Sunday, February 9, 2020

Sutrah - Aletheia

Bali of the Beast

I seem to recall a few years ago, Sutrah were one of the names tossed around the death metal scene as one of the big up-and-comers to look out for.  Dunes was a pretty big hit in the proggy tech death scene, allowing the band to be mentioned in the same breath as genre heavyweights like Beyond Creation and other newcomers invariably linked to Phil Tougas like Cheth'ilist, Zealotry, and First Fragment.  Now, in all honesty, I've never listened to Dunes so I don't really know if Aletheia is a big departure or not, but whatever it is, it's pretty solidly good.

Aletheia is just a short, four track EP that clocks in under 30 minutes, which it turns out is a pretty perfect length for this style.  Sutrah play tech death, sure, but they take a slightly more proggy and experimental approach than most of their peers.  They're more in line with the jazzy prog of Cynic or Atheist than the neoclassical shred of Necrophagist or Origin or something, with a dash of the intentionally weird and dissonant style Gorguts has been pushing for decades at this point.  You're probably surprised considering my noted dislike of Cynic and Gorguts, but I dunno, something about Sutrah just works.  Most of the time.

Y'see, this EP is structured in a pretty deliberate way, with the first two tracks being subtitled "Variations I.i" and "Variations I.ii", and the second two tracks following the same pattern except being "II.i" and "II.ii", so clearly this is meant to be a more flowing experience with both "songs" being broken up into two tracks each.  The problem with this as that both ".i" tracks tend to act as overtures/intros, and the actual metallic meat of both songs resides in the ".ii" segments.  And then with that, "II.ii" (from this point on I'll be using the tracks' given names, so in this instance: "Genèse") is over fifteen minutes long, taking up more than half of the record by itself.  Obviously it doesn't run on one theme or idea the whole time, it's a twisting journey that crawls all over the place with tons of different moods and melodies, even opening on a very creative two minutes where distorted guitars are played like violins, what with the swelling harmonies akin to a full orchestra and all.  So like... why not break this one up further since it clearly ends in a place so different to where it starts?  It's not like it would've broken the flow of the song at all since its to kinetic and interesting.  Otherwise why bother with the subtitling gimmick in the first place?  It's such a minor thing but it utterly confounds me.  Because of this I can't help but kinda brush the instrumental tracks off to the side because they feel like a needless runup to the more interesting tracks they precede.  "Lethe" and "Genèse" are both fantastic exercises in proggy brutality, but they feel hindered by tacked on appendages that add very little to the main meal itself.  Even more confusing is that "Genèse" works extremely well on its own while the first three tracks all flow into one another.  This is just a bewildering choice, and while it doesn't really affect the music itself, it just seems totally nonsensical to me.

But when they're on, they're on.  The buildups seem tacked on and superfluous, but I'd be lying if I said "Umwelt" doesn't build itself extremely well, and the explosion when "Lethe" finally starts is quite satisfactory.  "Lethe" and "Genèse" are clearly the stars of the show here, pulling a lot of influence from Lykathea Aflame.  It's not a perfect 1:1 comparison since the melodies aren't nearly as happy and major key here, but Sutrah flourishes with a very shiny production job and busily triumphant melodies interspersed with spiritual chants and flat out brutality.  The vocals are deep and monstrous while the riffs and drums pummel you with manic ferocity.  All the while the tracks twist and dive into new territory with relative (but not overwhelming) frequency, helping to mitigate the two problems this style frequently deals with (that being the songs being too samey to differentiate or jumping around so often that the beginning and ending of each track doesn't really matter).  When they give their songs a little room to breathe, they can craft some genuine magic, and I'm pretty enthralled by what they create on a track like "Genèse".  There's apparently a lot of influence from Balinese music, including instruments I've never heard of like the reyong and gangsa, but they aren't weird enough for me to really pick out in the music.  So I'll have to just accept that I'm a dummy and reduce the album down to "really good but kinda weird death metal with tons of melody".

So yeah, I'm on the Sutrah train now.  They play a style I don't usually go googoo over but I can't help but enjoy this quite a lot, the closing track in particular.  Aletheia is very proggy and highly melodic, but unlike Beyond Creation they create some wonderous soundscapes with the tools they're given, and turn what could've easily been overbusy progdeath into something very focused while also encompassing a pretty wide scope.  I dunno man, I like it a lot.


Saturday, January 25, 2020

10 YEAR REUNION: Hibria - Defying the Rules


I initially wanted to make it a point to not really reference my old reviews as I rewrote them beyond a quick mention in the title, but I do have to admit that this is probably the one I wanted to do the most.  It's one of the very few I couldn't even glance at without cringing my face into a shape akin to a balloon knot.  I did the early-internet FLAME SHIELD UP thing, I felt the need to put my real name in the title because I was getting popular on MA at the time and arrogantly wanted to be "a thing" there, and I was fucking terrified of the potential blowback for giving the album a mediocre score simply because it was super popular at the time and hadn't scored below a 90%, so even though I was pretty critical of it I tempered my problems a lot and played up the bits I liked and still "only" gave it an 85% (and still acted like a free thinking martyr at the same time).  It was awful.  Be glad I'm killing it.

So... why was Hibria considered the next big thing in the mid aughties anyway?  The answer is simple.  Defying the Rules here is one of the more complete albums in terms of power metal debuts and it fucking ruled.  It's a thundering powerhorse from a group of newbies that sounded 100% fully formed in terms of identity, and it was so showy and immediate that it blew everybody off their chairs.  Power metal was doing pretty well anyway, and Brazil has always been on the map anyway thanks to Angra, but something about these guys just worked.  They had that X factor that so many of their peers lacked.

So why am I so lukewarm on it?  Because I only agree with everything I said up there when it comes to four songs.  The opening triad of "Steelord on wHeels", "Change Your Life Line", and "Meelenyum Quast" are fucking phenomenal, as is the title track a bit later in the runtime.  Everything else just fucking bores me.  They bored me back then and they bore me now, and I wish I had the spine to admit it back in 2008.  "Leeving Under Ice" is just plodding and goes nowhere, "A Kingdom to Share" has an amazing bass run in the intro but totally loses my interest afterwards, "The Faceless in Chahge" is fine I guess but probably needed to be three minutes shorter, et cetera.  The lion's share of this album is just really basic power/speed metal but with extra showy musicianship and a wildly shrieking vocalist.  Those things push Hibria over the edge when they're occupying songs that are written as wild and frantically as their playing requires, but most of this album sounds like five extremely talented dudes thrashing futilely against their chains, desperately trying to break out of the cliches of their chosen genre but utterly failing to do so thanks to their misappropriation of said talents.  The batfuck insane bass runs are always entertaining but they work so much better in a track like "Steelord on wHeels" where the rest of the band is losing their shit and the song itself is flying off the rails than on a track like "Hispeed Breakout" where the tempo is dialed back and the hooks are super basic.

