Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ensiferum - One Man Army

PISTOLEEEEROOOO!

Ensiferum's career trajectory could be described as "wonky" or "inconsistent", but that's odd if you consider the fact that the personal ratings I've given every album increase until Victory Songs reaches the pinnacle and the following two albums score consecutively lower.  I mean, that seems pretty clear cut to me, no?  They started off inconsistent with a penchant for boring filler dullards, got more and more epic, focused, and energetic, and then got slightly experimental before just giving up and making a full album of those boring filler tracks from the debut.  It doesn't matter that my heart tells a different story about how they had numerous peaks and valleys and have experimented with a lot of ideas (not all of which hit bullseye) since day one; they went up and then went down.  Case closed.

In charges One Man Army, which opens with one of the best intro/full song combos they've had since "Ad Victoriam/Blood is the Price of Glory" in "March of War/Axe of Judgment".  I'm not kidding when I say that I was utterly floored by the intensity on display during the opening number.  The band hasn't sounded this hungry since 2007, and man is that a welcome change from the bland trot of Unsung Heroes.  This has been earning some comparisons to the debut album, and at least on "Axe of Judgment", it's absolutely fitting.  The insanely fast tremolo riffing with the soft, heroic choirs over the top, interspersed with jaunty jangling melodies and clear singalong moments can only bring to mind classics like "Windrider" or "Hero in a Dream".  Then the bridge devolves into an uncharacteristically heaving chugging riff, with banging toms and clear fist pumping "HEY!" moments before another crowd rousing gallop and soaring harmonized guitar solo.  This is just not the kind of thing you were ever gonna hear on the last album, and it was the absolute perfect song to open this album with.  It makes a definitive statement right out of the gate that they heard the complaints about Unsung Heroes, and they aimed to correct it.

There's.... well there's a slight problem with that.  It does assuage the sting of the last disappointment by loading this album down with more aggressive, epic, and most importantly, focused songs, but it sort of did exactly what I didn't like about the debut.  Yeah, it's back to being pretty much half fast songs and half slow songs.  Now, this isn't all bad, because some of the slower/mid paced tracks are pretty good, "Heathen Horde" brings to mind the fabulous "Wanderer" and "Warrior Without a War" conveys some great atmosphere, but fuck just drop the Heathen Throne saga already.  It doesn't work, it took up the only boring segments of From Afar and managed to be an agonizingly long 17 minute track on Unsung Heroes.  I don't think I can chalk it up to coincidence anymore that every single track labeled with that subtitle ends up being a pointless listen.  Across the six tracks that's comprised it so far (I don't care what anybody says, "Tumman Virran Taa" is part of it), we're at a staggering 55 minutes of cruddy music from the band.  Just... why?  So yes, as I'm sure you could guess, "My Ancestor's Blood" and "Descendants, Defiance, Domination" aren't particularly good.  They're actually fairly inoffensive when taken at face value (and to be fair, "My Ancestor's Blood" has potential to be one of their good mid paced tracks, but it just falls flat and ends up doing nothing worthwhile), just being boring songs that trot along at mid pace with bland melodies that don't elicit any particularly strong emotions.  But for some reason they irritate me probably more than they should.  Maybe it's just because fuck Heathen Throne stop it seriously.

Okay, so that's like sixteen minutes of the album that I definitively would rather not listen to, does the rest fare better?  Yes of course.  Like I said, this brings to mind the first album, so the dichotomy between songs is really clear and the gap is pretty wide, with "Cry for the Earth Bounds" being a sort of okay but kinda lame mid paced drowse-fest, but the title track and "Two of Spades" just completely slay.  I was pretty vocal early on about how the title track was lame, but within the context of the full album it actually works marvelously.  It's a quick, high octane barnburner with a massive pre-chorus.  The actual chorus lets the buildup down slightly but the massive choirs end up being the part that sticks in your head so it's not so bad. 

"Two of Spades" has been getting a lot of hype during the album's promotional run, and let me tell you, it's completely deserved.  I'm not kidding when I say this may have finally usurped "Battle Song", "Guardians of Fate", or "Victory Song" as my favorite Ensiferum track.  It opens first with a very adrenaline pumping intro reminiscent of "Twilight Tavern", and from there it just picks up speed and the melodies only get stronger.  This is what they're best at, they can intertwine this strong metallic intensity of trad and power metal and throw these unabashedly dorky folk melodies over it and make it completely fucking work.  It all feels like it was born this way, like the two main elements of their sound were borne from the same embryo.  They developed together before being brought into this world together, and it shows.  Now apart from having one of the best choruses the band has ever had, there is one other aspect of this song that's been getting press, and let me tell you how utterly fucknuts wrong people are about it.  I've read a lot of press reviews long before release say that it utilizes "western" folk elements and constantly compare it to "Stone Cold Metal" from two albums ago.  Okay, so it's not something they haven't done before, right?  They already had the banjos, tin whistles, and saloon piano breakdown in that song, they can't really surprise me.  Yeah that's where everybody drops the ball like Jackie Smith.  The band does indeed break down into something they haven't done before, but that thing is a Dschinghis Khan song.  I'm not even kidding, this is straight up dorky late 70s disco music, complete with the "HOO!  HAH!" shouts leading into the verse section.  It's perfect, I can't imagine anything else this stupid being this incredible.  I can only imagine the band, with their signature look of wearing nothing but Finnish flags lining up in a choreographed dance sequence with gigantic grins on their face, punching the air in rhythm and kicking their feet out with glee before Markus takes a step forward and says his one line while the backing dancers yell out their response immediately afterwards.  I'll never get over it, something this dumb should be shunned for the forced randomness but it's just too perfect.  The entire album, to me, hinges on how fucking great the metal parts and how unexpectedly fun the silly parts of "Two of Spades" are.

So yeah, the opening rant was basically just to illustrate that Ensiferum managed to overcome their worrying slide into worthless crap, and while they've emulated their least-good classic album with the self titled debut, the same thing holds true here as it did there; the good songs are so fucking good that the boring shit of the bad songs really doesn't stick with you too much.  "Axe of Judgment" and "Two of Spades" are two of the best songs they've written in eight years, and there are a couple other great tracks scattered throughout.  The only real issue is the inconsistency that plagued their earliest work.  Markus and Jari have shown that they have the exact same problem with songwriting, since they've both been struggling with slow, epic songs and completely nailing fast and melodic ones ever since they parted ways.  So with that in mind, the album starts with a four track streak of fun, goes on a slight dip, picks up again with the flawless "Two of Spades" and frankly only half-good "My Ancestor's Blood" before being skippable at the end.  This isn't the godsend that we were all hoping for after Unsung Heroes, but it's a good pick-me-up and shows that the band does indeed care about pleasing the fans a bit.  They still have some fire left in them, and now lets just hope they can focus it for the next album.


RATING - 79%

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Desolate Shrine - The Heart of the Netherworld

Snoring through Wonka's Boat to Hell

Eh, all that can really be said here is that Desolate Shrine are fairly decent at a fairly decent style and that's really it.  This'll be a short one because despite the album's 60+ minute runtime, you really only get one musical idea.  If you've heard this style of black/death metal that's gotten pretty popular lately, you've heard Desolate Shrine before.

