly enjoyable for its short, 28 minute length.

Instrumentation is as solid as you would expect given the medium of this monstrous form of expression, with a particularly skilled drummer and audible, if not very warm or full, bass lines to compliment the spasmodic riffing architecture, and Caesar’s (Caesar, Rome, anti-Christian… see what they did there?) genre-typical grunts act as a fine focal point. This is straightforward, ferocious death metal, and the lyrics follow suit, a tirade against Christianity that possesses absolutely no subtlety or poeticism, a trait that exhibits its own Neanderthal charm in conjunction with albums of this nature, even if it’s pretty derivative. Some lines are just downright funny:

‘Fields of impaled ones
Rotting corpses stink
Their cut off heads
Will be our trophy
Fuck you and die
You deplorable christian faggot’

….Indeed. That’s some weighty literature there. I’m no fan of Christianity, but come on. To be fair, most of the lines aren’t nearly that bad, and get the point across without resorting to childish, homosexual pejoratives. Despite its inherent, whirling simplicity and sometimes boneheaded lyrics, there are a few moments in Serve No One that show promise, usually when the band reins in the momentum, and these sections assert that Centurion could be much more interesting if they chose. Parts such as the vast, cyclical riffing architecture in Gateways to Condemnation, the steady marching inferno of Thy Portal, the chopping thrashy outro to Cut the Throat, and the rhythmic pulsing of No One to Serve are glimmers of greatness in a band that hovers just slightly above average. The rest doesn’t lack for ferocity, and there is a measurable amount of fun to be had being stomped by its formidable tempo, reveling in simplistic monotheistic gore, and picking out the handful of truly strong riffs, but at length, I’m afraid I’m just not going to remember much of this, or feel an impetus to listen to it over the hundreds of other death metal bands vying for my attention, far too many of them of simply immaculate quality.

This was a fun diversion, but not something I’ll likely be coming back to, as I can get this same fix, with infinitely more personality, from groups like Hour of Penance and the aforementioned Chaos Inception. With a world so awash with worthy death metal bands, it takes a special spark to really set yourself apart, and in Centurion, it’s simply to buried too deeply for it to be worth the dig. I have no doubt that there’s a better market for this than I, though, and if you live and breathe the heathen storms of Angelcorpse and their ilk, than by all means, please check out Serve No One. Centurion are fucking furious, and they provided me with enough quality here to wish them well, if with a firm handshake rather than a sobbing hug, and hope for a brighter (darker?) future for us both, if and when we meet again.

6.5 / 10 - The Anemic Anti-Christ

Friday, September 28, 2012

Devin Townsend Project - Epicloud (2012)

Epicloud is the newest experiment from everyone’s favorite mad metal scientist Devin Townsend. Examining this new species makes it quite clear that Townsend was not telling pork pies when he admitted this would be his attempt at a ‘pop’ album, and indeed, one that concerns his views on the concept of love, in both lyrical and musical dimensions. To that end, it certainly feels like that, and your enjoyment of Epicloud is going to absolutely depend on what you’re looking for in it. If you just want to see this latest creation and bathe in whatever it offers, you’ll do fine, but be warned: this is not a metal album. It contains elements in many tracks that are metallic, and at times it can be heavy, but at length it’s much too calm and fluffy to ever truly cross over, and headbanger bro’s are going to find nothing here, just a lot of bright, streaming emotion. Which is gay, right bro? Best to move along, man. Best move along.

Immediately and thoroughly, Epicloud feels to me like the audible approximation of a nice dose of MDMA. There’s this subtle, vibrant energy that pulses throughout it, thanks to constant background synths that cast a heavenly hue to the entirety of the proceedings. The lyrical matter also tries to deal with the complexities of human behavior intrinsic to the flabbergasting oddity we call ‘love’. Though oftentimes a bit abstract (who woulda guessed), and sometimes too damn obvious, they work well with the tracks themselves, so no complaints here. This constant background energy is consistent with this overarching concept, but at length I felt the songwriting only partly succeeded.

This is indeed a pop album, but not in any horrid, MTV way. It’s more creative and unique than that, more loveable Queen that shit-yourself-and-die Adam Lambert horror, but as such, it needs some incredibly strong, endlessly repeatable songs to truly succeed in this more simplistic universe. Devy has got the diversity down, no question, as there are a number of beautiful tracks which are stylistically lightyears apart. My favorites are the dreamy elecro-pop duet of Save Our Now, and the boundary-smashing, uplifting metal number Kingdom, with its insane vocal performance, which are actually back to back, and together make up the absolute strongest part of the album. However, the rest of the album is merely good, and generally not nearly as compelling. It’s funny, though, that with Devin Townsend, the biggest insult I can come up with is that it’s ‘good’.

It is though, it’s only good, and not in a way I can see a whole lot metal fans appreciating, as I mentioned earlier. Less than half the material here is metal, and a lot of it is quite calm, simple, and flowery… but in a good way, in that it feels like legitimately passionate, creative music, delving into a whole bunch of stylistic spheres, as Devy tends to do, and I wouldn’t count any track here as a failure. However, some of them simply do not continue to resonate with me, and I find myself skipping a couple to get to the good stuff. These include the vibrant but repetitive True North and the accessible rocker Liberation, by no means bad songs, but simply not nearly as exciting for me as the tracks above. That said, I enjoy the omnipresent variety, and the outlandish, gushing amount of synths, choirs, and all sorts of over-the-top madness really adds to the streaming purity of Epicloud’s vibe.

I feel like this is going to mostly appeal to an entirely different audience than the more demented of Hevy Devy’s fans (like myself), and indeed many a metal head will simply find this a bit too, well, loving, to stomach. Not all of its songs are fully enrapturing, but enough are, and while this is appreciably outside of the norm for me, I thankfully don’t require things to be ‘fuckin metal, bro!’ for me to enjoy them, not at all. So, though I feel it’s something short of a masterpiece, I still recommend it to the more laid-back amongst you (especially if you’ve got some E and a beautiful woman), and when it’s going strong, it’s going so strong that I’m going to continue listening to it, even after the review is done. Already got a copy sitting in the car, an appreciable break from my usual array of punishing, decrepit brutality. Devin is always defying the norm, and defying expectations people place upon him (always hilarious to read moronic reviews like ‘This isn’t the Devin I know!!!’), and that’s how he succeeds as not just a musician, but as an artist. Continuing evolution, doing what feels natural and inspired for him at the time. While this time it doesn’t happen to resonate with me as much as some of his other stuff, I still appreciate it for what it is, and if you’re an open-minded fan of good music (not just metal), you should definitely give it a shot.

