Sunday, April 24, 2016

Tengger Cavalry - The Expedition

I didn't make a Dynasty Warriors reference

Remember when I gushed for days over Ancient Call?  Well The Expedition here is what started it all for me, and if you want to just skip all this shit and read my review for the followup album instead, not much will be different.

Tengger actually shares a bizarrely specific trait with Nile of all bands, and that's that both bands took the metal and non-metal influences of their music and blended them masterfully into a truly unique beast that nobody could possibly imitate.  Then, they both separated those two influences (Tengger with the Cavalry Folk double album, and Nile with the Karl Sanders solo album, Saurian Meditations) by almost completely excising the metal elements of their music and focusing on the folk portion.  The difference here is that when Nile came back with Annihilation of the Wicked, while it's pretty easily my favorite album of theirs, the Egyptian folk flavoring and ambient/booming passages are almost completely gone, or at least separated cleanly between tracks and albums, whereas Tengger Cavalry managed to return with Black Steed, which took both sides of their Cavalry Folk double feature and just blended them together better than ever before.  I think that by focusing on their metal side and their folk side separately, they (or rather Nature Zhang/Ganganbaigal, since the band is basically him plus whatever hired goons he employs) learned exactly what makes each side work, and learned how to take the best elements of each and twist them into a fucking gorgeous helix of twangy headbanging fury. 

Now, there is something of a problem with The Expedition, and that's that it is note for note almost completely identical to Black Steed.  Like six tracks are literally identical, not rerecorded or anything, and the tracklisting is just slightly modified and a couple interludes and acoustic tracks are different, otherwise it's essentially the same album.  This would bother most people, and admittedly it should probably irritate the hell out of me, but I heard The Expedition first, so it turns out to not matter to me at all (though the band would seem to follow this pattern and rerecord Blood Sacrifice Shaman two years later).  So consider this a review for both albums, if you will. 

I was hooked on the opening track, in the opening seconds.  Less than thirty seconds into the album and you're blasted in the face with everything the album plans on throwing at you.  There's an extended explosion of distortion, overlaid with haunting Mongolian throat singing and that fucking beautiful horsey fiddle I never shut up about.  After about twenty seconds of setting the stage with a punishing and slow overture, the fiddles give out a cry clearly meant to imitate a horse's whinny, and then shit just fucking explodes.  I don't know if you've ever heard the most perfect riff in history before, but it's right at this point where it decides to show up.  It's pretty clear that there are two things about metal that I love more than anything in the world, and that's simplicity and bombast.  The two don't always go together outside of something like Amon Amarth, and their songwriting skills are generally mediocre so there are only a handful of tracks here and there that really encapsulate the splendor I enjoy so much.  Otherwise you'll get awesome simple bands like Jungle Rot who can just pummel you to death forever with the stupidest riffs imaginable, or awesome bombastic bands like Rhapsody who just throw caution to the wind and throw in a million layers of choirs and horns and whatever they can think of to make the most epic shit imaginable.  Tengger Cavalry learned here how to perfectly mix both of these qualities, because that main riff to "Cavalry in Thousands" is just the most beautiful god damned thing I've ever heard.  It's a midpaced, heavy fucking metal riff that just mashes your faces with gauntleted smacks, forcing you to just slam your head against the nearest surface until you concuss yourself into gibbering idiocy.  Then the bridge comes, and it slows down a bit with a really simple straight eight note chugging riff and a soothing horsey fiddle melody, before it just suddenly breaks.  It's a simple Metallica styled "chug chug pulloff chug pulloff" riff that you've probably heard hundreds of times, but the interspersed hammering of the drums just signify that shit is about to break loose, and after a repeat or two, the drummer lets out a slick fill and then FUUUUUUUUUCK.  This god damned solo is so stupid.  It's just really fast picking and changing your fretting hand's position every bar or so with a random high note and a quick descending run part, and it climaxes on a harmonized melody that would make Iron Maiden weep, and all throughout the world horses just lose their minds and trample the fuck out of gophers.  I love every second of this solo and by extension this song and by extension this album if I'm being honest with you.

