Sunday, March 17, 2019

Smoulder - Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring

Rizky Business

Promos almost always come with a press kit, which usually gives a little background about the band/release in order to drum up hype (other sites much more professional than I will paraphrase or copy paste these paragraphs, for example), and I'm gonna be real with you, I was sold on Smoulder from six words in their little blurb: "mixed and mastered by Arthur Rizk."

That's it, right there.  Album of the Year material already.

All of the other info didn't matter.  Oh the band is half based in Toronto and half in Chicago, that's cool I guess.  Sarah does reviews on Banger TV? Oh yeah I've seen the one where she tried to convince me that The Forest Seasons was good.  Arthur Rizk is behind the knobs?  Oh slap my ass and call me Barbara sign me the fuck up.  Rizk is the Scott Burns of our generation.  Just like how Burns was the first guy to really figure out how to produce death metal (a huge reason why Florida was such a mecca of death metal in the early 90s, considering that's where Morrisound Studios (where he worked) was located), Rizk seems to be the Wayne Gretzky of understanding how to reach a retro wall of sound with updated quality and a massive low end, constantly churning out metal that sounds like how 1984 would've sounded if current technology was available.  The amount of stellar releases over the last few years that have achieved a sound akin to standing in a packed house while a band cranks out at max volume all thanks to him is astounding.  An extremely short list of bands he's helped sound their best in recent years include Eternal Champion, Power Trip, Sumerlands, Pissgrave, Tomb Mold, Scorched, Gatekeeper, Uada, Outer Heaven, Crypt Sermon, Homewrecker, Inquisition, and Mammoth Grinder.  This dude just fucking gets it.  Everything he touches sounds immaculate without being sterilized like Andy Sneap or Neil Kernon, he's the premier metal producer right now and nobody can touch him.

So it's no surprise that Smoulder's debut, Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring, sounds like fucking Krakatoa.  This is probably most similar to Eternal Champion or Crypt Sermon out of the bands mentioned above, blending pulpy sword and sorcery high fantasy with sweeping epic doom, which is a combination that we have known for years is a perfect match for heavy metal.  These riffs are fucking mountainous, the drums sound like an avalanche, everything about this just sounds monumental.

They say that a chain can only be as strong as its weakest link, but I would argue that that's a bad analogy since Smoulder is proof that the stronger links can merely leak excess steel and as a result temper the weak link.  Yeah, Sarah isn't all that great of a vocalist in technical terms, but the music around her is so fucking strong that it doesn't really matter.  Her voice is lacking in both range and power, but with Shawn's monstrous riffing and Kevin's powerful drumming being the true carrying force of the music, it doesn't really want for any command.  From the pummeling barabarism of "Ilian of Garathorm", to the high speed whirlwind of "Bastard Steel", everything is proactive and destructive.  It's hard to play epic doom without drawing comparisons to Candlemass, and Smoulder is no exception here, which is great because they absolutely nail that sweeping, spiritual atmosphere that the Swedes commanded so deftly in their prime years, and they also take their lesson that rules are for fucking squares and confidently break from the dogmatic ethos of the genre, and are thus unafraid pick up the pace and infuse old school speed metal when the music calls for it. 

Another huge element that works to the band's benefit is the fact that they're clearly skilled at self editing.  It can be tempting, especially with low tempos and massive atmospheres, to stretch albums to nearly marathon length, but Times of Obscene Evil is very succinct, with only six songs clocking in at roughly 37 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome.  As a result there's nothing that can really be considered filler, every idea has a purpose and every riff has a target that it aims for and hits easily.  Only "Shadowy Sisterhood" kinda falls flat and doesn't do anything particularly memorable, but the sweeping atmosphere coupled with powerful riffage keeps the best tracks like "Ilian of Garathorm", "Black God's Kiss", and "The Sword Woman" at the top of the heap of modern doom.  I can't get enough of this album, everything about it just soars over the battlefield and drops fucking bombs on it.

So at the end of the day, Smoulder plays some of the most exciting and evocative epic doom of the modern era on their own, and the skilled hand of Rizk behind the controls only boosts them to an even higher plane of badassery.  At the end of the day I think that's the word I've been looking for all along, "badass".  Smoulder is fucking badass and nothing is holding them back from conquering the fucking world.  The pounding toms and savage riffs are so fucking primitive and barbaric, the songwriting is savage and weighty, the atmosphere is epic and eldritch, just damn near every single element of the music on Times of Obscene Evil hits bullseye and this is going to easily contend for the top spot for Album of the Year this year unless something else truly magical storms out of the gates and hogties this.  But with how muscular and brutish this is, I'm skeptical that anything can truly dominate this.


RATING: 92%

Friday, March 15, 2019

Red Cain - Kindred: Act I

The Red Halo

I'm gonna get one thing out of the way right now, because it's going to pretty much cement your own opinion of this album before you hear it and it's going to help you decide whether or not to take me seriously at all.

I don't like Kamelot.  Like, at all.  I'll admit that maybe I just haven't heard enough of their stuff because from what I understand they've shifted styles a few times, but their breakout album, The Black Halo, just does absolutely fucking nothing for me.  I hate the dull, chuggy, lethargic pace of 80% of the album, I don't like how it feels so much longer than it is, I don't like how it feels so pompous and full of itself while delivering at best half of what it's promising, it's just not for me.  But really, and this is going to sound like low level trolling, I know, but I just don't like Roy Khan on it.  Really, I understand that he has an excellent voice, with a pristine timbre and some astounding control of how he crafts his melodies, but he has so little power and command in his voice that he reminds me of Joacim Cans yeah I went there.  He always sounds like he's cooing, like his eyes are closed and he's just gently rocking a child to sleep no matter how bombastic, dark, aggressive, moody, sorrowful, or uplifting the music itself is.  He's always this non-threatening presence that leaves me completely cold.  Maybe I just want him to be something he's not, but I just can not handle hearing a metal band, no matter what mood they're going for, bending around a frontman so fucking soft and gentle. 