7.75 / 10 - Laugh, Love, Live, Learn

Children of Bodom - Follow the Reaper (2000)

It’s a testament to the power of the almighty riff that an album can be absolutely dynamic, fulfilling, and even groundbreaking without purveying a real amount of depth. In this case, the swirling clouds of guitar and keyboard notation dance in pissed-off harmony to create one of the most special listening experiences that the metal world has ever had to offer. Children of Bodom showed great promise with the loose, aggressive Something Wild, and reformed that passion into the taught, formidable foray into neo-classical melodic fury that was Hatebreeder. However, in Follow the Reaper, they attained the perfection of this formula, to a degree of quality and artistic success that they haven’t come close to since, save for it’s direct follow-up, Hate Crew Deathroll.

As with Hatebreeder, the formula is to simply follow Alexi’s lead as he spirals out like a lightning storm covering the earth, each guitar line a razorblade, slicing along with its comrades to create a veritable hurricane of cutlery, moving with precision and skill wrought in the fires of pure, beautiful melody. As immortal as the leads, solos, harmonies, and epic guitar/keyboard battles were in Hatebreeder, I feel they are no less than twice as strong here. Suffice to say, this is perhaps the most immediately infectious album I have ever heard, and its bright, celeritous bombast is endlessly invigorating, having only grown in my heart within the past dozen years.

Follow the Reaper is 38 minutes of up-beat, lightly blackened melodeath with the spirit of pure rebellion, riffing and snarling with concision and attitude. Alexi Laiho’s vocals have taken on a purely high-register blackened yowl, and though the classical elements have been downplayed, he more than makes up for their absence with his own melodies, which are without exception perfect. His unique, identifiable style was really coming into its own here, and framed by the dynamic interplay of keyboardist Janne Warman, they veritably soar past the clouds, atmosphere, distant galaxies, and whatever deity you believe in, spitting in his face and giving him the finger for good measure.

Of the 9 songs here, only one exceeds 5 minutes, the beautiful blast of Children of Decadence, whose needling leads twirl you around its finger before cracking you in the jaw with its chorus, an affirmation of wild brotherhood. Every song is a life-long highlight, though, from Bodom After Midnight with its pumping, spindly, grooving melodies, Mask of Sanity and its sheering, downright Asian keyboard emanations, the utterly satisfying leads in Hate Me!, or the end of Kissing the Shadows, which contains the best guitar/keyboard solo I have ever heard in my life, and the best of the bands career. In fact, every track contains such an exhibition, and even after almost a dozen years, they remain equally as captivating and impressive as the very first time I heard them.

This is not a record of complexity or depth, beyond the astounding skill of its two main melodic monsters as they playfully battle, and it doesn’t need to be, not at all. The pure strength of the songwriting is still perhaps the catchiest thing I’ve ever heard, always unceasingly creative in its natural flow, with memorable choruses abound. Most of all though, and a point I must reiterate from the Hatebreeder review, is that Follow the Reaper is just plain fucking fun. It is an absolute masterpiece in its own simple way, and I cannot think of an album I have more legitimate, excitable fun listening to, as its cheery, raucous spirit just works so well with my sensibilities. I certainly understand the point of view of people who accuse Bodom of being flashy, but come on, you’d have to be a snarling, twisted, lame little troll to deny these obvious, impeccable charms.

This is the pinnacle, folks. Though the following Hate Crew has a bevy of charm, it is not quite as strong as this, as they began to integrate elements to gather popularity, while sacrificing integrity, a trend that would inevitable almost destroy them, and one they have yet to fully recover from. Follow the Reaper, though is absolutely pure in its energy, spirit, and notation, a crystalline monument that stands at my personal summit of melodic metal, along with a handful of other releases that will some day be revealed. It’s so unabashedly simple, and so absolutely glorious, that for me, it is immortal.

A 100% review is painfully over-utilized these days, often denoting nothing more than the next dose of ADD glory someone has listened to twice and thinks is ‘fuckin epic man’ (Fleshgod), but it’s not an act I take lightly at all. 100% denotes perfection to the person in question, and not only that, absolute timelessness. If you give something 100%, and you’re not listening to it for the rest of your life, you have failed at the art of critique. I say that not to demean, but to lend gravity to my own sense of responsibility in attributing such a score. I realize my passion here is not one shared by the metal populace at large, and this kind of happy, flashy metal will not appeal to everyone, but if you’ve been holding out on this based on popular opinion, I beg of you to consider otherwise, and at least give it a chance.

The glory of early Bodom is not in ruminating emotional depth or haughty intelligence, but the glory of being truly alive, reveling in stark, stunning, beautiful immediacy. You can think way too hard, worrying about all manner of things like the past, future, the meaning of it all, or that pimple on your nose, and let those weighty thoughts and insecurities rule your opinion and heart, but it’s only when you concede yourself to the moment that you truly live. So loosen the fuck up, put on Follow the Reaper, have another beer, ask that girl (or guy) you’ve been thinking about to go to a show, or just eat some mushrooms and run around in the rain. Just stop thinking and live for a minute. Follow the Reaper thrives on this thrilling sensation of ‘now’, just having a load of fun doing its thing, not giving two shits if you like it or not, and that’s its endlessly pervasive charm, one that eclipses almost all other melodic metal ever made. That’s it. That’s all. It’s just so much goddamn fun, and that’s perhaps the most important thing of all. As I get older, the more ridiculous and abstract life gets, the more important an album like this becomes. When it all comes down to it, we’re just amusing ourselves in the void, and I can think of no better company than a record of such wonderful, boisterous, belligerent, and downright elegant charm.

