Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Everfrost - Winterider

This has no god damned right...

Say it with me now: Power metal is a genre of scattered great songs instead of great albums nowadays.  I've been banging on about this for years now, but it's true.  There are a handful of flukes here and there, usually a major standout or two per year (obvious examples being Thaurorod's Coast of Gold last year and Avantasia's Ghostlights a few years prior), but for every great one there are ten to twenty lame and boring ones I've forgotten about that randomly have one insanely good track buried in there somewhere (first one that comes to mind is Theocracy's Ghost Ship, which was largely boring as hell but somehow had the fucking song of the year buried on the B side with "A Call to Arms").  So as a big fan of the genre, I can't help but approach new releases with some measure of trepidation nowadays.  So Everfrost coming across my inbox certainly piqued my interest with its unique aesthetic, but I still prepared myself for drudgery.

Imagine my shock upon discovering that this dorky ubermelodic flower fluff out of Finland is actually the most consistently excellent power metal release I've heard all year, and possibly even the best one I've heard since Ghostlights

Winterider reminds me of many other things, but all of those other things are great for the most part.  The bulk of the music is speedy melodic power metal with tons of keys and bombast with a striking similarity to when Sonata Arctica was good.  This sounds like some hypothetical fifth album that was supposed to follow up Reckoning Night.  At the same time, there are plenty of moments where the music kicks into an even higher tempo and the guitars start shredding in a way reminiscent of Luca Turilli's glory years with Rhapsody.  Seriously, "Brandy and Antifreeze" and "Cold Night Remedy" both sound like something straight out of Dawn of Victory.  And even then there's another obvious comparison in Dynazty, which is actually excellent because this sounds like the exact kind of thing I was hoping Firesign would be.  The heavy pop hooks are actually complimented with beefy riffs and huge booming synths instead of just kinda hopping back and forth with no direction.  So you've got the overall feel of Sonata Arctica, the speed and wild soloing of Rhapsody, and the huge hooks of Dynazty, and if that doesn't sound like the exact kind of thing that was created specifically for me, then you haven't been paying attention to a word I've said over the last thirteen or so years I've been doing this.

What makes this stand out so much is the consistency of the songs themselves.  Anybody could shit out a track as good as "Winterider" or "Chainlace Angel" on accident nowadays, but to have the entire album reach that level of quality is a huge breath of fresh air for me.  There are a lot of different ideas here, from the overdramatic bombast of "Above the Treeline", to the ludicrously aggressive "Juhannus in January", to the unabashed pop hooks of "Die Young", which in fairnes is a cover of a pop song, but it fits so fucking well you'd never notice if you weren't already familiar with the Kesha original.  The tie-in to the opener on "Darkwoods Drain Backwaters" is an incredibly nice touch as well, and shows that this isn't being treated as a joke in any way, despite what many metalloids might assume based on the cover art.  This is supposed to be some sort of hybrid between a fully coherent manga and a more general concept album, featuring characters from Everfrost's first album.  I don't know if this mysterious manga actually exists anywhere but either way this is obviously something very near to the songwriters' hearts and it shows.

The only real flaws with Winterider are problems that even great albums in the genre share, those being that the ballad ("Above the Treeline") is a bit of a flop, and the closing epic ("A Whisper in a Frozen Tale") doesn't really justify its length.  Any metal band that isn't named Blind Guardian has always struggled with ballads, but it seems to be an unbreakable tradition that most melodic bands seem unwilling to move away from.  And I know it's also tradition to end albums on massive multi-part epics, but "A Whisper in a Frozen Tale" isn't one of the better ones.  Fifteen minutes is just excruciating, even when the parts themselves are all very good.  It doesn't have the narrative flow of Timeless Miracle's "The Voyage" or Rhapsody's "Heroes of the Waterfalls' Kingdom" that makes it worthwhile as a singular entity.  It's a real shame because almost everything up until that point is incredible, but if I'm being honest with you, ignoring the ballads and super long songs are how I enjoy most of the early 2000s power metal classics anyway so it's easy to overlook.

So basically what I'm saying is that this is a glorious throwback to power metal's golden age, warts and all, and I can't get enough of it.  I have no real ending to this review, so that's it.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Xoth - Interdimensional Invocations

Jez Xoth

This was a hard one to pin down aesthetically, while at the same time being super obvious.  On one hand, between the band name and the weird tentacled eyeball on the cover, it was pretty obvious there'd be some Lovecraft influence involved here, but with the mechanical looking portion of the logo and the song titles I also figured this would be very sci-fi influenced (not that Lovecraft never dabbled in that himself but it's not necessarily what he's known for), and the general look and feel of everything pointed to some kind of Rings of Saturn styleded "aliencore" stuff where it's just absurdly techy and wild.  But if you don't overthink it like I did, Xoth is very much what it says on the tin.  Their logo is a blend of those two things because musically they're a blend of those two things, and the colorful album art is indicative of the almost comic book style over-the-topness of the whole thing.  And frankly?  They absolutely fucking rule.

I'm just gonna spoil the ending a bit right at the start and say that Interdimensional Invocations is actually one of my favorite releases I've heard all year, which is extra impressive considering it's death metal.  Obviously death metal is generally my favorite subgenre but it's been lagging behind trad and black metal in 2019, so for this relatively unknown group out of Seattle to come out and absolutely fucking trounce most of the heavyweights this year is definitely notable.  I think a big reason this stands out so much is because it takes a lot of influence from bands that aren't ripped off nearly enough, namely Mithras and Sarpanitum.  Interdimensional Invocations is bursting at the seams with screaming leads and hooky melodies all over the place, constantly flying over the blast heavy necromancy underneath.  This is very flashy, and they do it in such a way where they don't sound like guitar nerds jerking off over how fast they can sweep.  Instead each and every song is just incredibly solid hyperspeed death metal that just so happens to have ear catching fretboard abuse on the top. 