That said, when it works, it works.  One thing that I absolutely adore about the band is how showy and flashy they are.  The good songs work so well because they're flashy in the sense that they're surrounded by dozens of popping flashbulbs from a horde of screaming paparazzi while Marco Panichi does fifteen backwards handsprings down the red carpet while simultaneously playing Yngwie Malmsteen arpeggios on his bass with his teeth.  The opening trinity do this amazingly well, even on "Change Your Life Line" where the song itself isn't quite as insane as the other two.  They sound like they're having the time of their lives, heads spinning like a top while they jump around like chimpanzees.  That's the real distinction between the good and lame songs to me.  There's so much more life in any of the four good tracks than the other five combined.  I realize it's kind of a cop out to just say "I like these songs more" when they're fundamentally not all that different, but that's the magic of songwriting for ya.  Sometimes you assemble the same parts in a slightly different way and create something magical.  Sometimes you write Running Wild with half the charisma replaced with a ton of bass notes like "A Kingdom to Share", sometimes you write Running Wild mainlining adrenaline and meth and lighting your feet on fire like "Meelenyum Quast". Special shoutout goes to the cymbal hits that sound like a fucking sleigh bell in the verses of "Change Your Life Line".

Overall I'd say I still enjoy Defying the Rules, but it's with a huge fuckin' asterisk next to that statement.  The less good songs aren't bad as much as they're just not fully realized.  I've heard the good songs, I know how good they can be, so I know with just a bit of tweaking this could've been one of the best albums of the decade.  There are flaws all over the place, and whether or not they overcome them depends entirely on which song it is.  Iuri Sanson has a huge high ceiling on his range and sometimes he can belt out amazing high notes, other times it sounds like "The Faceless in Chahge" and he just sounds like he's struggling to maintain any power.  The solos fluctuate from exceedingly impressive to excessive and unnecessary, the songs range from maddeningly catchy to frustratingly dull, it's just all over the place despite the pieces always being there. 

Also, side note, one time I was listening and singing along to this while driving and absolutely nailed the climactic high note in "Steelord on wHeels" and have never replicated it since.  My friends still give me shit fifteen years later about that high note I toooootally hit that one time when nobody was there to verify it.  The world is unfair.


Saturday, January 11, 2020

Thoren - Gwarth II

I love the cover art at least

I've been bragging about how my musical dowsing rod has gotten pretty good over the years and I don't often find myself bothering with things that wind up sucking just because I can usually predict with reasonable accuracy if something is going to appeal to me or not.  Thoren kinda bucks that, because I took a gamble and rolled the dice on an instrumental progressive death metal band purely because their promo packet compared them to Blotted Science, basically the one and only band in that super specific subniche that I care for in any way.  Well, it turns out that neither Alex Webster nor Ron Jarzombek play in Thoren.  Instead we get a dude from Coma Cluster Void programming the drums with two randos on the strings.

The Coma Cluster Void comparison should probably tip the band's hand a bit when it comes to what they actually sound like.  Gwarth II reminds me of Gorguts more than anything else.  It's very dissonant and extremely chaotic, with cohesive riffs only appearing for mere seconds at a time and repeating maybe once or twice before the band flies off the rails again into total anarchy.  It works for what it is, but this sort of thing struggles mightily to hold my attention.  It's a whizbang backdraft that flares up super hot for a few seconds and blows you backwards but then it's pretty much over.  It's punchy, I'll give it that, and the pugilistic backbone of what would otherwise be pure chaos helps keep it from being completely forgettable, but it's not bulletproof.  There still aren't many sections at all that stick with you once it's all over.  Moments of "Raun Raeg" and "Thaw Gur" do I guess, but that's probably because they're two of the three songs that break the three minute mark and ergo have a bit more time to adhere to the surface.  Every song is made up of cacophonous riffery but the fact that most tracks are pretty short definitely means that it's all over before you even realize it began.  I still can't tell you a single thing that happens in "Vex" or "Lithui", but I remember the groovy riff in "Raun Raeg" at least.

There isn't much else to say, this is a very Gorguts-y approach to brutal technical wizardry in the sense that it's very dissonant and doesn't adhere to many conventional structures, but unlike Gorguts they don't have any real hooks to keep it interesting.  So it's more like Behold... the Arctopus I guess.  Either way, it's hard to write, hard to play, and hard to listen to.


Friday, January 10, 2020

Svarttjern - Shame Is Just a Word

I almost scrapped this review because I couldn't think of a title for it

I didn't want to start the year off on mediocrity because that just seems like a bad omen, but I already reviewed the new Jordablod for a different site (this is the real reason my productivity slowed down around September, if nobody noticed) so I guess we're stuck with Svarttjern.

That's being a bit unfair, in all honesty, because Shame Is Just a Word is pretty solidly good, if unremarkable.  Svarttjern has been toiling around for a while, as this is their fifth album and more than half of the band also plays in Carpathian Forest (in fairness they are all the three shmucks who aren't Nattefrost or Vrangsinn, though they are original members here who have been around for fifteenish years).  This certainly sounds like a band that's been around for that long, but my problem with them is that they're about as middle-of-the-road as I can imagine.  Norwegian black metal seems to have been the easy king of the genre in the early days of the 2nd wave, but ever since the turn of the millennium I've found this particular scene to be one of the least interesting, and Svarttjern is a good example of why.  There's nothing wrong with Shame Is Just a Word, but it brings precisely nothing new to the table and seems pretty proud of itself for doing so.  You could argue they're just sticking to their guns/strengths, but on a personal level I guess it just doesn't interest me to play by the rules unless you've got some X factor like 1349's absurd level of intensity or Taake's impeccable songwriting skill. 

Svarttjern reminds me of Keep of Kalessin, and that's probably a weird comparison simply because I have no idea what Keep of Kalessin sounds like nowadays.  I don't think I've listened to them since 2008 or whatever but this is pretty much exactly what I remember them sounding like.  Very polished production and very slick presentation but riffs that feel like they were written via algorithm and raspy vocals that are very good for the style but unfortunately lack charisma.  There's value in a good throwback every now and then for sure, but I also don't begrudge myself or anybody else for wanting a bit more out of art.  This pushes no boundaries and breaks no rules, and the only thing about it that helps it stand out in any way is that there's a bit more of a heightened influence from thrash than would be usual for a band of this style, but even then that may just be my brain playing tricks on me due to the (frankly awesome) cover of "Bonded By Blood". 

So Shame Is Just a Word is a decent album full of decent songs with decent riffs but utterly lacking in atmosphere or mystery.  The best song on here is the one that A) isn't black metal and B) was written by a totally different band 35+ years ago.  I'm probably sending mixed messages here because I'm honestly walking away with a positive impression of a solid throwback of a classic style, but it doesn't elicit any real emotion out of me and completely evaporates from my memory as soon as the album is over.  Check out "Melodies of Lust" if you're curious.  It's the best original song here and it's probably simply because it's the longest and has the most time to develop, but it's a good representative of the album in a microcosm.


Wednesday, January 1, 2020


Well everybody, it's time.  I've been reviewing for a long time now, and I've been congregating all of my assorted writings here on Lair of the Bastard for a lip-flapping insane ten years now.  Or maybe nine full ones, and I'm in my tenth now, I dunno, I don't care.  I just know that the first public post I made here was the first of my many Album of the Year countdowns for 2010, and now here I am, older, fatter, and far more disillusioned with the culture I surround myself with posting my tenth entry in this series.  Ten god damned times now I've gone through the trouble of figuring out everything I listened to and decided which albums I liked the most and told the rest to bugger off forever.  This, of course, means you can also probably guess that I already have the framework down for the inevitable Top 50 of the Decade whenever that is, but it's not coming quite so quick since I have a lot of relistening to do and many things have risen and fallen in the intervening years.  But that's the future, we're talking about the now.  And now I present to you, for the tenth year in a row:


You know the rule: full lengths only.  Beyond that it's all fair game, but I'll spoil it right away and say that the list wound up being all metal again.  What can I say?  It's what I listen to the most.  There is one non-metal album I really expected to crack the top thirteen, but it feel just a hair short by the time I was done ordering and reordering the list.  In the words of the immortal Captain Tenneal, "llllLET'S GO"

13: Abnormality - Sociopathic Constructs
Three times now, Abnormality and Unfathomable Ruination have released albums in the same year, and for the second time now, the superior band has changed.  I can't help but see these two as sister bands to one another by sheer coincidence, but the pattern held true this year, and just like in 2012, when Abnormality is the victor, they wind up on the list.  In many ways, they're the band I wish Suffocation still was.  That's not to say Suffo's last album wasn't great (it did win AOTY in 2017 after all), but I still see it as something of a fluke until a followup proves me wrong.  Abnormality sounds straight out of the Cerrito era, with big heaps of modern tech death thrown into the savage hacksaw riffs of their obvious influence like Hour of Penance and Cattle Decapitation.  This is brutality nearly perfected.