So with that out of the way, I think you can probably already guess what I think about Red Cain's debut, Kindred: Act I.  Evgeniy Zayarny has a bit more versatile voice than Khan, because he dips down into a more gruff bark every now and again on tracks like "Juliet", but for the most part Khan is a hugely obvious influence, and it winds up creating the exact same problem.  Red Cain follows a similar template to The Black Halo with it being symphonic prog/power metal that only picks up the pace in a few places, but they're definitely not afraid to throw in some more pronounced heaviness on occasion, with an almost Nevermore styled low rapid fire chugging on tracks like "Snakebouquet" or "Wing of the Crow".  Some tracks also reach back to some more traditional power metal influence, as can be seen on "All Is Violence" and what is far and away the best track, "Midnight Sarabande".  The vocals are better than the chief influence because even though he does fall into the trap of sounding pretty harmless and doofy most of the time, he does at least understand the moods that the songs call for and adjusts his technique accordingly.

But really, Kindred doesn't hinge entirely on him.  With this being prog metal first and foremost, the music itself is obviously the crux of the experience, and the music is... well I've heard worse.  It obviously aims for a very high-minded atmosphere and it connects on occasion, but for the most part it winds up sounding like background fluff.  This isn't helped by the fact that the album starts off with two of the best songs and then falls off sharply until the end.  "Snakebouquet" is an excellent example of how to make this style interesting, with pummeling chugs being overlaid with heavenly guitar/synth melodies reminiscent of one of the more evocative melodeath bands from the genre's heyday, with a weird, glitchy breakdown leading into a soaring double time out-chorus.  It keeps the six minute runtime exciting and I genuinely think this is a great song.  "Midnight Sarabande" is even better, being the most overtly power metal track on display with the least amount of groove and most driving double bass.  Oddly enough, this is also probably the track where his voice is creating the greatest distancing effect from the music by being as soft as it is, but the fact that it's not a particularly dark song makes it fit like a glove.  It's a very uplifting, almost "heavenly" song for the most part, with only the bridge attempting anything more sinister, but it's so short lived and contrasted with the light triumph that it isn't intrusive or weird in any way.  I love the way the lead guitar spends almost the entire time breaking from the rhythm and just lightly flittering above the music underneath, it really does manage to capture the atmosphere the band is going for here, and I also love every second of this one.

The problem arises when the rest of the album barely manages to sniff the beauty of the first two tracks.  From "Zero" until the back half of "All Is Violence", nothing at all of interest happens.  It turns into the exact type of slow chugprog that I just can't stand.  Completely unengaging and dull, it's a good four track stretch of pure filler, with no engaging riffs or melodies or even a similar mood to the cosmic dissonance of mood that the first two tracks provided with their light melodies over heavier rhythms.  Four filler tracks is a hell of an issue on an album that only contains seven.  "Wing of the Crow" calls back to "Snakebouquet" a bit so it's a nice closer, but after twenty minutes of non-riffs and soft vocals with only a few decent spots scattered between several tracks, I just can't bring myself to get excited again.  Like, "Zero" has an adrenaline pumping twenty seconds at the end but it takes six minutes to get there, and it's followed by "Blood and Gold", the shitty ballad whose name I have forgotten every single time I've run through this album. 

There's a good album in here, hell I probably spent more time praising it than chastising it here, but that's mostly because the few good songs have so many good things in them that I can rave about them easily while the more plentiful bad songs are just so empty and uninteresting that I can't bring myself to care.  I started this off with an aside about The Black Halo and Roy Khan specifically because that's really what this album reminds me of, and if you're in the majority that considers that album to be a modern classic then this'll likely be right up your alley.  For me though?  It has bright spots, it knows how to make certain ideas work magnificently, but Kindred flounders around a bit too much to really focus on those good aspects and craft the great album that I know Red Cain is capable of.  I don't normally talk about a band's potential, but I can definitely sense it here, so I'll keep my ears open for the inevitable Act II for whatever story the band is crafting here, but if I'm being honest, they stumbled out of the gate on this one.


RATING: 48%

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Grave Violator - Back to the Cult

PUNCH YOUR CHILDREN, START A FIRE

Sometimes there's no deeper meaning to a piece of art.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, right?  Metal is definitely prone to beard-stroking pontification, with regular sounding albums being explained by the band as a concept album about the cycle of life and death, or the history and downfall of some fictional civilization that nobody but the writers care about.  Bands like to go on about philosophy and psychology and tend to try exploring those themes on a surface level, but ultimately just write more tunes about death and satan.  And hey man, that's all cool!  I've read Camus, I have deeply held beliefs and interests, my worldview is shaped by many things that I'm sure I'd want to inject in my music.  I'd love to write music that delves into the intricate lore behind the writings of Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith, it's totally natural.

But sometimes it's just nice when a band drops the pretense and just aims for naked filth from the opening notes and makes no intention of hiding what they're about.  And when the opening notes of a track called fuckin' "Baptized in Filthy Semen" first tore through my speakers, well let's just say I knew exactly what I was going to get and Grave Violator fucking delivered on that front.

Back to the Cult doesn't really do anything interesting on a musical level, it's just by the numbers black/thrash with raspy vocals and razor sharp riffs, and that's all something like this needs to be.  The entire appeal here is the same as an early John Waters flick like Pink Flamingos or something.  It's just pure, unrefined trash with no other purpose other than shock value, and while it lacks the sardonic wit of GWAR or something, it makes up for the lack of cleverness with sheer unabashed attitude.  Odes to debauchery, sacrificial murder, and bumfights are abound in a style reminiscent of the primitive, bone shaving ravenousness of Sarcofago or Impaled Nazarene.  Back to the Cult straddles the line between black/thrash and metalpunk at times but tends to land firmly on the thrash side of the equation.  The whole point is to just rip you to shreds with frantic riffing and manic tempos, and that's all it tries to do.  There are a few atmosphere-building acoustic sections but they're brief and always give way to more blasphemy and degeneracy.  This is offensive stuff, even to me personally!  I'm a virtue signalling soyboy cuck so lyrics about raping whores does make me uncomfortable deep down, but I've said long ago that you're going to be a simpering joyless turd if you're into metal but can't take tongue-in-cheek shock value for what it is.  So yeah I can't defend the lyrical raunch on the basis of the words themselves, but it's so clearly not played straight and performed by a band of clear goofballs whose EPK includes promo pics of them braiding their hair and peeing as a group.  It's low level trolling, and that's fine if you hate that sort of thing, but these guys are clearly here to have a good time and absolutely shatter the barriers of good taste, and I can get down with that.