While they don't neglect the meaty riffs here, they're obviously secondary to the spiraling melodies.  I hear a lot of The Sound of Perseverance era Death in here, but they're not quite technical and wanky enough to be compared to Decrepit Birth (another great band that takes influence from there).  Those almost power metally leads of late era Death are filtered through a Mithras mindset.  It's kind of hard to explain if you aren't familiar with them or their sister project Sarpanitum, but basically what that means is that the leads take center stage over the rhythmic element of the band and they tend to be a bit more simple than the tech death wank you'd usually associate with such a description.  Check out "Mountain Machines".  That main lick is very simple, it's just a walk up and down the fretboard with some bends/slides and that's it, but it's so epic.  It sounds huge, like just sitting in my chair and listening to this in my living room makes me feel like I'm about to fight the final boss and the future of humanity is on the line.  "Melted Face of the Soul" and "Plague Revival 20XX" are exactly the same, and the solo in "Haruspex" is pure late 90s Schuldiner.  So even when it's more complex, the leads are all gigantic and exciting.

That's not to say the rest of the band is lesser than the guitarists of course.  Ben Bennett's (best known for briefly playing in Warbringer during their best era) bass is pangy and would be distracting in most contexts, but here the whole thing is so high-flying and wild that it just adds to the absurdity of the whole thing and I'm in love with it.  I know "bass just following the guitars" is par for the course in metal today, but even then it'd be really impressive if he just did that, but he doesn't.  He floodles and bloodles around all over the place but it manages to not be distracting with the hundred other things going on at once.  Everything comes together extremely well in the end and honestly there isn't one moment of Interdimensional Invocations that I don't love wholeheartedly.  This is one of those bands that was seemingly created specifically for me.  Hopefully you love it as much as I do.


Monday, September 9, 2019

Golgotha - Erasing the Past

The Fart Collector

Back in February, I reviewed the terrible debut album from Dying Embers, and the main takeaway from that, to me at least, was that I thought I was super clever coining "mellowdeath" as more of a codified genre than a snide pejorative, describing their brand of synth-smothering quasi-doomy mid paced melodeath with shitty clean vocals.  The thing is, since I published that, it's actually been brought to my attention that really all I did was accidentally describe Sentenced.  After a quick skim of a handful of songs, I'll concede that yeah, Dying Embers had way more in common with Sentenced than In Flames.  My bad y'all.

Anyway here's the exact same style of album that I hated last time.  Spoiler alert: I still don't like it.

Admittedly that's kind of unfair, because Golgotha's fourth album (and first after a 14 year silence), Erasing the Past, isn't terrible, but it certainly suffers from a few gigantic flaws.  Musically, if we're going to put this up against Dying Embers (since they're fresh on my mind and I know their one album a hell of a lot better than the few Sentenced tracks I checked out in passing), it's significantly better.  The songs have a real sense of direction here, weaving stories of anguish that at the very least seem to have a destination in mind instead of aimlessly faffing about with a few ideas before moving on. The riffs themselves don't tend to be all that engaging but there are a few nice moments of pounding heaviness that rear their heads occasionally (namely on "Burning the Disease" and "Rewrite Your Destiny") and the drumming is particularly heavy on the toms, which keeps things appropriately pounding when they go for it.

The issue is that everything else is just... boring.  I said the riffs aren't all that engaging but that's honestly kind of overselling them.  They're mainly just slow chugs that sometimes pick up to a glib trot and that's about the extent of their creativity.  They don't weave evocative textures of any sort, though I feel like that was the intent.  The title track sounds like a slow version of Nevermore's "The Heart Collector".  I think that's a great song, but here it seems that slowing it down and stretching it to over eight minutes just makes it overwrought and tedious.  And man, the vocals are bad on that one.  They're never great, but they're serviceable throughout most of the album, with competent deep growls and deep baritone cleans (which frankly kinda sound hokey when they're not layered with anything else), but on the title track for whatever reason it sounds like the dude is trying to be some epic narrator and it winds up sounding so hilariously overblown.  That "I FEEEEL! YWOR HOOOORT!" literally sounds like That 1 Guy, it's hysterical.  The growls are usually fine too but for whatever reason, on "Enveloped in Fog" and only "Enveloped in Fog", they sound super strained and terrible.  I don't know what it is, but this album just has random tracks where the vocalist suddenly just completely sucks at what he's otherwise fine at, it's baffling.

Overall this is just boring, and I'm bored of it.  It's decently okay doom flavored gothic metal but it's neither entertaining nor evocative.  It's not even interesting.  It's just pure background music and I'm done talking about it.


Sunday, August 25, 2019

Burn Down Eden - Liberticidal

[note: insert title before posting]

I went through a brief phase back in 2013 or so where I was the biggest Battlecross fan on the planet for like six and a half minutes.  Around that time there was a minor groundswell of bands just like them that blended thrash with melodeath in a way that hadn't really been commercially successful since the heyday of The Haunted a decade prior, and they all suffered the exact same problem: They had a ton of energy and threw tons of riffs at you but precisely none of them would ever stick.  It's pure "in one ear and out the other" metal, and it got so bad that Battlecross is literally the only band like this that I can remember six years later (after typing that I checked the Similar Artists tab on MA and saw that I voted them as similar to Revocation, a band I made this exact point about last year and now I can't stop laughing at how correct I was).

Obviously I bring that up because Burn Down Eden is similar to the Battlecross type of metal in many respects, but it's not a 1:1 comparison.  The Americans tend to lean harder into the thrash side of the equation, while the Germans here have one foot and three toes planted on the melodeath side, and as such they tend to focus a bit more on hooks and lead lines than riffs themselves.  That may rob them of some meaty intensity, but it gives them a clear advantage in terms of memorability.

