Monday, April 2, 2018

Off With Their Heads - In Desolation/Home


 GOD DAMMIT I'M FALLING APART

I feel like I need to tackle this as a twofer, which is kinda silly considering there's really nothing linking these albums apart from a general theme.  It's not part of a continuing narrative or concept or anything; Off With Their Heads doesn't play a style that's even remotely conducive to such a thing in the first place.  But for me, their second and third albums, 2010's In Desolation and 2013's Home are inextricably linked in my mind.  I can't hear one without the other, I can't talk about one without also reaching towards the other, they're two sides of the same coin, two representations of the same idea, with enough variation between the two to work both as separate entities and companions to one another. 

I've touched on my own depression a handful of times within the context of my reviewing career (Tyranny's Tides of Awakening, Insomnium's Since the Day It All Came Down, and most notably Strapping Young Lad's City) and, fair warning, this is going to be another entry in that loose series I've been weaving over the years, and once again it's barely going to be about the music itself.  Off With Their Heads has an incredible knack of cutting right through the bullshit and punching me directly in my soul, and even when I'm in a good place mentally I find myself drawn to these albums as some sort of sombre reminder of how bad shit can be.

I'll touch briefly on the music itself, because I obviously like it.  This isn't metal at all, so it's a bit of a break from what I usually write about.  It's really simple sub-three-minute four chord punk rock in the vein of The Ramones and some other more obvious bands I'll probably completely misappropriate since my usual brands of punk are the much faster and more technical skate punk/melodic hardcore styles.  They seem to be frequently tied to Banner Pilot and Dillinger Four, I dunno, maybe they share some members or something, admittedly I've never looked it up.  OWTH exist in a vacuum to me, their influences and connections are irrelevant to me, they're a safe place of sorts where the rest of the musical world doesn't exist.  They're generally mid/uptempo and abrasive punk rock with a melodic edge and a penchant for great hooks, that's all I know and that's all I care about.  This is why I usually talk about metal, because that's a style I've been so deeply embroiled in for my whole life that I can pick out every tiny nuance and describe it with obtuse metaphors to keep from repeating myself.  Here?  Nope, it's loud punk and I like it, I don't know anything else, fuck off.

There's one thing I can highlight though, and that's Ryan Young, the vocalist/guitarist that acts as the nucleus of the entire band.  The main thing that attracted me to the band in the first place (apart from the excellent hooks) was his voice.  Fucking hell man, he sounds like he's been smoking a pack a day since he was a toddler and yet he maintains a soulful melodicism to his extreme rattle.  He has the kind of voice that comes from years of sadness and self abuse, the kind of guy who gargles razorblades and washes it down with Everclear and Ambien.  I can't get enough of it, everything he says is tinged with this sorrowful frustration, like he's pouring his heart out with every line but also doing everything he can to keep himself from completely falling apart. 

Don't wanna feel like this, anxious and angry and hopeless and upset all the time 

Anyway, the real core of what brings me here, writing this dual review in the first place, is the lyrical themes that tie together all of OTWH's releases.  Young has always been very open about his myriad mental illnesses, and it's reflected in his writing, and it's why I connect with his material so much.  Nearly every song is in some way reflective of his depression and anxiety, constantly crying out for help as he slowly self destructs and loses his sense of identity.  He has a goofy side that comes out outside of his music itself (see their music videos to see one of the most brutally depressing and emotional songs written in the last decade coupled with visuals of him getting pied in the face over and over again), but trust me when I say it's all the real deal.  The band had to drop off a tour with The Flatliners a few years ago after he suffered a nervous breakdown on the road, he's since started Anxious and Angry, a podcast that regularly discusses mental illness (also a webstore/small label(?)), the guy's got fuckin' issues, and it resonates with people who've been there.

Starting off with In Desolation, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is going to take a bit of an optimistic look at things, since the opening tracks sorta veer that way.  "Drive" is about running away from your problems, true, but as somebody who used to clear his mind by just driving aimlessly at night, it immediately speaks to a part of me that understands the cathartic release of just taking off in a random direction for a few hours.  "Their Own Medicine" follows, being another uptempo rocker, with lyrics that basically say "Everybody who fucked with you in the past can be dealt with today by knocking them the fuck out", it sounds like the album is going to be something of a primer for dealing with your problems.

Then the rest of the album happens.

I hate every second of the god damned day / gimme anything you got I don't care, it's all the same 

Starting from "Trying to Breathe", the album just slowly descends further and further down a hole as Young starts to lose hope and basically fall back on his old mantra of "I don't want to be like this but I fucking hate myself so I'm just going to do a shitload of drugs until I die".  "Trying to Breathe" basically sounds like a play by play rundown of having a particularly brutal anxiety attack, pleading to make it through unscathed but also just sort of accepting that this might be the end.  Everything from here on out reads like a cry for help or a screed of hatred directed squarely inwards.  From deep seated familial issues and frustration with inheriting his crippling depression in "Old Man", to the stress of life driving him to medicating himself into as perpetual of a sleep as he can manage in "All I Can Do", to idle thoughts making everything worse in "Spare Time", each passing song is just another uncomfortably relatable bodyblow to anybody who has felt helpless and trapped in their own mind.

One thing that I always mention about depression is that it's not as romanticized as it is in popular media, with the weepy days of grey overtaking life.  There are a variety of moods you experience, just like any human being, it's just that the bad ones tend to take precedence.  City covers this better than pretty much any album ever written, but there's another common theme that pops up throughout In Desolation, and that's that there's somebody that Young clearly cares about more than anything.  There are shades of it all over the place, but it's addressed more specifically in "I Need You", "I Just Want You to Know" and most obviously "My Episodes", where he expresses endless thanks to some unnamed person for keeping him as grounded as he possibly can be.  It's actually kind of heartbreaking when put in the context of everything else he says throughout the album, because as much as this person does for him, he's still a hopeless wreck who seems to constantly flirt with just giving up on life entirely.  And god damn if I don't understand that personally.  I'm in a good place right now, I have a wonderful fiance who makes every second of life worth living, but you can't ever make the bad shit go away entirely.  I have bad days/weeks all the time, I can't even begin to count the amount of times I've wanted to just fucking bail on everything and drive until I hit a coastline and then dive the fuck in.  This shit is hard, it never goes away, no matter how good your life is at any given moment, it could always come back when you least expect it.  I keep it inside most of the time, I try to be as strong as I can, but it's not easy, and it's extremely draining.

I think that's why the final track, "Clear the Air" has so quickly rocketed up the rankings of what I'd consider to be my all time favorite songs.  It so clearly captures my greatest fear, pouring my heart out, laying everything bare for the world to see, and in doing so scaring away the only person who keeps me sane.  The track plays out like a confession, with Young spilling his guts in a way that's so personal and understandable, and it builds from a quiet acoustic song and ultimately climaxes in an explosion of of emotion.  Every single line is something I've said to myself at some point, something I've practiced and ultimately pussed out of admitting to anybody, every admission of irrationality and broken plea for help has played out in my head as some hypothetical conversation with my loved ones verbatim.  When the song finally explodes, you can feel every ounce of desperation, frustration, hopelessness, sadness, and confusion in his voice when he finally switches from his calming clean voice that he seemingly struggles to maintain to his trademark rattle as he screams "God DAMMIT I'M FALLING APART".  It should be cathartic, but instead is desperate.  "Don't leave yet / I haven't gotten to the part that explains it all", it sounds like it was all in vain for him.  Instead of finally making everything make sense, this person who does so much for him just... can't take it anymore and leaves.  Holy shit that's terrifying to me, I can't imagine being in a situation like that, it's one I'm always afraid of experiencing myself.  Even though I know damn well that my special someone will stay by my side, because we've been through so much shit in terms of dealing with our own personal demons and have only come out the other side closer than we were before, I'm always waiting for that other shoe to drop.  "Clear the Air" is the narration of my nightmare scenario, and yet it's become one of my favorite songs of all time for the same reason I love The Catcher in the Rye so much.  I see a lot of myself in Holden Caulfield, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture.  I see a lot of myself in Ryan Young, and it's a really fucking dark reflection.