The Heart of the Netherworld isn't a bad album, and I really like some of the elements they tried working with, particularly the very long songs (apart from the intro, nothing is shorter than six minutes and the average length is probably somewhere around nine minutes), and I like that they don't pad out the runtime with spooky atmospheric parts or anything.  They just blast from minute one and never stop.  It's a very filthy, high octane ride through dark, twisted corridors, and with better songwriting I think this could really stand out in the same way Bolzer has.  Now, I'm not much of a Bolzer fan for the same reason (a couple great riffs here and there amidst a mostly plateaued experience), but both bands do the one thing they do fairly well.  I can't really pick out highlights because of the plateau problem I mentioned, but it's a fairly solid romp.  No song is going to dip below "pretty okay", and if you're a marked fan of the style then you'll likely lap this up like a thirsty dog.  But for somebody like me who craves a little bit more variety between songs unless that one idea just absolutely blows me away, this leaves me feeling kind of cold.

That said, coldness is definitely something the band seems to be aiming for, though in a different capacity.  The tone of everything is very distant and alien despite the upfront and punishing nature of the music, and the effect would be cool if it had any smattering of originality behind it.  It might be unfair, but I think that's Desolate Shrine's biggest problem, their timing was just a bit off.  The Heart of the Netherworld was released during such a groundswell of albums in this style that it manages to ride the wave of hype and good will, but not early enough to really stand out in any way thanks to them not really producing any new ideas.  "We Dawn Anew" knocks the tempo down to a sickly crawl, but that one churning number still manages to just blend into the white noise that the rest of the album produces.  Basically it's a Dark Descent release, that's it.  I pick on the label a lot because it's just sort of an easy target thanks to their visibility and rabid fanbase, but really and truly they've never released a bad album (apart from Emptiness's Nothing but the Whole, which I think is just awkward and unfocused, but I'm in a massive minority on that one), but this, just like most of their oeuvre, is a distant, twisted album full of dissonant morbidity that just ends up falling by the wayside since strong songwriting seems often neglected over an overwhelming atmosphere.  And that's what this is, it's overwhelming in its darkness but the meat is undercooked and bland.  It's worth at least a cursory listen and it's far from being shitty, but it's background black/death in the grand scheme of things.  Behemoth may mostly kinda suck but at least they know how to grab your attention.  Desolate Shrine doesn't.

The cover art fucking rules though, so there's that.


RATING - 60%

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Gamma Ray - Empire of the Undead

RAMMA GAY! LOL!

Man, it seems like Gamma Ray just has no idea what they're doing anymore, doesn't it?  Kai's been running on fumes for nearly a decade at this point, with Majesty thru To the Metal being riddled with blatant plagiarism (though the former still stands as their last great album despite the constant riff stealing) and everything since Land of the Free pt. II: Electric Boogaloo sounding like a calculated exercise in ticking every single trope the band had established as instrumental to their classics up to that point without actually reproducing the spirit of the 95-05 era.  Unfortunately, Empire of the Undead, while teasing some great tracks with "Master of Confusion" and the title track a few years back, ends up as yet another nigh-lifeless retread through moments they'd already perfected twenty years earlier.

Nothing illustrates this more than the opening track, "Avalon".  On its own, it's not necessarily a bad song.  It's got a nice, catchy chorus and a great galloping bridge, those are two things that Gamma Ray has always been at and I could hear them recycle that formula for the next two decades if the songwriting was good enough. And therein lies the problem, it's just not.  Not anymore.  "Avalon" was clearly chosen as the opener purely in an attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle they nailed in 1995 with "Rebellion in Dreamland".  In all actuality, this wouldn't make the cut on anything up to No World Order.  That's the saddest part about this album really, it's full of songs that are essentially okay, but just so far away from the majesty that the band used to churn out with alarming regularity a decade ago.

Now, I'm being slightly unfair, and I know I should just judge this album on its own merits, but even then all I can really say is that it's a pretty safe and predictable album with only three songs that stand out as above average.  "Hellbent" is a mad thrashing ripper with more vitriol than they've arguably ever showcased.  The lyrics are cheesy and dumb but the message stands tall regardless: "We are here because we fucking love this music and we're going to play it until we drop dead mid-song".  The title track fares about equally as well, being one of the darkest and most aggressive songs they've penned since "Hell Is Thy Home".  "Master of Confusion" stands as the most "normal" song they've written in a while that's managed to rise above mediocre, since it rides on a recycled melody they've used at least twice before and just retreads lyrical themes they've beaten to death over the years, but it's a charming uptempo power rocker that is certainly worth a listen and stands as a highlight.  And I guess I can offer up some props to "Demonseed" for the main riff being a nice jaunty bouncing number with a touch of blues flavoring.  Granted, it's only two notes away from being identical to the outro of Megadeth's "Wake Up Dead", but that's been Kai's modus operandi for a while now so it's almost pointless to hold it against him anymore.

But really that's it, the rest of the album goes by without much consequence.  There's a lot of filler to be found here, even if it's pretty varied in execution.  "Time for Deliverance" continues their time honored tradition of shoehorning in awful ballads on damn near every album and "Born to Fly" makes its mark by being one of the most utterly inconsequential songs ever featured on a power metal album.  I can namedrop songs all day but really Empire of the Undead finds itself being reminiscent of a Hammerfall album in the sense that it has a couple good songs amidst a bunch of boring go-nowhere filler.  And just like Hammerfall, Gamma Ray are sticking to their strengths throughout the duration of the record, the sad truth is just that, apart from Kai's voice (which is just as strong as ever), the band isn't all that strong anymore in the songwriting department.  I remember not really noticing until their live album, but damn near 100% of their best songs feature some sort of epic break in the bridge where the whole band falls out and builds up again for one huge release.  They redid this at least a dozen and a half times to great effect, but it never mattered because it was always awesome.  If they tried that now, it'd be massively noticeable by the sheer fact that there's a very large chance that the song surrounding such a moment would be toe tapping at best and soul meltingly dull at worst.

Maybe Zimmerman's departure was more instrumental to their future than I had initially realized (I'm pretty sure the other three guys did the bulk of the writing, didn't they?), but at the end of the day, Empire of the Undead sees Gamma Ray keep their streak alive of not releasing any out-and-out bad albums or songs, but still ends up being on the bottom end of their oeuvre, despite the darker shift in tone.  Worth a listen for established fans for the few good songs, but most of them will probably leave the experience feeling underwhelmed on the whole.  It's another album to justify more tours, but it's nothing you're going to proudly display in the Heavy Metal Hall of Fame.


RATING - 60%

Monday, January 19, 2015

Friday, January 2, 2015

Lord Mantis - Pervertor

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark just got weirder

Taste Swap round 5, bitches!  I'm bringing this fad back, and this time I've dragged the monstrous Thumbman, dystopia4, down with me.  The guy may do almost nothing except lift weights and listen to sludge, but every once and a while he takes a break to write reviews, and when he does he's one of the most consistent out there.  And so with that in mind I asked him to pair up with me for this little game I play, and the album he gave me was, much like the last two I did (Witchcraft and Bodycage), very, very good.  Enter Pervertor, by Chicago's own Lord Mantis.

With my first look at the (gorgeously grotesque) cover art, my mind understandably jumped to Dragged into Sunlight's monumental Hatred for Mankind, and I'm not alone because the two bands seem to be compared to one another.  The difference to me is that while Dragged into Sunlight takes visceral black metal and spreads it liberally over dark, oppressive doom, Lord Mantis takes that same Nordic vitriol and instead uses it to coat a base of filthy sludge.  Now generally, I don't give a fuck about sludge (which is precisely why I do these games, of course), but apparently taking the dank, grungy sounds of Grief and sandblasting it with the screeching hatred of USBM makes for a pretty fucking swell combination, because Pervertor completely rips face.

