Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Twilight Force - Heroes of Mighty Magic

Guys light farts

So somehow, for some utterly bizarre reason, Sweden's Twilight Force has become something of an internetical battleground.  Power metal's answer to Enmity, if you will.  While Heroes of Mighty Magic and Illuminations of Vile Engorgement have precisely dick in common apart from some of the cringiest album titles this side of Japan, they both seem to have become reviewing warzones, with hyperbolic scores from either side of the spectrum taking a stand for or against the very foundations of the bands they dissect.  I once heard Enmity described as "what death metal must sound like to people who don't listen to death metal", and considering the endless conga line of cliches that Twilight Force provides here, I can only assume that's the same perception given here, only for that super melodic and overly bombastic subniche of flower metal. 

The reason I find it so strange that Twilight Force has become the hill to die on is because it's not really spectacular one way or the other.  Yeah it's sugary, yeah it's basically riffless and just loaded with melodies and orchestration, yeah it's just a bunch of dumb cliches strung together with even more cliches, but as a seasoned vet for this kind of music I can say with confidence that it isn't really done in any way that's either fantastic or horrendous.  It's very middling in every sense of the word.  There are huge stretches where seemingly nothing happens, there are great ideas that are executed poorly and bad ones that are done with flair and charisma, and there are high points and low points.  Every god damned thing about this album averages out.  Logically, this means it should be totally skippable and just fade into the white noise of the metal world, but in all honesty, I don't exactly agree with my own assessment.  Every time I listen to this, I like it a little bit more in spite of myself.

You see, this is the kind of thing that doesn't try to be anything new, and it doesn't really have to be.  This is the kind of cheesy flower metal for fans of Rhapsody, Freedom Call, and Wisdom.  It's bloated down with hundreds of orchestrations and choirs, but that's sort of what it wants to do anyway and it's not like they totally suck at it so who am I to judge?  It's not like the new Sabaton album where it's clearly meant to be fluffy pop metal but can't write a good hook or memorable song to save its life, this is more like one of the lesser Rhapsody albums like Triumph or Agony where it has a vision that it adheres to wonderfully but whiffs on half of the ideas and ends up presenting listeners with a mixed bag of sorts.  Tracks like "Powerwind", "Battle of Arcane Might", and "To the Stars" have awesome choruses that carry the songs with soaring majesty, then we have tracks like "Guardian of the Seas" and "Riders of the Dawn" which have excellent moments marred by easily avoidable issues, tracks like "Keepers of Fate" and "There and Back Again" that just drag on forever and never do anything interesting, and on and on and on.  It's sort of bizarre because every song is so similar to each song preceding it but each one manages to succeed or fail in a completely different way.

What this tells me is that the songwriting in general is just really shaky.  They can beat Rhapsody at their own game on occasion, and other times I just scratch my head and wonder why they bothered putting such obvious filler songs on an album that could have been much more focused.  "Riders of the Dawn" has the potential to be the best song on the album since the chorus is so magnificent (and this is the type of album where the songs live and die on the strength of the choruses), but with the production being so wonky and focused entirely on vocals, keys, and drums, it just ends up sounding like a flat demo recording with just drums and vocals.  That damn vocal line of "Run! We will run! With the power of the sun!" is so immediately ear catching but there is next to nothing happening around it so it just winds up being like an extremely impressive high bar routine where the gymnast misses the landing completely and winds up face first on the mat with their feet sticking up in the air like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.  Tracks like "Keepers of Fate" and "Rise of a Hero" just flitter by with no consequence whatsoever, which is a damn shame because they come between "Riders of the Dawn", a song with a ton of potential that ends up botched, and "To the Stars", one of the few tracks that I think is legitimately great the whole way through.  This is a problem throughout the album, as the highlights are spread around so haphazardly that there wind up being nearly twenty minute stretches of lame, go-nowhere flower metal orchestrations blamping at you while you patiently wait for the next song with any sort of cohesion and goal to come back in and remind you why you bother listening to this dorky shit in the first place. 

The aforementioned production is another sticking point with me.  Normally I don't mind the rhythm guitars being completely buried in a style like this since they're the least important aspect and are really only there to play some rudimentary palm mutes to accentuate the drums, but they really push it to the extreme, to the point where they're basically nonexistent.  What this does is leave us with an album that sounds like a collection of JRPG battle themes with power metal drums added on top of them.  Now, considering just how many hours I've spent shunning the idea of making friends in favor of playing Suikoden alone in my bedroom, this sounds like something right up my alley, but in all honesty these aren't even great battle themes.  Most of them are just cliche progressions and melodies that any mildly educated power metal fan has heard a million times before.  I realize that's a little unfair since innovation isn't a requirement to be great, but it really does add to the boredom of listening to the whole album in one sitting.  Listening to the assorted worthwhile tracks in bursts can be highly enjoyable, as the album certainly delivers on the promise of just being stupid cheeseball fun, but it's too long and overwhelming to really stand on its own as a full unit.

I didn't really have a place to mention it, but Joakim Broden from the ever persistent and ever shitty Sabaton makes a brief appearance on the title track, and his gruff baritone is actually a welcome change of pace from the Michael Kiske impressions that take up the rest of the album, but he's still a dude who hinges all of his charisma on the fact that he's different and forgets to actually be any good as a result.  The album also ends on a nearly eight and a half minute epilogue, six and a half minutes of which are taken up by that same fucking terrible narration bullshit that plagued Rhapsody throughout even their best albums.  Good holy christ that is the most annoying and unnecessary shit in the universe.  Write a fucking book.

So all in all, I don't really know what to make of Heroes of Mighty Magic (lord I hate that title more than you will ever understand).  There are enough tracks and moments to make a solid mini-LP but as a 70+ minute experience it's just exhausting.  That earlier comment about this being what power metal probably sounds like to people who don't listen to power metal is 100% true.  Every possible cliche you can imagine is shoved to the forefront and waggled in front of your face obnoxiously, so this is really one of those albums that had its fans the instant it was announced and nothing was ever going to sway them one way or the other.  Overall it ends with a positive score because there are enough well done moments (mostly the choruses and a few assorted melodies and soloing sections) to ensure I'll come back for a quick bite every now and again, but it's just so pointless in the grand scheme of metal that I can't imagine this being viewed as anything other than "just another album" even one year from now.  It's basically any given Rhapsody album only without the occasional "Holy Thunderforce" or "Reign of Terror" to help it blow by the competition. 

This shouldn't be a battleground, it should just be yet another album with a few bright spots here and there that should be thrown on the pile and left there for the most part.