I thought I'd get older and it'd go away / but it only gets worse and causes more pain 

Three years later, after that emotional tour de force, the band returned and delivered their third album, Home, and... fuck it's so much more bleak.  For as much as In Desolation was content to wallow in its own self pity, there was always a sense of a light being at the end of the tunnel.  There were songs about being saved by a loved one scattered throughout, even if it ended on the brutal down note that is "Clear the Air".  That's not present anywhere on Home.  No, Home is just an endless dirge of misery camouflaged somewhat by the uptempo and catchy punk rock.  Pay attention to the lyrics even medium-hard and you'll see almost immediately that Young's mental state hasn't improved in the slightest, if anything it's only deteriorated.  His voice even sounds more broken, being a bit deeper on the whole and much more throaty and gurgly, his rattle is more extreme than it's ever been.  He sounds like a weathered man compared to his barely younger self from only one album ago.  The fact that the only song that's even marginally optimistic this time around is "Focus On Your Own Family", which acts as a sort of "Don't worry, we've got your backs" to the LGBT community, tells me that he's dealt with some shit between albums. 

There are two themes that seem to recur most often throughout the duration of this one, and one is the concept of "home" and what it means to Ryan, which could be viewed through the lens of a punk rocker always on the road with no permanent place to lay down for the night, but personally I view it through the lens I view all OWTH with, that being depression.  On my worst days, I can find myself laying down in my own bed, in my own bedroom, with my only thought being "I want to go home".  That's been an experience I've dealt with my whole life, from being an angsty teenager with then-undiagnosed dysthymic disorder to being a grown-ass adult living in his own apartment with the woman he proposed to.  I think that's because "home" is, to me, and I suspect to Ryan as well, a place where none of this shit matters.  A safe space where you can finally be happy.  Depressive thoughts and ideation is like a haunting, a demon that you can never truly escape.  It will always find you, no matter how far you run or how happy you are, it will always catch you.  It will always find where you are and it will snatch you in its clutches and refuse to let go until your brain stubbornly acquiesces and produces the proper chemical to eradicate it for a time.  I can be "home", and still want to go "home", because "home" is a place where I've finally eluded that haunting for good.  Everything that makes me happy is here, but I'm only "home" like 60% of the time.  I never know when I'm going to want to cut ties and run to some elusive nowhere that finally acts as the "home" I've always dreamed of.  The sad reality is that "home" may not be a physical space, and as long as I have this stupid abnormal depression-brain I will never truly be there.

The other recurring theme is that of repeating the past, usually in the form of self destructive habits.  This one I can't relate to quite as strongly on a personal level, since despite my storied history of bad decisions, I've always managed to avoid any sort of drug dependency or addiction to self harm, which is what most of these references seem to allude to, but it's hard not to place yourself in Young's shoes here.  There are countless references to things being so much worse than last time, or being unable to keep from bad habits, or thinking you'll finally get it right this time only to be disappointed, and each time he sounds more broken than the last.  Young is not only struggling to find his "home", he's struggling to even keep himself alive and coherent enough to truly care about finding it.  Like always, there are moments of clarity where it seems possible, like for example "Come Find Me", but more often than not he finds himself wallowing and lost, like "Stolen Away" and "Shirts". 

It's not the same as it was last time / It's so much worse, it's something that drives me out of my mind 

Like I mentioned, In Desolation is so brutal because he recounts all of his demons in painstaking detail despite having an outlet of hope right next to him, but it's also a stark contrast to the band's earlier work as well as this one.  Their previous releases (particularly the EP Hospitals and debut LP From the Bottom, as well as the ten quadrillion splits they appeared on around 2007) were all equally as hopeless and despondent as Home, featuring cheerful ditties like "Die Tonight" and "Fuck This, I'm Out", which also helps keep the theme of returning to past pits, most especially thanks to the track "Janie", which originally appeared on one of their millions of 7" splits six or seven years prior. 

I haven't outright said it yet, but once we hit their biggest hit song here, "Nightlife", it's impossible to avoid any longer.  Part of the reason that these lyrics hit so close to home is because there is precisely zero pretension involved.  Absolutely nothing is dressed up in flowery metaphor, it is all just blunt, brutalist realism spelled out in plain language.  You could argue that something like that just constitutes bad lyricism, but really it's just Young cutting through all the bullshit and getting straight to the point.  These lyrics may not be clever, but they're no less powerful.  "Nightlife" is probably the best example of this besides the monumental "Clear the Air" from the previous album.  The song is already potentially the tightest two and a half minutes in modern punk, but the plain nature of the lyrics just cut straight to my fucking core.  It's another plea for help, presented like an admission yet again, like most of their songs, and even though there's an implicit admission of "I can't stop drugging myself to death" here, I still know I've said and felt every last syllable of what he's laid out here.  It's just... I dunno, fucking simple and relatable.  It hits a wide target and cuts deep.  "I wear it all on my sleeve and everyone sees no matter how hard I try / I've never felt worse in my whole life".  It closes on him just repeating over and over and over again that he feels like this every night, and it rips me apart because fuck so do I.  No matter how happy I am, I'll never shake that defeatist misery.  I'm good now, I know I am, but there's that niggling little fuck in the dark recesses of my brain that just wants to get up and abandon everything.  I've never buckled, and I don't think I ever will, but at least once per night I'll have to subconsciously tell myself to shut the fuck up and allow me to be happy. 

I know I'm sick, and I'm not right / I'm so fucking tired of living this life 

One of the few musical points I can accurately point out is that Home finds itself just as sonically downtrodden as the lyrics at times.  Yeah there are some uptempo hook generators here in "Seek Advice Elsewhere" and "Start Walking", but there's also a lot more downbeat and mellow, and dare I say, minimalist, tracks here as well.  "Don't Make Me Go" is an out-and-out ballad, "Always Alone" and "Come Find Me" are much slower interpretations of regular old punk songs, and "Stolen Away" takes it as far as it can feasibly go, being a very slow song consisting entirely of minimalist percussion and slow palm mutes.  If sped up to 2.5x speed it might sound like a normal song, but here's it's just a sad confession on quaaludes, and really fits the despondent lyrics as well as any punk song ever could.  It's kind of interesting in it's execution, but I do admit that it saps the momentum of the album a bit.  So if we're going to stay on the surface and look at this purely as an album to listen to as opposed to an expose on the depths of depression, Home is weaker than In Desolation on this front.  It's no less tight, but it's there.

No plans for children, no plans for growing old 

At the end of the day, I lied a little bit when I said I listened to Off With Their Heads as a reminder for how bad it can be some 3200 words ago.  Really, that's not true.  I listen to City as a litmus test to see how I'm doing and to remind myself of high school, I listen to The Crimson Idol and Since the Day It All Came Down just as a soundtrack to mope, but I listen to In Desolation and Home because it reminds me that I'm not alone.  There are other people out there who feel the same way I do, and they're still chugging along.  Ryan Young is a disturbed individual who clearly struggles to get by every day, but he still runs a successful band/label/podcast and is able to share his story in a way that most people can only dream of.  He fights his demons, and sometimes he loses, and that's okay.  It's okay to fail sometimes, it's okay to show your weaknesses and spill your guts.  Life is unfair, but it's worth living.  People are there for you, I'm here for you, I've gone through this shit too and I don't want anybody else to suffer through this shit with nobody to reach out to like I did for so long.  I think this is why Chester Bennington was so revered and why his suicide hit his fans so hard.  He spoke to them the same way Ryan Young speaks to me, and if Young ever loses his fight the same way Bennington did, I'll probably react the same way Linkin Park fans reacted.  The point is that Off With Their Heads manages to speak to a terminally depressed person like me in a way that acknowledges the problem, and while they offer absolutely no respite or ways to finally escaping it, they let me know that I'm not crazy, I'm not broken, I'm not a faulty human being.  I'm merely that, a human being.  And so are you, and so are all of us.  We can get through any of this shit, but it's okay to delve deep into why we're so fucked up and be honest with ourselves.