12: Sunn O))) - Life Metal
Sunn had two incredible albums this year, with Life Metal only ever so slightly edging out Pyroclasts for the purposes of this list.  This is the first drone album to ever rank as a finalist on these lists of mine, but Stephen and Greg really went above and beyond with this one.  This obviously isn't my usual genre but the way they blend ethereal soundscapes with overwhelming heaviness seems to hit the sweet spot for me.  This percussion-less fuzz just washes over the listener and transports them to whatever incorporeal hellbliss in on the cover.  I think one tiny change that really wound up helping was simply not including Attila on vocals.  He's not always around, obviously, but on three of the albums I liked before, he was on two of them, and he's been their live guy for eons.  Swapping him out for the breathy coos of Hildur Guðnadóttir was sheer brilliance.

11: False - Portent  
If Bell Witch can be credited for anything, it can be introducing the world to Mariusz Lewandowski, apparently the only human being in the universe who can passably emulate the legendary Zdzislaw Beksinski's art style, and as a result this nearly 60 year old painter is suddenly the most in-demand artist in the entire metal world.  Minnesota's False won the art lottery this year and were able to get his art to grace Portent, which, frankly, happens to be one of the best black metal releases of the year.  For reasons I can't adequately explain, I could (accurately) sense that this was a band that would get random shit thrown at them, maybe for the overwhelming melody and meteoric rise in the scene displacing artists seen as more "deserving" or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that the three lengthy songs here are basically a forty minute long cumshot.

10: Xoth - Interdimensional Invocations
I've given these guys a review already this year, but Seattle's greatest secret held on to make the top ten here.  Xoth's brand of death metal is more of the Mithras variety than anybody else, and I seem to be the only one saying such a thing.  Maybe I need to listen to Mithras again, but this is exactly the kind of wild screaming I remember the lead guitars doing there, and it's just as good here as it is there.  This is basically the musical equivalent of a cartoony but ultraviolent comic book, just wreaking havoc with reckless abandon at every turn, and those lead melodies I love so much keep this exceptionally stylish.  Interdimensional Invocations is everything I ever wanted and more, and in a lesser year this would've been an easy top five finish.  2019 just happened to be particularly stacked.

9: Blood Incantation - Hidden History of the Human Race
Can I get a new color scheme finally?  Thank you.  I wanted to hate this album out of spite.  I hate how Blood Incantation swims in hype and praise for basically doing the same thing hundreds of other bands are doing right now (though with more Morbid Angel influence than most, which helps) and I've gone on record many times saying Dark Descent Records is really fucking boring when it comes to death metal.  But here we are, making the list again.  I don't think this is perfect, I don't like how it only has four tracks, one of which is instrumental and a different one of which is nearly twenty minutes long.  It's both lacking in material while being excessive.  But despite my prejudices and despite the fact that I think Starspawn is their superior album, this is still in the top ten.  Because it is seriously that fucking good.

8: Venom Prison - Samsara
This will probably surprise most of you, but this is actually the last death metal album on the list!  It's true, my favorite genre just really didn't hit me as hard this year, but that didn't stop several stunners from landing on my radar regardless, and Venom Prison found themselves the best of the bunch.  Venom Prison finds themselves among the front of the pack when it comes to the burgeoning scene of explicitly leftist/anti-capitalist/feminist extreme metal, and holy shit did they earn their place.  My usual complaint with lefty metal is simply that it's never angry enough, but I'm not sure I've heard anything as caustic and visceral as Samsara this year.   That grotesque blend of punishing groove and downhill-running adrenaline hasn't sounded this fucking dangerous in a long time.  This is what I was hoping the new Misery Index would be.

7: Batushka - Panihida
I can't talk about Batushka anymore.  I've put more words to (metaphorical) paper about the drama surrounding the schism in the band than I ever expected, but I can't deny just how much I fucking adore The True Batushka's entry this year.  It's painfully clear that Krzysztof wrote Litourgiya back in 2015, because Bart's Hospodi was a boring trainwreck and Panihida here sounds like a spiritual successor in every sense of the word.  The overwhelming melody, the deep chants, the perverted sense of worship, everything that made the previous album a modern classic is here in spades, and while it may not surpass its predecessor, it's an extremely worthy followup that I've been spinning fairly regularly for more than half the year now.  This is melodic black metal at its near-finest.

6: Seer - Vol. 6
I'm not really a sludge guy, but Seer has smashed the door down and cemented themselves as modern titans to me with this album.  Vol. 6 is, for the style, a pretty short album, and I think that works in its favor.  There were very, very few albums I found myself finishing and immediately restarting this year, but this was one of them.  The interplay between the wavering atmosphere and gargantuan riffs, against the backdrop of largely distant vocals, both clean and harsh, with a few rattling falsetto screeches (which you think would clash but only add to the madness) make this nothing short of a home run.  My favorite part may actually be the short outro track, believe it or not.  The way it ends on that cascading swell feels like a huge inhale, followed by silence.  Seer managed to make a minor volume swell sound like a religious experience.

5: White Ward - Love Exchange Failure
These Ukrainians wound up producing the metal album I never knew I wanted.  Like Deafheaven before them, they've eschewed nearly every aesthetic hallmark of black metal and veered their headspace off somewhere no corpsepainted goat-hailers dare to tread.  The small addition of something as simple as a saxophone, even (especially) during the loud parts, fills an open space that I didn't even realize most black metal had.  There is so much emotion packed so densely into every second of Love Exchange Failure.  The quiet darkjazz moments are somehow unobtrusive and unpretentious, and the screaming black metal that takes up the majority of the runtime is some of the most agonizing and soulful I've ever heard.  Traditionalists be damned, the true future of black metal that was theorized on Sunbather is fully realized here.

4: Kostnateni - Hruza Zvitezi
The other future of black metal can be found here, in a small time one-man project from Midwestern America.  This is more of the style that Deathspell Omega helped pioneer, with unabashed dissonance and mindblending technicality.  Kostnateni is an absolute masterclass in the art of drowning you in walls of riffs so huge that they make even the most beefy of Tone Worship Stoner bands sound like 80s Destruction.  The guitars sound like they have thirteen strings, everything feels just slightly out of tune, the drums sound like six dudes playing seven kits at once, everything about this is just... uncomfortable and wrong.  The end result is a chaotic nightmare of twisting ghouls that never back off, and it feels like the musical manifestation of an anxiety attack.  I mean that in the best possible way.