RATING - 57%

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Unfathomable Ruination - Finitude

My head hurts

I didn't really think of it until now, but Unfathomable Ruination have actually been basically a sister band to Abnormality in my eyes.  They both stormed out of the gate in 2012, with fantastic debut albums on a notoriously lame record label (Sevared Records), both of which were blisteringly fast, chaotic, and somehow also groovy and hooky brutal tech death albums that both blew me off my chair.  Afterwards, they both went relatively quiet, only for them both to roar back in 2016 with their sophomore efforts, both of which utilizing artwork prominently featuring a fractured face in washed out color against a black background.  That's... oddly specific, but interesting nonetheless.  The big difference between the two at this stage in their careers is that Abnormality has since jumped ship to Metal Blade and have found themselves backed by the closest thing to a major label you can find in extreme metal, whereas Unfathomable Ruination finds themselves still nestled snugly within the roster of that shitty BDM label I will probably always have a grudge against (blame my brief time writing for Metal Crypt, when Sevared would swarm us with terrible, faceless promos by the dozen).

Abnormality had the upper hand four years ago, but at this point, the Brits have easily usurped their crown.  Finitude here has one immediately recognizable strength above Mechanisms of Omniscience, that being the production.  The Americans found themselves recording with an extremely sterile sound, with squeaky clean snares, muffled guitars, and vocals shoved in the foreground, whereas the UKers instead find themselves continuing with what worked before.  The sound here is absolutely fucking savage, with guitars that carry a massively punishing crunch, drums that pound the living daylights out of you (including that signature pingy snare that 70% of all brutal death metal bands seem to utilize), and vocals relegated slightly into the background to act more as a secondary percussive force as opposed to a driving mechanism of the music.  It's amazing how much of a difference these small tweaks make, as the former album sounds like a clinical exercise running in the background and the latter is more akin to a furious hellbeast dripping lava from every orifice.  The little moments stand out so much more here, like the Cryptopsy-esque squeals that punctuate the blasting insanity of "Thy Venomous Coils", the ethereal introduction that leads to the crushing groove that drives "Neutralizer", to the neck twisting bass runs in "Nihilistic Theorem".  It's amazing how a small difference like giving some added rawness to the production and restructuring the balance of the individual performances can sound like night and day on albums that are functionally identical.

And on that "identical" comment comes the album's lone flaw; despite the occasional standout licks like the ones posted above, the album is essentially just a plateau of insanity.  Which is fine by me, personally, but when they have standout sections like that that show they can write a punishing groove or a killer hook or a memorable lead line it tells me that they can simply multiply whatever the hell they did during those moments to load the album down even further with great moments.  As it stands, they're pretty few and far between and the band repeats a few of the same tricks here and there, but they're all done quite well so it's not really a problem when all is said and done.  At the end of the day this is still a highly enjoyable romp through twisted depths of unending depravity.

I think the main thing that makes Unfathomable Ruination stand out in the crowd of samey tech death comes from something as simple as the songwriting.  The band always sounds like they're coming apart at the seams and juuuuust holding together enough to throw in those knee buckling curveballs every now and again to keep things fresh.  As soon as it seems like the drummer's arms are going to fall off and the vocalist is going to tear his own throat out, the pace will dip for a few bars and hammer you over the head with a Suffocation styled slamming groove.  They even take a page out of Origin's playbook and close the album with an 8 minute scorcher that slows itself down for a good portion of the time.  It's all kinda secretly brilliant.  The thing with most tech death is that it never really sounds aggressive, so to speak.  It's impressive, sure, and it's definitely heavy and fast, but it rarely carries a whole lot of fury outside of bands like Neuraxis and whatnot.  Unfathomable Ruination, on the other hand, sounds fucking savage.  Doug Anderson takes a more Alex Hernandez "flip the fuck out and play your whole drumkit at once" approach than a John Longstreth "focus really hard on not fucking up these lightning fast intricacies" one.  The riffs are frantic and spastic but also grounded and simple enough at times to headbang yourself into a coma whilst playing.  It's a perfect blend.

Long story short, this rocks like the stone age.  Listen to it.

RATING - 87%

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Skeletonwitch - The Apothic Gloom

Apparently "Apothic" isn't a real word

Okay so apparently while I wasn't looking, the vocalist of Skeletonwitch left?  What the hell, yo?  He was one of the most instantly recognizable traits of the band if you ask me.  His high pitched rasp wasn't really so much of a rasp as it was like... a dry gargle?  I can't even explain it, he was neither dry nor wet with his approach, but it was something special.  More people should try to sound like Chance Garnette.  So what now?  They got some new guy to totally fuck up one of the coolest parts of the band right?

Well... nah, he's rad too.

I feel like that's the main purpose of The Apothic Gloom, it's just a short, four track EP intended to acclimate long time fans like myself to the new guy, and it's a wonderful way to do such a thing.  His style is a little deeper and more crusty, a little more "normal" so to speak than the instantly recognizable GRRAH of Chance, but it works just as well with Skeletonwitch's signature style of thrash metal with little bits of basically everything else thrown in.  The Apothic Gloom takes some more influence from Forever Abomination (the only album besides the future classic Beyond the Permafrost that actually qualifies as essential listening) in that there's a lot more black metal influence here than usual.  This is black/thrash but not in the sense of what most bands with that label imply.  A lot of bands like Witchaven and such, while good, sound more like really lo-fi thrash like early Sodom or Kreator instead of an actual fusing of the relentless pummeling of thrash metal with the melancholic atmosphere of black metal.  That's what Skeletonwitch does here, most notably on the title track and "Red Death, White Light".  The seven minute closer in particular elicits a lot of ethereal tremolo melodies and, well, gloomy atmsophere layered over the blistering thrash underneath.  It works really well and I really hope the next album has more in line with that style.

The other two tracks, "Well of Despair" and "Black Waters" are more in line with Beyond the Permafrost in the sense that they're clearly based in high speed thrash with huge swaths of melody.  "Black Waters" admittedly draws a bit more from Immortal than any given thrash band but the base is still there.  Skeletonwitch is a band that's never content with where they are and are always willing to mix it up, and this EP is no exception.  Like I said, "Red Death, White Light" is a good example since it starts with with such an ethereal delaydelaydelay melody.  They're dipping their toes into post-black like ten years after it became trendy but are still nailing it.  So just like always, they're not exactly blazing new trails as much as they're just taking pre-established ideas and arranging them in an inventive way and standing out in a crowded sea of metal today. 

tl;dr - This is a short review for a short EP so basically the important thing to note is that this is an excellent (and quite literal) marriage of black and thrash metal with great mid range vocals and tons of excellent melodies.  The riffs aren't as quite as strong as they were a decade ago but the essence of the band is still there and probably the best it's been in five years.  Hopefully this signals a rejuvenation and the new album will completely smoke.