Liberticidal's bread and butter is a sort of The Black Dahlia Murder-esque high speed melodeath with technically impressive solos that don't do much to excite people who aren't automatically wowed by sweeping arpeggios.  I also hear a lot of hints of Wintersun in here in the lead guitar department (from the self titled era of course, his is quite free from the excessive bombast that cripples Jari with such alarming frequency), and I've always tended to like bands that take a lot of influence from Wintersun a hell of a lot more than Wintersun themselves (like Brymir and Aephanemer) so you'd think that'd be a good sign..  Just like with the Battlecross type bands, when this is on, it's breathtaking and exciting, but as soon as it's over it feels like you barely listened to anything at all.  The parts that stick out are usually thanks to sheer repetition.  That lead lick in "Grotesque Satisfaction" just goes on and on and on and I swear the song felt twice as long just because I heard that fucking "widdlywiddlyWEE" part a hundred times.

Honestly, their real crime is simply not doing much to keep the album exciting.  Nearly every track on Liberticidal runs for a similar length of time, and that's almost always a clue that the songs themselves are going to be workmanlike and samey.  This is no exception, though they're a lot busier than most songs on albums of this nature.  The sheer number of solos and flashy leads should turn this into a colorful dynamo but instead it all fades into this kind of Dime Store Children of Bodom mush and winds up being totally inconsequential.  Hell, I'm not even kidding when I say that the main riff of "Eternal Youth" is so similar to the one in "Dystopic Endzeit Panorama" that I genuinely thought it was just a bridge riff at first and had no idea the tracks changed.  With the heavy focus on melodies and lead guitar, you'd think that would naturally be Burn Down Eden's strength, but it's really not.  All of that stuff is surface flash, a quick woosh of fire that dazzles for a few seconds and fades just as quickly.  No, their real strength is in the sections where they just buckle down and riff out something really god damned mean while the drums start blasting away.  "Eternal Youth" and "Dammerung" are best for this and are easily the best tracks on the record.

I started writing this with a much higher opinion of the album than when I finished, which is pretty emblematic of the entire problem with this particular subset of metal in the first place.  On the surface, this is an impressive and ear catching, but after a few minutes fades you realize that your ear wasn't caught as much as it was swatted lightly.


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Desecresy - Towards Nebulae


I'm not sure if I've ever really made it clear or not, but when it comes to regional death metal scenes, I actually find Finland to be one of the worst.  Weird right?  I don't deny that it's certainly one of the most instantly recognizable, with the frequent influence from doom metal lending to some crushing slow sections and the ever-looming spectre of Demilich over the entire scene pushing everybody to sound like their instruments were formed out of an alien swamp, but I'm going to pick America or Sweden every fucking time if given the choice.  The thundering megalith that is Nespithe is one of the only things out of that entire scene that's really stood the test of time to me (alongside Adramelech's debut and that one Rippikoulu demo) while everything else runs the gamut from "alright I guess" to boring to bad.  I don't really plan on justifying myself further, but hopefully this should elucidate why I'm so fucking lukewarm about the "Timelich" style that's gotten so popular in recent years.

Anyway, enter Towards Nebulae, which isn't an exact representation of the particular strain of death metal I'm talking about, but is pretty close and shares the aforementioned ancestral homeland.  While this is slightly more grounded and less abjectly fuckin' weird than Demilich, it does share some of the same distant, alien qualities that ties Finndeath together.  Seriously, these leads sound like they're being broadcast from GN-z11.  And hey man I like the idea of something sounding completely foreign, but the problem is that any extraterrestrial creativity Desecresy showcases is drowned out by some frustratingly unengaging riffs and some straight up fucking terrible vocals.

The main guy here, Tommi (formerly of Slugathor, probably the closest sonic comparison) has been "the guy" behind Desecresy since the beginning, but it was actually a two-man band for the first four albums.  While I haven't heard any of those albums, I can only assume he's world's better, he has to be.  Tommi here sounds like a cross between Rami Jamsa from Convulse and your dad making fun of the music you like.  He sounds like he was born without a tongue and has a massive underbite and then just whispers really angrily.  There is no power in that voice, and frankly the music doesn't fare much better.  This is about as muscular as a plate of Jell-O, and these grinding, mid-paced riffs that take up a huge chunk of the runtime sound like they're aiming for a doomy overtone like Asphyx or Krypts but instead just land on weak and amateurish.  There's also a bizarre disconnect between the several instruments at play, each one sounding like it was recorded in a different spelunking expedition.  I know "cavernous" is a really overused term in the modern death metal scene but it's pretty much right on the money here.  I know I compared it to sounding like it's billions of light years away, but at the same time it sounds so barren and earthy that it could simultaneously be coming from a dripping cave right underneath your feet.  It's very "watery" sounding, but instead of violent thrashing as you try not to drown, it sounds like you didn't realize you were underwater until you were a few miles down, the music manifesting as a few gurgling blubs that reach the surface long after you try to scream.

Now, that should be cool, but I think I opened this with a brief screed against Finndeath because Desecresy is so emblematic of my basic problem with it.  There's no doubt that it, as a general rule, takes an approach that aims to overwhelm the listener with incomprehensible atmosphere, but in doing so it sacrifices exactly what I love so much about death metal in the first place.  In aiming for such a goal, they completely eschew the raw, pugilistic spirit of the genre itself.  Death metal may be at its best and most interesting when it's completely divorced from thrash metal (Altars of Madness is a classic for a reason), but there's a particular saying about reinventing the wheel that I just can't help but think of here.  Tommi tried to out-clever himself here and removed the very fangs that are supposed to hook you in the first place.  This holistic bleakness pads the gloves of the fist that by all means should be punching me to death, essentially tying big pillows with a cartoon skull on them over Mike Tyson's hands.  These riffs have no fucking punch, is what I'm saying.  Towards Nebulae is nothing but soft edges in a washed out haze.  There was a time in history when the Extremely Online metal snobs pegged Finndeath as some sort of higher form of death metal that transcended itself into something entirely new, and yeah that's true to an extent, but they achieved this by working against their own strengths.  This obviously isn't a hard and fast rule, but Desecresy is just another band I can point to when I find myself needing to explain why this legendary scene leaves me so cold.  If distant watery solos, muddy riffs, and cacophonous percussion is your thing, then hey you might love this.  But for me, I'll give some props to "The Damned Expedition" for being pretty good, but it's with the caveat that it's because it's one of the most straightforward and simple tracks on the album.  Everything else is a weird, incomprehensible mess and it's just not for me.