This may not surpass their obvious heroes like Nifelheim or Sarcofago, but punk-infused speed metal like the title track or vicious biting thrash like "Knife Fighter" is just too much fun to put down.  It's poo-flecked trash that was rolled around in glitter and used IV needles but sometimes that sort of raunchy, wild west lawlessness is a fucking blast.  If there's any sincerity to be found (and obviously this sort of high-speed irreverence is not known for sincerity), it's that I fully believe that these guys are a bunch of perpetually hammered oogles who get their kicks by chugging Olvi and throwing shoes at passing nuns.  Do they contribute to society in a positive way?  Hell no, but neither they nor I want them to.


RATING: 79%

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Humanizer - Divine Golden Blood

FUCK THIS KICKS ASS

Humanizer has just made history as the very first Costa Rican band I've ever heard in my life, so that's pretty cool.  But beyond merely helping me stick another pin in my hypothetical metal globe, they also just really, really fucking rule.  If I had it my way this whole review would just be FUCK THIS KICKS ASS thirty times in a row.  But no, I hold myself to a much higher standard of professionalism than that, so instead I'll just say it twenty nine times.  FUCK THIS KICKS ASS.

Okay in all seriousness, Humanizer calls to mind a sort of hybrid of the best parts of Krisiun and early Kataklysm, but admittedly that's mostly because of how fucking manic the drumming is on Divine Golden Blood.  Maybe there are better bands to compare them to, but it's hard to think when my skull has been bludgeoned into powder.  This is extremely fast and extremely brutal death metal with a kiss of epic bombast.  Maybe a comparison like "Ex Deo but actually good" would be better, because the ancient Roman themes and occasional blasts of war trumpets and sweeping synths definitely adds an air of triumphant majesty to the head-spinning blastery on display.  This shit sounds like a fucking avalanche, it's a neverending onslaught of sheer pissed off aggression and I just can't get enough of it.

What really helps this stand apart from the legions of other death metal bands in the world actually has nothing to do with the epic backdrops or ten trillion bpm blasting.  No, it's actually their strict adherence to the Gospel of the Riff.  These guys never fail to let the guitars take center stage in front of the manic rhythm section or soaring strings, instead letting the true driving force of the music be the expertly crafted and powerfully destructive riffs themselves.  There are moments on tracks like "Raven", "King ov Kings", and "La Gran Lid" that hit like biting into a stick of dynamite.  There are no weak tracks here, and it's largely in part to just how much of a downhill-running steam train the experience is.  It's like you cut the throat of the Colossus of Rhodes statue and it just started hemorrhaging riffs.

I don't even really know how to gab on about this at length, it just rocks my fucking socks and this would have been an easy place on my year end list last year had I heard it in time.  It's hyperfast death metal with an epic twist but the appeal lies in the base more than the flourish.  Divine Human Blood is well executed and well written death metal with little else in mind than pure, hungry, devastation.  Just... FUCK THIS KICKS ASS.


RATING: 90%

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Ceremony of Silence - Outis

[witty title]

Slovakia's Ceremony of Silence is kinda hard to write about.  Not because they're super bland or anything, because they're not, but because this style of squealing atmospheric black/death metal is just a scene that I never really got into.  It leans much more heavily on the death metal side, owing a lot to bands like Ulcerate, Mitochondrion, and Portal, but there are heaps of spacey tremolo riffs in the background that give it an almost atmoblack atmosphere above the twisting dissonance underneath.  It invokes a very harmonic dissonance, if you will.

"Invocation of the Silent Eye" kicks the album off with the best god damned riff on the album, which sounds like Gorguts took a crack at rewriting the classic opening of "Pierced from Within".  Those first ten seconds or so of Outis got me extraordinarily hyped for the remainder of the record, but admittedly it never really hits that peak of psychedelic brutality again.  That's not to say the rest of the album is bad or anything, but if that opening section hooked you like it hooked me, then you might be disappointed that the rest of the album takes a different approach generally.  From spacey atmosphere with no riffs at all like "Upon the Shores of Death" or frantic cacophonous blasting like "Black Sea of Drought", the album never really nails that sort of hook again (apart from the intro to "Into the Obscure Light").  That's not really the end of the world though, because the rest of Outis is quite good, but opening on a fucking masterclass riff and then spending the rest of the time with dissonant weirdness is a bit of a disappointment. 

Admittedly this is more of a me problem than anything else, because I can see a fan of all of the aforementioned influences loving this to death.  The problem is that I've just never really cared for Ulcerate, Gorguts, and the like.  Ceremony of Silence surpasses quite a few of their influences, and the black metal overtones in the melodies is really cool, don't get me wrong, but this neverending avalanche of squelching dissonance is difficult for me to really judge.  They abuse this trick of either tremolo picking or chugging on one note while slowly bending the string, creating this microtonal mindfuck of brutality beneath drumming that shifts and turns so much and so rarely sticks to a beat for more than one second at a time that it's just disorienting.  That's the appeal of Outis, and it absolutely works.  I can't really define the difference between the bands that I love (Immolation, Mithras) and the bands that I'm generally lukewarm on (Mitochondrion, Gorguts) that do this, but Ceremony of Silence sits somewhere in the middle of those two camps.  I think it's the spacey black metal melodies that keep this from sounding like something weird and unlistenable for the sake of it and instead make it sound like something wholly alien and not meant for human ears.  I both love and don't really care about this, and the dissonance in my own opinion makes for a good representation of the conflicting nature of what they're doing.  It's very adversarial, combative music and honestly, at its core, that's what metal is supposed to be.


RATING: 75%

Monday, March 11, 2019

Accursed Spawn - The Virulent Host

Fuck Dow Chemical forever

These Canadian gore-freaks have been alive and kicking in some form for about ten years now, but only just now have they finally managed to get a full length out.  They kinda flew under my radar during their demo stage, but now that The Virulent Host has found its way to my speakers, I can say with confidence that they won't be doing that any more, and with any luck the rest of the scene at large will perk up and take notice as well, because this, put lightly, kicks fucking ass.