The first thing that stood out to me were the vocals, which channel Melechesh's Ashmedi in terms of sheer force combined with unrelenting harshness.  It sounds like he's pushing the words out of his body with the force of a volcanic eruption, and it comes off as so god damned gritty and powerful that I can't imagine any other way this band could possibly approach the vocal position.  There's a fifteen second howl at the end of "Ritual Killer" that just sounds like the vocal representation of genocide, and it only took the opening lines of "Pervertor of the Will" to cement this as one of the most vicious performances of 2012.

I mentioned Grief earlier, mainly because they're one of the very few sludge bands I'm familiar with in any capacity, but that's honestly not a great comparison because Lord Mantis seems to approach the style with a much different mindset.  Grief is about misery and despair, while Lord Mantis is about misanthropy and hatred.  As such, the music contained here is much more aggressive, which is largely due to the black metal half of the band's style.  The riffs rarely devolve into cliched tremolo abuse, instead working their way around very twisted patterns and evoking an atmosphere of filth.  The bluesy roots of the style rear their head occasionally (like on "The Whip and the Body"), but it never falls into Sabbath retreads or anything like that.  All it really does is keep the songs varied enough for them all to have their own identity in co-ordinance with the ideal of keeping the album unified and cohesive.  The whole album focuses on seismic heaviness, and that's really all I could ask out of it.

This is another case where there really isn't much fault I can find in an album.  This absolutely knows what it set out to do, and Pervertor certainly accomplished that goal.  It's dirty, raw, bloody, and visceral.  Basically any adjectives you could use to describe a knife fight apply here equally as well.  Since jumping from Candlelight to Profound Lore and adding the omnipresent Ken Sorceron to the fold, the band has found its way into the closest thing to the mainstream that metal really has anymore (that being the XM metal station and being namedropped on MetalSucks and similar publications), so I think it's safe to assume they've gotten slightly more accessible with their later releases.  If so, that's a shame, because the unrelenting vitriol contained on Pervertor is brilliant, and we really legitimately need more bands focusing on mood and songwriting like this.  Lord Mantis has a couple of tricks in their arsenal, and they employ all of them wonderfully here.  Even if you end up hating this, I dare you to tell me the vocals suck.  This sickly malformed and fanatical howling is pretty much the closest thing to objectively great you're going to find in extreme metal.  Definitely worth a listen if you're not a pussy, bro.

Cal used to have his own blog but he hasn't updated it in over a year, but you can find his MA reviews here, and he also reviews for The Metal Observer, so you may know him already, but he's pretty swell so read his stuff dammit


RATING - 90%

Thursday, January 1, 2015

BH AWARDS 2014 AND EVERYTHING ELSE I DO EVERY YEAR

Welcome... I bid you weeeelcoooome.  TO LIFE INSIDE! LAIR OF THE BASTARD!

Okay I couldn't think of a good opening this year but don't you try to tell me that W.A.S.P. is anything other than awesome so dammit I'll reference them if I want to.  Well anyway, 2014 has drawn to a close, and the time has come for me to sit back in my easy chair (shoddily assembled office chair from Walmart), stroke my magnificent wizard beard (douchey bloatee), sip my fine scotch (Jack and Coke, very heavy on the whiskey), and puff on my classy corncob pipe (this one's true), and ruminate on the past year in the realm of heavy music.  Yes it's time once again for the BH Award for Album of the Year, featuring the countdown from 13, because that's an evil sounding number and I'm a total poser.  For the second consecutive year, I feel like the overall volume and quality has once again gone down on the whole.  There are some phenomenal albums chilling at the top but it was even harder this year than last year to round out a solid thirteen that I'm really confident about.  But in the end, I think I got it pretty solid, and it's time once again to roll out the red carpet and pay tribute to the best.  Rules are as always, no EPs, full lengths only (bummer because Iron Reagan's Spoiled Identity is spectacular but it's only five fucking minutes long so I couldn't in good conscience put it on here).  So whatever let's get it going.  ROLLOUT!

THE 13 BEST ALBUMS OF 2014

13. Halberd - Remnants of Crumbling Empires
This is a fascinating project for me because I'd watched it grow from a simple idea from lyricist Antoine Richard to hook up with some internetical friends and write some death/doom, all the way to the eventual release a few years later.   Really, the final result is an excellent slab of what the members refer to as "beanie worship", basically meaning Monotheist era Celtic Frost and Triptykon.  It's very good, with a vocal performance more monstrous than Lou Ferrigno and a guitar tone bigger than Troy Aikman's hands.  Let's just say that this ranked on my list, and the new Triptykon didn't make the cut, if that's any indication of quality for y'all.  It's not a perfect album because it kinda drags in spots, but that's the only thing keeping it from a higher spot.

12. Seprevation - Consumed
I'm not sure I can adequately explain precisely why I like this album so much.  It's a debut album from a random unknown British death metal band, but holy fuck does it shred.  Basically it's just plain old death metal but it's played with an unrivaled ferocity; a vicious bludgeoning unseen outside of some of the more feral Swedeath bands in the genre's heyday.  There are riffs galore and the songs never rely on any sort of silly gimmick to stand out.  This is just purely focused songwriting and brilliantly tight musicianship combining into a primordial blend of barbaric savagery.  Fuck off with that progtechnical JacoPastoriouscore like Beyond Creation and whatever Job for a Cowboy thinks they are now, this is exactly the kind of mentality that young death metal bands need to be striving for.

11. Space Eater - Passing Through the Fire to Molech
Serbia strong!  The third album from these squatting Slavs is just intense as fuck from beginning to end.  It's pure thrashing lunacy from start to finish and never takes its foot off the gas, which is exactly the way I like it.  There are also some excellent touches of power metal thrown in, particularly in the vocals, which sound like a very raw, bloody blend between the dude from Torian and Sebastian Bach, oddly enough, on the high screams.  Generally though, it's blisteringly aggressive and one of the most refreshing thrash albums I've heard since... well since Game Over's album earlier this year, but this is better and only reaffirmed my belief that great thrash metal indeed does exist out there and we've been way too harsh on the genre lately.  This is the only thrash/power metal album on this list, so fans of the genre need to check it for sure.

10. Hoth - Oathbreaker
I've already given this one a full review, so those curious should really just go read it, but for a quick recap: this is a wonderfully organic record that manages to be both bleak and triumphant at the same time.  It's a great blend of melodic folky black metal with a pristine sound and epic scope.  I love the cold landscapes it paints, and I love how well they twist themselves into this warm optimism that permeates the record.  The melodies are all sublime and everything is just so well put together.  I can't figure out the correct combination of words to really do this justice to what it sounds like, so just take my word for it that it's awesome.

9. Cannibal Corpse - A Skeletal Domain
Fuck, I already gave this one a full review too (and I gave it a lower score than Oathbreaker up there too, imagine that).  Basically all you need to know is that this is Cannibal Corpse, so of fucking course it's going to rule.  It's yet another entry in a long line of great albums from an easy top ten favorite band of mine.  Everything that makes the band so good is here and just as strong as ever.  It's a little more homogenous than previous efforts, which is why it didn't rank as high as Torture did two years ago, but it's still an incredibly fun record to crank at any time, and "Kill or Become" is still cemented in my mind as one of the best songs they've ever written.  I'm so happy they're making it a live staple.  FIRE UP THE CHAINSAW!