Tuesday, August 20, 2019

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - VII: Sturm und Drang

VII: Turd damning virus

As of now, this is the most current chapter in Lamb of God's ongoing story, and for once we actually have a fairly interesting story behind it.  The short version is that back in 2010, while in the Czech Republic, a 19 year old fan had jumped onstage, apparently something Randy Blythe was decidedly not cool with, and subsequently pushed him off the stage.  This fan unfortunately landed on his head and shortly thereafter found himself in a coma before eventually passing away.  Two years later, when the band returned to Prague on another tour, Randy was arrested for manslaughter.  After spending five weeks in prison, he was released on bail and allowed to return to the states.  Blythe is an international touring artist and needed to keep his name clear so he complied with everything he needed to, returning for his trial and eventually being found morally responsible since he's the one who tossed the guy off the stage, but ultimately not criminally liable since the promoter and venue didn't have adequate security.

So for once, there was some very real drama going on in the public light.  The entire future of the band was in limbo and their public face and founding member was facing a future behind bars for the death of a fan.  Once the dust had settled, the band had obviously undergone some serious trials in the public eye on a scale they had never experienced before.  This aggressive music has always (somewhat paradoxically to the outside observer, admittedly) been something of a safe haven and a place where people can be themselves without judgment, a place to release this pent up frustration in a healthy way, and now the performance of this cathartic release of negative directly resulted in the death of a fan.  That's actually a very morally and philosophically difficult thing to face, and one that should've led to some serious introspection and an interesting examination of what metal even is in the first place.  There should've been some tough questions to face.  Am I just a naturally dangerous person if I could (however accidentally) kill somebody who looked up to me?  Is what I do as harmless as I had always thought?  Am I blameless and this dead teenager really just a recipient of a stupid prize?  Can I really absolve myself of the blame for what happened?  What does this mean for the scene, the band, the fans, and myself?

What we got was Ashes of the Wake for a third time with one super boring Alice in Chains knockoff added in.

Don't get me wrong, there is indeed some introspection and remorse to be found in the lyrics of Sturm und Drang, because Randy is a human being with emotions and not a meatheaded dumbass like he may seem when in performance mode, but musically almost nothing at all has changed since the lazy trash of Resolution.  Almost all ten tracks here (with the notable exception of "Overlord") are just paint-by-numbers Lamb of God that might as well just be D-sides from their most popular album.  I'm sure I would've found this album to be boring as hell even without the manslaughter trial, but it's extra disappointing to see that the band just returned to business as usual when they finally had an external reason to break from their chains a bit.  If nothing else, if the band was going to continue after this, you think they'd be inspired.  But no, instead we once again get another lazy cash-in with startlingly few real ideas.

I'll just get the interesting parts out of the way first.  "Overlord" is a huge departure for the band, ostensibly being an Alice in Chains style grungy ballad rife with hitherto unseen clean vocals and massive heaps of melody.  The problem is that "Overlord" is much more of an interesting track than a good one.  This is really the only risk they bothered taking on Sturm und Drang, and every other slightly left of center idea like the brief talkbox guitar on "Erase This" and the vocal cameos of Chino Moreno (from Deftones) and Greg Puciato (from Dillinger Escape Plan) on "Embers" and "Torches" respectively come off as meaningless gimmicks.  Otherwise this is just the same as the previous album: Ashes of the Wake without the breakdowns.  I need to make it abundantly clear that Ashes was the worst album of the classic era and the breakdowns weren't the fucking problem, it was the intensely boring songs themselves.  If this was an album full of "Laid to Rest" level songs I wouldn't care at all, because that was the one song that truly worked on that album and laid the groundwork for how good the following two albums would be, but instead this is just "One Gun" and "Omerta" nine times but slightly faster and with "Rooster" randomly shoehorned in the middle.  If anything it's even more disappointing because some tracks start off really well, with "Delusion Pandemic" kicking the thrash up to the highest levels they've been in years before falling into the rut of mediocrity that plagues the album, and "Still Echoes" does the same except with some honest to god death metal influence instead.

There isn't really a good place to put this since the lyrics are just kind of not worth mentioning in the first place, but I'll do my due diligence and point out that "512" is the one track explicitly about his experience in prison, and lyrically it does finally touch on those questions of introspective guilt I asked in the preamble, and while the song itself is boring as shit and the vocal performance doesn't really relay any of the emotions in the words apart from the "My hands are painted red" in the outro, I do commend them for at least addressing the elephant in the room.  However, man am I the only one that finds "Footprints" to be in super bad taste?  Maybe I'm just reading too much into it, but it really does feel tone deaf to have a generic song about kicking ass including lines about screaming "get the fuck out" to an unknown figure and defiantly asking "how did you think this would end?!" on an album directly following a high profile instance of you accidentally killing a guy for being in the wrong place while half of your knuckle dragging fans pinned all of the blame on the victim in the first place.  Randy is a very well spoken and intelligent person, but man he's got to be the dumbest smart guy on the planet.

(Also, another random aside, but has anybody else noticed that they frequently seem to reference feet in their song titles ("Footprints", "Foot to the Throat", "Boot Scraper") and every last one of those Footsongs ends up being meaningless filler?  I dunno, just something funny I noticed.)