10 / 10 - The Saint of Scythes

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Masachist - Scorned (2012)

Christ-raping fucknuts, Batman! I love Poland. Lately, it seems like everything I listen to from there has delivered the goods. And you know what? This time is no different. Masachist is another band of extreme skill and quality that follows the stylistic precepts of bands like Behemoth and Decapitated like gospel, also drawing subtler parallels to Vader, Lost Soul, and Calm Hatchery. The dense, ancient power of the riffing often also feels like an extension of Morbid Angel, to an extent. And while this warrior doesn’t brandish the most unique weapon in the horde, it fights as strongly as any, a flame-spewing war machine of choppy, muscular riffing, pulverizing percussion, and enough innate variety to fill out the 38 minute playtime with ease.

The Behemoth influence is overwhelming and obvious right out the gate on the opener Drilling the Nerves, with its crunchy, muted grooves suspended over a backdrop of calm, eerie, minimalist synths. It emanates power in the short exertions of blasting it evolves into, but a small demonstration of the carnage about to be wrought. The Process of Elimination is well titled, carving you up with blast-beat extremity and an array of violent, lurching riffs. Straight and Narrow Path lies somewhere between the two, settling into a nice, mechanistic groove and battering along with measured force, a freight train of damnation bearing down on your prone, bound form. The album consistently bathes in a bloody mixture of these extremes, and every track has a slightly different feel than the last, a great quality for any record. Other highlights include the dissonant, atmospheric slicing of Liberation and the epic desert march of Inner Void, which closes the album as the most progressive number.

The style here really is mostly a marriage of established formulas for greatness. The percussive, mechanical, fragmented bludgeoning of Decapitated and the grandiose, ancient riffing energy that makes Behemoth such unique and compelling conquerors meet in an orgy of swords and virulence to create the plagued essence of Scorned. The overwhelming quality is perhaps not so surprising when one considers the madmen behind this monument. With Thrufel (Azarath) on guitar, Daray (Vesania, Dimmu Borgir) on drums, Heinrich (Decapitated, Vesania) on bass, and the guttural emanations of Sauron (Decapitated) acting as voice to the madness, it’s not a far fetched statement to call them a sort of super group of underground Polish excellence. Each member is on the top of their respective game here, and I especially enjoyed the skillful battering of Daray, the best I've yet heard from him.

If there is any issue with Scorned, it’s that it wears its influences a bit too brazenly. It’s all redolent of  Behemoth and Decapitated, given, and those are great influences to have, but sometimes it feels like they’re really, really pushing it, as a certain section, every now and again, will feel almost directly lifted, like the beginning of Higher Authority and some sections in Inner Void. However, that is a rare thing, and even in that case, their chosen progressions are so strong that it does little to hinder my enjoyment. However, I have a feeling some might not be so forgiving. The production feels pretty level, allowing each instrument to breathe without sacrificing cohesion. This feels totally professional, with even the bass guitar getting its rightful place.

I really like Scorned, it stirs the spirit with grand, epic riffs and pummels the body with calculated grooving assaults. The songs are all well-crafted, with tasteful leads, and a propensity for the building and releasing of tension, never as ordinary as standard verse-chorus lethargy. I feel like the overwhelming similarities to bigger name projects will hamper their ability to find their place in the public eye, however, which sucks, but is understandable. This is an unyieldingly strong album with excellent riffs, interesting composition, tight execution, and a very real identity crisis. I thoroughly enjoyed what is has to offer, but it often felt like I was basking in the creative glow of Behemoth (even Sauron's vocals take on a near-identical timber to Nergal's at times), rather than that of Masachist, so heavy is their influence.

Please don’t let any of that dissuade you from checking this out, though, because despite similarities, this is fucking awesome. If you’re a fan brutal, titanic death metal, Polish or otherwise, this will be right up your alley. Similar to my last review for Costa Rican aspirants Advent of Bedlam, I feel that Masachist have the combined chops and compositional strength to make a proper impact, if only they could brand their own unique riffing style into the listeners brain. The thoughtful combination of the tendencies from their more popular countrymen is interesting and admirable, but it needs to go a step further if they want to be able to stand apart. So there you go, another wholly enjoyable release from Poland, making up what they lack in originality with absolute, dominant force. A very satisfying release.

8 / 10 - Cut Them Deep and Make Them Cry

Advent of Bedlam - Flesh Over God (2012)

Costa Rica is not normally one of the first places I think of when considering underground death metal, but Advent of Bedlam have produced a real storm here, on this, their second album. Coming from a scene I’m not so familiar with, it’s especially pleasing that they’re so good. Flesh Over God has a pretty ridiculous amount of variety in its 35 minutes, and if there’s one thing these guys can do, it’s write a riff… or about 1000, in this case.

Flesh Over God is a different kind of melodic death metal. It has nothing at all to do with groove-happy, uninspired Gothenburg or metalcore drivel, sounding more redolent of Polish boundary-smashers Behemoth, or Australian tech phenoms Psycroptic, than any derivation of Dark Tranquility or In Flames. But melodic they are, building off a variety of riffs that are really, actually riffs; consistently varied and ever-flowing, not just atonal chugging patterns that many death metal bands use as a crutch. While not all of them are terribly memorable, many of them are, and there’s enough variety to keep you on your toes. In conjunction with the insanely varied pacing, though, their efforts come off as pretty universally appealing.

Whether they’re blasting away, removing your flesh like a whirlwind of knives, or soaring high in a mid-paced layering of melodies, you’ll be both impressed and transfixed. The word gets thrown around a lot, but this record is truly dynamic, and forces one to rethink the moniker ‘melodic death metal’, as it’s just so far left of center. Yeah, Flesh Over God is melodic, with lots of riffs that feel very uplifting, but they can also pull out their battle hammers at the drop of a hat and go brutal death metal, crushing your life with little warning. There are a variety of vocal styles, including high rasps, lower growling, and some instances of chanting, further differentiating each moment. There’s even a spectacular guest spot from Tim Aymar (Pharaoh, Control Denied), which totally caught me off guard. The production is largely even, but I felt the drums were just a tad loud, sometimes obscuring the guitars, but only slightly. That said, it’s a very minor complaint, and the performance itself is absolutely badass, matching the compositional insanity with ease, and drummer Luis Ortiz can clap himself on the back for a job well done.