3: No One Knows What the Dead Think - self titled
For all the intricate and emotional albums to be found on this roundup, I think it's actually pretty funny that a stupid grindcore album with one singular goal in mind wound up whipping my ass so fuckin' hard.  No One Knows What the Dead Think is essentially a reboot of Discordance Axis, and anybody who knows them (or sister band Grindlink) knows exactly what to expect here.  This is wild and uncompromising and features one of the most caustic vocal performances this decade.  This release is barely 19 minutes long, but it feels like the scene in Robocop when ED-209 malfunctions and lights up an OCP executive in a hail of ultraviolent gunfire.  It's a 19 minute gag reel of destructive violence and there's nothing more I want from my grind.

2: Mgla - Age of Excuse
Mgla's train of excellence just keeps chugging along, rolling in with their fourth excellent album in a row, and the third that could easily be considered among the best of its respective year.  At their core, Mgla is "just" black metal with loads of melody, but their knack for infectious riffs and Darkside's astounding drumming is nothing short of breathtaking.  The interplay between these two elements helps keep everything just barely held together and creates an experience of total, overwhelming psychosis.  Truly unique and instantly recognizable drummers seem to be a rare breed in metal, particularly in more extreme circles where it can be easy to simply dazzle with unearthly speed, and Darkside is a premier example of one.  "III", "IV", and "VI" alone helped make this Mgla's best, and considering their pedigree that's really saying something.

1: Crypt Sermon - The Ruins of Fading Light
I can't stress enough how much better Dark Descent Records is when they're not pushing their usual brand of death metal on listeners, and Crypt Sermon's sophomore album here is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.  That pummeling morbidity and swirling mass of non-riffs that plagues so much of their roster is nowhere to be found here, instead showcasing an exercise in soaring epic doom.  For the second year in a row now, after Visigoth last year, I've found myself absolutely blown away by a sophomore followup to a debut that, while I liked plenty, had taken the metal world completely by storm and as such has found itself facing the inevitable critique of a "sophomore slump".  I didn't hear it with Conqueror's Oath and I certainly don't hear it with The Ruins of Fading Light either.  Everything that made Out of the Garden great has returned here, but with so much more splendor and grandeur.  Everything about this is simply bigger, and I adore that.  The riffs are stronger, the hooks are more powerful, the vocals are more passionate, everything about this is such a clear step up that I'm frankly baffled at the general reception of this album being anything less than uncritical worship from the underground.  Their review scores on MA are only 1% apart and this did land really high on Decibel's famous yearly list, but if you spend any time toiled in the filth-ridden underground of metal forums and chatrooms you'll find the response is much more lukewarm on the whole.  I shouldn't spend so much time defending an album as nakedly phenomenal as this, but here we are.  "The Ninth Templar" is one of the best openers in recent memory, "The Snake Handler" and "Our Reverend's Grave" are loaded with flawless riffage, and "Christ is Dead" is so good that I'd be willing to speculate that this would be album of the decade if every song was as good as that one.  I can't ramble forever but here we are, and I'm proud to present Crypt Sermon with the fabled (valueless) BH Award for Album of the Year 2019.

And now for something completely the same!


The Neptune Power Federation - Memoirs of a Rat Queen: This one took me completely by surprise and made me a believer in these strange old-time rockers from Australia.   The Neptune Power Federation has been quietly toiling around for years, honing their immense theatricality into tighter and tighter songs, and with Memoirs of a Rat Queen I think they finally nailed it.  This is just damn good dirty rock and roll with a vocalist who is a dead ringer for Ann Wilson, and when you couple their over-the-top theatrics with such tight and concise rock, you’ve got a winner on your hands.

Paladin - Ascension: Though power metal didn't hit me as hard this year as it has in years previous, I’d be lying through my teeth if I said that Paladin’s debut here was anything short of a gargantuan downburst of fresh air.  Main man Taylor Washington sports an impressive pedigree of technically proficient bands that usually fall flat on a songwriting level like Arsis, Theocracy, and ShadowStrike, but when he finds himself with more control, he’s shown how much of a stud he can truly be.  Power metal usually doesn’t mix well with more extreme variants, but Paladin figured it out by simply separating their Gamma Ray-isms and their Skeletonwitch-isms wholesale, creating an album that’s admittedly cut-and-paste but also completely unpredictable, and I love it.

The Lord Weird Slough Feg - New Organon: You have no idea how happy I am to report that Slough Feg is back to making incredible albums again, something they used to do with startling regularity up until 2007, after which they’ve been struggling in a world that seemingly left them behind.  New Organon sees them just getting back to basics and doing what they do best, presenting sleazy Thin Lizzy-isms coupled with raucous Brocas Helm-isms and creating something instantly recognizable as something only Mike Scalzi could have created.  Nearly every track here sounds like a lost track from the early era (“Headhunter” literally was written over twenty years ago), and man sometimes I can’t help but adore a stellar throwback.

The Meads of Asphodel - Running Out of Time Doing Nothing:  There's a real chance this could have made it onto the final list if I had only bothered to check it out prior to last week.  Meads is a name I've always been sorta familiar with but never really felt the need to explore, but after falling in love with their newest album I feel like I really snubbed a potential future classic here.  This is highly eclectic weirdo-black metal that is basically everything I wished the last two Sigh albums were.

Blut aus Nord - Hallucinogen: Ditto on the "probably snubbed this one" with BaN here.  I'm not really familiar with most of their work, if I'm being honest with you, but I can tell based on my vague memory of what I've skimmed that Hallucinogen here is yet another wild experiment for the band, with heightened psychedelic influences that make the entire experience a mindbending cavalcade of fuckery.

There are many, many, many more, but I'm gonna cut myself off here.  2019 was absolutely fucking stacked.


Enforcer - Zenith:  I mean, what else could it have possibly been?  Enforcer has landed in the top four with each new album this decade, so this was penciled in near the top the day it was announced.  And now here it is in the disappointments section.  Enforcer were the best in the world when it came to this resurgence of wild-out 80s speed metal revival, and their ear for catchy glam hooks helped them stand out as far and away the best of the bunch.  Then Zenith happened, and they leaned into the hooks so hard that they completely forgot the speed and adrenaline that acted as the base ingredient of their genius.  They're great at hooks, and there are some great songs here no doubt ("Die for the Devil" is a fucking banger), but trading the best band in the speed metal scene in return for a decent Def Leppard clone is the exact opposite of what I wanted to happen.  The album following this one in this section is significantly worse, but in terms of personal-hype-to-letdown ratio, nothing this year even came close to being as disappointing as Enforcer this year.  

Battle Beast - No More Hollywood Endings:  After years and years of sticking up for Battle Beast, they finally fucked off and made an album exactly as terrible as their detractors claim they always have been.  Their last album was shaky and uneven, but it did seem like surviving the (awful) decision to fire the sole songwriter was a real possibility.  Yeah that didn't pan out at all.  Anton has gone on to do... well, decently okay things sometimes with Beast in Black, but his former brainchild has lost everything that made them so special.  There is no bite whatsoever in this album, it's just fluffy pop metal with weak hooks and no personality, which is something I never thought I'd say about Battle Beast.  I can sum up everything I don't like about this album by simply asking you to listen to Endless Summer and leaving you to bask in the awfulness that is a One Direction b-side on what is ostensibly supposed to be a metal album.  Pop metal is one thing, corsetcore is another, and Battle Beast was always very good about never crossing into the latter, but holy shit did they lean into the bullshit this time.