Maybe I just want this to be something that it's not, and I mean duh, I want every bad album to be good instead, but Sturm und Drang is just a gargantuan disappointment.  Even with the context of the imprisonment and trial being stripped away, this is a clear filler album just put out as an excuse to hit the road again.  I feel like the band was constantly on the cusp of something truly exceptional here, because the good moments are genuinely promising, but they've really brought back their old problem of every song starting much better than it ends, except now the good parts only last for twenty seconds at the beginning of each song instead of at least managing a full two thirds of the runtime before getting dull.  Maybe their formula just doesn't work anymore, but I think the entire point of this series was to show how creative and willing to take risks they used to be (there's a reason I named the series after the debut, that title wound up being pretty prophetic with how influential they became) before just kicking their feet up and coasting on their established popularity.  They put the legwork in early and then just quit giving a shit, and albums like Sturm und Drang are the end result of that.  The new ideas used to form the entire identity of the albums themselves, now they're just superficial coats of paint slapped on to old ideas they seemingly have no intention of updating.

Maybe the new album that will inevitably be announced on the day this review is posted because I have awful timing will prove me wrong, but as of now, the band has been on autopilot for nearly a decade, and I'm just done caring.


Monday, August 19, 2019

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - Resolution

VI: Urine Tools

Hey hey hey, remember way back in the review for As the Palaces Burn when I told y'all to put a pin in a particular line from "Ruin"?  Well here's the payoff to that particularly insufferable brick joke.

"This is the resolution / The end of all progress"

Nine years before Resolution dropped, Lamb of God accidentally prophecized their own downfall, because it should be pretty clear that each album up to this point has been incredibly distinct.  Wrath was the fast one, As the Palaces Burn was the one that laid the foundation for their iconic riffing style, Sacrament was the one with the atmospheric songs, etc.  Resolution here is the first one without a single new idea and instead is just a wholesale rehash of Ashes of the Wake, which was already their worst album anyway.  All of that lazy midpaced trash that sounded like it was written in an afternoon is back here with a vengeance, and even the three good tracks can't save this album from the trash bin.

I don't even have much to say about this album simply because I've already gone over how phoned-in Ashes of the Wake was and this album is pretty much that exact same album a second time.  There are a few good moments here and there, but it's not enough to save it.  "Desolation" sounds like the second coming of "Beating on Death's Door" and as such is a total fucking banger with memorable riffs galore (seriously that chorus riff is one of the more simplistic ones they've ever written but holy shit is it lethal), "Guilty" takes their Pantera-esque groove and injects it with some honest to god death metal influence (parts of it sound like Anata (specifically the main riff sounds like "Shackled to Guilt") and now that I've pointed it out you won't be able to unhear it, you're welcome), and "The Undertow" isn't quite as inspired as the other two but at least sounds like a good version of one of the weak songs on Ashes of the Wake combined with some of Adler's most inventive drumming.  But that's it, those three songs start the album off on one hell of a high note and then we're treated to nine fucking straight up filler tracks.  The previous two albums really made me think they had managed to keep the songwriting consistent enough to avoid their previously crippling filler problem, but no, they were flukes.

I don't even want to keep writing about this, and that's a shame because I chose to highlight this band in a series partially because each album is so different and has such a different mood.  I was dreading this album simply because it's not different at all, and the fact that it's four-fucking-teen tracks long and features a stretch of nine in a row to close the album on total uninspired mediocrity is just icing on the cake.  The sad thing is I'm not even entirely sure that I believe myself when I say it's just a rehash of Ashes, because it starts off with a two and a half minute dirge that's so deep and brutal that it just sounds like straight up doom metal with "Straight for the Sun" (which is actually pretty ballsy considering how fast and aggressive the previous album was), and it's not like "King Me" doesn't at least try to be super epic, "Insurrection" isn't their first and only track to truly flirt with nu metal, and "Barbarosa" isn't a full on acoustic interlude, but all of these new ideas are just so completely drowned by the total groove metal mediocrity of "Visitation", "Invictus", "To the End", "Ghost Walking", "Terminally Unique", etc.  You'd think this would be a total banger since it's front loaded with all the best songs in the first handful of tracks but then it just flops around like a fish out of water with no real identity for the next hour and a half.  The only song that's even half alright in that stretch of lameness is "Cheated" and even then it's only because it's the fastest one.

This is going to be the shortest one in the series because holy shit I just don't care about it.  "Desolation" is a classic track worthy of any setlist but the rest of it (even the other good songs) are just totally skippable and not worth your time.  I'm gonna get lazy and just stop now.  Fuck this nothing-album.


Sunday, August 18, 2019

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - Wrath

V: hr... wat?

I remember when Wrath first dropped in 2009, I actually kind of hated it.  I thought the vocals were  a huge step down from the previous albums with the introduction of weird tuneless yelling in addition to the usually great roars and shrieks and thought most of the album just kinda flew in one ear and out the other.  Nowadays I only hate it because it broke my titling gimmick in this review series.

Yeah, Wrath is actually one hell of an unappreciated highlight in Lamb of God's oeuvre.  I'm gonna find myself paraphrasing MutantClannfear's review a lot because he really nails it, but to distill it down to one sentence: This is the most legitimately pissed off the band has potentially ever sounded and pretty much every song represents the most extreme edges of groove metal with fuckloads of unhinged intensity.  A common criticism of groove metal in general is that the groove riffs never feel earned, like they need to be used to break up fast sections instead of just grooving the whole time because then they lose their punch.  Discounting the fact that this argument kind of accidentally writes off 80% of doom metal wholesale, Lamb of God takes that criticism and smashes it against the wall by making the grooves themselves the fast parts of the album.  This motherfucker rarely slows down, and pretty much every second is crammed full of riffs, more riffs, a surprising amount of melody and solos considering the band we're talking about here, and a few more riffs for good measure.