RATING - 83%

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sabaton - The Last Stand

 Grape Flavor Aid

Fun fact: Today is my birthday.

Not so fun fact: I'm spending it reviewing this shitty Sabaton album.

Around eight years ago, I reviewed these Swedes' debut album, Primo Victoria.  It had some potential to be a fun melodic power metal album but was too in love with its own theme to focus on songwriting in any capacity and just transformed the horrors of war into a bouncy Disney rendition of wanton slaughter.  Sabaton is to armed conflict what Alestorm is to the brutal and filthy life of a pirate.  Sugary, toothless nonsense with a slightly left-of-center theme and an instantly recognizable vocalist that helped them stand out a bit.  Well apparently, since then the band promptly blew the fuck up and became one of the hottest things in mainstream metal.  They're headlining 70000 Tons of Metal, co-headlining tours with Nightwish, going platinum in their home country (a completely ludicrous achievement in the era of downloading), they even have their own fucking open air fest if I'm remembering correctly.  Just, somehow, completely out of nowhere, people the world over decided they loved the everloving fuck out of whatever it was Sabaton was producing.  So with that in mind, I decided to finally take the plunge and listen to their newest album, The Last Stand, my first since their debut.

Holy Christ this is bad.

When people trash Battle Beast for being a metal band with a pop heart that tries desperately to break through and renders their songs unlistenable trash, I imagine they're accidentally listening to Sabaton and not realizing it.  Because THIS is a pure pop album with distorted guitars and a gruff vocalist being the only things to make it identifiable as metal.  In terms of structuring (every song is within the 3 minute range, barring the opener, "Sparta", which only breaches four minutes because of a pointless intro), the focus of catchiness over everything else, the sugary keyboards, the bouncy melodies and vocal inflections, everything about this might as well be fucking ABBA.  Now, I am a Battle Beast fan, so I don't have a problem with keyboard heavy pop metal on principle, but at least those Finns occasionally rip out a song like "Fight, Kill, Die" or just make the hooks so infectious that nothing else matters (like "Out of Control", "Black Ninja", "Out on the Streets", etc).  Sabaton manages none of that, as there is a grand total of one song where the hook is good enough to stand out in anyway (that song being "Shiroyama"), and one other song where the metal roots break through for a startlingly brief period of time (the admittedly awesome bridge in "Hill 3234"), the rest is pure 80s cheese with zero charisma.  Just very plastic, lifeless sounds pumped out on a production line. 

I think the most insulting thing about the album is that it's not even offensive in how shit it is.  The album blurs by in what feels like a matter of minutes.  Every song is utterly inconsequential and has no chance of sticking with you in any way.  They're meaningless fluff pieces meant to crank out an album and go back on tour and just leave it at that.  I'm having trouble even pointing out individual songs to explain what's wrong with them because they all blur past so quickly with so little thought put into them.  I suppose "Sparta" is a little different thanks to the slower, more martial backbone and the HOO! HAH! shouts, but that's about it, and that very well could be purely a result of it being the first track on the album, so my interest hasn't completely drifted off towards some other such nonsense quite yet.  Everything else just... happens.  It's all so phony and effortless, it's a shameless nothing-album.

The keys themselves deserve special mention, because I can't remember the last time I heard a keyboard tone so offensively crappy.  They're very plasticky and shiny, not unlike a Fisher-Price toy from a Wal Mart shelf.  It's bad enough that the songs are nothing but lazily written conveyor-belt pop songs, but shoving this weak ass tone to the forefront to carry every melody and compliment every vocal line in every chorus is just blisteringly stupid.  It's especially bad on songs like "Winged Hussars" and "The Battle of Bannockburn", where they're just so fucking in-your-face and almost arrogant in how prominent they are.

It's worth noting that I was about to compare the songs to Reinxeed's sugary pointlessness in that last paragraph, and just realized that, while he doesn't play on this album, Tommy Johanssen is actually the newest member of the band, so I rule.

I really can't even bring myself to write anymore, I've already put more effort into this review than they did writing half of the songs.  The Last Stand is a safe and effortless pop metal album with absolutely nothing helping it stand out other than the war theme and gruff vocalist.  Everything else is weak.  Hell, I'm even open to the idea that the hook for "Shiroyama" isn't even that great the only reason I like it is because my interest in Japanese history caused me to hear the line "It's the last stand of the samurai" and wonder aloud "Huh, is this a song about Shiroyama?" before I realized the name of the track.  Apparently I haven't been missing much by ignoring Sabaton for the better part of the last decade, I can only hope the rest of the world catches on and abandons them as well.

Happy fucking birthday to me.

RATING - 20%

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Running Wild - Rapid Foray

Holy crap WHAT?

I planned on not even touching this, I had no reason to ever do such a thing at this point.  We know how much Running Wild has sucked for almost twenty years, right?  Yeah I'm just gonna skip the preamble and say this is as close to a return to form we're probably ever going to get, but it's still a huge breath of fresh air for the long suffering fans of the band's glory years.

Some of the quibbles that have been plaguing the band ever since the "reformation" (because you and I both know damn well this is just a Rolf Kasparek solo project accompanied by a yes-man and a long deceased anonymous drummer that every single human in the universe knows is a damned drum machine) are still here.  Rolf's ancient voice is still floundering in a dry environment in dire need of reverb to cover up his weird snarl (though the more prominent layering and generally stronger choruses certainly help here), the guitar tone is still mechanical and "steely", for lack of a better term, the drums are still an uninspired program milking three beats into oblivion, and all the best parts are still lifted almost note for note from previous classics.  But despite all of these problems, Rolf is spending more time ripping off classic albums like Pile of Skulls and Black Hand Inn instead of The Brotherhood.  The abundance of lame cock rock songs have been shaved down dramatically, with only a few here to really stink up the joint, and even then a good chunk of them are actually some pretty entertaining tunes.  For example, "Stick to Your Guns" should be the exact kind of song I loathe from a surface perspective, but it's more well written than something like "Me and the Boys" or "Down to the Wire".  It sounds like a lost AC/DC tune from their stadium filling days, instead of a weak filler track on a 70s KISS album like every other rock song he's penned since the turn of the century.  "By the Blood in Your Heart" calls to mind something like "Uaschitschun" or "March On", or even one of Judas Priest's lesser anthems like "United" or "Take On the World". But, like "Stick to Your Guns", it just works somehow.  The utterly incessant ohrwurm of the chorus is a pretty large reason for that.