To just get right to the point, because I have no lengthy preamble for once, Accursed Spawn brings nothing new to the table, but what they do bring is classic, explosive, and destructive death metal.  Despite invoking the souls of many of the classics from the early 90s, The Virulent Host doesn't fall into the currently popular trapping of simply retreading that old ground.  No, they take the basics of American classics like Deicide and (especially) Cannibal Corpse and give them a modern tech death-y sheen.  Because of this they fall in between two prominent camps nowadays.  Between the bands who shamelessly worship old bands in an attempt to redo what was done already on a surface level and the camp of new bands trying to further evolve the style via cavernous atmosphere or Demilich-y weirdness, we have a band like Accursed Spawn, who instead delve a bit deeper beyond the surface aesthetics and clearly truly understand what made classic death metal so good in the first place, and then just does it a second time but faster and meaner.  I think I could safely call this tech death, but the technicality is pretty understated.  This is more the Cannibal Corpse school of technicality, where oodles of neoclassical flourish and endless spinning basslines are eschewed in favor of rhythmic density and the sheer speed of the many ideas contained within each song, interspersed masterfully with punishing savagery.  It can be hard to pinpoint exact moments in songs for this reason, but I think the overwhelming deluge of riffery works to the album's advantage.  There are blistering drum fills, solos that make your eyes whirl like a slot machine reel, and basslines that spend a surprising amount of time exploring the fretboard like a coked up tarantula, but just like my heroes in Cannibal, none of them ever truly drown the rest of the band out to take center stage.  They're one well oiled machine, an effective unit of hellsoaked barbarism that just rips everything to shreds.

There seems to be a weird thing going on with the album where the odd numbered songs are all the best ones, but they're all so consistently excellent that it doesn't really matter in the long run.  "Bhopal '84" and "Shotgun Facelift" may have some more overtly energetic and high flying moments than "Bloodforged" or "The Ageless Curse" but the dip in quality is so slight that it might as well not exist.  The thing about The Virulent Host that I think makes it stand head and shoulders above most of the faceless blasticity of the current DM scene is how well they implement their crushing grooves.  The aforementioned "Shotgun Facelift" has an absolutely fucking brutal bridge section leading into the harmonized solo that just wrecks my god damned neck.  There are moments like that all over the place, they're less overt than something like Autopsy but they do their job incredibly well.  The point is that this isn't just a blur of zippy technicality, it's instead a bludgeoning that changes its angle of attack so frequently that you can't effectively get your guard up.  The world needs more of this type of utter ferocity, and as a result it's one of the few releases so far to have a real shot at ranking highly on my year end list.  Don't pass this sucker up.


RATING: 90%

Saturday, March 9, 2019

DRAINING THE DREGS: Vol I

I'm sure y'all have noticed that my production has fucking spiked to an absurd degree over the last few weeks.  I've already almost matched my total from last year and March just started.  I've been on a review-a-day pace for a few weeks now, and it doesn't look like I'll be slowing down too much for the foreseeable future.  This is for a few different reasons, but the biggest one is simply because I've started actually going through the flood of promos I've been getting and ignoring for years.  For those of you who don't know how this process works, generally a promo company will send out an email with a press release and a download link, occasionally they'll send out reminders for something that was sent in the past, updates on what promo bands have been doing (releasing videos and singles, etc) if you run a more general "metal news" type blog/zine than just a review focused on like this, openings for interview requests, and things of that nature.  But, at least a few times per week (because I somehow wound up on like four or five different agencies' mailing lists) they'll send a big ass block with 4-10 download links.  So theoretically I can get up to like twenty fucking albums a week (that's not even taking into account the handful of artists who contact me directly, which is much rarer but still happens, nor is it taking into account that I generally only actually download the ones that interest me, so I leave a lot of them on the table) and even if I didn't limit myself to one review per day like I do, it'd still be absurd to try to get through all of these myself.

So, thanks to the flood of stuff I've actually been taking seriously for a change, I have a backlog that's starting to border on total insanity.  So to help myself out a bit, I'm going to be introducing yet another feature to Lair of the Bastard, wherein I drain the dregs and just knock out a bunch of these in the backlog with short, one paragraph blurbs with a simplified rating system, purely to ease the creeping anxiety of the knowledge that I have so much more to do than I have any reasonable amount of time for.  So, please enjoy the aptly titled new feature: DRAINING THE DREGS.


Ambrotos - Cosmic Annulus
This was supposed to be the next review after the Avantasia one yesterday, but frankly I found myself frustrated with an inability to formulate enough thoughts for the multi-paragraph format I employ.  Which is a shame, because I do like this EP a lot.  I like the lyrical focus on pre-Socratic philosophy, I like the dynamic of the band being split between Greece and Mexico, I like the devastating riffs, I like the strong sense of melody, it's just a very good release.  The geographical origins shine through pretty brightly, because I hear a lot of Varathron in Cosmic Annulus.  It's not a carbon copy though, because I also get some pretty strong vibes from up north, with Marduk and Sacramentum style melodies (albeit with far slower blasting) slicing through the fiery black metal fury.  It's "majestic" without being grandiose, and overall just a very delicate balance between heady and aggressive, and I think it's great.
RATING: QUITE GOOD

Climate of Fear - The Onset of Eternal Darkness
I've spun this one probably six or seven times now and I still don't remember most of it.  I'm still not even sure exactly what it even is.  I think I'll stretch definitions a bit and consider this "metalcore", but I mean it much more in the semi-atavistic sense of Converge or Nasty or something, or maybe a less sludgy Code Orange.  A massive portion of this is just plain old death metal, and it's heavy and riffy and pretty good, but there are still hardcore tendencies that get thrown around with wild abandon.  The vocals frequently break from traditional death metal growls and employ a much more throaty and desperate scream, and it's these mixed with the pummeling breakdowns that call to mind the less metal aspects of the band.  I like this a lot, but it just doesn't really stick with me.  It wasn't until "Shadow and Flame" hit that I realized who this reminds me of so much, and that's the little known Italian deathgrind band Natron that I encountered briefly while writing for Metal Crypt.  So yeah, this is some mega heavy death metal/hardcore without truly being deathcore.  Gotta give bonus points to the Napalm Death-esque anti-capitalist bent to the lyrics as well.  Always support for conrads o7
RATING: GOOD BUT FORGETTABLE