I'm probably overselling it a bit, but that's because I feel like I have to overcompensate with this album for reasons I'll get to later, but at the same time I don't think I'm wrong about anything I've said in the preceding paragraph.  Tracks like "Set to Fail", "Contractor", and moments of "Dead Seeds" are absolutely fucking batshit in how fast they are (say what you will about Lamb of God, they were never a particularly "fast" band until this moment apart from a few scattered tracks).  "Choke Sermon" actually sounds like a fucking Megadeth song and if you're mentally raising your hand to tell me that's insane, I'd ask you to shove that hand back up the ass it came from.  I think I finally understand why people insisted on calling groove metal "half-thrash" for so many years, because it turns out that simply speeding it up by 50bpm turns it into fuckin' "Ashes in Your Mouth" and that's fucking rad.  This speed also lays to rest that criticism from before, because holy shit does Lamb of God earn the breakdowns and more mid-paced groove sections this time around.  This is exactly what groove metal is supposed to be, and it's good to know that Sacrament was on the right path by finally eschewing the last of the metalcore influences because they've pretty definitively proved that they know how to make straight up groove metal work here.

Wrath is also deceptively dynamic.  At the time I thought it felt kind of stilted, but now, especially after listening to their discography chronologically, the bits like the acoustic intro track, the gorgeous harmonized guitar solo on "Grace", the stuttery stereo-flipping breakdown of followed by the dissonantly atmospheric outro of "Reclamation", the damn near full on extreme metal of "Everything to Nothing", the bludgeoning beatdown in "Fake Messiah", just... everything sounds like the logical conclusion of the creativity they'd been toying with on the previous album.  There're a lot of different ideas here, and they all sound natural (as opposed to the focus-tested calculation of Ashes of the Wake).  Even those vocals on "In Your Words" that I hated ten years ago sound like a daring experiment more than a boneheaded bad idea this time around.

I just want to take a moment here to highlight precisely how awesome "Contractor" is.  This track got a lot of flak from the cliched "true metal" crowd on MA and such when it came out, and now that the dust has been settled for the better part of a decade, it's almost hilarious how badly everyone misjudged this track.  There were all sorts of criticisms thrown at it for the opening whoop-holler and the lyrics being dumbass bro-sturbation about blowing shit up.  But while everybody was busy scratching their heads and pretending not to know what it was about, they all seemed to completely overlook the fact that it was a pretty scathing condemnation of private military forces populated by maladjusted bullies who peaked in high school gleefully turning Iraqi children into paste.  Blackwater even gets fucking mentioned by name I mean holy shit how do you miss the point that hard?  Lamb of God has come a long way from defending the Confederate flag on As the Palaces Burn.  Beyond the lyrics, "Contractor" is one of the tightest and most well written tracks they've ever penned, running in three distinct movements: the opening salvo of aggression and pretty much non-stop machine gun riffing, the exceedingly slow middle section that crushes harder than Giles Corey, and punctuated by the final act of abrupt chaos led in by one of Randy's all time best screams.  Again, maybe it's just the Pantera fan in me, but "Contractor" is almost a beat-by-beat reimagining of "Strength Beyond Strength", aka The Best God Damned Song Pantera Ever Wrote.  If namedropping Pantera just turned you off, I don't know what to tell you.  Grow up, I guess.

As much as I obviously like Wrath, I'll freely admit it isn't perfect.  "Fake Messiah" and "Broken Hands" absolutely repeat way too much and tend to drag, and they'd pretty much instantly ruin the flow of the album if they weren't separated by the astoundingly good "Grace", and "Set to Fail" is really disappointing in starting off with blast beats and a shitload of aggression before morphing into a decent b-side from Ashes of the Wake.  But really these are just nitpicks.  In the grand scheme of things this is a pretty fucking excellent album.  Every single member (barring bassist John Campbell, who from day one has always been an almost hilariously inconsequential non-entity when it comes to their sound) is on top of their game and all but a few songs are total knockouts.  I love Wrath and you should too, this is everything that "open minded" metal fans claim groove metal should be.

I want to close by scratching an itch here, and that's that you might've noticed several reviews voicing bewilderment/curiosity at this album's comparatively low score on MA compared to everything else they'd done (it's been balanced somewhat over time but the reviews stay forever).  For those of you who weren't here ten years ago, you may have missed the total flogging that the "Contractor" single got, and almost every criticism against it was bad faith nonsense from people who had no intention of giving the thing a critical listen in the first place.  I don't like to flat out accuse my compatriots of acting in bad faith, but when every single review feels it important to point out the squeal in the intro and constantly refer to that first riff as "chugging" or "mallcore" or "just fast palm muted chugging punctuated by random powerchords" which is exactly what a thrash riff is by the way then I just can't help but hop on my soapbox and yell about the flagrant misrepresentation.  Hyper fast palm mutes have never in the history of metal been referred to as "chugging" until that moment, and it was entirely because Lamb of God used a shitload of chug riffs on the albums leading up to this one.  So yeah, between the review-bombing and the vocal hatred on the forums, it became a weird fad to rip on that track, and when the album dropped in full, a lot of that misrepresented vitriol just kinda carried over onto Wrath itself.  I get it, Lamb of God isn't for everybody, but if you're curious about this album and would rather read some reviews before listening for yourself, I feel confident in saying you should disregard everything up until like 2011 when shit finally blew over.


Saturday, August 17, 2019

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - Sacrament

IV: Ant Scream

For a long time, I had considered Sacrament to be my unequivocal favorite Lamb of God album.  Time has softened it somewhat, but I'll spoil the ending a bit and say that this is probably the only album besides the debut where the non-single tracks feel less like filler and more like deep cuts, and that alone puts this a few pedestals higher than the snorefest that was Ashes of the Wake.