I love all of you, stay strong, nothing is unbeatable.


RATINGS: Obviously not important%

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Victorius - Dinosaur Warfare - Legend of the Power Saurus

SHOOTING LAAAZEEEERS AT NIIIIGHT

When I was seven years old, a friend and I decided that we wanted to make comic books.  The combined brainpower of two elementary school boys fueled by Mountain Dew and raised on Sega and Saturday morning cartoons came up with the idea of a crack squad of cybernetic dinosaur mercenaries, a creative midpoint between X-Men and Dinosaurs for Hire.  Neither of us could draw, we didn't have any colored pencils so it was just pencil outlines of squiggly vaguely dinosaur-with-machine-gun shaped blobs fighting each other.  We christened our creation "DINOSAUR EXPLOSIONS".  We made maybe two "issues" of this storyline before our sugar rush wore off and we fucked off back to playing Clay Fighter or Road Rash or whatever the hell it is that seven year olds do, but our foray into comic books always stuck with me.

If you need context why I love Victorius's new EP so god damned much, Dinosaur Warfare - Legend of the Power Saurus, it's entirely because I thought of this idea already twenty years ago and nothing thrills me more than seeing it come to life.

Victorius has been kicking around for neary fifteen years now, releasing four full lengths that have languished in moderate obscurity (though not totally unknown, they all have a handful of reviews on MA with good scores), but nothing about them has ever really been superlative.  They're a solid second-tier power metal band from a region that is overflowing with solid-yet-forgettable power metal, there's never really been a reason to seek them out prior to this release.  They needed to do something to finally stand out, and by golly did they do that.  Not only did they land on the idea of the most outwardly absurd concept album in recent memory (an epic sci-fi struggle between cybernetic dinosaurs fighting against hostile alien invaders), but they also managed to finally accompany this brazenly dorky idea with the best music they've written to date.  Seriously, the chorus of "Legend of the Power Saurus" is like the part in the painting when God's finger touches Adam's.

The EP starts off decently enough with the semi-title track, "Dinosaur Warfare", sonically landing somewhere between the raw energy of Gamma Ray and the over-the-top silliness of Sonic Firestorm era Dragonforce (with notably less explosive guitar theatrics, of course).  It's a good, fun track that sits fairly well in line with what I remember of their previous work.  Solid power metal but nothing particularly superlative.  It isn't until the next track that the record reveals its true genius.  The three track stretch of "Legend of the Power Saurus", "Lazer Tooth Tiger", and "Razorblade Raptor" are three of the most ludicrously fun power metal songs in the last handful of years.  Something here just clicked with the guys, because all three are rabidly infectious tunes that mix massive, soaring melodies with some serious rough-and-tumble ferocity in the rhythm section.  The opening riff of "Lazer Tooth Tiger" is so fucking vicious that I can barely describe it, and it blends so well with the comparatively light chorus that just flies over the metaphorical battlefield with style and grace.  You'd be amazed, but there's an astounding amount of class and dead-eyed seriousness with the care given to these songs.  Despite the childish lunacy of the deep voiced pre-solo call to battle of "IT'S MORPHIN' TIME!" in "Legend of the Power Saurus" and the sheer ridiculousness of a song about a character named motherfucking Razorblade Raptor, there's no indication that the band took the task of writing these tracks as a joke.  Lyrical absurdity aside, these tracks all sound like lost Gamma Ray recordings that  hypothetically existed somewhere between Power Plant and No World Order!, and any power metal fan worth their salt should know how much ass Gamma Ray kicked during that time period.  It's meat and potatoes power metal devoid of flittery synths and booming orchestral patches.  It's built entirely on riffs and vocals and that's all it needs to be.  It's so fucking silly to say out loud, but a chorus that ends with a triumphant, booming tenor shouting "MIGHTY LEEEEGEEEEND OOOOF THEEE DIIIIIINOSAaAaAUuUuUR" is actually the benchmark for great choruses this year.  This is the mark that all power metal bands need to push themselves to surpass in 2018.  It would literally be amazing if I was kidding.

However, there is a bit of a mammoth in the room, that being the closing track, "Flames of Armageddon".  It's more on par with the opening track in terms of quality, but for some reason it's a thematic break from the rest of the album, being instead about some generic apocalypse story invoking traditional ideas of saints and sinners.  Man I hate to be that neckbearded fuck to say this, but come on man give us more dinosaur shit!  How can you give us such a brilliantly stupid premise and then neglect to give it any closure?!  I feel like I just got the rug pulled out from under me, we were robbed of more goofy awesomeness.  Where's my track about Terrordactyl?  Triflareatops?  Assault Archeopteryx??  If nothing else, "Flames of Armageddon" does at least uncover an uncomfortable truth about Dinosaur Warfare, that being that the lyrical absurdity may truly be the thing that makes it as awe inspiring as it is.  I don't want to admit it, I don't want to stan for a dumbass gimmick but I feel like it can't be solely coincidence that the only track that breaks from the gimmick is a disappointing track, despite it being musically every bit as good as the preceding ones.

But then again, maybe it's a good thing that we really only got four songs about this concept.  If Kung Fury has taught me anything, it's that reaching for the most intentionally absurd gags really runs out of steam quickly, as that movie stopped being funny less than halfway through and it's only a half hour long.  So I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, Dinosaur Warfare is one of the most fun, tight, and well crafted collection of riffy power metal songs with stellar choruses assembled in the last while.  It's so bizarre to say, but it's totally true.  Perhaps it's because of the brazenly stupid gimmick, perhaps it's in spite of it, but regardless of the reason, this is one of the best power metal EPs you're going to hear in 2018, and that's not a joke.  DINOSAUR EXPLOSIONS lives on forever.

We are soldiers of the buuuurning sun!
With fire in our song!
Mighty leeegeeend oooof the diiiiinosaaaauuuur!


RATING: 94%


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Nile - What Should Not Be Unearthed

It's a Nile album, and that's okay

Nile's career trajectory is fairly well known at this point, but I think it's worth noting that their decline after the thundering megalith that is Annihilation of the Wicked has been oddly enjoyable.  They're in a strangely enticing funk as of now, not unlike the smelled of burned bacon.  It's not what you wanted, and it's definitely inferior to how good it could have been, but it's still fine if you have a certain taste for it (or an affinity for bad cooking).  Ithyphallic and Those Whom the Gods Detest are kinda controversial in their standing with the general fandom, with most people agreeing that there's really nothing wrong with them on the surface, but there's just... something missing.  Some undefined intangible that made the previous records so great that just isn't quite present here.  The only true misstep so far as been At the Gates of Sethu, which cleaned up their awesome unique wall of sound and amped up the technicality to previously unseen levels.  As a result, a lot of that steel-fisted ferocity was lost, and their penchant for badass hooks went out the window.