Idle Hands - Mana: I just recently spelled everything out in a pretty lengthy review, but the short version is that this current trend of heavy metal cum goth rock isn't a bad thing, but it does seem pretty easy to do and garner fuckloads of praise in the process.  Idle Hands has a couple of very good songs on here, but overall it's a huge waste of time that delivers mediocre hooks via mediocre vocals and completely inconsequential instrumentals.  This is a huge nothing-burger of an album, which is a shame because you can tell they have grand aspirations and it seems like a huge contingent of metal fans agree that they hit it, but it just doesn't work for me.

Unfathomable Ruination - Enraged & Unbound:  I say this every time either one of these bands come up, but Unfathomable Ruination and Abnormality are sister bands to me, and with their third album they've flip flopped as to who the superior band it yet again.  Ruination crushed skulls with Finitude, but this new one falls super flat.  Awful production (as opposed to raw), uninteresting tracks, everything just feels like a step back from their previous stunner.

Mayhem - Daemon:  I'm already stretching pretty hard to fill this section out, because frankly I didn't expect this to be any better than it wound up being. Mayhem hasn't been spectacular in nearly two decades, and this is a really safe regular old BM album after a few that flirted with interesting ideas that didn't really connect and if there's one word I never thought I'd use to describe a Mayhem album, it's "safe".

I dunno - The new Ripper EP I guess?:  I think the combination of my musical dowsing rod getting better, 2019 being such an overwhelmingly strong year, and me finally learning to temper my expectations has led to the second year in a row where I really don't have much to say here.  The disappointments section is growing more and more obsolete and I may just do away with it entirely next year.

We are gonna do something slightly different here though.  I always make the main list exclusive to full length releases, mostly because that's just what I usually listen to and what people mostly care about anyway, but y'all may have noticed that my productivity spiked last year as a result of me taking promos seriously for the first time in a decade.  As a result, I've heard way more demos and splits and EPs than I usually do.  So with that in mind, we're gonna indulge in a little side section this year and talk about:


5: Blacksoul Seraphim - Profane Devotions
Blacksoul has apparently had a pretty tempestuous history in terms of evolution.  Everybody I've spoken to who is familiar with the band pegs this as a pretty notable departure from their usual sound.  The gothic influences are here in spades of course, particularly in the deep and theatrical male vocals and their interplay with the clean strength of the female vocals, but the riffs are almost 100% bluesy, Sabbathy doom.  There's a lot of bounce as the riffs dance around your ears, and it keeps it relatively light hearted despite the aesthetic darkness.  It's by no means a home run, but it's a lot of fun and I found myself replaying it more often than I expected to as the year ran on.

4: Third Chamber - Harvesting Our Decay
This is another short EP that, on the surface, doesn't really introduce too many new ideas, but I found myself replaying rather often.  This is just damn solid and mean old school death metal with no frills and an excess of excellent riffs.  This is probably an odd comparison, but nearly a decade ago, back when I was writing for Metal Crypt, I was assigned an album by an Italian deathgrind band named Natron, and not much stuck out about them other than a few fantastic riffs amid a bunch of mediocre ones, but Third Chamber here sounds like an entire release based exclusively on the handful of great riffs Natron spat out.  "Mind Rot" in particular makes me want to find the nearest living thing and punch it to death.

3: Cathartic Demise - Cathartic Demise
All riffs all the time.  Cathartic Demise is a very young band but they're already showcasing an understanding of how to deftly intertwine thrash metal with many other families of extreme metal (most prominent being death metal) on par with the greats.  This is a very specific subniche of thrash that I don't really have a name for, but the overwhelming melody and proclivity for progressive noodling that never gets out of hand puts them in a class next to Satyrasis and maybe even Skeletonwitch at their best.  This is just a neverending onslaught and I love every second of it.  It's densely packed with so many riffs and solos that I swear there are two or three of each playing at every single time, and I can't get enough of it.

2: Hellripper - Black Arts & Alchemy
This Midnight-esque "Motorbastard" (as it is sometimes called) style of metal is steadily growing into a pretty formidable subniche, not exactly overflowing with new ideas but the best bands in the style are fucking phenomenal.  Obviously Midnight is arguably the biggest, and Toxic Holocaust could be seen as kickstarting this wave, plus Whipstriker, Deathwish, Bewitcher, Wasteland Riders, and many others, and right near the top of the pack is Hellripper.  Venom + Motorhead + Discharge is such a lethal combination and it honestly astounds me that it took so god damned long for a unified scene to crop up in this age of nostalgia.  Hellripper is one of the best for the reason, and this is just four tracks (five if you count the excellent Running Wild cover) of unending speed and blasphemy.

1: Putrescine - The One Reborn
There's just something about a band that can modernize a classic sound without shamelessly ripping it off that I can't help but fall in love with.  Putrescine is very much in the vein of Altars era Morbid Angel with huge heaps of Suffocation influence, and any death metal freak worth their salt should understand why that's a fantastic base to work with.  I checked this out not because of the promoshit like I did with the rest of these, but entirely because they caught some heat for posting something on Twitter about how misogyny is bad and it's disappointing that it's so prevalent in death metal still, and because the world is ridiculous that wound up being a controversial statement.  I figured I'd give them a listen just because I've been dying to hear some good lefty metal, and we finally got some with Putrescine.

And lastly, a segment I swore to only bring back when something truly exceptional came along:


Aftermath - There is Something Wrong
What the fuck are you doing, Chicago?  That's two god damned years in a row where my hometown has produced the worst metal album of the year by a gargantuan margin.  I don't even want to talk about this, it's transcendental how inept this album is.  Aftermath is proof positive that I've been correct all along that the current age of nostalgia is a recipe for fucking disaster.  Apparently their early work is excellently unique prog/tech thrash, but I don't want to listen to even see if that's accurate because There is Something Wrong is my first impression and I will never be able to shake this association from my head.  I want to go in depth with this but I just can't.  This is like, Star Wars Prequels level bad-at-everything.  Every single thing about this is wrong.  What can I point out?  The whispered (madafakka....) in "False Flag Flying"?  The hilarious bit in the same song where the vocalist shouts HOLLYWOOD! VATICAN! FBI! CIA! and manages to completely fall out of time despite each bit being a simple three syllable word?  The rapid fire nonsense lyrics of "Diethanasia" followed by the chorus where the gang shouts are completely off time from the riffs?  The entire band constantly falling out of time is a baffling problem that never stops.  You guys are in a studio!  You have infinity tries to get it right!  The back half of the album is largely just weird clippings of news segments and documentaries, and it isn't assembled in a way that's clever or subversive, it's just weird and noisy and incoherent.  This truly needs to be heard to be believed, this is The Room of metal and that isn't an exaggeration.  Imagine the incoherent Infowars ancap ranting of Conformicide era Havok but played by a bunch of fifty-somethings who haven't touched their instruments in decades.  There is a moment about three and a half minutes into "False Flag Flying" where the song is so clearly ending, and then the band just... I dunno, remembers that they wanted to do more with it so they just repeat the first two minutes again, nearly verbatim, awful off-time vocals and all.  This whole thing is bewildering.  Please kill me.