I think the thing that stands out the most about Sacrament is that this actually marked a pretty daring departure from the last two albums.  As the Palaces Burn and Ashes of the Wake were very similar albums, and while Sacrament certainly sticks close to a proven formula on certain tracks, they really did branch out and try a lot of new things with this one.  For example, for a band that had made it a habit to always open on something explosive and hard hitting, it was actually pretty ballsy to kick this album off with "Walk with Me in Hell", a starkly atmospheric and relatively slow track that even throws some subtle synths in the intro.  And then to follow it up with "Again We Rise", an oddly anthemic song that works so much better as a live singalong than the fucking embarrassment that was "Now You've Got Something to Die For", that tells me that they were making a statement with this record, and dammit I think they made it quite well.  They weren't going to stick with the formula like they did last time, and that's an ethos they stick with throughout the entire album.

That's not to say they never go back to the previous sound, because they definitely do on tracks like "Pathetic", "Foot to the Throat", and "More Time to Kill", and it's probably not a coincidence that the latter two songs there are two of the only true filler songs (the other being "Requiem", which takes the slightly more atmsopheric bent of "Again We Rise" but is simply less good).  This is probably the album where Lamb of God took the most risks while at the same time being the most accessible they'll ever be.  This is because at this point the metalcore element of their sound is almost totally gone apart from the odd breakdown here and there, instead replaced entirely with Pantera-esque groove.  I know that's a turnoff for a lot of metal fans, but I happen to think Pantera is great and as a result I think this album is pretty good as well.  "Redneck" is probably the best example of this, being the big "hit single" from this album and sounding like a lost session from The Great Southern Trendkill.  It's simultaneously very fast and groovy as hell, and turns into an extremely catchy song that's easy enough to be found on the radio but heavy enough to scare off most non-metal fans.  It's probably the weakest non-filler song on the album but it's still a lot of fun to caveman out to.  Pure knuckle dragging idiocy that I can't help but adore in its sincerity.

It's been a while since I've seen it, but certain editions of this album came with a bonus DVD detailing the making of this album, and due to that I've actually been waiting for the band to finally break up for a long time.  I know the Killadelphia DVD is more infamous for it showing how volatile the band was behind the scenes, with the unforgettable sequence of Randy Blythe picking a fight with Mark Morton while drunk off his ass and promptly getting his lights punched out, but the making of DVD included with Sacrament showed a much sadder side of the band.  After the infamous beatdown, Randy actually swore off alcohol and to my knowledge has been sober ever since (this is actually the lyrical subject of "Pathetic", if you were curious), and his newfound sobriety seemed to hang something of a dark cloud over the band, where absolutely nobody seemed interested in the recording process of this one.  The way the band wrote albums (at least back then) was for everybody to write a handful of songs on their own and then bring them into the studio already finished, where the rest of the guys would learn them and they'd collectively choose the best ones for the album.  This led to an environment where seemingly nobody was engaged with the whole process and turned a naturally organic process like songwriting into an individual exercise to later be culled via a band vote.  I recall them not being particularly receptive to Mark's contributions, because he's the guy who listens to the most non-metal when he's not working with the band and it apparently leaked into his songwriting.  There was some intense debate over whether or not to include one of his songs because they claimed it was a rock song and nobody wanted to hear a rock song plopped in the middle of a metal album.  Ultimately the song was included, and I can't remember which song it was.  It was either "Descending" or "Blacken the Cursed Sun" and both of them follow the lead of "Walk with Me in Hell" so I really have no idea what it is they objected to so much.  The guys were so focused on picking each others nits that they started to say bizarre nonsense that threatened to undermine the very creativity that makes this album so enjoyable.

For better or worse (better, at this point), the band trucked through these disagreements and delivered a solid album with way more ideas than your average Lamb of God album.  From the atmospheric elements of "Walk with Me in Hell" and "Blacken the Cursed Sun", to the new inclusion of several booming clean vocals, to the pure Pantera worship of "Redneck", to the high speed thrash influence of "Forgotten (Lost Angels)" and "Beating on Death's Door", to returning to the old formula and basically writing "The Faded Line" but actually good this time with "Pathetic", there's a lot to like here and I'm very impressed with what they were willing to experiment with here.  Even if the core sound is largely unchanged apart from fewer breakdowns and melodeath riffs, there are a lot of peripheral risks that make this one of their most interesting albums.  Despite being their most varied album, Sacrament is actually pretty hard to talk about because all I can think to do is point to a random track and say what different thing they tried to do, and I've exhausted that avenue already, so I'll just wrap this up now.

Sacrament is good, and easily the best of their "classic" trilogy that encompasses this and the previous two albums.  "Beating on Death's Door" is easily their most underappreciated song and "Lost Angels" isn't too far behind.  It was never their bread and butter, but when they just kick the tempo into high gear and border on thrash as much as they can, they can really strike gold.  "Foot to the Throat", "Requiem" and "More Time to Kill" are the token filler tracks, but that just means this album has nine good songs instead of two, and I'd say that's a pretty fucking huge improvement from its predecessor.


Friday, August 16, 2019

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - Ashes of the Wake

III: Oak Fest Heehaws

I can remember the exact moment the curtain was peeled back on Lamb of God for me.  It was during the brief period I was in a real band when I was in high school, sometime around 2006.  We decided we should learn a cover or two in addition to writing originals just to kind of help us gel as players together, and we decided on Lamb of God's "Hourglass" among a few others.  We all went home to learn our respective parts, and at the next band practice we all announced pretty much in unison "Man, did anyone else not realize before how fucking boring that song is?"  Yeah it turns out that once you strip the drums away (which are always the most impressive part of any given Lamb of God track), the riffs themselves are just fucking dull as hell and completely mind numbing to play, and "Hourglass" is a great representative for such a phenomenon.  I think we all decided on that song initially because that riff about one minute into the song is fucking devastating, but after that glorious twenty seconds, the guitars and bass basically just play straight eighth notes at one tempo for the next three solid minutes and not a single one of us ever wanted to play it again.