And that's where What Should Not Be Unearthed comes in, because this is about as good of a mea culpa we could have possibly asked for.  It's clear they're never going to go back to their darkened shrines any time soon, so seeing them return to their detesting gods is wholly welcome for me.  This album's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness, that being that it's basically a return to the sound from two albums ago.  On one hand, this means we're getting exceptionally solid hyperdeath again, rife with the same Egyptian scales Karl is so in love with, Dallas handling the lion's share of vocals still, and George still hasn't learned how to play a beat slower than 40000bpm.  On the other hand, the band isn't challenging themselves in any way and are just resting on their laurels, releasing a safe album that sounds identical to previous albums that were already proven to be successful.

For all of Sethu's faults, I could at least appreciate that the band was trying to evolve.  That's not the case on Unearthed (pardon the truncating of the album titles, you can understand how annoying it is that they keep naming shit full sentences), where Nile instead just safely goes back into their comfort zone and make no effort to advance further.  Maybe this has ultimately been the bugaboo holding the last few albums back, and Sethu just finally made it obvious.  They've been chasing the mighty shadow of Annihilation for over a decade now, and when they tried to do anything else, it turned out they weren't all that good at it.  Rehashing Annihilation is what they do best.

And frankly?  I'm okay with that.  Really, Unearthed may not be pushing any boundaries but it's a showcase of a band playing to their strengths.  Basically every song here powers forwards at extremely high tempos, backed by relentless blasting and meaty tremolo riffs, highlighted with that sexy Middle Eastern flavor and gale-force bellows from Dallas and deep gurgles from Karl.  That's exactly what they're good at, so it's nice to hear them quit fucking with the noodly technicality and jump headfirst back into explosive riffage again.  Nile has always basically just been regular old death metal played three times faster than necessary with a unique sense of melody at their core, and tracks like "Liber Stellae Rubeae", "Rape of the Black Earth", and the massive "Call to Destruction" showcase that with aplomb.  There's the token traditional interlude with "Ushabti Reanimator" and some slow crushing sections like the back half of the title track as well.  It's nothing you haven't heard before but it's just as good as it's always been.  The only thing it's really missing is a super long song, being the first album not to see a track break the seven minute mark since the debut (though the title track falls only a second or two short).  It's a Nile album.  That's really all the explanation it needs.

So ultimately, Unearthed is both disappointing and satisfying.  It's disappointing that it's regressive fanservice dressed up as a heralded return to their roots, but it's satisfying because they're still really god damned good at that sound.  Clearly, the satisfaction outweighs the disappointment.  Personally, I thought Detest was a great album, and Unearthed is pretty much exactly on par with that one.  So however you felt about them two albums ago is exactly how you'll feel about this one.  Sure, they still haven't written anything as pulse-pounding and exciting as "Lashed to the Slave Stick" or as epic as "Unas, Slayer of the Gods" in a long time, but they can keep giving me replacements like "Papyrus Containing the Spell..." and "4th Arra of Dagon" as long as they like if they're going to stay at this level of quality.


RATING: 81%

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Vulture - The Guillotine

I dunno, whadda YOU wanna do?

Vulture made a lot of waves last year, but I'm just gonna skip to the punchline and say that the general metal listening public has really short term memory, because this is rethrash to the bone.  Remember when thrash had that resurgence in the late 2000s and was immediately flooded with tryhard losers who put on a thrasher costume and ripped off the same two or three bands until everybody got sick of them?  Well Vulture is exactly that.  A little better than most of them thanks to the heightened Razorisms, but still guileless, inoffensive thrash that's way to proud of itself simply for being thrash.

Thrash as a genre isn't exactly ripe for experimentation, so I tend not to hold it against bands for being unoriginal (I loved the shit out of Condor last year and they're just Aura Noir reincarnated), but I guess the reason that Vulture irks me enough to write about is because The Guillotine itself doesn't really do anything interesting within its own runtime.  You get the gist of the album with the first track and then basically hear it repeated seven more times with diminishing returns.  "Vendetta" starts off with an ominous piano/string intro, building a pretty solid sense of foreboding, before just exploding forwards with hyperspeed riffs out the wazoo, rife with ear piercing falsetto shrieks and shredding solos.  Then the following seven songs all do the exact same thing, give or take the quiet intros.  The immediate comparison I could think of was Evil Invaders, if a little bit more on the thrash than the speed metal side (but only barely) except not quite as exciting.  The wild soloing is there, but it's not quite as ferocious or over the top as their Belgian contemporaries.  The vocals are primarily made up of frenzied shrieking, but it sounds more like a calculated crutch (quite literally every single song features a double tracked "ooooooooooOOOOWYAAaAaAaAaAAAH" screech) whereas Evil Invaders sounds more like they're fronted by a dangerous lunatic who can't control or restrain himself in any way.  I don't want to keep comparing them to another modern band but it's hard when every single aspect of Vulture that could be great can be so easily improved by simply looking a few miles towards the western border.

So Vulture is a thrashier variant of classic speed metal in the vein of Razor and Exciter, so you figure the two areas where they'd absolutely excel would be speed and intensity nearly by default, and in truth they only truly succeed with half of that.  There's no doubt that The Guillotine runs along at a ridiculously high tempo, with even more midpaced sections appearing in tracks like "This Night Belongs to the Dead" cruising along at warp speed.  The problem is that there's very little beef behind the riffs.  They're all lightning quick but carry little of the inherent devastation of their meteorological point of comparison.  The riffs that make up these songs are all flashy and zip by nearly instantaneously with their enviable quickness, but there's to accompanying thunder to them.  They happen and then they're over, they're cool but have no lasting effect.  Usually with albums that have this issue, they can work to make up for a lack of riffing prowess by blowing the listener away with some other aspect, but as previously mentioned, they don't really do that either.  The soloing is quite good but sounds obligatory, if that makes sense.  The vocals are wild and crazy but land a little too close to the terrible vocals you'd find on third tier nobodies like Dismantle.  This sort of "I can't actually sing but I can snarl and do the 'Angel of Death' intro" works a little better with this more melodic style, but it can still be grating.  He does occasionally belt out a scream that sounds more frothing and insane (most notably at the very end of the album, closing out "Cry for Death") but it's not nearly often enough to keep me interested.

All in all this is an exceedingly average album with a few neat moments that spends far too much time repeating itself to really break out.  Probably my favorite intangible when it comes to metal is "danger", and there's very little that's actually dangerous about Vulture.  They're fast and... not much else.  They don't sound all that powermad or frantic or chaotic or anything, they play by the rules of their chosen genre and only add tongue waggling speed to the mix without a solid base of excellent riffs to hold the whole thing together.  So it's whatever.  I have no ending for this review.

Screw Flanders.


RATING - 55%

Saturday, January 13, 2018

QUICK HITS: Succumb - Succumb

God help me I need disinfectant

Jesus.  For years, years, I've maintained that the filthiest death metal album of all time is Mental Funeral by Autopsy.  There are other albums that exceed it in weirdness or darkness or insanity (Nespithe, Onward to Golgotha, To the Depths, in Degradation, etc), but nothing could ever really touch just how grimy it was.  Well, I think that 25 year streak of dominance may have been broken with San Francisco's Succumb and their self titled debut.  Mental Funeral still sounds a bit more like a sewer than Succumb, but where the newcomers pull ahead is simply in unremitting dirt and agony.  You might be familiar with the manga author Junji Ito, who is most famous in the west for bizarre tales like Uzumaki and The Enigma of Amigara Fault.  He's not really a great storyteller but he is an amazing artist, and he has a short story by the name of simply Mold.  It's about a young man who rents his house out to a weird science teacher with an obsession with fungus, and upon returning from a business trip he finds the house abandoned and covered in mold that always grows back no matter how much he cleans, eventually unearthing the horrid truth behind the anomaly.  Succumb sounds like how Mold looks.  It's a dilapidated crackhouse, the walls literally alive with crawling filth, humidity only amplifying the creeping decay.  What makes it unique to me is how it manages to sound both hopeless and frantic at the same time, like a doomed man desperately clawing his way out of a drainage ditch while the flesh rots off of his body.  The vocals are very distant and slathered in reverb, rarely chaining more than two words together at a time, nearly always presented in an agonizing, ghoulish howl.  The riffs are dissonant and uncomfortable, and the drumming of the rising star Harry Cantwell (best known for Bosse-de-Nage and Slough Feg's kinda crappy post-2007 era) is a tumbling cacophony that never gives the listener room to breathe.  Not like anybody would want to breathe anyway, what with being in a heroin-drenched toilet bowl and all.  This is just grody, with a thick layer of goop somehow visible when listening.  There aren't many specific highlights to mention, as the album is just one long drawn out overdose, but it doesn't really matter when it sounds like literal death.  Again, refer to the final panel of MoldSuccumb is the sound of your atrophying semi-corpse fusing with its surroundings while you deliriously peel the flesh off from your own bones.