8. Vader - Tibi et Igni
Fair warning, at this point in the list you're not going to see very many obscure underground gems.  Of all the bands that delivered this year, the perennial heavyweights delivered the hardest.  Poland's greatest export shows once again why they're universally regarded as death metal legends.  This is just as stuffed to the gills with classic tracks as any given Vader record.  "Go to Hell", "Where Angels Weep", "Eye of the Abyss", "Hexenkessel", "Triumph of Death", "Abandon All Hope", just god damn this is so good.  I may have ranked this lower than the previous album, but this is probably the strongest album since Impressions in Blood, and also one of their most vicious.  They haven't sounded this hungry in eons, and as a fan I just absolutely could not be happier about that.

7. Grave Digger - Return of the Reaper
This record caught some flak for being a shameless throwback to a more popular time in the band's history (that being 93's incredible comeback album, The Reaper), especially since they've always been so successful with subtle experimentation over the years while always remaining true to their core principles, but fuck that I don't care, this album destroys.  This is a throwback to possibly their best album, and as a result it's the most energetic and youthful album they've churned out since Rheingold.  It's pure, ballsy heavy metal with a malicious sneer.  From the first time you hear the chorus of "Hell Funeral", you know you're in for a ride.  It's odd how this is the most inspired I've heard Grave Digger in years, and yet this is the first album in a while that just says "fuck it, we're not going dark or epic, we're just gonna riff you to death this time".

6. Comeback Kid - Die Knowing
Okay, here's where I'm finally gonna start to lose people, because here's the first of two non-metal albums featured on this list.  I decided to allow hardcore again because seriously, I love this album just so god damned much.  This album is just dripping with raw, filthy emotion, and the music spares no expense in matching the vitriol of the lyrics.  Comeback Kid has always straddled the line between punk and hardcore (well, they have at least since they got this vocalist), but this one has two feet and like eight toes on the hardcore side this time around, and it's just a brutally heavy album in both senses of the word.  This is an open, bloody account of life and it just wrecks you with viciousness from start to finish.  I realize most metal fans prefer hardcore like Xibalba, but trust me when I say Comeback Kid is legit.

5. 1349 - Massive Cauldron of Chaos
Man remember when these guys were being hailed as the saviors of black metal around the time Hellfire came out?  Remember how badly they torpedoed themselves with the following two trainwrecks?  Well here they are, nearly ten years late, but they finally gave that 2005 masterpiece a worthy followup.  1349 was always at their best when they were just tearing forwards with breakneck speeds and focusing on fiery intensity instead of cold misery like most black metal bands, and this is a brilliant depiction of why that's the case with them.  Finally, they quit fucking around and just made a ferocious, biting album all the way through.  The riffs are ear catching again, the drums are showy and overdone again, this is what they do best.  Take everything well past its logical extreme.  And then just keep going.

4. Get the Shot - No Peace in Hell
And here's the second hardcore album on the list.  This one is a bit more metal-friendly, as it is riffy as fuck.  The band gets a lot of crap for ripping off Incendiary and Suburban Scum (two other awesome bands, for the hardcore deficient amongst you), which is really kinda bullshit (though "Rotting Idols" totally does steal a riff from Terror), but even if there wasn't a single original note on the album I wouldn't give a damn.  I think the reason I've been gravitating towards hardcore lately is my love of simplicity (how many complex albums are on this list? Just Hoth?) and intensity, and those are departments where Get the Shot excel.  The vocals are a little high pitched and difficult to get used to but these riffs and breakdowns are just out of this world.  Every metal fan deserves to give this band a chance.

3. Striker - City of Gold
After winning BH AOTY in 2010, Striker kinda went limp with the followup to the brilliant Eyes in the Night.  Well here's City of Gold, and throws maturity and darker edge straight out the window and goes right back to simply being over the top and ridiculous.  Striker pulls no punches with this one, and it's just a bare knuckle blast throughout the duration.  Fuck off with your ballads and slow dark songs, that's not what we're here for.  Striker, for being big dumb clowns who are completely unapologetic about being 80s throwbacks, are pretty damn smart if they could notice that crowds at shows always seem more active and excited during the fast and anthemic songs and saying "Well shit, if they like those the most, let's just write that kind of song exclusively".  Why the hell can't every other trad metal band figure that out?

2. Tengger Cavalry - Ancient Call
Hey look, another past AOTY winner, plus another album I've already given a full review to!  This album is just phenomenal, and Tengger Cavalry is on an unbelievable hot streak, and with Nature Ganganbaigal (he changed his name to the one his Mongolian side of the family uses, because this guy doesn't half ass anything, including his own goddamn name) at the helm, I don't see that changing.  The ideas are all the same as they've always been, twangy horsey fiddles and throat singing mixed with monstrous galloping riffs and some of the catchiest songwriting this side of disco.  I wouldn't change a thing about this band or album, and neither should you.

And the winner is... 

1. Gargoyle - Geshiki 
Yeah I lied when I said Space Eater was the only band on the list with power or thrash metal involved.  Nobody should be surprised considering my well advertised boner for Gargoyle, but god damn did they impress with this one.  This is the spiritual successor to Future Drug, and I love every syllable of that sentence.  These guys are far too old to be thrashing this hard, but Geshiki proves that Gargoyle are ageless wonders who aren't afraid to continually experiment and try new things.  There are Gargoyle trademarks abound, like the humongous epic number ("Fullcolor Answer"), sheer riff laced lunacy ("Kettei", "Uzumaku Taiyou"), light speed melodicism ("Gordian Knot"), and another entry into the Best Song Ever category ("Mankai Oratio").  Along with those, they have an instrumental song with symphonic touches ("Tsubasu no Kioku") and a massive and emotional closer ("Namida no Kachi").  This album has no right to be as good as it is, especially considering how they've been slowly trending downwards with Kijuu (the only album they've released since I've been doing these lists that didn't rank), but this is just phenomenal in every sense of the word.  I know I've been full staff raving about this band for years now and very few people seem to have actually converted over to the altar to worship with me, but I don't give a fuck.  You should start listening to me and start listening to Gargoyle.  A very worthy recipient of the BH Award for Album of the Year 2014, and Japan's second title!

And now for something completely the same...


HONORABLE MENTIONS 

Shadow Host - Apocalyptic Symphony: I really, really wanted to put this on the list, because it would have ranked probably around 9-10, but I just couldn't due to petty bureaucracy.  It was released on December 27th, 2013.  Yeah, only five days prior to the new year, so it really had no chance of being included on the 2013 list (which it also would have ranked on), but in the interest of fairness I just couldn't bring myself to bend the rules.  Tough break, because this is exactly the band and the album that Persuader fans like myself needed to be listening to to tide ourselves over until The Fiction Maze would ever finally, finally come out.  Speaking of which...

Persuader - The Fiction Maze: GOOD LORD FINALLY!  I've been waiting for this for fucking years and it's finally fucking here.  Thankfully, it's actually very good, which I was worried about based on the hype-to-waiting ratio.  It's not quite as good as the albums ahead of it on the list, but if every song was as good as the title track, this would easily be number 1.  It's basically the exact kind of thing we all expected (that being a middle ground between the aggression of Evolution Purgatory and the melodicism of When Eden Burns), and it's a great album as well.  It kinda drags at parts and that's what keeps it down, but the title track alone is worth the price of admission.