Advent of Bedlam have released a very capable record here, only flawed in that some of its constituent parts feel so familiar. The band truly take Behemoth as gospel, and one can hear a smorgasbord of notation clearly inspired by the sheering, ancient wave of energy those Poles produce around virtually every turn. This is both a strength and a weakness. For me, it’s a strength, as I absolutely love Behemoth and their trademark style (one of my top 20 artists, no doubt), but some may no doubt write them off for it at first glance, without deigning to go deeper. That would be a mistake. They do take perhaps a bit too much influence from them at times, but to the band’s credit, their riffs are always engrossing, and rarely feel like plagiarism, even when they wear the influence on their sleeve. There are also subtle nods to At the Gates, but they remain in their place, and none of it feels downtrodden or trite, like the 2,893,000 other bands who name them as a primary influence. I can also pick out some Greek here, a la Rotting Christ, in some of the creepier riffs, and the cleaner, more cultish vocal styles.

Other than the bands listed above, the vast number of individual riffs here still feels vaguely familiar, even if those sources are not immediately identifiable. However, the riffs are so strong, and these songs are constructed with so much care and force as to render that complaint pretty minor. Flesh Over God is a very compelling package, a damn good death metal album (with awesome cover art) that attempts to defy the usual classifications, instead existing somewhere in the middle of melody and brutality. It’s not always memorable, but it is absolutely fun, and often surprising, for the entirety of its short length, and I feel that if the band could put their own unique stamp on the riffing, they could make a significant splash in the death metal consciousness. I certainly hope they do, as they have a scary amount of combined ability, and they play with undeniable passion.

If you’re looking for a good underground release that’s a bit different, this is a good bet. It’s always a pleasure to witness such inspiration and talent in the underground, and even though they didn’t quite wipe the floor with me, I’m glad I ran into Advent of Bedlam. They’re clearly inspired, know how to construct a song, and stir in an appreciable variety of elements with ease. Flesh Over God is just on the very cusp of being great, and I have a feeling this will appeal to a wide range of death heads, from fans of Spawn of Possession to even Arch Enemy. They’ve got all the elements here, and they can count me impressed, but I still think they can do better. I’d love to see some big names take these guys out on tour so they can get some more experience under their belts, tighten their sound for a defining album, and explode. Until then, do these guys a favor and throw some fuel on the fire by plunking down the meager pittance for this intriguing album. It will not disappoint.

7.75 / 10 - Melodious Malodorous Monstrosity

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Enthroned - Obsidium (2012)

Enthroned hail from Belgium, and are without compare one of the most important, long lived black metal bands in that scene. Obsidium is their 9th full length album, and another dose of fiery, well-produced evil from a band that can seemingly do no wrong. Indeed, I count Enthroned as one of the most consistent bands within all the realms of black metal, slowly but surely building their malevolent kingdom one brick at a time. Though they’ve never quite enraptured me as much as some other projects that roam the godless blackened lands, they’ve nevertheless remained a beacon of quality for going on 20 years. Obsidium continues the philosophy of refinement rather than reinvention, a formula the band have distilled to a damn tasty degree, slowly rising in vitriolic percentage, and a listen to this will make your decadent spirit tremble in glee, just as a shot of 151 would do to your liver in horror.

At 40 minutes, Obsidium is pretty to the point. This is very Swedish sounding, melodically-inclined black metal with a focus on the riffing, which largely succeeds in its impure mission. The chord progressions here are like a true flood of primal black energy, fermented in nobility and hate, riding the winds of Armageddon with a practiced grace. Riffing backdrops range from mid-paced to storming, always accompanied by a selection of ancient, unsettling notation. The more intense bits remind me very strongly of Marduk, as do the pestilent emanations of singer Nornagest, a satisfying, spiteful snarl. I love Phorgath’s roiling, pulsating bass tone; it’s nice and audible, and feels like a subtle undercurrent of warmth in a hostile, frozen world, or the lifeblood of some nocturnal horror. Drummer Garghuf reprises his role from the last record, and performs with the level of professionalism and celerity one would expect of such a respected institution, blasting with easy confidence and even adding some subtle cymbal-work for a covert flourish or two.

The 9 songs here didn’t feel as varied or distinguishable as I had expected at first, but after number of listens, the subtleties really begin to take shape, and the character of each song becomes apparent. Once again, much of this material is heavily reminiscent of Marduk, but there are other flavors at work as well. The panoramic, icy riffing often feels similar to Gorgoroth, and the melodic leads are somewhat redolent of Dark Funeral or Lord Belial. However, don’t let that ring with negativity, for if you have a proclivity for strong, well-produced black metal, there isn’t a single track here that will let you down. I mention these names just to entice you, as they may be indicative of your enjoyment of Obsidium.

If one were to level any complaints against this, it would be that nothing in the stylistic tendencies or riff-craft is going to be inherently new to anyone well acquainted with the black metal multiverse, as the tricks here have been done pretty much countless times. Make no mistake, this is pretty traditional stuff, utilizing established and prevalent techniques, but the way they go about it, and the quality of the average riff here, is quite compelling. Enthroned’s primary mode of attack is a biting, furious wind, sometimes building layers of good riffs on top of each other to create a very flowing, expressive attack.

Anyone who has read a decent amount of my reviews can tell my primary means of expression concerning music is the mental imagery it conjures, and this is based on my innate sense of connection to what an artist is trying to accomplish. Originality is not always important; it’s more interesting to behold and bask in vision. To that effect, I don’t give two shits if Enthroned aren’t the most eccentric kid in the black metal playground, because I like the feeling of their music. It resonates with my strange, warped spirit and sends it spiraling off to ancient, forgotten lava fields that work in tandem with my imagination to succeed. Such is music, though, I suppose.