RATING - 91%


 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

10 YEAR REUNION: Gamma Ray - No World Order!

I'm going to start rewriting my old reviews from late 2007 to 2009ish, because they all suck and I'm only 10% of the tryhard I used to be.

1200 cigarettes and Time to Kill

Gamma Ray had been on one hell of a streak by the time 2001 rolled around.  Starting in 1995 when Ralf Scheepers mercifully left and Kai Hansen returned to his rightful place behind the mic, they started churning out classic after classic, ultimately ending in a streak of five phenomenal albums before Kai's endless Kai-isms started stinking up the joint.  No World Order! stands as the fourth entry in that streak, and it'll always hold a special place in my heart for being the reason I ever broke away from my dumb thrash-only mindset of my early teenage years and embraced the speedy melodicism of power metal.  The high pitched vocals and endless double bass had finally stopped being a turnoff when I heard "Dethrone Tyranny" for the first time as a 14 year old and promptly had my entire cerebral cortex blown off.

And honestly, No World Order! is a great introduction for people who are new to the genre, provided they're coming from a mindset that values thrash and trad metal above all else like I did.  It may not be quite a perfect representation of the clash-of-two-worlds of the cover art, but it is indeed a healthy blend of several influences wrapped up neatly into an accessible package.  It manages to balance stomping vigor on tracks like "Damn the Machine" and the bridge of "Dethrone Tyranny", uptempo brutality in "Heart of the Unicorn" and "Solid" (though the latter is an extremely obvious example of Kai's proclivity towards borrowing riffs a little too blatantly, this time being Judas Priest's "Rapid Fire"), light hearted catchiness in "Heaven or Hell" and "Follow Me", and some just damn solid heavy metal swagger in "New World Order" and "Eagle". 

The quick rundown up there doesn't really do the album justice though, because there's a prevailing sense of chainsmoking attitude that roughs up all the edges just enough to give the album an identity that is uniquely Gamma Ray.  The album's truest strength is simply extremely fucking solid songwriting, with excellent hooks behind every corner, but the crooked-toothed sneer that it's all presented with makes the songs stand the test of time if you ask me.  Take a look at the quasi title track, "New World Order".  On the surface, it's just a good, hooky heavy metal song, but there are a lot of tiny little quirks that make it unforgettable.  The pre chorus that begins on a hard left turn, going from the fairly standard palm mutes of the verse and shifting abruptly to a snarling stomp, surely inducing involuntary headbanging, and culminating with the huge background scream that leads into the chorus, that's the kind of shit that just sticks with me.  The chorus itself is great as well, but that attitude just can't be held back, with Kai's relatively smooth vocals occasionally breaking into deafening badassitude (And ya know it's gonna beeee for-EV-AHR). 

It's sort of a dumb comparison, but I think the anecdote that most perfectly encapsulates Gamma Ray to me is a short little clip from the Hell Yeah!I!  The Awesome Foursome  DVD.  They're on the road, about to load up the tour bus and head out on tour, and Kai stops the cameraman to show him what he's bringing with him on tour.  He opens his bag to reveal several cartons of cigarettes and a Duke Nukem game.  That's Gamma Ray in a nutshell.  Sixty packs of smokes and Duke Nukem.

The album isn't perfect however, "Fire Below" is a very clear filler song, a midpaced hard rock/heavy metal tune that offers absolutely nothing other than an extra five minutes of album runtime, and "Lake of Tears" continues Gamma Ray's tradition of writing really terrible ballads.  This time it's at least at the end of the album, making it easy to ignore, but on the other hand it means a fist pumping anthem-generator of an album ends on a weak bunny fart.  "Eagle" was a great closer already, combining Helloween and Iron Maiden in great fashion (albeit a bit cliche, but Gamma Ray are OG so it's not quite so annoying), we didn't need that lameass ballad at the end jacking up the album's mojo.

Those are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, because from the pulsing choir of "Induction" up until the apex of "Eagle" is a nearly unbroken string of classic power metal tracks, full of great hooks and loads of attitude.  No World Order! may not be as immediately impressive as seminal records like Somewhere Out in Space or motherfucking Land of the Free, but it's really not far behind, and it's one of the best albums of 2001 without a doubt.


RATING: 88%

Sunday, January 7, 2018

QUICK HITS: Condor - Unstoppable Power

Crispy Zu Skewers

Thrash's not dead??  Nah, it's still more or less a creative dead end in terms of innovation potential, but that just means that the great bands stand out purely for being really fucking good at thrashing.  Condor definitely shows themselves worthy of hype in the Dead Riff Era, because Unstoppable Power is a venom fueled blast of blackened thrash insanity.  I still seem to prefer Power Trip at this juncture, but Condor is ridiculously fucking close behind.  It's especially cool because, like I said, there's nothing inherently mega-creative about the band, it's just Aura Noir styled hyperthrash with smatterings of black metal misanthropy and grit.  It's the exact kind of thing that Witchaven was all about nearly a decade ago that I couldn't stop masturbating over.  The album tends to fluctuate between the balls out black metal-infused tremolo salvos and more traditional bay area thrashing cranked up to 11.  Compare the bestial hunger in "Embraced By the Evil" to the more focused riff assault of "You Can't Stop the Fire".  The stylistic differences between the tracks on Unstoppable Power are almost imperceptibly subtle, but they're there, and it's good to note that the band is quite skilled at handling all of them.  I think the main reason this stands out so much to me despite thrash as a whole being so fucking dull and played out nowadays is because of something very simple that a lot of bands had mastered in the 80s and most of the copycats completely screwed up in the 00s, and that's the balance between intensity and hooks.  Calling Condor "melodic" in any sense of the word is misleading, because this is all about furious blasting helldeath from the get-go, but there's a very 80s sense of riff writing here, because like the earliest outings of Exodus and Sodom, there is a marvelous sense of infectiousness intertwined with nuts-first freneticism in the riffage.  Check out something like "Chained Victims" or "83 Days of Radiation" for an audible example of what I'm talking about, it's excellent stuff.  When Nocturnal Breed crawled out of their hole a few years ago and finally followed up the excellent Fields of Rot, this is the album I was hoping to hear instead of the thoroughly forgettable Napalm Nights.  Norway may be known for black metal, but Condor definitely shows that those frozen buttcicles know how to thrash just as well.  Like Ripper was the underground foil to the mainstream darling Vektor in 2016, Condor is to Power Trip in 2017.