Vulcanodon Phazer - Cretaceous Skull
When I first started checking my promos again, I couldn't help but notice myself completely swamped in doom and stoner metal.  Vulcanodon Phazer was one of the first ones I checked out, and they set the stage for what I'd be getting.  Unfortunately, stoner stuff just isn't really my thing usually, and these guys don't do much to dispel my prejudice.  This hits every cliche and does very little to break away from the mediocrity they embrace.  Everything is distant and slathered in reverb, the vocals sound like they're being rambled from the next room, the riffs are basic and repeat a million times each, it's just the very definition of uninteresting, mediocre metal.  They're a few thousand yards away from ever sniffing Yob's quality, ya know?
RATING: DULL AND UNINTERESTING


Telümehtår - The Well

This is raucous and fiery black metal from France, presented in a very raw and passionate manner, and spends most of its time just tearing the fucking roof off your listening space.  It's not perfect, it goes on a little too long and doesn't really throw any curveballs your way or anything, but it's effective for fans of really hateful BM.  There's really only one moment that breaks from the formula, and that's "Perpetual Hopes in Eternal Despair", which is just a really fucking odd choice to include on the album.  Every other track, regardless of length, is populated with mountains of blasting and furious riffage, but then this track pops up in the middle of the album and it's just seven minutes of strumming tremolo chords and a pulsing one note bassline.  No percussion, no vocals, no nothing.  I assume it's meant to just be purely atmospheric but it doesn't work at all, it's just a weird, needless bore, and it's a huge distraction away from the unimaginative-yet-effective malice the rest of the record exudes.
RATING: DECENT

Helevorn - Aamamata
Honestly, I just didn't want to listen to any more fucking doom by the time this one showed up.  Much less the gloomy gothic kind.  I can't say with any real confidence that Aamamata is no good, because it's fine, perfectly serviceable for this synthy gloom, but I didn't care for this downtrodden dullness when Draconian or Katatonia was doing it and I don't care for it when Helevorn is doing it either.  Maybe I'm the wrong audience for this, and I'll admit that freely, maybe I got a little too ambitious when choosing which records to check out, but this dark, slow, dramatic, pompousness isn't anywhere near as gripping and emotional as it needs to be for me to sit through an hour of it.
RATING: ZZZZZ

Flame, Dear Flame - The Millennial Heartbeat
Ditto for this one.  Thankfully though, it works much better than Helevorn because it feels a bit more epic and is way more succinct, and the female vocals work really well over the epic, crushing doom underneath it.  It's vaguely psychedelic and doesn't stretch out the gloomy dirges for too long, with all of the tracks sitting at a healthy sevenish minutes and fucking off after only three of them.  I wouldn't say I like this one a lot, but I do like it.  I think I'll like it a lot more when I revisit it in a few months, when I'm (fingers crossed) no longer swamped in mediocre Swallow the Sun ripoffs.  It keeps the pace consistently downtrodden and it's a nice, melodic slab of depressing doom metal.  I obviously tend to prefer my metal to be fast and angry, but I adore this style as well, and while they don't knock it out of the park, they do a very good job with what they do.
RATING: DECENT

Contrarian - Their Worm Never Dies
Man could you pass up something with a cover art this fucking rad?  The music doesn't quite live up to the lofty expectations the aesthetics build up, but this is still a great example of proggy tech death that keeps things interesting.  It certainly helps that George Kollias of Nile fame is behind the kit, and it also helps that he resists his nature to play as inhumanly fast as possible at all times because it gives these winding riffs and screaming leads some room to breathe.  There's a huge helping of late-era Death in here, landing in some cosmic midpoint between the aforementioned and the ubertech whirlwind of Decrepit Birth.  Their Worm Never Dies also benefits from having a very active bassist who doesn't insist on hogging all the limelight like Beyond Creation or something.  I'm speaking as a bassist myself, I don't have any real problem with it being given a lead role, but I prefer it if a band acts as a cohesive unit where all of the members' individual talent complements one another instead of one clear superstar rendering the rest of the band useless.  You've gotta build around your superstars, and that's why the Capitals finally won the Stanely Cup when they managed to give Ovechkin an actual fucking team to play with.
RATING: VERY GOOD

Backstabber - Conspiracy Theorist
This is better than it has any right to be.  It's hard to take a theme as in-your-face as "all conspiracy theories are real" and not come off like a bunch of tinfoil chewing dorks mainlining Infowars at all times, but this Canadian trio pulls it off very well.  Conspiracy Theorist is mad hammering death/thrash from the starting gun and keeps the adrenaline through the roof.  There aren't many real highlights and it struggles to keep my attention the whole way through, but there are some excellent moments here and there in tracks like "No Privacy" and "Banksters".  This is really the album that gave me the idea to do this feature, because the previous four sentences are all I could think to say about it.
RATING: BETTER THAN IT SHOULD BE, STILL JUST OKAY

Iron Fire - Beyond the Void
Holy shit, remember these guys?  I discovered Iron Fire waaaaaaaay back in the Limewire days when I was a filthy music pirating teenager, when On the Edge was their newest album.  That album became a minor meme with my friends, where we'd plug our noses and intentionally sing terribly, because Martin Steene had to have been the worst vocalist for a major power metal band any of us had heard up to that point.  Nevertheless, "Thunderspirit" was a great song, but beyond that they just fell completely off my radar and I haven't listened to a note of their music in like 15 years at this point.  So yeah, I was shocked when I saw this name in my inbox, and I was even more shocked when it wound up being quite good.  Maybe it's because Steene is way younger than I realized (making him only 20 years old when On the Edge was recorded), but his voice has seemingly dropped two octaves since 2001, and it sounds fucking awesome now.  He has a Chuck Billy-esque gruffness to his voice now, and it adds a lot of grit to this much heavier variant of heavy/power metal that he's still reliably cranking out.  I'm sure there's a much better vocalist to compare him to, but I'm nine reviews into this feature and my brain is frying.  Maybe Matthias Ecklund's deeper voice he utilizes sometimes?  I dunno, either way this is some muscular Hammerfall/Iron Savior styled speedy trad/power metal with loads of good melodies and catchy choruses.  I'm genuinely surprised by this one and feel like I need to check the band's back catalog now.
RATING: QUITE GOOD