Young and In the Way - When Life Comes to Death: This one really throws you for a loop, since the band name screams hardcore, the album cover screams hardcore, and the label it's on is even a straight up hardcore label, but what you'll get upon listening is almost entirely rough, pissed off black metal.  Yeah yeah there's a lot of crust here too, but of all the bands that go for this style and mix crust with metal, nobody is more metallic than these guys, and it certainly helps that they're very good to boot.
  
Prajna - The Summer Eclipse: Slightly goofy vocals is literally the only thing dragging this album down.  Andres Murillo has shown an absolute mastery of guitar and songwriting, as there's really no reason an album based in USPM and German speed metal and centered around anime should ever be this good.  "Heart of Fire" is one of the best tracks all year, and all the rifts and solows are top notch.  But like I said, the thin, high pitched vocals start off charming but quickly wear out their welcome.  He's young though, so I'm sure his voice will be more filled out by the time the next album rolls around, because musically this is definitely worthy of a spot.

Veldlokk - Feral Divinity: Another one I wanted to include purely because the band is so unknown and the music is so good.  It's basically just Immortal worship cranked up to eleven.  Think Blizzard Beasts but sharper.  For a guy who doesn't really listen to a whole lot of black metal, this stood out as one of the exceptional releases in the genre to me.


DISAPPOINTMENTS

Sargeist - Feeding the Crawling Shadows: This is easily my disappointment of the year, nothing else even comes close to the sheer ratio of hype to delivery.  Let the Devil In is a stone cold classic of modern black metal and was going to be hard to produce a followup for regardless, but this wasn't the answer.  Production is weak instead of raw and the songs are pedestrian instead of mystical.  I feel like this was supposed to be a blend of the raw viciousness of Satanic Black Devotion with the splendor of Let the Devil In and it just misses both marks.

Nocturnal Breed - Napalm Nights: Man I had such a stiffy for Fields of Rot, and this was a total surprise seven years later.  I was convinced the band was done.  And now?  Well I still kinda think that, though for a different reason.  Just nothing stands out here.  It's just as intense as its predecessor, which was admittedly one of the biggest selling points, but this time none of the songs are particularly memorable, even the twelve and a half minute title track.

Slough Feg - Digital Resistance: I've gone on about this one for ages already.  Scalzi doesn't sound like he's trying anymore and the music is massively suffering as a result.  Shame, he's still a very creative guy with a great voice, but he's getting lazy and it's super frustrating.

Accept - Blind Rage: SNOOOOOOORE.  Man after how good Stalingrad was, I was all prepared to pencil this into the top 13 as soon as it was announced, but holy shit is this album boring.  The Tornillo era started off on such a good foot, but I guess they were bound to show their age eventually.  Way to fuck up a good thing, guys.

Hour of Penance - Regicide: Did you guys notice that Hour of Penance released something this year and it didn't end up on my list?  Yeah I dunno, it's no different in theory than what they've been doing ever since The Vile Conception, it's still tech death at its finest, but this one just didn't grab me.  It's one of the better albums this year, but based on how much I loved the previous three albums, this is a big letdown.

Gamma Ray - Empire of the Undead: This is another one that really only ranks because the advance stuff had hyped me up so much.  The Masters of Confusion EP/really long single had teased with two great, classic styled Gamma Ray songs with "Masters of Confusion" and "Empire of the Undead".  The unfortunate part is that apart from those two songs and "Hellbent", nothing stands out.  The shameless riff borrowing is still disturbingly prevalent and they clearly tried to capture the same lightning in a bottle that they did on Land of the Free by opening with a nine minute epic, but the songwriting just isn't there anymore.

As for the lowlights, I don't know, there were so many releases that did nothing for me but didn't really suck either, so I think I'm gonna have to just temporarily retire the Worst Albums section, but there were two really clear lowlights on the year that I'm gonna shine a bit of light on:


Tuomas Holopainen - The Life and Times of Scrooge 
I mean really, what did you expect?  My review for this got me in a surprising amount of trouble for bashing what is apparently a national treasure in Europe, but fuck y'all, the concept was silly and the execution was even worse.  It's a boring, go-nowhere album and it elevated itself from "painfully boring and bad" to "hilarious lightning rod of controversy" thanks to the outrage of some butthurt weirdos (not even just on this site, I've gotten comments elsewhere too) about my handling of the subject matter.  Scrooge, Duck Tales, pretty much anything duck related has become a huge joke with friends, so if nothing else that was a lot of fun that came out of this.


Jari Maenpaa's Colossal Whining and Subsequent Bitch Fits 
I really can't even go on anymore about this whole saga.  Jari completes half an album in a decade and then goes on massive rants about how it's all the fault of the label for not giving him more money and then reaches out  to (begs) fans to help.  When interest is generated in a kickstarter fund (something the label was rightfully against but eventually caved when pressure mounted), he then reveals his grand plan to offer nothing worthwhile for supporters (you mean the album will not be demo quality, feature all the songs, and the booklet is optional? JARI YOU'RE A SAINT) in return for them building him an entire house, complete with a massive home studio and a personal sauna.  He then has the gall to complain that not enough of his fans are helping, knock his manager for a lack of support in the breath immediately after mentioning how he fronted some of his own money to help out the band financially, and then claim that having his own house would actually be a downgrade from the apartment he currently lives in (which he previously blamed for being the reason he can't record or do any work on his own) because then he'd have to do chores.  I mean, honestly this whole thing was a personal highlight for myself, because my open letter about the situation was passed around some very high profile areas of the internet, my traffic spiked substantially, MetalSucks wrote an article about me, Jari himself likely read it because his followup whine mentioned almost every single point I made verbatim, and even friggin' Heri Joenson from Tyr had said something to me about the whole thing.  This whole thing was definitely the catalyst for my fifteen minutes of fame, but if I take my personal pride away from the whole thing it's a gigantic disgrace to the musical process and just reveals a once respected figure in metal to be nothing more than a gargantuan egomaniac so out of touch with reality that he could actually ask people to build a house for him and then indignantly lambast everybody who didn't offer to help in such an absurd request.  A lot of people and fans turned on Jari in 2014, and personally, I'm actually kind of glad for that because we've been putting up with a lot of bullshit from him lately, but it's still disgraceful and a huge black mark on metal as a whole.  The moral of this story is that Finland sucks, and if the new Ensiferum album next year isn't awesome, I'm not gonna change my stance.  

WELL I GUESS THAT'S ALL FOR THIS YEAR, FOLKS.  I've got some fun ideas lined up for next year but my productivity has taken a sharp downturn since I've gotten this new job (it takes a lot of time out of my day), but regardless I hope to pick up the pace a bit more, since I have so much fun writing.  Everybody have a fun New Years celebration, do your best not to cheat on your significant others and for the love of all that is holy do not drive intoxicated.  If there's anything you think I left out unfairly, be sure to call me an asshole in the comments!

You're all beautiful people, see ya in 2015!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Nadja - Bodycage

My name is Scrambles and I'm lost

Remember about a year and a half ago, I was doing some Taste Swap Challenges with fellow reviewer friends of mine?  Well I asked the dronemeister caspian to be my fourth swap, and then I promptly sat here for a year and a half, having absolutely no fucking clue what to say about this Nadja album he gave me.