RATING: 88%

Monday, January 1, 2018

BH AWARDS 2017 AND MUCH MUCH MORE

In a world... where I have been doing this for eight years now and have clearly run out of couch gags for the intro to the Album of the Year post, I bring you... The BH Award for Album of the Year!  2017 was, on the whole, a noticeable step down from the last two years, which pumped out nearly a dozen albums between them that could have feasibly been in the top two or three this year.  This blog itself also witnessed me starting the year with a renewed passion for writing that quickly petered out because the fast encroaching void of death is ever approaching and there's only so much I can do to distract myself.  That or I just work a lot in real life and my free time is fairly evenly split between writing, reading, eating, farting, playing old JRPGs, and banging your mom.  Regardless, this is where we are, and it's time to look back on:

THE TOP 13 ALBUMS OF 2017  

As always, the list is exclusive to full length releases only, but otherwise it's all fair game.  Metal or not, as has been the way since 2013 or so.  Walk with me.

13. Hideous Divinity - Adveniens
I've made the point several times over the last few years, but it bears repeating once more: Hideous Divinity came to claim Hour of Penance's crown of brutality, and they crushed their countrymen's skulls into such a fine powder that I'm pretty sure this album's intensity can be attributed to the band snorting it.  I know the hot tech death album this year is the new Archspire album, and I'll spoil this a bit by saying that they didn't place on this, and it's for a simple reason.  Archspire is faster and more impressive (likely the most impressive tech death band in terms of technical skill in history), but they still don't write songs as instantly ear catching as Hideous Divinity.  I stacked the two up against each other, and in the end it wasn't a contest.  Hideous Divinity can't be stopped.

12. Evil Invaders - Feed Me Violence
Another minor spoiler here, but 2017 was a year where basically every genre that wasn't death metal or otherwise something known for pushing the envelope of extremity was kinda weak.  There's no power metal here for the first time basically ever, and thrash, trad, and black metal all struggled to hold my attention, it's just the year of the brutal and gory for me.  Belgium's Evil Invaders is a huge exception.  These guys pretty much tore me the fuck apart with their debut in 2015, and their sophomore effort is a few steps ahead of even that one.  This is, as obviously evidenced by the band's name, insanely vicious speed metal in the vein of Razor.  Squealing shrieks and screaming solos, accompanied by melodic interludes and drumming that never slows the fuck down, this is everything I want out of speed metal.  Restraint is for the weak.

11. SikTh - The Future in Whose Eyes? 
You guys have no idea how excited I am to finally be able to put SikTh on a year end list.  Despite being early progenitors of currently popular genres that I don't care for like djent and whatever the fuck Periphery is, SikTh was always on a whole other level.  Nobody sounded like them in the mid 2000s, and nobody sounds like them now that they've reformed.  This sounds like they haven't missed a step since Death of a Dead Day, enduring the departure of Justin Hill with such finesse that you can barely tell he's gone.  Mikee Goodman is still the most unique vocalist basically ever, the music is the same spastic dissonance with huge emphasis on solid grooves and hooks, basically everything is perfect.  This is the album I've been waiting for for 11 years, and god damn did it deliver.

10. Full of Hell - Trumpeting Ecstasy
FUCK.  This album shreds so hard it fucking hurts.  I won't claim to know Full of Hell's evolution as a band, the point is that I always knew them as a hardcore/powerviolence band and just never really bothered to check them out.  With the rise of metal-friendly hardcore in recent years getting a whole bunch of hype, particularly Nails and Code Orange, I figured it was high time I give Full of Hell a shot as well, since they seem to be getting roughly the same amount of love.  Refer back to the beginning of this entry: FUCK.  This is some of the gnarliest grind I've gotten into in a while, and I haven't felt such a rush of intensity since the first time I heard Rotten Sound's Exit.  I can't imagine anybody doing this since I'm far from an outlier in praising this record, but don't sleep on it.

9. Malokarpatan - Nordkarpatenland
I try not to do this, but most of you know I run the AOTY poll over at the Metal Archives, and sometimes a release I totally missed will pop up on my radar when I see it garnering a lot of votes early on.  Malokarpatan was one such release.  I told myself that even if I loved it, I wouldn't put it on my own list because that would feel like cheating, but I've been listening to this almost non stop for the past few weeks and I'd be lying if I said I didn't immediately love it more than most albums I've heard this year.  I can't even really call this the token BM album to make it on the list, because there are so many other influences that that feels incorrect.  This gets a lot of comparisons to Master's Hammer, but I've never listened to them so I can't say if it's correct or not.  I just know that this is BM + Iron Maiden/Mercyful Fate and I'm in love.

8. Cannibal Corpse - Red Before Black
Everything was wrong with this album before it came out.  The cover art sucked, the title was stupid, they were falling back on old habits by having Erik Rutan produce it again, early reports from friends who got promos were that there were no crawling or crushing tracks and it was all just really fast and aggressive.  Everything felt wrong and I couldn't have been less interested.  Then I decided to give it a shot anyway and learned my fucking lesson.  I don't know why I ever doubt Cannibal, they're one of the greatest bands in metal history and it's not on accident.  Yeah, this is the thrashiest album they've written in 25+ years and it's all cut from the same cloth as "Demented Aggression", but fuck that just means it goes as hard as possible for 45 solid minutes.

7. Power Trip - Nightmare Logic
I thought Manifest Decimation was a cool little unknown slice of thrash with a flair for the old school hardcore.  I spun it a few times and let it sit.  Four years later, Nightmare Logic steps onto the scene and fuuuuuuck.  Power Trip brought riffs for fucking days on this one, and it's pretty easily one of the very few standout thrash releases to be released in this current Dead Riff Era of metal.  The real star of the show here, for my money, isn't even a member of the band, but the producer, Arthur Rizk.  Rizk popped on my radar last year with Sumerlands and Eternal Champion, and this here continues what I've noticed with those albums.  He is unbelievably skilled when it comes to making things sound retro without sounding dated.  Nobody delivers the furious crunch quite like this guy, and he's establishing himself as a premier knobsman for good reason.

6. Craven Idol - The Shackles of Mammon
This is another thrashy band that had a decently well received release in 2013 that I totally forgot about until now.  Allegedly Towards Eschaton is a bit more up my alley, considering this album is seen as a continuation of that sound but with less melody and Motorhead influence, but if that's the case then that must simply mean it's one of the best of 2013 that I skipped over, because I fucking love this album to pieces.  High octane, preposterously intense and ripping black/thrash that so easily lends itself to mediocrity.  Craven Idol found a way to stand out amongst the throng of bands in the genre simply by writing great songs with great riffs and great hooks.  That's exactly the shit I love.  It's not as pummeling as Power Trip, but this is easily my most listened-to thrash album of 2017.  And it's only halfway thrash!

5. Dying Fetus - Wrong One to Fuck With
Why??  There is absolutely no reason this album should be as good as it is.  Fetus hasn't released anything in five years, the title just reeks of a filler release, bringing the old logo back feels like desperation, I just don't get it.  This should suck, but it doesn't.  Not even a little bit.  In fact I'd say this is right on par with Reign Supreme, which is only a tiny step down from Destroy the Opposition.  They are on an unstoppable roll right now, which is insane considering how far into their career they are at this point.  Wrong One with Which to Fuck is a god damned riff fiesta.  It's just banger after banger after banger.  This doesn't have the handful of standout tracks like the previous album did, but I reckon it sits at a consistently higher plateau.  God dammit it just slams.

4. Deathwish - Unleash Hell
You'd think it would be a no brainer considering my taste in music, but I really don't listen to a whole lot of metalpunk.  My listening is split almost 60/40 between the two genres and the very pseudonym I've been using for the past 12+ years on the internet is derived from Motorhead, the band that ties the two genres together.  Well Deathwish seems to be the band that finally made me sit up and take notice, because holy shit there is not one second of this record that I don't adore.  Creativity is at an all time low here, as it's just Motorhead + Discharge and basically nothing else I can tell, but there's nothing else I even want out of this.  This is just adrenaline pumping, pedal-to-the-metal machismo from the opening seconds and it never calms down.  If you can't get enough of meth-fueled warbling and endless d-beats backing meaty riffs, this is your jam.