Almost every song follows that basic pattern, nothing really goes above mid paced other than sections of "Expedition" and "Hymn of the Wolf", and the fiddles never really shut up, but it's a good thing here because they add such a distinct flavor to the riffs and melodies throughout the album.  Between the fiddles and the throat singing, Tengger is determined to never let you forget where their inspiration comes from, that being the green steppes of Mongolia.  Every god damned second of The Expedition sounds like the soundtrack to a war across the grasslands, from the tense nights in camp, unsure of when the next assault with take place, to the victorious raids on the unsuspecting enemies while they sleep in their villages.  The band hasn't really done a whole lot in the way of changing what they do since Cavalry Folk split things into two camps and identifies the strengths of each, but I can't think of any way I'd ask them to change.  Everything here sounds massive, it's the backdrop to a bloody war on horseback.  That's really how it should be, it's simplistic metal riffs with I guess a sort of melodeath flavor thanks almost entirely to the vocals, while the guitar just stomps and gallops its way to freedom with a backdrop of booming mysticism.  It's not for everybody, about half of the fellow metal fans I've showed this band to have said it was just simple and dumb and lame and had nothing going on in it besides irritating folk melodies and nothing-riffs, but there are the chosen few who just got swept up in the majesty the music presents.  You should be one of those two, if you pick out "huh, this riff is okay I guess but it's not all that advanced or adventurous", you'll find yourself staring at Stonehenge and saying "Well I mean there's nothing special about this stone, it's just a stone".  It's all about the big picture, it's about the soaring greatness that the riffs and melodies pull together.  If there's anything at all wrong with the album, it's that the vocals are really pretty standard, which wouldn't be a problem normally, but when stacked up against the creativity that permeates every other second of the album it kinda stands out, and that the album is structured weirdly, with the last four tracks being a midpaced metal instrumental, a clear majestic outro with distorted guitars shoehorned in, and then two acoustic folk songs.  So really there's only like five traditional metal "songs" to be found here out of ten tracks, which doesn't bother me really, but I can see how it could be a negative to others. 

Overall just shut up and listen to Tengger Cavalry already.  Basically every album is amazing, but they really hit their stride starting with the Cavalry Folk double album, and The Expedition here is smack dab in the middle of that hot streak, even if it is for all intents and purposes just Black Steed with different outro tracks.  Who cares, listen to this, it's amazing.


RATING - 93%

Friday, April 15, 2016

Scanner - Hypertrace

EVEN TIIIIME IS STANDING STILL

I've mentioned before that German speed metal is pretty much unequivocally the greatest short lived subniche of the entire heavy metal family tree, and despite my raging fandom for it, I've never been exactly sure which album to recommend to somebody who has no idea what it sounds like.  Running Wild's seminal Gates to Purgatory is far and away the best album of the style in my eyes, but it's a weird starting point because the lyrical focus stakes itself firmly in the grimy satanism of Venom, while the runner up album, Helloween's Walls of Jericho, fits all the themes and hits all the tropes, but it always felt like an album of two or three magnificent songs and a bunch of merely good ones in accompaniment.  That's why, after six seconds of deliberation, I have decided to bestow the title of "Absolute First Fucking Speed Metal Album You Should Ever Hear" upon Scanner's 1988 debut, Hypertrace.  Why you ask?  Why not something a little more obvious and relatable like the first couple Blind Guardian albums?  Well that's easy.  Scanner may not be as good as Blind Guardian or Running Wild, but let me tell you, they are ten trillion times more awesome.

Really, nothing makes me giddy on the level of a seven year old after his twentieth Oreo like a high speed, spacefaring concept album narrated by a coked up wolverine possessed by the spirit of Udo Dirkschneider caught in a bear trap.  Seriously, I raved for eons about how much I loved the unhinged ridiculousness of Bride's vocals, but Scanner tops even those.  Michael Knoblich's glass shattering wail is used about as liberally as Nutella in a hipster's studio apartment, and I love it.  It's never been a secret that I think subtlety is overrated in the context of metal, and I'm much more prone to loving the shit out of something shamelessly fun and ridiculous.  Hypertrace is that in spades, it's just non stop speed and over the top wailing and blistering fretwork from the get go and it basically never lets up.  But again, none of that matters, listen to the vocals.  They're so over the top ridiculous, so full of overt cheeseball silliness that I seriously can't decide if he's playing it totally straight, stoically imposing his will on the stage like the vocalist of Belphegor while wearing a Terminator mask and Deathworld suit, or if he's this little ball of energy, bounding around everywhere, shooting his toy laser gun into the crowd and swinging the microphone stand like a noob Kilik player, belting his heart out so hard that blood squirts out of his eyes before he passes out at the end of every show with a six foot wide smile rigor mortis'd onto his face.  They're so perfect, I want Knoblich to sing to me on my birthday.  LOCKED! OUT!  uuuWAAAaAaAaAaAAAHH!