Porn - The Darkest of Human Desires - Act II
Ah yes, the ungoogleable.  Porn is... weird and stupid.  I'm not even really sure who this is supposed to appeal to.  It starts off with really basic groove metal, backed by clean vocals that sound like they were recorded in a subway tunnel, but there are weird subtle synths all over the place as well.  And as the album goes on it starts devolving into lengthy interludes of ambient industrial/synthwave.  I don't know what the fuck to call this, atmospheric industrial groove metal?  I dunno, it's bad.  And weird.  And stupid.  And I hate it.  I've only managed to sit through the entire album once after like five attempts, it's just boring and dumb, completely unengaging groove riffs with no mood.  Fuck this.
RATING: WEIRD AND STUPID

Andeis - Servants of the Cold Night
Andeis is one of those groups of dorks who values pointless anonymity more than actually crafting good music.  Their official country of origin is "unknown", and it's one of the only bands throughout all of these promos to have a big disclaimer saying THIS BAND IS NOT AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEWS in their EPK, because god forbid he slips up and says "y'all" and I find out that Laignech is actually some dude named Mike from Arkansas or something.  That's my headcanon now, Andeis is really just some stooges from a really boring American state who need to shroud themselves in SpOoKy mysticism in order to drum up any sort of hype.  Because despite being released on Fallen Empire (a very respectable label (who unfortunately seems to love fostering this kind of esoteric dorkery)) there is nothing at all here to help it stand out.  This is basic, raw, lo fi black metal with basic blasts and basic tremolos and basic screams and basic everything.  They say the lyrics are based in some ancient gothic language but it just looks like Welsh word vomit.  The one and only track that stands out in any way is "Wintrus hailagaizos aggwiþos", and that's entirely because there's some weird effect that pops up throughout the track that I think it supposed to be industrial sounding but really just sounds like a spoon banging on an air conditioner twice as loud as the rest of the band.  Just constant sixteenth note BINGBINGBINGBINGBING.  There's nothing interesting here and I never want to hear it again.
RATING: BINGBINGBINGBINGBING

Idiot Sect -  Idiot Sect
Last one for today.  I checked this one out because I like Thomas Ligotti, and one of his more famous stories is the very Lovecraftian Sect of the Idiot, but these guys don't really do a whole lot to conjure up the atmosphere of that tale.  This is just regular ass grind and that's it.  This is a very short release, barely breaching the five minute mark, and it's fine for hyperviolent grind with wild, unhinged yelling, but it's not something I'm ever going to put on again.  "Bury Blade of Wrath" is the only track that stands out in any way, and it's entirely for a few seconds of death metally double bass.  This is nasty and violent, but it plays strictly by the rules and does very little to excite me.  It scratches an itch but it's not an itch anybody gets very often.  "Piss Blood, Stake Claim" just finished.  It took me longer to write these few sentences than it did to listen to the entire release.
RATING: WHATEVER YOU THINK OF GRIND


That's all folks!  Tune in in a week or two when I have to clear the queue out again.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Avantasia - Moonglow

E/N

My relationship with Avantasia is... complicated to say the least.  I feel like the original impetus of the project, the Metal Opera double feature, was a bit too ambitious for its own good, producing a lot of overlong and forgettable tracks, but it justified its existence with some incredible songs like "Final Sacrifice" and the untouchable classic "The Seven Angels". Tobi declared his one-off project to be complete and moved back on to Edguy, but apparently his love of way-too-huge epics and inability to stop shmoozing with his heroes was too much to suppress, and before long Avantasia returned with the Lost in Space EPs leading up to The Scarecrow.  From then until 2016, you couldn't fucking pay me to care.  Avantasia became one of the most frustrating bands in the world, constantly sucking up all of Tobi's attention, leading Edguy to atrophy in neglect (though I was never huge on them either but at least they tended to know what they wanted to do), belching out bloated albums loaded with gazillion minute epics that put me to sleep, obvious Meat Loaf ripoffs, weak ballads, pompous, overblown grandiosity that amounted to nothing, I just didn't want to sit through it anymore.  Avantasia is even my go-to example when I talk about why power metal as a whole has become a frustrating genre, because there are still classic tracks being pumped out left and right, but few fully great albums nowadays.  You might have to sit through an hour of "The Toy Master" just to get one "Devil in the Belfry".

And then, somehow, Tobi captured lightning in a bottle in 2016, and unleashed Ghostlights onto unsuspecting listeners.  I don't even know why I bothered giving it a chance, I had hated the previous four albums and intended to never listen to this bloated nonsense again, but there was some magnetic pull around it.  Maybe I always thought they truly had potential underneath all the pomp and pretentiousness, I dunno, the point is that with Ghostlights they finally delivered.  All of the tropes of Avantasia were there but it all just... worked for once.  Yeah "Seduction of Decay" is a sluggish bore and "Isle of Evermore" is one of the most insignificant non-ballads ever written, but "Master of the Pendulum", "Unchain the Light", "Babylon Vampyres", "Let the Storm Descend Upon You", and the title track were all unquestionably top-tier power metal supremacy, stage-musical wannabes be damned, it was a great album. 

Anyway, all of that buildup leads us to 2019, and the first Avantasia album I had ever looked forward to, Moonglow.  Does it act as a worthy followup to that 2016 opus?  Or is it an entirely new approach that fully breaks it away from its titanic predecessor?  Well like always, Tobi chose what was behind Door #3 and did both and neither, with the added factor of reintroducing all of the problems that kept me away from the band for a decade. 

I think part of the problem here is that, and I'm saying this with no evidence whatsoever, I realize, I think Tobi's ego is growing out of control.  Avantasia is a real hit now, charting in several countries, embarking on megatours with 3+ hour sets, they're a big deal now.  The issue here is that Tobi is and has always been the least interesting part of Avantasia, and I don't think he's quite realized that yet.  His name is still officially in the logo, as if he's some vaunted Stephen Spielberg-esque figure whose name deserves equal real estate with the actual title of the project, and the last two albums now (the two most commercially successful ones if I'm remembering correctly) open with tracks with him as the sole singer.  It feels like he has to get out front somehow and remind everybody that this is his baby.  It doesn't matter that his nasally snarl pales in comparison to the full voiced brilliance of collaborators like Russell Allen or the omnipresent Jorn Lande, Tobi needs to be the one to have center stage at all times.  He's like a more intrusive DJ Khaled of metal who elbows his way into the limelight at every turn simply because he has famous friends.  His endless quest for quasi-mainstream success has finally paid off, and now he can't even prevent himself from literally dressing up like a ringmaster.  Just sit back and let Hansi sing you fucking nerd.