This album is clean and crushing, like a crystalline tower, and marks the creation of another splendid spire, an excellent addition to Enthroned’s ever-expanding castle. I have a lot of fun listening to it and reveling in the permeating atmosphere, and that alone makes it good. It has not sunk deep enough into my memory in order for me to consider it amazing, but it’s one of the best black metal releases I’ve heard this year, and it’s growing on me every single time I listen to it, so it’s going to stay in rotation for awhile, you can bet your corpse-painted ass.

True to Enthroned’s MO, Obsidium is a strong, compelling gust of blackened majesty that seems to give as much as you’re prepared to put into it, but still strikes somewhere short of immortality. Still, for any black metal neophytes and wizards who enjoy the cleaner, tighter, more melodic variations on the genre like Marduk, Naglfar, Lord Belial, and Dark Funeral (all ironically from Sweden), then I urge you to check out not only this, but Enthroned’s entire career, an unholy flame that has not lost a fraction of its spirit or fury, continuing to burn with passion, skill, and integrity.

8.25 / 10 - As a Corrupted Spring

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gojira - The Link (2003)

French musical phenomenon Gojira’s second effort shows a slight upward momentum from their debut, Terra Incognita, and though it’s still not nearly as compelling as the groundbreaking efforts they’d be creating as early as their next release, The Link continues to establish the unique tendencies that Gojira would utilize to literally explode in pretty short order. Indeed, The Link is a good, if not great, listen that at this point serves more as a curiosity than a chunk of memorable tunes you’ll want to repeat again and again. It feels tighter and more organized than its older brother, though, and is measurably more enjoyable.

The punishing, cyclical grooves are still the focus here, but there are some more expressive sections as well, some tremolo-picked, some atmospheric open chord, some almost tribal in essence, and these are where the record truly feels artistic. This variety of abstract weirdness counterbalances the reliance on the pounding of muted, Meshuggah-inspired rhythms, and this sort of warm, primal atmosphere, working in interesting conjunction with the cold, mechanistic gnashing that dominates these soundscapes, is what makes The Link interesting. I feel some latent Sepultura influence here, and this being the result of a hypothetical hybrid between them and Meshuggah, perhaps with a light suffusion of Tool, is not so far fetched, at least for this release. Joe Duplantier’s vocals also feel like an admixture of Max Cavalera’s gruff shouts and Jens Kidman’s wilder, more gibbering style circa Contraddictions Collapse.

‘The Link’ displays these pervasive qualities right as it steps out of the portal, with an eerie cultish dissonance that immediately adds a strange, surreal nature to the rolling rhythms. ‘Death of Me’ lurches oddly in its choppy, lock-step grooves, which build from a bouncy Neanderthal stomp to a sheering wave of bright, strumming chords, and back again. Connected is a short sequence of light percussive notes that either originates from a Xylophone, or some kind of hollowed out wood, a calm before the storm of Remembrance, one of the best tracks here, channeling Sepultura aggression before breaking down into palm mutes and an odd sequence of boinging sounds. It’s flanked by another short intermission, Torii, a calm oceanic guitar progression, leading into Indians, which feels oddly anemic, but is a touch more accessible than the rest.

Embrace the World is a lot of fun, exuding a very earthy, tribal feeling, like grim-faced, bare-footed shamans doing an enrapturing dance around a roaring fire, high on Ayahuaska, as the chanting voice that rises above the rhythms comes forth like a fire god, central to the stoned, mesmerizing proceedings, then disappearing into the smoke from whence it came. Inward Movement is an interesting journey with some really strong, dense riffs and a good progression of energy, flowing with both grim power and a feeling of melancholy. Over the Flows reprises the funky, Primus-like oddity that manifested as Satan Is a Lawyer last time around, and will in the future be sculpted into much more powerful aesthetics in songs like A Sight to Behold. Wisdom Comes is short and angry, with some hurried, vibrant notation to supplant the usual atonal chugging. The closing song, Dawn, is a lengthy, lightly progressive instrumental that saunters off into the sunset with a meandering grace, a fitting, if not entirely epic, conclusion.

The Link feels more cohesive than Terra Incognita, more skillful, intelligent, and purposeful. The grooves are a bit more complex, the riffing more soulful, and the general slant of the songwriting more mature. Though the majority of its time is spent carving out grooves in the forest floor, it also takes time to breathe, dancing under the stars or staring philosophically into the fire. Drummer Mario Duplantier especially shows a dynamic growth from his last performance, as he seems to do with every release, striking with mechanistic precision, while retaining a very human sense of creativity. The lyrics can be quite poetic and insightful at times (sometimes not so much), with lots of stark, simple statements that belie their innate wisdom, and this aspect continues to strengthen release by release. Spiritual outrage and personal development are strong themes here, though, a common thread for all Gojira material. The production is also improved slightly. In fact, everything is improved slightly, laying and strengthening the foundations for upcoming greatness.

Despite the measure of growth and inherent memorability this exerts over its predecessor, however, I would not call The Link a great album. It is certainly more than acceptable, and conjures some very good ideas, but these ideas are simply not utilized to an extent as to entice me into repeating the performance very often. As I stated in my Terra Incognita review, the value here will be more intrinsic to the die-hard Gojira fan, who wants to inspect the building blocks for the towering spire of spiritual awesome they have become. Certainly, the spirit of Gojira, that special element of feeling persists here, alive and well, and I happen to know a lot of their fans like this album a great deal. I can certainly respect that, and I definitely would not want to dissuade you from checking it out, but for anyone not already familiar with these Frenchman, I’d strongly recommend starting with one of the later albums, because at length, there is simply no reason to listen to this over its successors. The Link is good, but From Mars to Sirius, The Way of All Flesh, and L’enfant Sauvage are amazing, so it sits in a very towering shadow.