3. The Black Dahlia Murder - Nightbringers
Black Dahlia seems to have simply reset their age old "good album, meh album" flip flopping, because we're back to another phenomenal release.  Nightbringers stands as possibly the best album they've released since Nocturnal, and at the very least is on par with Everblack for me.  While Abysmal two years ago was mediocre to me and seems to be the template here (with nearly every song in the 3 minute range and sporting ridiculously speedy tempos), this is just better in every conceivable way.  "Kings of the Nightworld" is fighting to be my new favorite song of theirs, and the b-side in general is fucking stunning.  Pretty much nothing flops, and I'd say this is in serious contention for the title of their most consistently excellent record across the board.  Pay attention, TBDM deserves so much more underground respect than they get.

2. Satan's Hallow - Satan's Hallow 
When I said trad metal was mostly a flop this year, it was with the unspoken caveat that Satan's Hallow was a massive exception.  This sat penciled in at the top spot for most of the year, only talking myself out of it shortly before finalizing this list, and it's for damn good reason.  Guitarist and main songwriter, Von Jugel, explained that his main goal in writing these songs was to cut out all of the fat and release a concise, undiluted, 100% pure punchy experience, not unlike the setlist of a great opening band.  I'd say he succeeded marvelously, because this is an amazing album.  It's 70s/80s Priest and Mercyful Fate for the new millennium, and there isn't one wasted second or filler riff.  Martillo's vocals are obviously going to draw comparisons to Doro/Warlock as well, but for my money this is better than they ever were.  Seriously.

AND THE WINNER IS...

1. Suffocation - ...of the Dark Light 
I'm going to lose so much underground cred for putting a major label release by an established legend above the small time darlings that are Satan's Hallow, but at the end of the day I just can't kill this album.  Suffocation somehow, after over a decade of decent-but-not-amazing releases since the reformation (I know Pinnacle of Bedlam ranked on my list when it came out, but 2013 was a really weak year and it wouldn't have even sniffed the lists for 15 or 16), have finally, finally managed to recover after the loss of Doug Cerrito.  Despite this and Satan's Hallow being neck and neck all year (even garnering the same fucking score when I reviewed them both), I think the reason Suffocation pulled out the victory in the end is simply because of what this represents.  This is an established band, long past their prime, shuffling the deck and restocking their lineup with fresh young faces who had 1000x the fire and passion that the veterans had at the time.  This, to me, signifies the future.  Sure, Terrence Hobbs is still around and it just wouldn't be Suffocation without his style of riffing, but I never would've expected that they'd ever reach these heights again without Cerrito, Smith/Culross, Marchais, or especially Mullen.  Frank may be the vocalist on the album here, but Kevin handles 99% of the live shows and he's a dead fucking ringer for Frank so it barely matters.  Charlie and Eric also decimate their new roles as well, and it just shows how important it can be to introduce new faces into the scene.  These guys are set now as long as they want to be in the business, because they've proven themselves alongside the legends they grew up with.  ...of the Dark Light showcases the death of the tired old trope of replacing veteran members with other scene veterans, because that fiery youth is exactly what made Effigy of the Forgotten so fucking good.  It'll probably take a long time before this practice catches on, but I hope it eventually does, because this is a well deserved, and rightfully fantastic winner of the BH Award for Album of the Year 2017. 

And now for something completely the same!


 HONORABLE MENTIONS  

Get the Shot - Infinite Punishment: One of the most metal-friendly hardcore bands on the planet released another monster this year.  It's not quite the knuckle-to-tooth tour de force than was No Peace in Hell a few years ago, but it's pretty fucking close.  It's thrashy as fuck and all of the riffs sound like punches, and it goes hard from the word go and never chills out.  This just ever so slightly missed the cut for the list, but shouldn't be overlooked by fans of adrenaline filled heaviness.  

Ogarya - Ubiquity: The band that nearly beat Gorod at their own game.  This is just furious blasting death at every turn and deserves all the praise in the world.  I can't wait to see where they go from here, because if it weren't for Satan's Hallow, this would've fairly easily been the debut of the year.

Origin - Unparalleled Universe:  I don't know if I'm just refreshed after not being interested in their last two albums or what, but this heralds a triumphant return for the midwestern tech machines.  It's about on par with Antithesis, arguably their best album, and I can't even really explain why.  It's the same hyperfukt insanity that they've always churned out that made them the band to beat in the tech death boom of the late 2000s, but the hooks and songwriting are just better than they've been in nearly a decade.

Alestorm - No Grave but the Sea:  I was genuinely fucking stunned to discover how much I liked this album.  Alestorm had a whopping one good song prior to this, and somehow they just nailed the hooks this time around.  It's completely idiotic doinky folk metal littered with dumbass accordions and stupid jokes like "Fucked with an Anchor", but god dammit somehow I just had a blast with it.  There's no excuse for me.

Skyclad - Forwards into the Past:  Ever since the departure of Martin Walkyier, the grandfathers of folk metal's output has slowed to a Macabre-esque crawl, this being their first album in eight years.  Like every Skyclad album, it has a bit of a problem with filler and is pretty front loaded, but it starts off with a streak of songs that actually rival their golden era.  If nothing else, "A Heavy Price to Pay" is one of my most listened-to tracks of the year.

Bell Witch - Mirror Reaper:  The token funeral doom album of the year for me.  It may have missed the cut and stands a bit overlong (which is saying something coming from a Monolithe fan), but the guitarless rumbling and massive atmosphere do it a ton of favors and it stands as a worthwhile and unique listen regardless. 

The Outer RIM - Uatism:  This is actually the greatest album ever released, but I helped make it so I won't list it in the interest of fairness.  Y'all should go to Bandcamp and listen to it.


DISAPPOINTMENTS  

Tengger Cavalry - Die on My Ride:  This pains me so much to say, but Tengger's first full length since the infamous move to America is... very not good.  Almost everything I loved about the band previously is conspicuously absent.  The riffs are still simplistic but have much less charisma than they used to, the production is much more flat and static than before, the harsh vocals are completely absent which saps a ton of aggression out of the songs, the songs all sound like first drafts that were written in a matter of days or less, it's just a flop in every way.  There are flashes of the old magic here and there but even then those moments are hindered by the problems listed above.  "The Frontline" starts off as one of the more aggressive and metallic songs they've presented in a while, but with the screams replaced with throat singing and the production sounding so much less bombastic, it just falters.  From the lost Coal Chamber song in "Independence Day" to the awful, awful pop ballad "Ashley", there's really nothing I'd recommend here.  Disappointment of the year and a sad shell of a once-great band. 

Hour of Penance - Cast the First Stone:  I really, really thought they were primed to bounce back from the minor disappointment of Regicide, but I guess not.  I don't know what happened, because on the surface this has everything that made their incredible streak from 08-12 so excellent, but apart from the first and last track just nothing at all stands out here.  Hour of Penance was a perennial favorite who always ranked highly on these lists, and now they're just on autopilot and getting their asses handed to them by Hideous Divinity at every turn.

Ensiferum - Two Paths:  I should've known better that One Man Army was a fluke.  Two Paths sees Ensiferum on the most obvious autopilot they've ever been on, which would suck enough on its own, but they also made the baffling decision to let people who aren't Markus Toivonen deal with a lot of the clean vocals.  Turns out everybody else in the band sucks at it, so it's a bland album with no songs that stand out and tons of bafflingly terrible cleans.  This would've been my disappointment of the year if I didn't sorta suspect it would suck beforehand.