Anyway, enough metashit, I've gone on far too long.  The point of this whole diatribe is that Moonglow is back to the old problem Avantasia suffered for so long, it's just bloated and full of itself and just not very spectacular.  Granted, there's some residual greatness left over from the previous stunner, but there's a pretty huge stretch near the end of the album where very little of interest happens.  Tracks like "Starlight" and "Lavender" feel like pure filler songs, though they are at least sorta fun and kinetic.  They are at the very least actual power metal songs instead of the fluffy Bon Jovi shit he loaded The Scarecrow with.  Geoff Tate finds himself on weak songs again as well, with "Invincible" being the token terrible ballad that Tobi can't seem to stay away from, and "Alchemy" being a weird thing with chuggy strings and a sluggish pace with two minutes of ideas stretched out to seven and a half.  And fuck don't even get me started on the baffling idea to close the album on a cover of fucking "Maniac".  Tobi lost his mind years ago and here's yet another example as to what that means.

But I think overall I'm leaving with a positive impression of the album, despite the overwhelming disappointment.  The disappointment stems almost entirely from how great Ghostlights was.  If that album had never happened, this could well be Avantasia's best album.  The nearly ten minute solo-Tobi faux epic of "Ghost in the Moon" aside, Moonglow does an excellent job of putting its best foot forward.  "Ghost in the Moon" is too long and thin for its own good, but it does have an incredibly rousing chorus that sets the stage for a huge journey, and for the next few tracks the album truly delivers on that promise.  "Book of Shallows" follows and it's potentially the heaviest song Avantasia has ever penned, thanks in part to Mille Petrozza showing up out of nowhere and snarling all over a legitimate thrash riff from left field.  That section aside, the track is a fantastic testament to what makes power metal such an entertaining genre when it's at its best.  Finally landing Hansi Kursch, a vocalist he's clearly wanted since the beginning, is a huge boon to this track and album as a whole, since both of his appearances are easy highlights.  Hearing his bellowing croon on "Book of Shallows" plastered a cartoonish grin on my face, and the mere addition of his voice makes the Blind Guardianisms of the song that much more prominent.  It's fast and heavy, and most importantly it's larger than life and just fuckin' huge and fun.  What a day for a pastel dream, it just works.  It's almost the perfect representation of what Avantasia can be at its best.

I say "almost" because the actual perfect representation is a mere two tracks later with "The Raven Child".  This is exactly the type of song that Tobi is always trying to write and only occasionally succeeding at.  This is the huge multi part epic that guides the listener through a moving journey of several different themes and ideas, all of which connect.  This is what "Ghost in the Moon" should've been, and the utilization of two of the best singers he's ever wrangled into the project (the usual suspect of Jorn Lande and the white whale of Hansi Kursch) only works to the track's advantage.  It's generally midpaced and epic as hell, there's an extended quiet section in the middle that acts as a fantastic buffer for the sheer grandiosity of the first and third movements, the multilayered choirs build into this massive explosion of high octane beauty in the climax, the whole thing is just phenomenal.  This very well could be the best Avantasia track to date.  Yes, even above the astounding "The Seven Angels". 

And just since I've touched on almost every track at this point, I'll also throw out the remaining good tracks.  "Moonglow" stands as the song I've easily listened to the most, despite "The Raven Child" being what I'd consider the best one.  The title tracks is much more succinct and easy to listen to, and it's just all around an incredible pop rock track that deserves all of the mainstream success that Avantasia has been soaking up in recent years.  Easily one of the best choruses Tobi has ever penned, and I have to give him kudos for finally utilizing the token female guest vocalist on something that isn't a shitty ballad.  "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" is basically just a double-length "Starlight" but it works better, even if it does drag a bit with the lengthy runtime.  And just to round it all out, "Requiem for a Dream" is another astounding tune, a high speed attack with frantic bass leads and pummeling percussion.  I've never been a Michael Kiske fan but the two altos here help the track soar high above it's grounded ferocity. 

So that covers all of it, I don't usually name every single track on an album in a review but Moonglow is so ambitious and such a mixed bag that I can't really avoid it.  There are more good songs on the whole, and the best songs are some of the best the band ever wrote, no doubt about it.  But the thing that keeps me from truly recommending this is that the bad songs are just so indicative of everything that made Avantasia unbearable for a decade.  Moonglow falls back on a lot of the old tricks that Ghostlights so deftly avoided.  Tobi has shown that he's fully capable of writing excellent epics, even when they're as self indulgent as physically possible.  But he's also shown that he's fully capable of forgetting to make the base of the songs underneath all of the pomp and circumstance worthwhile on their own.  At least this time you don't have to sit through an hour of boring bullshit before you hit the good songs, but you still need to wait almost eleven minutes before a single more talented guest shows up, it's still structured in a weird way where it starts and ends on a whimper, it still has a five track stretch of mostly dead air, there's still way too much going on while simultaneously being completely uninteresting, et cetera.  To use an old LiveJournal term (and show my age a bit), this is a very good example of "E/N".  Everything / Nothing.  It's a million words that means everything to the writer and nothing to the reader.  I almost revived my cringey old series of When Pompousness Takes Control, but I decided against it because I do still think this is on the positive end of the spectrum on the whole and some of the best songs are the most overblown and overdone, but I do still think Tobi is at his best when he just gets back to basics and stops trying to make every song "Paradise by the Dashboard Light".


RATING: 61%

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Swim to Drown - Fortress

God please kill me

People like me (read: people who are ensconced in the underground and hang out with metal nerds on the daily) don't realize something about the state of music today.  Namely we've successfully insulated ourselves from the "real world" outside of our little sphere of whatever metal we love.  Goats n' Gasmasks war metal, thesaurus aping brutality, high flying fantasy metal, shamelessly retro throwbacks, whatever it is you're into, you're probably into something like that if you're here and reading this.  I had a bit of a wakeup call a year or so ago when curiosity struck me and I started wading into the "new metal tracks" type playlists on Spotify, and I was struck with a stunning revelation.