7.5 / 10 - Cover the Distance, Find My World

Children of Bodom - Hatebreeder (1999)

From now on we are enemies. You and I. Simple words, a simple statement, but one that acts as a prelude to an album of such character and excitement as to give me shivers to this day. I like to think this is an utterance from the guitars, as they challenge the keyboards to the epic 38 minute battle scene about to take place, to the detriment of your ability to breathe. The concept is simple as well: write classically inspired melodic death/power metal with harsh vocals and a blood-spitting, thrash attitude. To play my cards on the table in the first round, I consider this one of the highest peaks on the melodic metal mountain. Hatebreeder is the first part of Bodom’s unholy trinity (along with its direct successors, Follow the Reaper and Hate Crew Deathroll), a piece of immortal music, with some of the best guitar leads the world has ever seen. There are truly precious few albums I love enough that I know, without any measure of doubt, will be with me all through my life, if I’m lucky enough to live it, and on towards my grave. Hatebreeder was a prime influence in my connection to metal, and though it’s just a hair away from perfection, has only grown in strength and longevity ever since.

The level of maturity is immediately evident, as the band are much more relaxed and precise than in their debut, the excitable and loose Something Wild. Alexi’s vocals have also leveled out into an even snarl, and have begun to take on his trademark ‘yowling’ sensibility. The rhythm section of Henkka and Jaska has tightened considerably, pounding along with fury and grace, creating an unbreakable backbone for the real star of this show: the melodies. Oh, those sweet, delicious, battle-blazing melodies. Alexi’s guitar lines here are just to die for, framed by his cohort in crime, Janne Warman on the keyboards, as they swirl and spiral through energetic, expressive, neo-classical galaxies, swooping and diving and battling in an effort to blow your mind, the audible equivalent of 100 pounds of dynamite.

At albums core, the aesthetics of the sound here are power metal and death metal, but the crystal clear, vibrant notation feels subtly blackened, though not as much as on the debut. Alexi’s rasping also helps that feeling along, but the result is entirely too precise and uplifting to ever don such a moniker. Hatebreeder is the essence of simplicity, in terms of formula. Alexi writes riffs, and everyone else just tries to keep up, with Janne keeping pace and trading outlandish flourishes the whole way through. Alexi has a very unique riffing style, which would come even further into itself in the next few records, but the constant, needling leads here eclipse everything else. It’s not just the level of skill or insanity in the flurries of notation, even the simpler melodies are so infectious as to feel like a sweet, sweet disease, climbing into your brain and staying there interminably.

Warheart and Hatebreeder are intense and wild, fast-paced snowstorms of immaculate precision. Silent Night, Bodom Night, still a staple of their live show, features one of the best melodies in Bodom history, and an unforgettable chorus. Bed of Razors is literally just that, a strong slab of riffing with sharp, brilliant leads cutting out above, framed by ethereal keys, before they do battle high above in the heavenly spheres, veritably sundering worlds in the process. Cowards Dead End features a very Asian-flavored lead, with flutters of keyboards whirling about like cherry blossoms in the wind, leading to another inevitable epic battle toward songs end, the dueling tones like magic spells of fire and ice, clashing and brightening the dojo before it’s completely set ablaze by the enrapturing dance.

Black Widow is a bit darker, but with one of the strongest choruses on the record, Alexi varying his vocal work for maximum epic effect, before the leads once again throw us to the sky. Wrath Within is like a biting wind, keyboards creeping up below the choppy riffing to bellow us higher and higher to watch another splendid exhibition. And it still gets better! Track 8, Children of Bodom, needles along through crisp riffing glaciers to the waiting coral-toned keys, which hold their ground and announce the coming bloodshed in a foreboding Castlevania style, before they both dart off, keeping pace with each other as the classical influences take over. Downfall, another one of their most popular tracks, ends the album with an ocean of strong riffing, starry keys twinkling overhead as the percussive barge steers with confidence through storm and calm, and lightning splits the sky for one more epic Laiho/Warman battle, each showing equal ferocity. Out-fucking-standing!

I realize Bodom have a reputation for flash over substance, and while that may be true to an extent, I don’t see how one can snub their nose at such a heroic array of guitar work, with songs that build and build with energy, pulsing with creativity at every corner. Almost every moment of Hatebreeder is intense, exciting, and memorable. Is it teeming with depth? No, not at all, but it doesn’t matter one fucking bit, so well does it utilize its strengths, and every riff, each moment, is utterly masterclass. Every single lick of this is way too epic, and when you listen to this record, it’s not so big a surprise that it had such an impact. Hundreds of bands have popped up in the early 2000’s and beyond that utilize the stylistic template set by Hatebreeder, and Follow the Reaper perhaps even more so, and even more have integrated this influence in more subtle ways. It’s even directly spawned some more legends, like Kalmah, and to a lesser extent Ensiferum.

Whether you care to admit it or not, this is bright, innovative, incredibly memorable music that has left its mark on history, for better or worse. That Bodom would sink to such decrepit lows in the span of 3 more albums was unthinkable at the time, and still rather sad, but it does nothing to diminish the quality of their classic work, among the very most fun and inspired albums I’ve ever heard, out of uncounted thousands. I like Follow the Reaper just a bit more, my unchallenged favorite album from this group of hard-drinking Finns, but it’s like comparing amazing sex to slightly more amazing sex. It’s still amazing sex. Ok, I need to stop saying amazing sex. Goddamn it man, just go buy this album!

If you’ve yet to give Bodom a fair shake because they’re popular to hate on, either quit being a dick or start mooing instead of talking, so we can see what you really are. Conversely, if this is too ‘shallow’ for you, get that head out of your ass and smell the sunshine. Not everything needs to have impenetrable density and emotional weight to be enjoyable, and if it does, then it’s no wonder you have no friends. But I concede. I don’t wish to belittle anyone, only to guide you to one of the most kick ass albums in the world, one that helped feed my formative soul to the fire that is metal, frets aflame with skill and glistening with tasty, tasty melodies. And that driving, raucous nature is all it needs, to not only succeed, but exceed the trappings of convention and perceived limitation. Hatebreeder is immortally fun, and one of the most pleasing audible adventures available. I like it a fraction less than Follow the Reaper, and a precious few riffs fall just short of perfection, but it’s still achingly cool. I will simply never get tired of this, and it spurs my spirit ablaze instantly when played, so consuming and complete that I feel akin to Johnny Storm. And you know what the craziest part is? The best is still yet to come.