But really, those aren't the main draws of any Running Wild album.  "Fight the Fire of Hate" will always pale in comparison to "The Phantom of Black Hand Hill", and that's no different here, since the more metallic and speedy numbers that hearken back to their halcyon years are the best songs here by a galactic mile.  "Black Bart" was chosen as an advance single, and that was possibly the smartest thing anybody could have done to promote the album, since it sounds straight out of Pile of Skulls.  Granted, part of that is because it's so similar to "Jennings' Revenge", but that doesn't bother me since that's one of their unsung classics of the era.  The song is filled to the gills with those glorious nautical melodies that were the band's bread and butter from 87-02.  Quick tremolo melodies and sharp triplets make up the lion's share of the music on the track, and every little quirk present is just so indicative of what used to make them so great that it stands head and shoulders above literally everything Rolf has released since Victory (with the obvious exception of "Libertalia", which was basically a lost Blazon Stone song burrowed away as a bonus track on their worst album).  The major scale melody immediately following the solo, the catchiest chorus he's written since "Pirate Song", everything here is great, and any Running Wild fan worth their salt will find themselves enthralled with the track from the opening seconds.

While "Black Bart" stands as the obvious highlight, several other songs are littered with golden moments as well.  "Warmongers" uses the main riff from "Black Hand Inn", and it works just as well 22 years later.  Songs like "Black Skies, Red Flag" and "Hellectrified" are much more in line with traditional heavy metal than the speed metal monsters of "Black Bart" and "Blood Moon Rising" (which, like all the other good songs here, reminds me of a previous classic, this one being "Lions of the Sea"), but they're very strong regardless. The signature closing epic, "Last of the Mohicans" works extremely well too.  It, like "Bloody Island" before it, just rips off "Treasure Island" with a startling lack of restraint, but god dammit it works.  I don't know if it's just the fanboy in me hearing familiar sounds and instantly latching on after years and years of every new release being worse than the one previous, but to me it just shows that Rolf is still good at what he used to do and he's simply choosing to do it again.  He's always bordered on self-plagiarism but it's always been well written and endearing enough to not really matter, and that's exactly what's happening here. 

It seems like Rolf somehow remembered how to write excellent choruses again, because the only song that fails in that respect, and unsurprisingly ends up as the only song on the album that I can confidently say is just flat out bad, is "Into the West".  The shitness of that song actually almost sours the entire album because it encompasses everything wrong with the drum machine era of RW.  The weak chorus, the uninspired riffs and melodies, the fact that it just inoffensively passes through one ear and flops out of the other, it's almost insulting since it's clearly trying to emulate "Little Big Horn" and it's just completely ineffectual anyway.  It's weird, it doesn't do anything that any other tracks do, but it just doesn't work for me, so take that with a grain of salt.

I'm probably making this sound like it's much better than it actually is, and I'll fully admit that.  Rapid Foray is a solid album but nothing more than that.  There are tons of little moments of brilliance (like the chorus of "Black Bart" or the "whoa-oh oh" parts in the title track) but none of the songs really live up to their predecessors.  It aims for the sound of the early 90s and lands somewhere in the early 00s instead, stuck somewhere between the "solid but not great" The Rivalry and "half great and half fucking terrible" The Brotherhood.  I'm cognizant enough to know that the rose tinted glasses are on with me right now, and tracks like "Blood Moon Rising" and "Hellectrified" will very likely fade from memory in favor of the obvious highlights like "Black Skies, Red Flag", "Black Bart", and "Last of the Mohicans", but for a long time fan, this is exactly the kind of album we were hoping Shadowmaker would have been.  Remember how I said Resilient, despite a more mediocre slog on the whole, was stronger than Shadowmaker purely because it sounded like Rolf was having fun again?  Rapid Foray takes that to the next level, as this is the most energetic and fun-loving collection of songs Running Wild has managed to put together in almost twenty years.  It's not going to be on any year end best-of lists unless you're a dad, oldnoob, or German metal magazine, but it's extraordinarily refreshing to get an even "solid at best" album out of Rolf these days so it's worth a listen regardless.

RATING - 70%

PS: Yes, he does the thing he always does in like eight of the eleven songs.  Rejoice.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Diamond Plate - Pulse

That's going to bleed when my heart beats

I'm not going into the history of the band this time, you all know it.  I loved Diamond Plate when they were furiously angry yet surprisingly sophisticated kids, and hated what they produced once they were signed to a major label and started homogenizing.  The point is that Pulse here is the logical continuation of what was found on Generation Why? two years prior.  It's still loaded down with that modern sheen, there are still a handful of moments that are surprisingly great, and it's more proggy and bloated with ideas that don't really work.  Pulse is, more than anything else, a very awkward and confused album from a band that's clearly in transition.

The main problem here is that this is clearly an album that's trying so hard to not be a thrash album, but at the same time trying so hard to retain the fans that fell in love with the band precisely because they were so good at thrash.  It's confused, pulling in several different directions at once, and as such there's pretty much no identity at all and everything comes off as forced and awkward.  The two tracks that approach and breach the six minute mark ("Still Dreaming" and "Rainmaker") are the only two places the band seems to sound confident in what they're doing, and they're both slower, more progressive-yet-stripped down affairs that call to mind the gloominess of Alice in Chains more than the high-octane "Megadeth meets Destruction" riffage they cranked out in alarming volume on the Relativity EP.  They both feature the new vocalist's clean vocals, which are lightyears better than his hilariously strained and forced snarl that permeate most of the songs.  They have a much more calm and alternative bent to them, and it just sounds so much more natural than his awful screeches.  I know they gave Jon Macak the boot for this guy and a lot of people seemed happy about it at the time for some reason, but I never bought it.  Jon didn't have a phenomenal voice or anything but he fit the wild-haired lunacy of the riffs wonderfully, and weak link though he may have been, he was still strong (which spoke to the staggeringly high quality of the band as a unit at the time).  Matt Ares on the other hand has a pretty good clean voice and a fucking awful harsh one, and the harsh vocals are still the most present on the album, not to mention his croak is going to be slathered all over the old songs live, so it was absolutely a downgrade for sure.  Unless the future of this band is to abandon thrash and anything approaching aggressive music ever again, he has to be one of the cruddiest choices imaginable.