All those "false metal" things that internet nerds used to be all up in arms about fifteen years ago like nu metal and metalcore?  Yeah, it's all still going incredibly strong, with a healthy scene populated by a zillion bands I've never heard of that have 30k+ Facebook likes with oolongs of middle school kids bumping this shit at full volume.  Crazy right?!  Turns out that "metal" is still a nebulous term that people have different definitions for, and the definitions that MA has been diligently (and correctly) excluding for almost two decades now is still around and kicking with no resistance.  Who knew?

I bring that up because imagine my shock when I came across Swim to Drown's Fortress in my latest promo batch.  I figured based entirely on the album cover and title that this would be more weepy death/doom since I've been getting a surprising amount of that, but no!  Swim to Drown is some horrifying bastard hybrid of Meshuggah and Limp Bizkit, complete with bouncy djent rhythms, turntables, and nasally rapping.  I like loads of stupid shit, don't get me wrong, but this is almost insulting to my intelligence in how brain dead and idiotic this is.

Fortress is the musical equivalent of a rubber chicken.  This whole stupid thing is loaded with dorky "comedy" that usually manifests in random videogame samples, vocals that sound like the quack that Ryo-kun frequently squawks out at the end of Maximum the Hormone tracks, and funky basslines that could have potential if they weren't surrounded exclusively by Z-grade rapping and bwongdong non-riffs.  Maximum the Hormone is a great band that utilizes loads of nu metal influences, but they surround them with fantastic hooks and huge explosions of manic aggression.  They're much more System of a Down than Korn, is what I mean.  Swim to Drown takes most of their influence from those fucking awful late 90s/early 00s nu metal bands that populated themselves with snapbacks and fratboys as opposed to tryhard edgelords in halloween costumes (Slipknot and Mudvayne at least had a few genuinely good songs, even if they were on accident).  It's the wimpy sentimentality of Linkin Park with the feckless bravado of Limp Bizkit, festooned in riffs that sound like ballsacks that conjure up Korn without the angst.  Some of you may recall I gave a very mixed review to Crossfaith like six years ago, and what it was about them that kind of entranced me was how it was dumb poppy metalcore with incongruous bass drops and dance beats that was clearly drying to capitalize on the dubstep craze of the time, but I couldn't help but kind of enjoy some of the songs for how unabashedly lighthearted and goofy they were.  They were catchy pop songs with dance beats and occasional chug riffs, but for as stupid as they were, they were at least sometimes put together in such a way where the obvious trendhopping sounded like a genuine attempt to write something engaging and fun.

Swim to Drown?  Fuck no, this is smooth-brained numbskullery of the lowest kind.  There's nothing fun here, this is just an album of aggressively moronic, low-brow, solid-skulled nimrod anthems.  I try to stay off my high horse whenever I can because I like a lot of pea-brained goofiness, but Fortress is too much even at my drunkest.  I know because I tried!


RATING: 4%

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Vale of Pnath - Accursed

Lovecraft references are always a plus as well

A little while ago, I negatively reviewed a new tech death "supergroup", Equipoise.  That particular review actually drew some attention when the band themselves posted it on their Facebook page.  I wasn't "brigaded" per se since pretty much none of them actually commented here or tried to track down my personal info or anything, but I did watch from afar as a few dozen people took turns dunking on me for not liking a tech death album for being too techy, ragging on my crack about it having "no hooks", joking about how "hearing the bass" must be a negative for me, "he must've wanted nu metal", et cetera et cetera.  It's all good, I've been doing this for like twelve years now so I'm quite used to people thinking I'm an idiot, but I can't help but feel like a lot of those guys kinda missed the point of what I was saying (as if Origin's Antithesis isn't hooky as fuck while being simultaneously maximum overtech).

So to contrast, here's a tech death album that's loaded with technicality, has a loud and active bassist, and, most importantly, is crammed with hooks and absolutely kicks ass as a result.  And for an added bonus, Vale of Pnath here is even one of the bands connected to Equipoise's hugely impressive pedigree as well (granted it's only through the vocalist, who isn't featured on this EP, but the connection is there nonetheless).

The biggest difference between Demiurgus and Accursed here is that the former was a group of seven extremely talented guys who felt like they were playing three different songs at once, all desperately trying to out-solo each other with neverending musical pyrotechnics on an hour long whirlwind nightmare.  The latter, on the other hand, is equally mindbending in its technicality, but it's constructed in a way where everything coalesces into a pummeling tour-de-force with some real semblance of restraint and nuance.  Not every single attosecond is crammed with four simultaneous guitar solos.  Instead, Vale of Pnath builds upon a foundation of hyperspeed riffs with scorching, diabolical atmosphere, and the fretboard theatrics and panging bass are window dressing accentuating the building blocks of great music. 

There's an almost black metally undercurrent on Accursed, presenting itself as an exceedingly atmospheric record with a shitload of tremolo melodies and blast beats, with lots of subtle synths and industrial grinding.  Oftentimes the metal portions of the songs will drop out entirely for a few seconds to give the listener some time to breathe and for the atmosphere to settle across the landscape before thunderous riffage crashes through the tension and decimates everything within earshot.  The focus here is on these devastating riffs and the indomitable adrenaline that fuels them, to the point that the band never feels like they're showing off.  You want to know what hooks sound like in tech death?  They sound like the "Black Dahlia Murder on meth" spasticity of the title track, or the caustic chugging quasi-breakdowns that pepper "Skin Turned Soil", or the straightfoward bludgeoning sections of "Spectre of Bone", hell even the smatterings of djent in between the Neuraxis-styled ferocity in "Obsidian Realm" are fucking spine shattering.  These are what hooks in tech death sound like, they sound like the moments that don't completely eschew the second half of their nomenclature.  Overwhelming technicality is fine, but if it isn't grounded or broken up with punishing beatdowns of savage barbarism, it's going to wind up being a mess of weedling frivolousness.

Granted, Accursed isn't a perfect release.  It does most things right, for sure.  The riffs are destructive and the atmosphere is sublime, but it's undeniably pretty samey.  There are only five full songs that aren't interludes on this EP, and the first three all sound pretty identical to one another ("Skin Turned Soil" and "Accursed" even have the exact same runtime), and while "Obsidian Realm" and "Spectre of Bone" are a bit more dynamic in presentation, they act more as a worthwhile climax after a consistent-yet-samey start.  Regardless, this is a fantastic EP worth any fan of the style's time. 


RATING: 85%