9.75 / 10 - Only the Wild Will Survive

Monday, September 24, 2012

Norska - Norska EP (2011)

This is the self-titled debut of Portland, Oregon based Norska, featuring Aaron of YOB, who provide odd, reverberating, tumultuous landscapes of sound, rooted in the formative aesthetics of doom and sludge. This is technically an EP, at 5 tracks, though it’s 40 minutes long, so it really feels like a full-length. One can see immediate parallels to more well-known acts like Electric Wizard, Baroness, and especially High on Fire, though to Norska’s credit, they do not feel like they pull too much from any one source. The way the compositions lumber along, with lots of crushing, dynamic interplay between the music and the leads, even feels spiritually reminiscent of Cascadian metal at times, circa Wolves of the Throne Room. Not in any compositional way, but in the nature of the imagery imparted, like the wild edge of untamed nature. The difference is, while Wolves would be a waterfall, Norska would be a hostile desert canyon. Certainly, the production here is very earthy and natural, a tone befitting the music in question. I think just a bit more punch and crunch would have done wonders, but it’s nevertheless effective, with riffs like waves of molasses washing over you.

The five tracks here are pretty varied, without betraying the cold, desert aura the band immediately establish. Opener Amnesia is perhaps the most direct number, with a faster pace and a number of riffs to choose from, and feels redolent of earlier Mastodon material. Nobody One Knows also churns with an inner violence, but it gets more psychedelic halfway through, with a sweet haunted dissonance overlaying the bouncy, wavering grooves. They Mostly Came at Night is a true epic, slowly building into roiling waves, and encapsulates all the myriad emotions scattered across the record. Cholera has a very dark atmosphere, feeling strikingly akin to the crawling, oceanic doom of Ahab, and the closer, Two Coins for the Ferryman, another lengthy track featuring a crazed vocal performance, turns from a breeze to a gale as it picks up pace and intensity, before dropping you unceremoniously at records end.

What I enjoy most about Norska is a bit intangible, a sense of grandiosity and scope that belies the often simple, pulsing nature of the notation. It’s more poignant than the sum of its parts, a quality I attribute to both the fantastic, spirit-scraping leads, and just how well these musicians complement each other. Whether they’re slowly chugging along, laying grooves heavy enough to cripple mountains, or relaxing in a psychoactive bog of slow, dense atmosphere, the music here is pretty universally compelling. Only the rare moment had me crying out in amazement, sure, but the fact that it did so at all is awesome, and this is as fine a slab of panoramic sludge as I've ever heard, subtly integrating the bellowing weight of funeral doom. The riffing is mostly slow and choppy, with the strained, maniacal vocals of Jim Lowder peaking out from distant valleys, echoing across the landscape like haunted cries. I like this effect, as it adds even more to the prevalent looming storm clouds of inherent atmosphere.

An appreciable level of feeling went into this recording, and this more so than any planned formula or musical trickery is what will draw people to it. However, you’re going to want to count patience as one of your virtues, if this album is a plunge you’d like to take. That’s not a knock against the record, it’s just a fact. Some sections stretch on quite far into the distance, a cyclical twanging rolling through a vast desert, and it will take a good bit of concentration to reap the maximum benefit, though I find it quite nice as background music as well, perhaps for some epic video game, or even just doing chores. Norska is oddly relaxing to me, even though they succeed by building and releasing a lot of compositional tension.

Sludge is not my forte’, I will readily admit. My knowledge is pretty limited to the bigger names, and I heartily enjoy Mastodon, High on Fire, Baroness, Bison BC, and a handful of others. I’m happy to say I now count Norska among them. They’re not at the top of this list, but this is also their first effort, so for now, the sky’s the limit. They also feel appreciably different than any other band I’m familiar with, which is always a plus. However, though they’re capable of beauty, I can’t say Norska has moved me to tears. A select few of the riffing patterns start to wear on my patience after awhile, and once again, I’d like the production to be just a bit more crunchy in the low end, but it's by no means flawed, and they show a lot of heart and the chops to translate it.

Whatever miniscule gripes I may have, however, I truly cannot see any fan of sludge or doom being anything less than satisfied with this, and so I fully recommend it, with the advice that you give it your full attention span, and let the dry, crushingly vast mental imagery wash over you. It’s certainly unique enough to remain in my playlist for at least a good while to come, and I’m pretty excited to see where they go from here. This is a strong, passionate debut, and even though it’s come just short of setting my spirit aflame, hopefully it’s a statement that when it’s time for a full-length, we’ll all be crushed into powder.

8 / 10 - Pendulous Pounding and Dry Desert Winds

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Chaos Inception - The Abrogation (2012)

If one were to distill the most aggressive, violent, virulent aspects of occult death metal titans like Morbid Angel (pre-lobotomy, of course), Behemoth, Nile, and Hate Eternal, mix them together with a bit of demon blood, and pour a shot, then light it on fire, the pestilent mixture you’d inevitably puke up the next morning might look something like Chaos Inception. This is the 2nd release from these Alabama boys, but if there’s any trace of the obligatory inbred deficiencies one inevitably levels at anything originating from ‘the heartland’, they sure don’t show up here. Clearly trumping the debut, The Abrogation is a slab of driving, intelligent, dark as fuck death metal that will cut you to shreds and poison your soul. You know… if you’re into that sort of thing.

I haven’t heard such a dense block of pure, unwavering strength in quite awhile, as there are roughly 80,000 riffs packed into these 30 minutes. The amount of stuff happening on a moment to moment basis is often more dynamic and interesting than many bands can achieve in minutes, and the pace never relents. These songs are short, sweet, and utterly fucking violent, barreling along with abrasive, pummeling force, and every riff feels like the rumbling magic spell from an ancient, pissed-off demigod. Not to mention the leads, short spiraling bursts of notation that will blow your mind 50 times before breakfast, needling attacks of primeval fury that add immensely to the already mind-melting value of these frantic compositions.