So yeah, I could write forty thousand words about how fucking perfect the vocal performance is, but the music and songwriting is pretty much spot on phenomenal as well.  There is basically no album opener as great as "Warp 7" in all of metal.  Really, for the blast of energy it provides, coupled with how obnoxiously infectious it is, it rivals something like "Painkiller" or "Exciter", and most of the album follows suit.  "Terrion", "Locked Out", "Grapes of Fear", "Wizard Force", basically every single song is a high speed burst of enthusiasm that manages to be as ear catching as any 80s anthem.  Despite how fast and over the top the album is, it never actually seems "aggressive", so to speak.  It's not sinister or vicious, it's just fucking fun.  From the explosions and corny sound effects that are sprinkled throughout the album, to the fist pumping singalong monuments, everything hits bullseye in a way that most of their peers would kill to achieve.  Despite the over the top speed taking up a large portion of the album, there are definitely spots where the band shows they aren't afraid to slow down a bit to show off their songwriting skill.  Nothing here really approaches a ballad, per se, but songs like "Killing Fields" and "Across the Universe" tone down the barnburning ridiculousness in favor of arena deafening anthems that are no less over the top and entertaining.  Both of the aforementioned songs have some of the best singalong moments in all of speed metal, rivaling the mighty Blind Guardian in terms of catchiness and complexity.  Early Manowar, despite being kings of this kind of thing, still weep at the fact that they never wrote anything as indisputably immortal as the chorus to "Across the Universe".  So my claims of nothing but non stop speed are slightly facetious, as the band does an excellent job of throwing in an abundance of Screaming for Vengeance-isms.  Despite the variance in tempo and execution, it's never anything less than Evel Kneivel level over the top bombast.  From the screaming guitars to wailing shrieks of the greatest vocalists to ever take the stage, everything is the musical embodiment of a wild haired scientist jumping the entire width of France in a rocket powered Star Wars speeder.

So basically, Hypertrace can be summed up as "charismatic".  It's a goofy sci-fi concept backed by over the top theatrics and a vocalist who sells everything by singing ridiculous nonsense with as much conviction as anybody ever has.  Everything that comes out of his mouth just sounds like the MOST AWESOME THING EVER and I can't find myself arguing against it.  In the grand scheme of things, this was sorta lost in the shuffle and Scanner never reached the heights of Helloween and Blind Guardian, despite being every bit as magical.  The only reason I can think of for this being the case is simply that they were a little late to the party (Speed metal of this specific niche only lasted what, five or six years?  It was basically gone by 1990 and Hypertrace came out in 1988) and missed the intangible of being "influential" instead of just "amazing".  Maybe if they'd've transitioned into full on power metal as their career went on like the genre progenitors did, they'd be remembered by the general populace as one of the greats.  But as it stands, they're just a cult classic, known widely by the people who matter and basically nobody else.  And really, that's probably the way it should be.


RATING: A MILLION TIMES GALE FORCE TEEeEeEeEEEEN

(but really, 97%)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Avantasia - Ghostlights

BABYLON IS BUUUUHNING

While this seems to be getting rave reviews the internet over, I have to admit it's something of a surprise to me.  Not because the album sucks and doesn't deserve it, certainly not, but mostly because the last four Avantasia albums have all put me to sleep.  Tobi has been cranking out shit that alternates between pointlessly forgettable and agonizingly annoying ever since he decided to morph into Chris Gaines and fail at being Meat Loaf, and that in itself is sort of what makes Ghostlights so remarkable.  It's still a shamelessly self indulgent explosion of melodrama and he's still taking the stage dressed like Garth Brooks' alter ego if he took Johnny Depp's role in the shitty remake of Willy Wonka, but it took him until 2016 to finally put all of his overtly stupid pieces into something stupidly brilliant.  Ghostlights is a surprising epic that lives up to its own pomp and grandeur, spanning the emotional spectrum between bombastic rock opera, weepy ballads, and back-to-basics sweeping power metal.  This shouldn't work, but for whatever reason, I'm buying it this time around.