Battle Beast - Bringer of Pain:  Man these guys have fallen off hard.  The previous album grew on me somewhat but was still a noticeable step down from the self titled, and this one just continues the downward trend.  They're clearly aiming for the Sabaton route (albeit more through the Scarface soundtrack and less through bouncy Disneyisms) of pure pop with distorted guitars and it's just not working.  The title track is a solid corker and "Familiar Hell" is maddeningly catchy but the rest of it is forgettable trash.

Code Orange - Forever:  Like Nails and Harm's Way before them, here we find ourselves with a very metal-friendly hardcore band making a ton of waves in the mainstream.  And, less like Nails but exactly like Harm's Way, about half of this is the heaviest shit ever written and the other half is unbearably boring nothingness.  How this took the top spot for both Revolver and Rolling Stone is an absolute fucking mystery to me.  Opening for System of a Down seems to have its perks.


And that's it!  The year is over and that's what we're left with.  My honorable mentions section was a bit longer than usual which would imply this was a strong year, but really that's about it, everything lesser than that section was cripplingly mediocre.  Here's to hoping 2018 is a better year.  I hope you all had a wonderful New Years.  Now back to your regularly scheduled lack of updates!

    Saturday, December 9, 2017

    Winds of Plague - Blood of My Enemy

    GO AWAY

    I've found myself oddly attracted to Adrienne Cowan lately.  No no, I don't mean like I'm stalking her or anything, just that I've found her presence on otherwise bland records to be really welcome.  Light & Shade is a fairly bland power/pop metal band but her wild shrieking that she punctuates nearly every song with quite liberally in stark contrast to her otherwise sweet voice helped give the album a bit of an identity.  Her main band, Seven Spires, is interesting but tends to whiff on execution, with their full length debut this year, Solveig, making the bizarre choice of rerecording the entire earlier EP and sticking it at the front of the album, creating a weird and disjointed experience that starts off underdeveloped and suddenly shifts into a decently okay Kamelot album at the halfway point when the new songs finally start.  The worthy thruline within that experience is once again Cowan, with her soft coos contrasting wonderfully with her insane Doroisms.  She has real personality in her voice, and it helps these otherwise middling albums become quite listenable.  She's looking in line to be the next Jorn Lande; a great vocalist who constantly finds himself in boring bands that he almost single handedly saves from being worthless with alarming regularity.  I feel like I'll be following her career at least mildly attentively in the near future.  I wonder if she's got anything else in the pipeline?

    *checks her artist profile on MA*

    OH GOD SHE'S IN WINDS OF PLAGUE NOW WHY GOD WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS??

    *socks blow across the room*

    So in all honesty, I thought Winds of Plague was dead at this point.  I was reviewing their discography as it was released a few years ago out of some sense of odd fascination/obligation, but by the time Resistance rolled around I just couldn't bring myself to give a shit.  That one was a lame hardcore album with synths popping in occasionally, if nothing else I give them credit for finally picking a style and sticking to it, it just wound up being the one they're the worst at.  After this the band went quiet and just disappeared from my radar completely.  So now four years have passed and the entire lineup has been replaced apart from the vocalist, and Blood of My Enemy has quietly dropped, and it's... kinda good?

    This band pisses me off so much, they seemingly can't nail down their strengths for the life of them, but this is their second album now (the other being The Great Stone War) that actually manages to be fairly solid despite their ever present songwriting woes.  Instead of the endless idiotic genre hopping marred by some of the worst lyrics ever penned, this one focuses mostly on epic atmosphere with chugging melodeath riffs helping things along without being intrusively stupid.  The main strength of Blood of My Enemy is simply that it's not awful, which is admittedly a pretty terrible benchmark to work towards.  You can get the gist of the album after the first track, "Nameless Walker".  It starts of with some killer blast beats and punctuated keys, sounding exactly like the kind of band I always wished they'd become, but near the end it just devolves into slow non-riffs with sweeping keys over the top with gang shouts piercing through occasionally.  That's what most of the album is, slow non-riffs with needless keys.  They're back to trying to do everything at once, though not nearly as sloppily as they were on Decimate the Weak.  So you get a band trying to be epic through the lens of hardcore, which just a completely different approach to how metal does it, and it ends up being wonky and stupid most of the time.  The gang shouts and brochoirs are just out of place and weird every time they show up.  Even weirder is that, paradoxically, they sorta fit perfectly, because no other style of vocal would fit there.  It's just kind of a testament to how they're still peddling a style that just fundamentally doesn't work.

    I lead into this talking about Cowan, but she really doesn't have any real effect on the band beyond a short vocal spot in the title track.  In fact, I don't know if any of them do, because it was almost entirely the same band that released The Great Stone War, the one oddly okay one, in between all the terrible albums.  Every last one of them has been replaced barring ol' Johnny, and yet here we are reverting back to the sound of an album that was already notably different.  This boils down to me assuming that, throughout everything, he must be The Guy behind the band, and whichever sound they decide to focus on depends entirely on what kind of mood he's in come writing time.  As a result, even though this focuses on atmosphere more than any others, there are still some straggling hardcore-isms.  The most notable offender is "5150", which is basically a random ass Slipknot song shoehorned into the album, and "Dark Waters" and "Snakeskin" do the same thing in spots, with the former finally giving way to the kind of massive dumbass breakdown the band is so fond of and did such a good job of holding back from throughout the album's runtime. 

    Overall it's just... odd and disjointed, which has always been the band's problem, but it's a little bit more cohesive here.  It's best summed up as The Great Stone War with more chugs and less melodeath.  Which doesn't sound great, and in truth it's really not, it's just middling and forgettable.  For most bands this is almost worse than just being flat out bad, but with Winds of Plague it's actually commendable for how remarkably awful their worst albums are.  When it comes to this band, a weak and forgettable release is a huge step up from an actively annoying trainwreck.  So they've failceeded once again.  Congratulations?


    RATING - 49%

    Ogarya - Ubiquity

    They really don't need two vocalists though...

    Maybe it's the French origins and the fact that Ogarya sports a female drummer, but the one band that really jumps to mind when listening to Ubiquity is Gorod.  Don't take this as a knock against the band or some kind of accusation of them being unoriginal hacks, because they're not, it's just that I'm actually really excited because the world needs more bands like Gorod.  Those Bordeaux Brainiacs hit a real sweet spot in their prime, churning out adrenaline pumping death metal monsters that were both technical and progressive without going so overboard as to be classified exactly as either tech death or prog death, while also being unique enough to have just straight "death metal" sound inaccurate as well.  Ogarya hits that same sweet spot, with subtle synths and odd structures coming in at times to keep the prog fans on their toes, off kilter rhythms and shredding solos to pull the rug out from under those toes, and straight ahead pummeling brutality to beat the rug-tripee senseless while they lay on their backs disoriented. 

    Most of the tracks found here are within the 3 minute range, which I always say is a clear indicator of formulaic sameness, but Ogarya bucks that trend a bit here.  You could argue that it's still true, considering the songs all share the same elements from track to track, but that'd be selling the creativity of how they put it all together rather short.  There's a sense of cohesive identity throughout Ubiquity, which makes it sound more unified than one-note.  The winding melodies fly by at breakneck speed while the riffs manage to stay in the foreground ahead of the frantic percussion and Origin-style vocals that never back off.  Admittedly this does lead to the mix being pretty cluttered, with everything being as in-your-face as possible.  It's not exactly a problem since it doesn't sound like everything is fighting for attention, just that it's all attacking you at once in a big cartoon fight cloud.

    Few songs individually stand out, but the album as a whole is remarkably solid, and that's what's kept me coming back to it all year.  It's not one well suited to picking and choosing individually great moments, but that's okay.  It's a "big picture" album, and it works really well for what it is.


    RATING - 86%