And that's all folks!  I hope you've had a great year and an incredible decade!  It's been a wild ride running this blog for nearly ten years and I hope I stop only when I die.  Here's to the roaring 20s, everybody!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Possessed - Revelations of Oblivion

Bitch, siddown, be humble

I'm going to be disgustingly frank with y'all here.  I'm writing this for two reasons alone.  One is because I'm ageist as fuck when it comes to metal and I really wish the legacy bands would just go the hell away and make room for the young bands with fresh ideas to actually take a fucking foothold in the scene before all of the old fogeys die and metal as a genre goes the way of doo-wop because metalloids are terrified of change.  And the second reason is because I just really want to get 100 posts on the year.

So Possessed was kind of an easy choice for me when I wanted to make this argument.  It's been 33 years since their last LP, and in the interim they've either been broken up or busy releasing meaningless singles.  And exactly as I suspected, it was hailed as pretty uniformly great by critics and fans in the corners of the internet I hang out in.  I've seen this movie before, it happens every fucking time Overkill or Judas Priest releases something.  Classic band releases a mediocre album and gets showered in accolades because they were great thirty years ago and didn't release Illud Divinum Insanus, and apparently that's all that's necessary to wind up sweeping Album of the Year lists across the net.  Fuck this shit, move over and let Xoth shine or something.

And that's why this is such a humbling experience for me, because against all prejudice, Revelations of Oblivion is actually pretty fucking excellent in many ways.  I think between this and the new Nocturnus album this year, I'm starting to question my long-held stance outlined above.  Maybe the issue isn't that old bands need to go away and stop hogging all the limelight, maybe they just need to write albums as great as Revelations of Oblivion in order to justify the instant praise they get.

For a band that's been more or less dormant for longer than I've been alive, this is pretty much the best album I could've expected out of them.  Despite most of the band being a few heartbeats away from being able to order off the senior menu at Denny's (barring guitarist Daniel Gonzalez, who is only in his late thirties) there is a hell of a lot of youth in the sound here.  The adrenaline is off the charts, and the pace stays consistently high.  The overall feeling of this album is just fuckin' ferocious, with razor sharp riffs tearing through at nearly all times and drumming that feels like a tommy gun.  There's definitely a feeling of aged professionalism in how tight the riffs and songs are, but that youthful energy that keeps things sounding wild and dangerous actually never left the band.  This is no replacement for Seven Churches, mind you, but it is worthy of the legacy, which is something I never thought I'd say.  Tracks like "Ritual", "The Word" and "No More Room in Hell" rip like motherfuckers.  This is that perfect nexus point between thrash and death metal that Possessed pretty much nailed all by themselves way back in 1985, and for once being timelocked in such an era is a huge boon to the album since they're clearly really fucking good at it.  Also worth noting that the solos are fucking incredible.  Every time these two guys let loose they melt face, and they're the clear highlight of the album to me.

This isn't perfect, however.  There are a few flaws that keep this album from being truly exceptional.  The biggest problem is easily the length.  Death metal almost never needs to be nearly an hour long, and twelve tracks of such a non stop assault just feels like overkill.  Yeah I know two of them are instrumental intro/outro tracks, but it certainly doesn't make the album feel any less daunting.  The songs themselves tend to feel longer than they actually are and I feel like that's merely the fault of the songwriting getting kinda repetitive at times (I swear the chorus of "Demon" loops like fifty times throughout the song).  The mix is pretty overwhelming as well, with Jeff's surprisingly clean thrash-like vocals absolutely dominating the space, with the rest of the band taking a distant-yet-still-crazy-loud second place.  So it's not particularly dynamic, but in fairness this is death metal so that'd be a crazy thing to expect this to be super varied or something.  Really the complaint is just that the vocals are stupid loud.

So overall I gotta eat my foot a little bit.  Legacy bands definitely still have a place in the current zeitgeist of metal music, and I wouldn't complain one bit if they were all as good as Revelations of Oblivion.  This doesn't bring anything new to the table and Jeff Becerra certainly hasn't spent the past few decades evolving much as an artist or vocalist, but when "Abandoned" is on, I just find myself looking in the mirror and saying "Ya know what, BH?  Who fucking cares?"  This is what Possessed is good at, and if they can keep this momentum while trimming some of the needless fat and repetition, they really and honestly could reclaim the death metal crown that they invented all those years ago.


Sunday, December 22, 2019

Creeping Death - Wretched Illusions

Who is this for?

I checked this out for one reason and one reason alone, and that's that The Absolute Boy Arthur Rizk handled the mixing and mastering.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, the man is the Scott Burns of this generation and everything he gets his hands on sounds perfect.  Creeping Death is no exception, because Wretched Illusions sounds absolutely gargantuan and every single riff carries the weight of mountains on their backs.  Rizk knocked it out of the park yet again, to the surprise of nobody.

The issue that arises here is that the band themselves... well, they kinda suck.  Or maybe they don't suck, but they are wholly unnecessary.  This is very similar to Genocide Pact's Order of Torment last year, and I have basically all of the same criticisms.  Despite the tempo shifts and pummeling drums, all ten tracks here are remarkably static.  There are occasional bursts of speed and occasional slow parts, but they do little to change the actual momentum of whichever track they appear on.  Wretched Illusions is just plain ol' death metal in the most generic and uninteresting sense.  We're in the middle of an apparently decade-long groundswell of bands aping the styled of death metal classics from the 90s, and due to the oversaturation of young artists deliberately treading well-covered ground we're bound to get bands like Creeping Death; bands that do nothing to push the style forward or stand out with exceptional songwriting and/or markedly high levels of adrenaline (Skeletal Remains is an example of a band that does absolutely nothing new but stands out as great anyway).  I'll give them a little credit for at least not doing the caverncore thing of ripping off Incantation as shamelessly as possible like was popular for a while there, but they fall into a pretty dangerous trap of trying to focus more on mid paced death metal than anything else.  Slow/midpaced extreme metal is incredibly hard to write because you really have no idea if the final product is going to be crushing/groovy/punishing or if it's going to be boring as hell until it's past the point of no return.  You really don't know if you're going to hit the level of Bolt Thrower or Autopsy until it's too late, I reckon.  Creeping Death can't even sniff the britches of Autopsy.  And the blistering fast parts are agonizingly short and spaced out, so you go crazy lengths of time toiling around in meandering chugs waiting for the actually intense parts to start.

Who does this appeal to?  Who has such poor quality control that they can hear such nakedly mediocre death metal and think "yo this fuckin SLAPS"?  Everything about this is bland.  Even the cool parts are stuff I've heard a thousand times before.  They rock when they pick up the pace but man why not just listen to Dismember, ya know?  The title track and "Corroded from Within" are pretty great but the rest of it is just lame.  I can't imagine writing a song as unimaginative as "Consumed" and feeling confident sending it to press.  Maybe I'm just being overly harsh, it is a bit more dynamic than some of their peers, but the classics are classics for a reason and if you're going to take most of your influence from them then please at least do something exciting with them.


Friday, December 20, 2019

Sabaton - The Great War

Gentlemen... welcome to Dubai

I've started and restarted this review like four times now, struggling to find the most apt comparison I can to truly illustrate why I hate Sabaton so much.  And, stupidly enough, I think the best comparison I can manage is fucking videogames, so bear with me for a detour right at the start.