Well after all this time the album has had to soak, I think I've finally reached some sort of conclusion.  That conclusion being I don't know what sounds are anymore.

For real, Bodycage takes me to another world every time I listen to it, the problem is that I'm not sure how pleasant of a world it is, and I mean that in a good way.  There's a surprising amount of subtle beauty hiding beneath the layers of oppressive fuzz, but it doesn't work to the album's detriment like I would normally say it would.  If anything, it makes it worth repeated listens, because there's always another layer to the onion here.  The first spin of this album left me feeling cold and confused, the second left me... well colder and more confused.  Now after all this time, I'm coldest and most confused, but it's a good pain.  I'm really not well versed in drone (basically all I really know are a few Sunn O))) albums), but this works really well in the sense that it puts you in a shoegaze-y trance and sort of enraptures itself around you.

Pointing out individual tracks is somewhat pointless, since there are only three and they're all very long and similar to one another to my ears, but this works in the sense that it's not just a droning soundscape.  Nah, this takes somewhat of a post rock styled approach due to the fact that the tracks build and climax effectively.  "Clinodactyl" is probably my favorite song for this reason, since it follows the most "normal" progression and contains the most active delivery on the album.  I wouldn't put it in the same camp as Monolithe, since that's a band playing a style built on atmosphere and then just loading it with riffs, because this is the opposite of riffy, but a lot of things still end up happening.  There are tons of infinitesimal changes in melody and atmosphere, but they all amount to working up towards a greater whole, instead of distracting what should be a perfectly good soundscape experience with too many notes.  Like I said, Bodycage sort of wraps itself around you and makes you part of the album, and it's a nice experience to get lost in the ambiance of confusion and despair mixed with subtle tones of mellifluous optimism.

That's really the album in a nutshell, "subtle".  It's overwhelming and completely fries my brain with each listen, but the subtleties keep it from being a completely passive experience.  This isn't something I find myself listening to often, but when I'm in the mood it'll strike a very fulfilling chord within me.  It's simple and large enough to encapsulate me in a womb of warm emotion, but with enough subtle complexities for me to recognize the skill in the songwriting.  It doesn't sound like twelve hours of lazy feedback and weird-for-the-sake-of-it nonsense like Sabazius or Bull of Heaven, it instead feels like a lovingly crafted ode to some void near a tear in the universe twenty quadrillion lightyears away.  It's empty and desolate but full of hope and melody.  I dunno, I don't have much to say about Bodycage simply because I just don't think I understand it all that well, but the thing is that I feel it, and that's all that really matters when it comes to this kind of music, no?

Like the last two reviewers I've done this with, Caspian doesn't have a personal site, but he's a great reviewer and it'd be in your best interest to check out his stuff here if you'd like to see music like this tackled by somebody who actually knows what the fuck he's talking about.


RATING - 85%

Friday, November 28, 2014

JERKING THE CIRCLE Vol V: Megadeth - Endgame

A Tale of Two Songs

One of the more visible falls from grace in metal history undoubtedly has to be that of Megadeth.  Everybody knows their history, everybody knows the relation to Metallica, everybody knows what I think of them (first five albums are great, Youthanasia is a decent hard rock album, everything else sucks), and everybody for the most part seems to agree.  It's just generally accepted that Megadeth has been shit since at least 1992.  It's really not even worth talking about, because it's all been talked to death.  That's why I'm sitting here, rocking out to Rust in Peace, with a blank document on my computer screen.  God dammit, I love their 1990 album more than almost everything, but it's so hard to review at this point.  Everybody has the same opinion!  Part of me wished they had at least one good album after Countdown to Extinction because then it'd at least make their career somewhat interesting instead of predictable and sad.

But BH!  There is a good album in the last two thirds of their career!  You're completely forgetting about Endgame!

*sigh*

No I'm not.  Endgame sucks, and you're all insane for not realizing it.  Really, this album is just an exercise is the exact kind of subliminal manipulation that Dave spends so much time ironically shouting at the top of his lungs about.  The only thing Endgame does well is order the tracklisting in such a way that you get tricked into thinking it's great. 

What do I mean?  Well, ask anybody what their favorite song on this album is.  90% of the time it's "This Day We Fight", the other 10% says "Headcrusher".  There's a reason for this, because they're positioned in such a way, surrounded by exactly the right amounts of boring, half hearted bullshit, that they managed to stand above the crowd.  They're very good songs, the former of which is legitimately probably one of my top ten favorite Megadeth songs.  It's just does everything right, it's the exact kind of violent aggression intertwined with masterful guitar playing that made Rust in Peace such a timeless classic.  It never lets up, it starts with its foot on the gas and just plows through the listeners like zombies in a shopping mall.  The chorus deserves special mention for being so bloody ear catching.  The whole song is a rallying cry, a huge, pissed off anthem to remind everybody why Megadeth is a band worth listening to.  "Headcrusher" is no different, with a pummeling main riff and ferocious vocal patterns that just emanate bile and fire.  It's hard not to pump your fist and bang your head during "DEEEEATH BY THE HEEEEEADCRUSHA".  Both of these songs are exactly what made the band so fucking good in the 80s (yes Rust in Peace is an 80s album, the 80s ended in 1992).

But here's the secret, they're the -only- two good songs on the entire album.  It's so easy to miss because the beginning is so good that you find yourself just riding a high until "Headcrusher" comes in late, but it's true.  You see, Dave, for all the cross eyed tongue waggling lunacy, really can manage to be smart sometimes.  This is an example of his brilliance, because the beginning of the album emulates a previous classic in So Far, So Good, So What?, with "Dialectic Chaos" and "This Day We Fight" perfectly mirroring "Into the Lungs of Hell" and "Set the World Afire".  The intro tracks are both hugely melodic and triumphant sounding shredfests, with only basic riffs being made up for with instantly memorable Van Halen leads and mindbending fretboard theatrics.  The following songs are both big crowd rousing numbers with massive choruses and infectious-yet-punishing riffage.  At this point, after you just sat through albums with such timeless classics as "A Tout le Monde", "Of Mice and Men" and "Moto Psycho", you'll hear that one-two punch of an introduction and promptly pass out due to all of the blood rushing to your reproductive organs.  It's easy to forget that "44 Minutes" is the exact same awkward radio rock bullshit that plagued their 90s era, and it's forgivable to not notice that "Bite the Hand that Feeds" is almost a total rewrite of "Skin O' My Teeth" and "Bodies" is just "Symphony of Destruction" again.  It's okay to immediately erase the embarassingly terrible half-ballad of "The Hardest Part of Letting Go... Sealed with a Kiss" from your memory because just as soon as you start wondering what the fuck it was, "Headcrusher" starts and makes you headbang yourself into a concussive state of amnesia.