And in all honesty, despite me loving their thrash work so much, their modern "we're for smart people now" approach seems to be the only way the band can truly evolve and come into their own.  Because most of the album still tries to carry some sort of metal attitude and swagger, and it just falls flat.  The opener, "Walking Backwards" stands as an exception, because it's the clear highlight of the album for me.  This is what they do best, hammer-wristed havoc and headbanging fervor with light tinges of melody and a modern twist on classic thrash.  The vocals are obviously sorta blech but the rest of the song does a pretty good job of reminding me why I liked the band in the first place, with a couple curveballs in the form of great grooves and an awesome guitar solo.  Everything else?  Not so much.  "Dance with Reality" is a complete nothing-song, and tracks like "Price You Pay" and "Running Dry" just flash past you with utterly zero consequence.  There aren't any riffs that just pummel you into submission like "At the Mountains of Madness" or "Criminal Justice" to be found here, instead replaced by simple chugs and rapid fire riggedyraka rhythms.  "All of It", for example, actually has a pretty cool Megadeth style chorus riff hidden behind an extremely bland early 90s Metallica style vocal line, but the rest of the song sounds like it's on autopilot.  Even the percussion, which used to do a pretty good job of standing out over the guitar's flashy theatrics, is relegated mostly to simple rhythm keeping beats and the occasional jazzy flair that doesn't fit at all.  I will give some credit to "Face to Face" though, as I love the structuring of it, starting off so calm and subdued and subtly building and building and building until the end of the song where it's just an all out frenzy.  The band sounds like they're coming apart at the seams there, and it sounds great.

Overall, despite a couple cool moments, Pulse is very much a "why bother?" album.  As it stands, it's clearly the band's low point, and on the off chance they keep on trucking for the next thirty years and craft a storied career, this is going to be remembered as the awkward transition album that didn't really work, like a hypothetical album that tried to blend Killers and Number of the Beast and just landed on the worst of both worlds.  "Rainmaker" stands out because it's the type of gloomy half-ballad dominated by clean vocals that I can see the band making work in the future, but even then it's kinda half-baked and doesn't sound fully developed.  They have a lot of growing to go, and I don't really like the direction they're going personally, but if they put out an album that sounds like a fully realized blend of modern Alice in Chains and Dead Heart in a Dead World era Nevermore, I could see them finding an audience and having a real identity.  And honestly, I'd rather a band suck at something I don't care for but at least sound like they're confident and happy with what they're doing than drop a half hearted slog of boring nothing-songs that can't figure out if they want to let loose or not.  Not recommended, especially to early fans of the band that saw them playing to thirty friends from school in a dingy club.  Because the people that latched on to them during that time are going to be sorely disappointed.  This isn't the same Diamond Plate from 2008, and it's time to accept that.

RATING - 34%

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Death Fortress - Deathless March of the Unyielding

Fortress of Maulitude

Longtime readers of mine have probably noticed that I don't cover a whole lot of black metal.  It's not because I don't like the style or anything, I'm just bad at writing about it.  I have the niches I love (from the blisteringly hateful like Infernal War's Redesekration and 1349's Hellfire, to the more traditionally hypnotic and atmospheric classics like Darkthrone's Under a Funeral Moon and Burzum's Hvis Lyset Tar Oss), but my thesaurus of musical bullshittery doesn't extent much further than death metal.  So forgive me for putting this bluntly, but Death Fortress's Deathless March of the Unyielding is fucking rad.

I've seen reviews scattered around the internet for these Jersey Boys' debut LP, Among the Ranks of the Unconquerable, and a lot of people seem to praise the band's atmospheric approach to black metal.  If that's the case, then Deathless March of the Unyielding here must be a pretty notable shift in style, because the atmosphere here remains present but takes a back seat to seething vitriol and pummeling riffage.  This borders on black/death at several points, most notably on the first side of the album, with tracks like "Enthroning the Oppresor" and "Scourge of Aeons" coming dangerously close to sounding like a much more black-leaning interpretation of modern Behemoth, and the nonstop intensity is the main reason why.  This shit doesn't let up for a second, right from the word "go" they proceed to just rend the entire universe asunder with twisted, malevolent riffs and manic percussion.  That's the main thing I take away from this album, it carries itself with such forward momentum that there is pretty much no room at all to breathe, and that's a plus for a guy who usually spends his time with punishing brutality in death metal.  The overwhelming oppression can get to be a bit much I admit, with there being relatively few standout moments instead acting as one overarching unit, but that really just means that the album nails what it's aiming for, so I can't fault it for being good at what it does.

The 10+ minute title track that closes out the album does stand out though, albeit for different reasons.  This is the one time the band takes their foot off the gas, but the bubbling hatred still overflows.  Lower vocals are utilized here, and the band takes on a much more doom-laden tone.  The riffs churn and crunch their way through a spiral walk down hellish landscapes, taking on an almost tribal, ritualistic atmosphere.  It's very epic, and it's nice to hear a band that spent the previous half hour mercilessly bludgeoning me into oblivion craft a much slower and more sinister brand of black metal to cap off the experience.  It shows that Death Fortress are extremely skilled at everything they try to do, and this wide variance of ideas that all work marvelously showcases a band of professionals spreading their wings and dominating everything they set their mind to.

I just want to point out that it's at this point in the review I actually looked up the personnel behind the band and realized the guitarist and bassist are the two guys from Dethroned Emperor and the drummer played in both Disma and Funebrarum, so all that death metal influence I picked up while listening to this makes complete sense and my ear for extreme metal is just as sharp as always, I deserve a fucking cookie.

Deathless March of the Unyielding is absolutely crushing, and the vehement, blistering anger and hatred permeates every note.  I'm not about to sit back and call it a modern masterpiece, but there isn't a whole lot I dislike about it.  Death Fortress delivers a half hour of oppressive, punishing atmosphere with a massive undercurrent of barbarianesque power that decimates everything in front of it, before ending on a ten minute blackened dirge of hellish, Junji Ito proportions.  People smarter than I have compared them to Swedish legends Sacramentum, but if I'm being totally honest I've never actually listened to Sacramentum so you'll just have to take my second-hand word for it.  The point is that this album absolutely rules, and I'm glad I heard it.  It's not going to be winning Album of the Year or anything but it will certainly contend on a lot of peoples' lists as long as they get enough exposure.  And with songwriting skills like theirs, that shouldn't be a problem.

RATING - 88%

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nucleus - Sentient

Come on, universe! You big, mostly empty wuss!

We all know I have a somewhat biased view of any Chicago bands out of silly hometown pride, and we also know that I seem to have been following Dan Ozcanli for a while now (it's seriously just coincidence, but considering I've touched on Splatter Control, Clocktower, and Smash Potater (where he doesn't play with the band, but if you're an insider you know he has a very strong connection), it really does seem like I can't escape this guy), so it was only a matter of time before I truly gave Nucleus their time in the spotlight.  With this first LP debuting on Unspeakable Axe, the sister label of the utterly ubiquitous Dark Descent, and being adorned with art inked by the legendary Dan Seagrave, in addition to this being by far the most mature and sophisticated band he's played in, it's obviously primed to be the best of the bunch.

Suffice to say, it is.  But with that said, there are some issues here that I just can't shake.