Call of Duty has been a total fucking juggernaut in the videogame industry for well over a decade now, maintaining a yearly release schedule that always rakes in enough cash to fill a tugboat, and one thing I find equally fascinating and frustrating about them is the claim made by both the writers/developers and the fans is that they are allegedly completely apolitical.  The short version of my critique is that that position is laughable.  The games are loaded with uncritical worship of soldiers in bloody warfare, rife with glorification of torture and mass destruction (the newest game in the series literally takes the Highway of Death incident from the Gulf War, where American soldiers opened fire and led a miles-long path of destruction on a fleeing army and civilians and attributes it to Russia instead), disdain for rules of engagement and safety for non-combatants, and a proclivity for supremely edgy shock value like a mission that sees you gunning down hundreds of civilians in an airport or vaporizing a little girl with a car bomb.  Whether they mean to or not, they act as pure propaganda, showing how fucking cool the military is and how fun it is to destroy everything you see, because negative consequences never materialize thanks to the omnipotent writers always ensuring that every terrible thing you do results in the only deaths being the Bad Guys anyway.  Pilot that drone and rain fiery death upon the faceless white splotches on the screen, soldier!

Whether Sabaton means to or not, their similarly detached odes to warfare, regaling listeners with stories of heroes who overcame the odds and distinguished themselves in battle show how fun and super cool war is.  Even when explicitly terrible consequences are spelled out in the text, just like the car bomb turning an innocent child into pulpy mist in Modern Warfare 3, they're presented with pumping aerobics-metal anthems that sound like a god damned party.  Swedish rockstars singing Happy Metal epics with catchy choruses and bouncy synths is a totally innocent thing on its own, and hell that basically describes Battle Beast and Powerwolf if you change the country of origin, two bands that have some incredibly good albums in their discographies, but the difference is that these bands aren't writing tunes about recent conflicts that led directly to the deaths of members of their fans (and my) families.  Maybe I'm a sensitive little snowflake, but this just comes off wrong and it always has.  Is there a tasteful way to write about the Nazi occupation of France in WWII?  Sure, but it sure as hell isn't the way Sabaton did it, which was by rewriting the Scarface soundtrack to include lyrics about how badass Erwin Rommel was.

Now, in 2019, they made a move that was simultaneously ambitious, savvy, and idiotic.  Ambitious because their ninth album, The Great War, is a concept album about... well, The Great War, World War I.  This is a huge event, and one of the holy grails for nerds interested in modern warfare (or as modern as a century-old conflict can be, I suppose).  It's not nearly as covered in popular media like WWII is, so there is a lot of relatively untouched ground to cover.  They're already one of the biggest bands in the world, but this is a move that would help them stand out even more, especially since a huge chunk of their fanbase doesn't even really care about metal as a scene or culture.  Sabaton are adored by history nerds and gamers, and they can be a great gateway to educating people on subjects they know little about.  They're quite aware of this fact as well, utilizing their social media presence to give rundowns about what their songs are actually about, giving profiles of soldiers highlighted in their songs, and even releasing alternate editions of their albums (like this one) to include added narration and historical explanation.  That is partially what makes this move so savvy, the other part being that by setting their stories exclusively from 1914 to 1918, they can't accidentally write any songs where they make Nazis the good guys purely because they didn't exist yet.

The reason this idea is also idiotic is because it's Sabaton writing a bunch of songs about The Great Fuckin' War.  You could see this trainwreck coming from a mile away.  Sabaton is way too tone-deaf to cover a period as brutally miserable as this.  There is an old, now deleted, review by occasional-genius droneriot for Alestorm's first album that points out that one of the greatest flaws that band suffers, apart from their songs not being any good, is that they portray pirates in such an upbeat way.  A pirate's life fucking sucked, it was full of months on open water, dodging privateers and army vessels, fighting off starvation and scurvy purely because they had nowhere else to go or because they were lunatics who got off on the high of such a dangerous life of crime.  Drone posits that this reality contrasted with Alestorm's fluffy, happy, Disney-fied "YO HO HO" shit mixed like oil and water, and it created an insurmountable dissonance that even great music couldn't have truly overcome.  Running Wild also utilized the major key and catchy choruses, but their pirates still struggled and fought for survival, they didn't throw fucking keggers every day.  This same principle applies to Sabaton.  The Great War was terrible.  This is the war of mustard gas, trench warfare, grinding battles of attrition that saw entire villages worth of young men killed in the line of combat.  This is the exact wrong place for smiley, jaunty tunes with fun, catchy vocal lines.  This is such a toothless, inoffensive rendition of cruelty and hopelessness and it feels like the exact thing that would happen when somebody with no ties to the conflict tries to write exciting rah-rah bullshit about it.

If you actually want to know about the music, it's lame.  Most of it is more boring and forgettable than outright awful, though some tracks still can't outrun the tide of shit that is the execution here.  Sabaton's formula was predictable already, but even with the addition of ReinXeed's Tommy Johansson (a brilliant guitarist with an impeccable knack for melody), they are clearly fresh the fuck out of ideas.  "Great War" has a main synth line almost indistinguishable from the one found on "The Last Stand", nearly every track uses the same drum beat, the verses always see the guitars drop out before crashing back in the pre chorus, most songs are the same length and follow the same pop song structure, you've basically heard the whole damn album after you've heard the first track or two.  Joakim Broden still has a distinctly gruff voice that I actually love, it's great to get that mixture of rattly grit with such an immaculate command of melody.  I'd say I wish he was in a better band, but Sabaton seems to be his band more than anybody else's so I doubt it would help much.  And hell, in a vacuum, "82nd All the Way" is a great tune, with a maddeningly infectious main hook that's been stuck in my head for days, and "The End of the War to End All Wars" is actually pretty solid as well, being the first and only time they drop their overly synth-heavy approach to songwriting and employ a more orchestral approach, making it truly feel like a desperate last stand before the fighting finally ends.  But apart from those two tracks, I don't remember a damn thing about this other than how teeth-gratingly terrible "The Attack of the Dead Men" is.  The only real difference between this and the previous eight albums is that Johansson brings a few more guitar solos than usual to the table, otherwise it's a dorky mess of lameness that we've heard plenty of times before.

The black cloud of how awful of an idea it is to present one of the most devastating and bloody conflicts in recent memory as a fun collection of smiling singalongs hangs over the album from the opening seconds and never dissipates.  Conceptually, at their very core, Sabaton is a broken band.  They trudge along, squeezing out another glossy turd every few years do the rapturous adoration of the Granfalloon of Wehraboos that they've unwittingly attracted, but they've upped their grand total of good songs to a piddly four or five.  Every single track tries to spell out how awful and unfortunately cruel the war was, but they're presented as fun three minute pop songs with lyrics about how important it is that we go to battle go to battle go to battle!  I know it's probably unfair to be expecting thoughtful nuance out of Sabaton, but that just proves my overall point.  They are dreadfully ill-equipped to be tackling the subject matter they so frequently do.  Imagine that famous footage of British soldiers trudging off the battlefield, dead-eyed thousand-yard-stares adorning a majority of their faces, hands shaking, emotions deadened, friends lost in pieces behind them, futures uncertain, unwanted.  Now imagine that footage overlaid with pumping major key metal about how fucking badass warfare is.