That's really what makes up the entire album.  Everything is either a blatant copying of a previous song that people already liked or it's just a new terrible idea that Dave has been unsuccessfully trying so fucking hard to make us like for a decade at the time of release.  I mean let's be real here, who really enjoys the spoken word crap and tinfoil chewing nonsense that Dave spends half of the title track shouting about?  Who really likes the awkward vocal cadences that have plagued the band ever since the early 90s?  Who thought "Captive Honour" was so good that we needed to hear it again with a new title?  I realize that a lot of the copied songs are songs from Countdown to Extinction, an album I openly enjoy the everloving shit out of despite its very obvious flaws.  The difference really comes down to how fresh the songs feel, and Endgame just can't even compare outside of the two obvious songs.  Countdown may have been an obvious attempt at cashing in on Metallica's new direction (and let's not pretend that "This Day We Fight" and "Headcrusher" aren't direct responses to the heavy throwback songs on Death Magnetic, but I really just can't bear to preach that obvious storyline any longer), but it was fun and exciting.  "The Right to Go Insane" just feels like a reheated leftover, and "1,320" sounds like a paint-by-numbers how-to guide in regards to being just mediocre enough to carry the momentum that a previously great track can generate.  Dave's snarl is just as lazy and tired as it has been for nearly two decades, excepting the two I keep namedropping.  In fact, I'm really beginning to suspect that a different, better band actually wrote those two, because holy shit it just makes no sense that he can crap out those two masterpieces in the middle of an album full of rehashed speed rock in the middle of a streak of albums that range from hilariously bad to painfully mediocre. 

There are just only so many times I can say the same thing, so I'll wrap it up here.  "This Day We Fight" and "Headcrusher" are two phenomenal songs that absolutely deserve all the praise they've been getting, but the rest of the album contains nothing but bad reimaginings of better songs from their divisive transitional era.  I'm aware that everybody's taste is different, and maybe the majority of people really do just think "1,320" is really just that much better than "High Speed Dirt", but personally I'll never buy it.  Dave got a few things right by recognizing the best tracks and releasing one as a single and the other as the opening song, and also only focusing on politics for about half the songs instead of all of them.  But that's it, everything else is just as bad as they've always been and I feel like I'm the one sober guy staring at the Emperor's naked asshole.


RATING: 40%

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Job for a Cowboy - Sun Eater

Fvn Eater

I find it so odd that a band that pretty much accidentally helped invent an entire subgenre of metal managed to then follow up that monumentally influential EP (Doom, for the younger than young of you out there) with release after release of blatant trend hopping.  I'm gonna come clean here, I can fairly safely say that I actually do like Job for a Cowboy, but I say that with the caveat that it's mostly due to their 2009 effort, Ruination.  To me, that's the one time where the trend they landed on managed to be one they were really, really good at.  Doom helped deathcore get its start, and it's mostly below average with a couple cool spots here and there, while Genesis saw them plunge headlong into complete, 100% unambiguous death metal, but at the same time saw them completely hollow and bland and not at all worth listening to.  Ruination is when they decided to get on the tech death bandwagon, and somehow they surprised the shit out of me by actually doing it quite well.  That whole album is full of riff after riff, constantly pummeling you from all directions, coupled with great songwriting and impressive instrumental performances all around.  Demonocracy was more of the same, but with weaker songwriting, but overall it's a decent, listenable album.

I ran through that to illustrate why 2014's Sun Eater was met with a collective eyeroll by so many people who are either non-fans or moderate fence sitters like me.  Once again, for the fourth time, they've undergone a drastic shift in style, and for the fourth time, it didn't seem natural.  There's almost never any flickers of what's to come to be found on any given Job for a Cowboy album, it's always just a really jarring transition to whatever happens to be popular at the time.  One time, sure.  Two times, okay, coincidence, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.  But three or four times?  Come on man, how often do you expect to fool me?

In the end, that's really not all that important.  The end result is all that matters, right?  Well sure, but it's undoubtedly frustrating and is always a big black cloud looming over everything they touch.  I listen to Sun Eater and I just know in the back of my mind that this was done with scientific precision instead of artistic passion, and that's worrisome.  But again, let's try to push that aside, what does the music itself offer us?

*headdesk*

Fucking dammit the style they tried to emulate this time is wanky prog death in the vein of Beyond Creation and The Faceless's newest direction, with touches of Between the Buried and Me for good measure.  Job for a Cowboy got the songwriting prowess down pat when they were trying to cram as many notes into any given song as possible, and Sun Eater proves that when they give songs space and try to go for more ethereal, twisted atmosphere, they just fall flat.  It's weird, because they're clearly still trying to throw in a bazillion notes, but it comes of as awkward and confused this time around.  The rhythm section is basically tweaking on meth, as the drums never slow down, even during the atmospheric parts, and the bass is... *ugh*, the bass is identical to what you'd find on a Beyond Creation album.  It's Overkill-level loud, very clear and broowwwdowdwooow.  Just like the Quebecois noodlers, the bass is super distracting and instead of complementing the guitars in any way, whether it be through syncopation or counterpoint or whatever, it just feels like it's desperately trying to elbow its way past the rest of the band into the spotlight.

I can give the album some credit for getting better as it goes along, since the first side is utterly forgettable before giving way to some shining moments in the back stretch.  "Encircled by Mirrors" and "Buried Monuments" both have some very standout guitar theatrics, to the point where they manage to overshadow the directionless noodling that fills the rest of the runtime.  "A Global Shift" definitely deserves a mention as well for being the only song not to fuck around with long instrumental passages where the drummer goes apeshit everywhere except for the snare and cymbals, giving the illusion that the pace is slower and more open.  Nah, that song throws all that progressive bullshit to the wind and just shreds the fuck out like Ruination did five years prior.  This is what Job for a Cowboy has already proven to be their strength, and they absolutely should just stick to songs like this.  Because "A Global Shift"?  This song works.  Absolutely worth listening to.

But of course, the rest of the album doesn't do that.  They're following in the footsteps of The Faceless with this one, as the longer, spacier passages ring several bells that ring strikingly similar to the likes of Opeth, albeit without the clean guitars or vocals.  Yeah, Sun Eater keeps it dirty and gritty, never succumbing to the allure of pleasant clean vocals or haunting acoustic passages.  Normally I'd praise a band for that, especially this one, since that illustrates that they're not trying to step outside of their bounds and they know exactly what they can and can't do.  But hell, I wish they'd just gone for it.  I mean why not, right?  That's the direction they're leaning, and we all know that by the next album they'll be playing straight up Dark Descent style dissonant gurgly jangledeath so it's not like they're ever going to expand upon this idea.  But really, the frustrating part isn't that the band didn't explore the ideas they were flirting with, it's mostly that they bothered with it at all.  I can compare this to plenty of bands but all roads lead to Beyond Creation.  I feel like The Aura was playing in constant loop in their rehearsal room, because it's such a dead ringer for that album.  It's a faceless clone of an album in a style that's been gaining traction, and once again Job for a Cowboy cements themselves firmly in the middle of the pack, not doing anything to stand out.

I've used a lot of words to basically say the same thing over and over (which in a way is kind of indicative of this album in the first place), but it's really the truth.  When you think of wanky prog death with Jaco Pastorious's zombie on bass, this is the exact thing you think of.  The songwriting never brings the songs over the edge, everything lurks right on the surface but never actually breaks through and makes itself known.  It's just anther fish in a school, another faceless nothing that wouldn't stand out at all if it weren't for the name attached to it.  For fans of Beyond Creation and The Faceless, this is right up your alley, you'll love it.  The rest of us?  Not so much.  A bunch of samey sounding proggy doodles doesn't make for a good time.  You know how whenever you see a band live, there's almost always at least one song that you just tune out for?  Somewhere in the middle of apparently every death metal band ever's set, there will be a song that the crowd just kinda checks out for.  Maybe the band likes it because it's a break from more demanding stuff, or they had a lot of fun writing/playing it, but it just doesn't connect with anybody in the audience.  This album is that song eight times.