First off, I'm being somewhat misleading with that opening paragraph.  I seem to keep bumping into Dan but none of those projects were necessarily his, and this is no exception.  Nucleus is more or less the brainchild of frontman and runner up in the 2016 Having the Same Name as a Legendary Metal Musician contest, Dave Muntean.  For as well written and brutal as Sentient is, the band's youth is readily apparent upon even the first listen.  What I mean is that Muntean (and the band as a whole, obviously) clearly worships at the altars of the lesser known death metal icons like Demilich, Nocturnus, and Timeghoul.  The influences here are so strong that they tend to come off as a band wishing to emulate those forgotten classics, and as such get somewhat lost in the glut of the sixteen squintillion bands doing the exact same thing nowadays.  Dark Descent is notorious for their tendency to release twisted, cavernous, and ethereal death metal, and all of those descriptors fit Nucleus just as well as any band on DDR or (to a lesser extent) Unspeakable Axe.  That's not to say this is a bad album or anything, it's more to say that if it wasn't for the immediately eye catching art (another personal bias, I love softer colors in my extreme art) and the fact that they have my hometown bias working in their favor, there's like a 20% chance I would have ever bothered checking them out in the first place.

Now, they're not unoriginal coattail riders, that much should be obvious, but it's a problem nonetheless, however small.  Despite that, there are a lot of standout sections to be found on Sentient.  "Cube" rides on a monolithic and maddeningly infectious main riff, and "Swarm" has one of the most massively punishing breaks on the entire album.  In fact, Nucleus seems to go against the grain of my normal taste, since the fast blasting parts tend to fade into the white noise from time to time, but the more pummeling slow sections bludgeon me into dust.  The aforementioned "Swarm" is easily the most effective, but the opening riff of "Ancient" and the whole of "Extirpate" hit the spot just as hard.  These times when they evoke the twisted morbidity of Morbid Angel and Timeghoul are the easy standouts of the album for me, as the guitar tone is bigger than Troy Aikman's hands and the vocals sound like the audial representation of Galactus, so these more atmospheric moments when these elements have room to breathe leave the listener no choice but to be squashed into submission.  It's little moments like those that show the amount of songwriting prowess the band truly commands when they set their minds to it.  Their riffs are obviously top notch, but those more simplistic chugs and pounds are where they really shine.

But like I said back up there, there are a lot of moments that call to mind their obvious influences.  There are a lot of moments that sound like Timeghoul and Demilich, but not a whole lot of moments that sound like Nucleus, if that makes sense.  A lot of reviews around the internet seem to be a bit confused as to what they actually play, with some placing them within the ranks of the early definition of tech death like Nocturnus, and others likening them to the demonically malformed Finnish bands like Demilich and Wombbath.  The truth is, like with most things, somewhere in the middle, which lends itself to sounding like both of those scenes (essentially a Scandinavian manifestation of Suffocation with a healthy dose of the Steve Tucker era of Morbid Angel), and this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  All of the bands I find myself comparing them to are indeed classic bands, so they're in good company.  In all honesty, I don't tend to look towards a band's future all that often, but I can see them being the type of band who really pulls it together on the sophomore effort.  I mean, Decrepit Birth's first album was essentially just a Suffocation clone, but Diminishing Between Worlds really established their own unique melodic take on tech death.  I can see the second Nucleus album really refining the things that work and carving out a more distinct name for themselves.  With the more midpaced and slower sections really standing out more than the fairly by-the-numbers fast parts and the massive voice behind the mic, I'd say they definitely have the ingredients to spice things up more in the future.  But as it stands, they're more of a Demented Ted than a Revenant.  Regardless of the minor identity crisis, Sentient is a beefy slab of old school death metal that should at least be given a chance by any fan of the genre.  I certainly like it a hell of a lot more than I anticipated.  The fact that I'm finding myself picking out all of these positive moments in a modern scene that normally reduces me to involuntary yawning should mean something.

Seriously, listen to "Swarm" and "Cube" at the very least, they absolutely decimate.

RATING - 81%

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Vektor - Terminal Redux

If anyone needs me, I'll be in the ANGRY DOME

Look, hype backlash is a real thing, and I fall victim to it just as much as anybody.  Oddly enough, Vektor has been somewhat immune to it for me, as Outer Isolation was met with universal praise when it dropped, and I agreed so hard that it wound up taking my Album of the Year in 2011.  Black Future is often praised as the one shining beacon of innovation, musicianship, and songwriting in the murky swamp of rethrash, and I love that album so much that I claim it has some of the greatest thrash riffs ever written and even ranked it at #9 in my massive list of the Best Albums of the Decade, above perennial heavyweights like Primordial, Vader, Slough Feg, and even my beloved pet favorite Gargoyle.  The point is that Vektor is the real fucking deal, and they're currently in their prime and expanding their sound, and Outer Isolation managed to one up that monumental debut by polishing up all of the tiny missteps like the jarring transitions when they'd write themselves into a corner, and just generally trimming the fat and spending more time thrashing like maniacs.  Terminal Redux here has been five years in the making, and we fans have been salivating like the Sand Worms of Bikanel, this is all we've wanted for years, and now it's finally here.

And with all that hype comes universal praise, and almost zero backlash, which is baffling to me.  Usually bands of this caliber draw more than their fair share of contrarian nincompoops who just can't help but rain on every parade they see, but not Vektor.  This album has had so much effusive praise thrown at it that it's hard to tell who's telling it to you straight and who is just so lost in the hype that they've forgotten to actually critique what's in front of them.  I hate to harp on this, it shouldn't matter, but it absolutely is a real problem with this album and needs to be addressed.  Ignore every review except mine.  Actually, do that all the time, not just with this album.  I'm awesome.  Go me.

So the actual, for real critical opinion of Terminal Redux?  It's great.  It's absolutely fucking awesome and deserves to be heard.  But it is flawed, and is unquestionably a step down from Outer Isolation.

The thing is, that's hard for me to say, because I do get what they were trying to do with this album.  I get the ideas behind it, I understand why they made the choices they made, and for the most part they work very well, but not all the time.  Part of the problem is that they got so caught up in this narrative they've woven that they've sort of lost track of their strengths.  This album is Nibbler-poop dense, and there is so much going on at any given time that it's really hard to keep track of it all.  DiSanto's Schmier-esque shriek is in top form like always, if a little bit less raspy than in the past, but still great and fitting to the music.  The riffs are still completely out of this world, the tempo remains high as a kite, and at no point do the guys ever rest on their laurels and just fart out something easy.  This is a challenging album, full of twists and turns and over the top somersaulting, only rarely do they ever slow down and truly let the atmosphere shine without the backdrop of frenetic prog-thrash madness.  And those moments are okay, but that white-eyed berserker riffs are exactly what the band excels at, so the nonstop riff onslaught is welcome and very indicative of the traits that made Vektor stand out in the first place.