Spec Ops: The Line, is another game from the era of Call of Duty's unquestioned industry dominance.  It's another high-octane military shooter, but the difference is that it shows how senseless and awful everything that happens is in some of the most brutally gut-punching ways possible.  It gives you a drone and tells you to rain death on the white splotches, but afterwards you walk through the rubble and realize that those white splotches were refugees fleeing the fighting you caused.  You walk slowly, horrified at the scene before you, stepping over the charred corpses of mothers holding their children, while other characters point directly at the screen and call you, yes you, the player, a monster who was so high on the bravado of utilizing high tech equipment to liquefy "the enemy" that you just murdered hundreds of innocent people.  You wanted to be a hero, but you're not.  The best possible result you can achieve by completing the game is shooting yourself in the head after dooming an entire city of innocent people to death.  The only way to truly win is to turn off your console and not play in the first place.  This is what war is.  This is the power fantasy you wanted, now face the music.  Sabaton is the uncritical "apolitical" worship of whitewashed heroics and ticker tape parades of Call of Duty.  Bands like 1914 and Black Kirin are the dirty, bloody piles of corpses unspoken behind the broken soldier as he weeps over what he's witnessed of Spec Ops: The Line.

I know those bands sound absolutely nothing like Sabaton.

But that's precisely the point.


Sunday, December 8, 2019

Kryptos - Afterburner

Shredder on a hog

Trad metal had a pretty strong showing in 2019, with debuts from Idle Hands, Traveler, and Smoulder absolutely crushing, with others that I either haven't heard or didn't like much like Pulver, Riot City, and Iron Griffin generating a lot of buzz as well.  Bubbling under the surface of all these heavy hitters has been a quaint little outfit from Bangalore, Kryptos.  They've been plugging away for a long while now, existing in some form since 1998, and gaining some fame for being the first Indian band to play a full set at Wacken back in 2013, and they've been on my radar for a while thanks to my currently-shelved review series on countries overrepresented in population but underrepresented in metal.  21 years into their career, they've finally released their fifth album, Afterburner.

Yeah go ahead and place this firmly in the latter category up there.  Maybe it's because Balls to the Wall and British Steel are basically forty years old at this point, but man I really find myself struggling to get excited for strict orthodoxy in that camp nowadays.  Traveler is fast and mean, Smoulder is crushing and heavy, but Kryptos is just kinda... there.  This is really basic Judas Priest or Accept style heavy metal with raspy vocals and a few bursts of speed here and there on tracks like "Crimson Queen".  You'd think that having a vocalist that sounds so much like Mille Petrozza would up the thrash influence just by accident, but no, Afterburner is very mid paced and traditional, with riffs that would be all time classics if they weren't already perfected decades ago and rehashed by hundreds of similar bands in the meanwhile.  I hope you like the "Restless and Wild" riff, because you're about to hear it no less than six dozen times here.  At least Accept had the good sense to put "Fast as a Shark" on that album, ya know?  Kryptos does do something kinda similar by opening with the title track, easily the most adrenaline fueled track on the record, but after that point it just kinda fills up with seven songs that might as well be titled "Not Afterburner". 

If you like this sort of rigid rule-following, Afterburner isn't a bad album, and the bursts of speed on the title track and "Crimson Queen" are very welcome (even if the drummer can't seem to match the speed of the riffs if his life depended on it), but I can't in good faith recommend this since it's so bland and unexciting.  I do recognize that Iron Maiden would still rule if they released Powerslave in 2019, but Afterburner is a clear imitation of the classics that came before it and doesn't really do anything to justify its own existence alongside said classics.


False - Portent

Thumbing my nose at the True Believers

If Bell Witch can be held responsible for anything at all, it's introducing the metal world to Mariusz Lewandowski, apparently the only human being in the galaxy capable of accurately emulating Zdzislaw Beksinski's iconic art style.  Since painting the stunning cover of the aforementioned Mirror Reaper, this nearly sixty year old painter has suddenly found himself one of the most in-demand artists in the entire metal sphere, and one of the bands that won the Lewandowski Lottery this year was Minnesota's False, a band finding itself scrutinized fairly hard by those in the know.  This midwestern sextet seems almost lab grown in how they hit every single nerve when it comes to soaking up alternative press adoration as the token "metal band we'll allow ourselves to like".  Gorgeous cover art, female vocalist, pristine production quality, easy to absorb and understand music, inspiration from modern styles of metal, signed to Gilead (home of Smart Person BM heavyweights like Yellow Eyes, Mizmor, Falls of Rauros, and Krallice (and previously Fantano mainstays like Imperial Triumphant and Thou)), they blacked out the Internet Metal Journalist bingo card before a note was even heard.  I can absolutely understand the skepticism from the underground when a band hits a meteoric rise like False did when every single element seems like the closest thing to an industry plant that metal can muster.

However, sometimes the Hipster Hype Train gets it right.  Maybe, just maybe, it was purely by accident/coincidence that False has all of those aesthetic bits that made them media darlings so quickly (though it may be worth noting that they've existed for nearly ten years without a lineup change before finally hitting it big with their sophomore release here), because none of that shit should even matter in the first place, and allowing it to cloud your judgment of the album obscures some fantastic songwriting.

I'd be lying if I said Portent was something radically new or unique, but I'd also be lying if I said this was a shamelessly derivative copypasta.  It's pretty close to impossible to listen to any random snippet of this album and not be reminded of Emperor's full lengths from the 90s, but their personal twist on it is that they're paradoxically hypermaximalist while taking heaps of influence from drawn out minimalist atmoblack of the Cascadian variety.  It's no secret that I love overly busy maximalism, I am one of the last dudes still loving obnoxious tech death after all, and I think putting such an idea into the context of extremely lengthy and atmospheric black metal creates a sound that should be a total disaster but somehow works marvelously.  For example, synths are featured on the album, but they're never "prominent" in the sense that they're carrying the melody.  They're settled back playing simple chords to accent the atmosphere, unlike the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk style of hammering you over the head with doodly melodies.  The guitar instead takes the lead when it comes to these things, and they restrain themselves only insofar as they aren't playing shredding Yngwie Malmsteen arpeggios, because they're doing everything else they can to be the star of the show here.  Occasional bursts of major key triumph pepper the landscape laid out on Portent, and they never let these moments go by without drawing attention to them.  Take a look at the 3:37 mark in "A Victual for Our Dead Selves".  That right there is an abrupt shift in mood from slow, agonizing death into a bombastic victory fanfare, and it's done without a reliance on tooting keys at all.  It's just pure, unadulterated, fist pumping metal slicing through the darkness.

Almost all of the buzz surrounding the album, positive and negative, has done well to describe the music accurately, with the only real difference being the qualitative assessment thereof.  If you don't like the idea of especially busy atmoblack, then False was never going to appeal to you to begin with, and that's fine.  For me though, this is superb.  Imagine Wolves in the Throne Room or Altar of Plagues except the drums almost never slowing down and the melodies less floating in the upper spaces and more being shot out of a bazooka.  Portent is forceful in its expressiveness, very much taking background elements and exploding them into the foreground.  My only real complaints are ultimately pretty nitpicky, those being that the vocals aren't nearly as impressive as the rest of the band and "The Serpent Sting, the Smell of Goat" is 100% just two separate songs smashed together, complete with fifteen seconds of silence between the two halves.  It's such an oddly pointless thing to do and I wonder if somebody insisted that every song needed to be over ten minutes or else the album wasn't getting released.  Pure speculation, but whoever had that idea is a doofus.

So the hype train took a stop in Minnesota and picked up False, but I'm happily hanging onto the caboose like a filthy transient, pumping my fist and hooting the whole way.  Portent just hammers you over the head with riff after riff after melody after riff and I adore it.  Maybe it's overbearing for those who can't stop huffing the fumes of burning ravens and slashing their wrists with their bullet belts, but for those of you who, like me, wished atmoblack as a scene would stop pumping out so much drawn out mediocrity and finally let something fucking happen for a change, Portent is a godsend.