RATING - 33%

Sunday, November 9, 2014

JERKING THE CIRCLE Vol IV: Heaven and Hell - The Devil You Know

Yeah I can't think of a title

This is a review I've been both dreading and dying to write.  It's weird to think that this album five years old at this point and I could very well be writing this for people who weren't metal fans when it was released, so if you fall into that category, please make sure you understand: this was the absolute biggest fucking deal in the universe when it dropped in 2009.  Not only was there all the drama surrounding the band's mere name at the time (I saw this lineup twice and still steadfastly refer to them as "Black Sabbath concerts" and I'll never, ever, ever back down from that), but pretty much all four guys in the band had done precisely nothing of note in eons.  This situation would stick most bands under these circumstances as "has beens", and no matter how true that may have been, Dio and Iommi are special.  They're both grandfathers of heavy metal, elder statesmen of an entire genre of music that had grown so much since they were young.  I don't mean to leave Geezer out of the equation since he's a massive part of Sabbath's sound, and believe me when I say that he and Vinny were just as hyped up as the two main men, but the thought of Ronnie James Dio and Tony Iommi collaborating again for the first time in nearly two decades just sent generations of metal fans slipping off their chairs.

And this is where the deification stops from me, and where the inspiration for picking up the Jerking the Circle series again begins.  I'm sorry guys, The Devil You Know is lame and boring.

This is an album that's more... I dunno, inspirational or admirable than actually any good.  See, it was great to see these shambling geriatrics wheelchair themselves on stage and then just rock the fuck out like they were in their 30s again, and it was so refreshing to see that the classic icons of the genre still gave enough of a shit about the music they helped create to continue performing and writing it.  The problem lies in the fact that, barring the flukey Dehumanizer (which in itself is only half great anyway, but I'll explain that in time here), nobody in the band had really made anything worth listening to since the early 80s.  Dio started on an incredible streak, farting out classic albums left and right with Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and his solo band in the 70s and 80s, and Sabbath was phenomenal in the 70s before a slight dip and resurfacing in the early 80s when Dio joined the fold, but after The Mob Rules, they just turned to churning out dull, skippable albums that weird people will swear up and down are among their best (you will never, ever convince me that Tony Martin is better than Dio or that The Headless Cross is better than Sabbath Bloody Sabbath). 

Basically all that history lesson was meant for was to illustrate something that most people never seem to acknowledge; Iommi/Dio hadn't touched anything other than skippable crap for almost 25 solid years before The Devil You Know. So in all honesty, I really shouldn't have been surprised that this album does next to nothing for me.  It's almost 54 minutes long but it feels like it's almost two hours before the album ends.  Most of Tony's good riffs had been used up by The Mob Rules, and no matter how good he was in his prime, this is an everlasting testament to the fact that he's just not as creative or fresh with his songwriting as he used to be.  The album is inspirational in its attitude, but not in its execution, and as a result there are a whopping six plodding snoozefests to start the album off on the worst foot possible.  I can concede that "Bible Black" has a good chorus and the verse riff of "Double the Pain" manages to get the blood moving, and I adore the main riff to "Fear", but that's three riffs across six songs that elicit any emotion out of me other than overwhelming apathy.  That's a frickin' terrible batting average.  It's sort of like Sammy Sosa coming out of retirement and leading the league in strikeouts while everybody showers him in awards and adulation because once upon a time he was super good and now here he is doing that thing again (let's just pretend the cork and the steroids never happened for the sake of argument, I'm not good at baseball dammit).

I think the biggest problem stems from the fact that the album's single focus is skull squeezing heaviness, which it does admittedly achieve to an extent with an absolutely monstrous guitar tone, but it's overall ineffective because the riffs just never go anywhere.  It's so clearly the result of four old men gathering around and trying to be all wise and weathered and whatever other positive synonyms you can think of for "so old you can see through their skin", and it just comes off like there's no vigor anywhere to be found.  Like 85% of the album lumbers around at this leisurely lurch, like an ice giant out for a stroll.  There's so little energy here, songs like "Breaking Into Heaven" and "Rock and Roll Angel" meander around for upwards of seventy six minutes with no fire or passion behind them.  Almost the entire album is full of these dull chugging exercises that have to be unbelievably boring to play on stage.  I know what they're going for, this is supposed to be pure, oppressive doom metal, full of apocalyptic dread and bone shattering crunch, and I suppose they achieve that if you really think about it.

The problem with that is that that's not what Dio does.  Absolutely not, Dio has always been at his best when he's carrying a sense of wonder and grandeur.  Really, think of all the best songs he ever sang on.  "Man on the Silver Mountain", "Die Young", "Falling Off the Edge of the World", "The Last in Line", "Rainbow in the Dark", fuckin' "Stargazer", "Kill the King".  All of those songs have one thing in common, they feel like they're showing you something greater than yourself.  They all have this indescribable sense of magic surrounding them, and they're all  just these huge sounding songs with an almost childlike sense of wonder.  Precisely zero of the best Dio songs (barring the exception in "Heaven and Hell" (and I guess "Sign of the Southern Cross" is really popular too but personally it bores me) are slow and doomy.  None of them feel like a hungover titan sleepily pawing at his alarm clock like "Atom and Evil" does.  Dio doesn't do doom, and that's why the heavier Dio albums suck and the best song on Dehumanizer is "TV Crimes".  You know, the fast one.  He's woefully miscast in this role simply because he's essentially this ancient wizard at this point in time, but his voice was still as powerful as it was during his classic era.  He didn't need to tone down his performance, but the rest of the band did, and so Dio's always immaculate voice rides dull melodies over boring, go-nowhere plod riffs.

That's not to say the whole album is bad, it's just fundamentally flawed.  There are two uptempo songs to be found in "Eating the Cannibals" and "Neverwhere", and unsurprisingly they're the best songs on the album by a long shot.  That's what Dio does best, he requires some semblance of energy behind him in order for him to reach his full potential.  "Bible Black" may be heavy and dark, but it's not energetic, and that's why the vocals fall flat when put into the whole unit.  It's so sad to say but really every member of the band brings largely an inconsequential performance to the table.  Vinny Appice plays the most standard timekeeping beats imaginable with almost no fills to speak of, Geezer has very few of his famous runs (oddly enough, the two do get some brief moments of entertaining  showboating in the background during "Bible Black" and essentially nowhere else), Iommi pens a whopping seven or eight good riffs across ten songs, and Dio stands out purely because his voice is so recognizable.  If there was a different personnel behind this album, I feel like the metal fandom as a whole would give less than a single shit about it.  The songs themselves have moments of past brilliance scattered here and there but for the most part they're devoid of enjoyment, replaced instead with an abundance of fillery non-riffs that go nowhere.

Maybe I'm wrong for wishing this album is something that it wasn't, but to be fair, isn't that the reason we don't like... well, anything?  How many times are you caught telling yourself "Well this album does exactly what I want it to do, it ticks all the boxes, buuuuuut it's lame"?  Never.  That's why the only songs worth listening to are "Eating the Cannibals" and "Neverwhere" for the heightened pace and thus thicker groove, and "Bible Black" for just being the only song to really get the formula they're going for right.  I still recommend listening to it because it's a curious little oddity at the tail end of a couple legendary careers, and the swansong of one of metal's greatest faces, and also because everybody but me seems to love it so chances are you will too.  For me?  It just reinforces my belief that Dio/Iommi/Geezer all have about thirty solid years of forgettable crap going on right now as long as you grant an exception to Dehumanizer


RATING: 29%