The problem is, there are a lot more ideas here than there really is time to develop them.  Very few sections repeat more than a handful of times, and everything feels hurried.  That's a huge problem with what they play.  This highly progressive style of off-the-wall madness needs time to develop upon its own ideas, this isn't a Reign in Blood styled bludgeoning, it's a much more high minded concept with a lot of fantastic riffage built around it.  They at least do a good job of making the lengthy tracks feel like they're over before they've reached the point of tedium, but it's partially because they all start to run together like one huge song.  Maybe that was the point, but with so much going on in the upper third of the fretboard it just ends up disorienting and nonsensical.  It's all done to the benefit of the lyrical narrative, but the vocals are so ravenous and insane that it's hard to follow along without a lyric sheet, so it's all kind of moot point anyway.  I get that the album is supposed to be an all-at-once experience, but there's just too much happening, it's like trying to read the Lord of the Rings, while also marathoning the movies and listening to the soundtrack all at the same time.  It's complete sensory overload and it gets to be overwhelming.

That's not to say the album is broken or anything, because all of the parts that make up this gluttonous monstrosity are still amazing.  Nobody writes riffs like Vektor, they very rarely focus on overt heaviness (though the pounding break in "LCD (Liquid Crystal Disease)" is absolutely punishing and easily a highlight of the album) and instead go for the throat at all times with lightning quick thrash riffs that are more razor sharp and piercing than savage and barbaric.  Again, this is approached very high-mindedly, it's what a nuclear physicist would write as opposed to the mad scientists of most thrash (good) thrash bands.  There's a very mathematical angle to the dizzying whirlwind of notes and atypical rhythms and inhuman drumming.  It's smart, and I love that about Vektor.  While there are no riffs that instantly hook like "Black Future", "Hunger for Violence", or "Oblivion", the overall songs keep the quality high enough to evoke memories of those slightly better albums anyway.  This is all most accurately represented in the middle stretch of the album, from "Liquid Crystal Disease" to "Pillars of Sand".  It's no surprise that these more succinct thrash goliaths are my preferred songs, as "Ultimate Artificer" and "Pteropticon" are among the most energized songs they've ever delivered, and I love every second of what happens within this stretch.  It's the same technical showcase with way too many things going on as the other four tracks, but during this timeframe, it's all reined in and strikes that balance between blistering vitriol and otherworldly progginess that made those first two albums so memorable.

My main issue with the album is with the first and last two tracks.  Terminal Redux is basically the nega-Powerslave in this regard.  "Charging the Void" and "Cygnus Terminal" are the main offenders when it comes to this album's tendency to shove way too much at the listener.  What happens in these tracks?  Everything happens.  They're still good tracks, and I like them well enough, but they're obviously bloated with so many ideas that pop up and immediately disappear that they come off as collections of riffs and solos as opposed to well crafted songs with a real purpose in mind.  I know, they are, like every song on the album by extension, merely vessels to move along the narrative.  But again, this story is impossible to follow anyway so it doesn't really matter, they're just colossal clusterfucks of twenty billion notes.  There are good sections, I really like the OOH AH OOH clean vocals in "Charging the Void", and there's a great lead section in the same song, but they don't build and release towards anything.  They're just stuff.  "Cosmic Cortex" and "Outer Isolation" managed to be songs that exploded towards exciting conclusions, whereas these two songs basically end mid-riff.  That riff being the sixtieth riff in the song, by the way.  Call me a simpleton, but this shit is flummoxing.

The last two tracks are flawed in a similar but different way.  How "Collapse" became known as one of the standout songs to so many people, I'll never understand.  It's not bad, it's a welcome change of pace to break up all the non-stop riffing and blasting that occupied the first 45 minutes of the album, but I feel like it's given inflated credit purely for it being a change of pace.  It doesn't need to be this long.  The clean vocals are surprisingly good, and the chorus stands out for being soothing and one of the few sections of the album to appear more than once, making it sound like a much more cohesive song than the first two confused megaliths, but fucking nobody wanted to hear a nine and a half minute recreation of "Fade to Black" from Vektor.  It does what I complained about the first two songs not doing, I'll give it that.  It's a unified song, it builds to an obvious climax and keeps the emotion constant, but their strength has always been in that ballistic riffery, and that's why the middle stretch of the album is so good, despite it being a non-stop frenzy of riff salad.  "Recharging the Void" is probably the best of the not-so-great songs, but it kinda forgets the lessons that Outer Isolation taught us.  It's bloated and meanders around a lot, with the clean sections coming out of nowhere and clobbering you unexpectedly.  Vektor is great when they're jarring because of their riffs being so left of center and frantic, not when they're jarring because they decided to emulate Pink Floyd seven minutes into a thrash song.  They build upon that part well enough, and it climaxes on a riff that's the closest to black metal they've ever gotten, and the ultimate climax works pretty well.  I can't stress that enough, most of these ideas manage to work okay, but not 100% of them, and they're conceptually flawed with how they're inserted into these songs.  The templates are whack and incohate, they fly through so quickly that you never get a chance to realize what the fuck is happening, and it comes off more like the band showing off and trying to prove how progressive they are instead of zeroing in on their strengths and building them up to their full potential.  I know they can do this.  I've heard Outer Isolation loads of times.  Tracks like "Recharging the Void", despite being a medium-well coda for the opener (the reappearance of those clean chants are the clear highlight of the song and act as the perfect climax for the album at large), are more in line with what we heard on Black Future.  Incredible songs with little direction and a vision far too grand to ever fully realize.

I realize I sorta skimped over the parts of the album I really loved, and that's because fuck what can I really say about them?  They take the haphazard mania of the flawed tracks and turn them into focused behemoths that annihilate you in an oh so magnificent way.  Their strength lies in that blistering vortex of riffage when it's focused and efficient.  I miss the unhinged, breakneck fury of "Tetrastructural Minds" and "Dark Creations, Dead Creators", and I miss the instantly memorable hooks of "Black Future" and "Oblivion".  Terminal Redux shows an obvious growth in the band, but they grew too big for their shoes.  They dreamed a little bit too big and missed some of the things that made them so incredible.  There are only a handful of great hooks, the gargantuan crux of the album is missing the link that makes the great riffs work together.  In short, it's just too much, and even with that being said, it's still one of the best albums I've heard all year.  Yeah, I don't see this winning AOTY exactly, but I can see it contending.  I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up in the top 5 despite all of these flaws.  Vektor threw all the riffs they could at the listener on this release, and despite some glaring flaws in structuring and progression, a lot of them still stick.  Pick it up, but let it be known that it isn't an instant classic like the debut nor a slow burning majesty like the sophomore.  It's about on par with the debut, with the added disappointment that a lot of old problems resurfaced and hindered what should have been their magnum opus.  It's certainly their most ambitious album if nothing else, no doubt about that.