Now, obviously I still liked Lamb of God after this moment (as you'll see as the series continues), but it really does highlight one of the biggest problems with Ashes of the Wake.  While it may be their most popular album by a pretty huge margin and is considered a high watermark for the scene, it is boring as shit once you pay attention medium-hard.  In fact this is the one I'm probably most dreading writing about simply because I fucking hate listening to it.

The band was already well popular by this point, but this really sees the band on autopilot, which might sound odd considering it's their most iconic album and features their most popular song, but it's true.  That inspired ferocity of New American Gospel is pretty much entirely gone at this point, replaced with a very calculated sense of obligation.  Almost all of these riffs sound focus tested to an extreme degree.  Whenever it sounds like they're about to really break out into some sort of unhinged aggression, it steps back and starts plodding with super pedestrian groove riffs.  "The Faded Line" is a great example of this, with that neat zippy guitar line right before the chorus barges in and starts stinking up the joint with an uninspired In Flames knockoff riff.  The title track does this as well, with that pure thrash riff that starts up about a minute into the song (what is up with this album and the good riffs starting at the one minute mark and never showing up again?) is absolutely fucking explosive but finds itself bookended by phoned-in nonsense and a really piddly atmospheric section.  "Ashes of the Wake" has potential to be the best song in general since it's loaded with solos (something the band tends to eschew) and contains the best riff on the album, but as it stands its really bloated and faffs about with no real direction far too often, especially in the slower middle section.

It's hard to really describe the problems with the album outside of just calling it phoned-in or half-assed, because that's really all it is.  It's the exact same type of riff structure and songwriting flow that made the good songs on As the Palaces Burn work so well, but apart from a few scattered tracks they all just sound like they were written in an afternoon in a quick attempt to cash in on the success of the previous album (it did come out a mere 15 months later, and it's not like they didn't tour in support of that previous album).  I mean holy shit listen to "Omerta", it's a five minute track that feels like fifteen because it's just mid paced plodding that never gets to the god damned point.  It's also one of the oddly several tracks with spoken word segments, which always feel like pointless add-ons that Randy couldn't be bothered to growl properly.  The opening of "Omerta" is the most egregious since it's completely a capella and even structures the words themselves in such a way that they rob themselves of dramatic tension.  That's such a weird thing to call out, but there's a reason he flips the "If I live, I will kill you, if I die, you are forgiven" part when they play this song live.

The good songs are easy to point out, because there's only really two of them.  I'll give a little bit of credit to "Blood of the Scribe" for having a good amount of adrenaline in it for a few moments, but it mostly falls into the same trap as "Hourglass" where it starts off way better than it ends (the exact opposite problem of what they suffered on the previous album), but it's really not a contest when it comes to what the best songs are.  "Break You" and "Laid to Rest" absolutely tear the rest of this album to shreds, without fucking question.  The former sounds like a lost session from As the Palaces Burn with how frenetic it is, and it's such a welcome feature for pretty much every aspect to shift as often as it does since the rest of the album is so pedestrian and samey.  The tempo is constantly fluctuating up to some of the album's highest speeds, the riffs are positively thrashy at times (this isn't usually their strength, but on this album almost all of the best riffs sound like lost thrash riffs) and Randy utilizes his higher register much more often on this one than any other track.

But really, I'm dancing around the elephant in the room here.  "Laid to Rest" is the band's signature song, the one that found itself on Guitar Hero II, the one they are guaranteed to play at every single show (I saw them like eight times between 2006-2010 and they opened with it every damn time), and holy shit did it earn that distinction.  You'd think Ashes of the Wake was going to be this massive fucking statement based on how monstrously huge the opening track is, because god damn is "Laid to Rest" a fucking statement.  Every single riff is devastating, the song is built in such a way that it just keeps pummeling you over and over again, the chorus is gorgeously destructive, even the "SEE WHO GIVES A FUCK" part is so corny that it loops around to being endearing.  Even the breakdown fucking kills, which is impressive because this album is so loaded with lazy-ass open-string chug breakdowns that feel thrown in as an obligation.  And when it ends and the chorus riff comes charging back in underneath a fifteen second scream?  Just god damn I break my oath to the Volcel Police every time.  The whole song is fucking excellent and is pretty much the anthem for this nebulous "New Wave of American Heavy Metal" that was sweeping the nation at the time.  This is the song that every God Forbid and Shadows Fall wished they had written.

Again, there's really no place to put this, but it's worth mentioning that they definitely got the production right on this one.  Instead of the mix being a muddy slush of excess gain that sounds like it was recorded on a cell phone, Ashes of the Wake is exactly as tight and heavy as the songs themselves.  As far as I'm concerned this album has two true claims to fame despite all of the lazy bullshit on it: "Laid to Rest" is an awesome song and at least they got the production right this time.  I'm never going to bring up the production again because every single album from here on out sounds exactly like this one.

And yet, Ashes of the Wake drops the ball super quickly afterwards because it's almost nothing but lameass filler from the second track until the end.  I didn't even point out how much "Now You've Got Something to Die For" sucks, but it really needs to be mentioned that it truly does suck.  What a lazy and uninspired excuse for a crowd singalong.  The day they retire it from the setlist is the day I'll consider paying money to see them live again.  The few scattered moments of excellence that pop up in "Blood of the Scribe" and the title track plus the lone other good-the-whole-time track, "Break You", just can't overcome the lazy weakness of the rest of the album.  Lamb of God cemented their legacy on this album, but it's a shame because god damn this is their first truly bad one.