A nice change of pace, the bass is not only clearly audible, but matches the creativity of the guitars, bubbling off into similarly noxious tangents of speedy, bulbous notation. These complex lines are a perfectly ridiculous companion to the similarly inhuman drum performance, an unchained stream of dark, blasting energy to support the poisonous whirlwinds of riffing, all aspects coagulating together to create a hellish vortex that stops at nothing to obliterate and desecrate our feeble, feeble world. The growling, rasping vocals are going to sound familiar to anyone knowledgeable of this style, but they’re as strong as anyone’s, adding even more filthy, uproarious anger to this inferno. I also really like the lyrics, a set of ancient, occult summonings that add even more weight to the percussive, venomous punch of the bands delivery.

In case you couldn’t tell, I really like Chaos Inception. They’re one of the best bands I’ve heard (out of seemingly hundreds) that attempt to modernize the ancient, writhing force of early Morbid Angel, infusing aesthetics from a variety of innovative death metal acts of today, and owning the absolute shit out of the result. The completely unyielding nature of The Abrogation is similar in approach to black/death aspirants Angelcorpse, but to infinitely better effect. True, by nature, the audience for something like this is going to be somewhat limited, and the barbarous pacing will likely put off all but the most stalwart of death metal mavens, but you know what? Fuck it. Separates the men from the boys, is what I say.

The Abrogation is one of the most consistent, satisfying bludgeonings I’ve experienced all year, and though its vision and inherent dynamic impact are by nature pretty limited, it stomps all in its intended path to dust and burns the remains, all the while laughing maniacally beneath its torn, blood-stained black robes, an apocalyptic wraith of singular mind and intent. Do you fear the reaper, son? Well let’s see how much you fear him when he levels a rocket launcher directly at your ugly, trembling, stupefied face.

8.5 / 10 - Your Flesh Will Know My Blade

Ex Deo - Caligvla (2012)

Symphonic death metal is an interesting prospect. Few projects have attempted such a marriage, and even the more popular examples, like the somewhat tedious new work from Fleshgod Apocalypse (tech death channeling Dimmu Borgir, sans depth), have not been anything to write home about. Perhaps everyone just fears being grouped in with horrifying atrocities against music like Winds of Plague, surely an understandable concern. However, the concept is one of stunning potential, as evidenced by unique, inspired entities such as Septic Flesh. Italians Ex Deo, composed of the entirety of Kataklysm, plus bassist Dano Apekian (from Ashes of Eden), have unleashed their second effort, Caligvla, and it’s one of the strongest forays into this largely undiscovered universe I’ve yet heard.

Right out the Coliseum gates, Caligvla is an unrestrained and grandiose beast, utilizing the prevalent orchestration to sweep the foundation of the bands instrumentation up toward the heavens. It’s not used as a gimmick, but rather an essential part of the inherent atmosphere, and the result is a heart-pounding, fist-pumping exercise in pure triumph. The band also never leans on the symphonic presence as a crutch, as they have crafted a number of suitably triumphant riffs and leads to carry the songs forward, and they shift between leading and supporting roles easily. We’re looking at a host of mid-paced war marches, though Ex Deo also integrate a bit of blasting to liven things up. In fact, the overall vibe is similar to that of Kreator’s new opus Phantom Antichrist, tenacious and rather overtly melodic, with a sense of vibrato and scale that imparts epic mental imagery to the listener. It may not be quite as diverse and memorable as that album, but it hits the same chord in the spirit, spurring you on to fight for honor and glory.

I’ve mentioned the riffing, and indeed there is a gaggle of progressions here that suitably impart the burning spirit of ancient Rome, at least as far as a laid-back gringo like me can visualize. It’s difficult to adequately explain, but the flavor of the chords just feels right, just feels so fitting to the thematic content of the lyrics, as this concept album is a romp through battle-blazing history, focused on the exploits of Caligula. This record feels like a journey, like the score to some high-grossing historical bloodbath like Gladiator or 300, but inescapably fucking metal. Like most albums, you’ll glean a lot more form it if you can find some time to focus in on the lyric sheet. It doesn’t hurt that they’re delivered with undeniable passion and force, as the vocals of Maurizio Iacono are stronger than they’ve ever been; primal, panoramic shouts echo across the distance, letting the enemy know that doom is at hand, before splattering their skulls with his percussive, lugubrious snarls.

Production is slick and full-bodied (much better than on Romulus), and you’ll hear no complaints here, beyond my endless &%#$*$%&%ing recitation of wanting to hear the bass guitar. I mean, am I the only one who finds this a constant irritation in metal? Is something wrong with my ears? I just can’t understand how anyone could allow their performance to be so utterly neutralized, or how bands could think this serves their sound. Sometimes I can hear it pulsing away, but the guitars either absolutely bury it, or render it pretty indistinguishable. Lame.

Really though, if you like epic metal, you cannot go wrong here, not in the least. Caligvla is simultaneously dark, uplifting, ferocious, and endlessly theatrical, lending fantastic mental imagery. The riffs are good, the songs are well-written, constructed to build and explode as they progress, and there’s a good amount of variety and surprise in the melodies and delivery (the female vocals in Divide Et Impera send the spirit soaring). Caligvla breaks pretty far away from the established tendencies of death metal, but on a basic level, it remains true to the basic aesthetic precepts of Kataklysm, a sort of lumbering force that could surely batter you into the ground if they so chose. Not all of the hooks are worthy of immortality, and the pace gets just a tiny bit monotonous at some points, but those are pretty minor complaints in the face of such complete solidity.

This record may not quite reach the realms of Jupiter, but it towers high nevertheless, hitting as hard as Vulcan and impaling enough enemies to make Mars blush with pride. Caligvla is fitting tribute to its chosen content, a rather unique, stirring conglomeration of influences, and should appeal to a wide range of metal fiends, so I bid you to give it a chance. Anyone who likes their metal resoundingly epic, or historically seasoned, lyrically and melodically, will undoubtedly find Caligvla a winner. When all the myriad strengths come together, as you’re basking in this dark, epic, compellingly dense atmosphere, and Iacono proclaims ‘Today is a good day to die’, the shiver up your spine makes it hard to disagree.

8 / 10 - Today is a Good Day to Die