RATING - 89%

Friday, May 6, 2016

Arsis - Unwelcome


Yeah, it took a number of years, but it seems like James Malone stopped weeping long enough to realize that the elements that made his band so revered and special had been completely squandered over time.  Arsis's strength was always in turning the ludicrously technical into the infectiously catchy.  Malone is a goddamn savant when it comes to this, because his lyrics have always been hilariously wimpy and his song structuring has always been eclectic at best and downright wonky at worst.  For nearly a decade, A Celebration of Guilt stood as a glorious fluke, the one point in history where he managed to take his signature style of spider fingered riffing and flashy guitar solos and write a collection of great songs.  Nine years later, Unwelcome has finally come along to help stitch up the boo boos of the last few records.

I know I was nice to We Are the Nightmare when it was new, but time has really soured it.  It and Starve for the Devil suffered from some abysmal songwriting and completely unmemorable stretches of time within the album.  For my money, Unwelcome here really tries taking the band back to their glory days by, strangely, taking it further away from them.  What I mean is that Arsis had always been following the logical continuation of their sound.  The foundation was laid down early that they were a strong melodeath band with heightened aggression and a huge dose of technicality, particularly in the riffs themselves as opposed to just having impressive leads.  And from then on, things had always gotten more ambitious from this perspective.  The riffs had always gotten more technically impressive, the drumming had gotten more frantic and precise, and the solos had gotten more theatrical and over the top, and it seems like their most acclaimed days in terms of exposure and general adoration (instead of the grimy internet nerds like me) peaked around their third and fourth albums.  But somewhere down the line, the band lost their feeling.  The hooks had been relegated to maybe once per album and the singalong tendencies were thrown out the window.  The inherent simplicity of something so outwardly complicated was the big draw of the band for me, and they'd completely dropped the ball sometime after 2006.

But one listen to tracks like "Martyred or Mourning" or "Carve My Cross" or "Let Me Be the One" shows that they'd apparently finally realized what I'd been whining about for years, and managed to fix it by going the opposite direction.  Unwelcome is simpler than anything they'd done in the past, and it works to the album's advantage because it's easily the most memorable one in years.  The catchy, singsong choruses are back, the riffs and percussion complement each other brilliantly and stick in your mind like glue, everything just seems so much less disjointed and slapdash than it did in the past and the album is all the better for it.  "Choking on Sand" is pretty easily their best song since United in Regret, and I realize that's not exactly saying a lot, but I do mean that it competes with the first handful of releases.  That "Faster! Faster! Faster still!" vocal line just inspires so much frantic headbanging out of me, I can't help it.  It's fairly indicative of the entire album, there are a lot more of those ohrwurm sing-songy parts that A Celebration of Guilt was centered around.  In a way, this is actually something of a full length realization of A Diamond for Disease, which took the ideas of the debut and amped up the technicality while still striking a balance with the memorable hooks. 

That said, I'm probably making this sound like the triumphant return to the highs of the debut and followup EP, but that's a bit facetious.  There are still some signs of artistic bankruptcy that pop up and remind the listener that this is still post-2006 Arsis, so a handful of the same problems still plague Unwelcome.  The biggest one is that the lyrics are still the whiny teenage diary bullshit of Sheldon's unrequited White Knighting of Annabelle.  Granted the lyrics are pretty easy to ignore for me, particularly when the vocals are harsh like these, but the resurgence of hooks and singalong parts can make them hard to ignore.  I don't necessarily care about their incongruity with the ferocity of the music, it's more just the fact that Arsis sucks at writing these kind of lyrics and it's been the same general theme of longing over a woman who won't love you back no matter how nice you are to her forever now and I just wish James would load up PornHub and get the fuck over it already.  It's been like ten god damned years, move on.

The other major issue is that... ugh, there are two tracks that are just glaring nuisances that have no place at all on the album.  One is the cover of "Sunglasses at Night" and the other is the rerecording of their seminal classic, "The Face of My Innocence".  The Corey Hart cover is just, dammit stop.  Silly metal reimaginings of goofy 80s pop songs are invariably awful, and serve no purpose other than to sate some juvenile tendency to think anything not-metal is shitty, and therefore all of your guilty pleasures should be made metal in order for you to like them publicly, or just for cheap yuks that amuse nobody except the band playing them.  I'll admit that the track does at least sonically match the rest of the album, so if you aren't paying attention to the lyrics at all you might not even realize it's a cover of a well known pop song, but once you do realize it you can't help but feel insulted at the utter pointlessness of it.  As for "The Face of My Innocence", this inclusion feels like a mixture of throwing old fans a bone and showing them that the band never forgot about them, an attempt to introduce new fans who somehow never caught on that literally everybody prefers their first album to everything after it to the song, and most egregiously, as some sort of attempt to update or "improve" the classic material.  This doesn't improve anything, it's inferior in every conceivable way.  The debut had flawless production, with a unique trebly flavor and a furious punch through just enough clarity to let the surgically precise music shine, whereas with here it's so much more cleaned up that it ends up losing a lot of the fire to be found on the original.  It doesn't even sound tighter, as the band has been wound up like a high E for their entire career so there's pretty much no way to get any cleaner in their playing.  It seems like a desperate, last-ditch effort to regain some credibility on a doomed album, which is so weird because this is the best album they've released since 2006, what the fuck was the point?

So while it doesn't carry quite as many standout tracks as some of the other early albums, but it does at least recapture the spirit and a generous amount of the quality.  Unwelcome isn't a future classic or anything, but it's a surprisingly rock solid effort by a band that seemed doomed to slide into freakshow irrelevance.  The riffs are a spellbinding exercise in songwriting, with pummeling vitriol blended with exquisite melody.  The technical showcase is magnificent as always, and the occasional stop-start grooves throw just enough of a curveball to be intriguing without being distracting.  I really don't know many bands that sound like Arsis, nobody writes melodeath the way Malone does, and it's nice to hear him finally quit screwing around with mindless noodling and take a few steps back to focus on his sublime intertwining of technicality and melody that he's such a savant with.  It's promising for the future of the band, if nothing else.  So warts and all, it's still recommended for fans of their earliest material.

RATING - 73%

PS: The album also comes bundled with the entire Lepers Caress EP as bonus tracks, but I'm not gonna bother talking about it since, despite how it's basically the exact same thing as the full length (if a little more techy), it's ostensibly its own standalone release.