It deserves special mention that there are really only a handful of tracks that can truly be considered "metal" in the traditional sense of the word, and the rest of the album is filled with operatic nonsense and waifish ballads, but it all works well together.  The album opens with an explosion of hammy orchestrations and booming choirs, exactly like what you'd expect to find during Meat Loaf's most cringe inducing pieces, but "Mystery of a Blood Red Rose" sets the stage nicely for the in your face bombast the rest of the record throws at you.  It's probably cliche to compare it to Meat Loaf, but it's true, that was the first thing to come to mind when I heard it, and after several spins the obvious influence has yet to dissipate.  And when that infectious blast of cheddar fades away into the twelve minute epic of metal and emotional balladry, "Let the Storm Descend Upon You", it all feels so damn natural.  Like, this is the only logical way the album could have progressed.  It didn't repetitively clobber me with dull, go-nowhere rock opera bullshit, it kept flowing in a natural pattern throughout the midpaced metal with huge choirs and sheer size of the chorus.  It's phenomenal, and the followup ballad "The Haunting" even stands on its own merits and shows itself to be a marvelously well written ballad.  The rest of the album continues to cycle through those same ideas, but it manages to be entertaining throughout.

Normally I find the ballads to be the weakest part of any given metal album, no matter how prone the band in question may be towards shoehorning them into every album.  But the reason it doesn't bother me here, whereas a band like Gamma Ray or Rhapsody of Fire drives me up the wall with this, is because Ghostlights doesn't really have a unified sonic theme apart from the soaring vocals from the impressive cast of guest vocalists.  I mean the aforementioned bands tend to focus on mellifluous vitriol and magniloquent bombast, respectively, so whenever the inevitable slow and emotional song stumbles into frame, it disrupts the flow of all the fun I was having.  Avantasia was never about either of those things, they're all about telling some story and setting a soundtrack to Tobi's crazed fantasy.  Because of this, "The Haunting", "Draconian Love", "Isle of Evermore", and "Lucifer" all feel like natural progressions in the logical flow of the album.  Hell, the only one of those that flat out sucks is "Isle of Evermore", and that's entirely because Sharon den Adel makes an appearance.  I swear to god this woman is physically incapable of lending her voice to anything that isn't a complete an utter snoozefest.  Nothing happens in this song, and it sandwiches itself between two of the best songs and ends up being the exact kind of needless diversion I was just praising the album for avoiding.

With that in mind, it makes sense that I prefer all of the more traditional power metal tracks to be found, particularly the title track, "Master of the Pendulum", "Babylon Vampyres", and "Unchain the Light".  The shit-awful "Isle of Evermore" is nestled snugly between the second and third songs in the previous sentence, and it's a complete tragedy because those two are likely my favorites to be found.  Both of them are huge numbers, with "Master of the Pendulum" being the most obviously heavy song on the album, with Marco Hietala shrieking his lungs out over the catchiest fucking chorus I've heard all year.  I've been whistling this song to myself basically nonstop since I first heard it, and you will be too.  "Babylon Vampyres" stands out as well for being one of the longest songs on the album and still finding a way to be over far too soon.  That's something the album in general is extraordinarily good at, almost every song manages to be over before you truly want it to be (barring a few obvious exceptions).  It's not that they're all full of so many great ideas that you stay entertained the entire time as much as it's just that they're all so damn well written.  The best songs are all pretty standard in the grand scheme of the genre, but they're all so catchy and fun that it's hard to fault them for not straying too far from the template.  Hell, even my vocal kryptonite, Michael Kiske, is great on the fantastically energetic "Ghostlights".  His disgustingly syrupy voice is a soaring compliment to that damn high pitched snarly thing that Sammet is so fond of.  I generally don't like either of those stylings, but here they're just two great hates that taste great together, and it's maddening.

Ghostlights is a monument, and I say that through clenched teeth and a mouthful of foot.  Avantasia has no right to be releasing an early favorite of mine for the year, but here they are.  I don't know what dumb story Tobias is trying to tell this time around (the appearance of The Watchmaker character and an obsession with time seems to tell me that it's at least in part a continuation of the previous album), but I don't care, it's a fun journey through all the grandiose styles of music he could get his hands on.  The only true duds are the painfully dull "Isle of Evermore" and the sluggish and way-too-damn-long "Seduction of Decay", but those are pretty heartily offset by the fiery epics of "Let the Storm Descend Upon You", "Master of the Pendulum", and "Babylon Vampyres", which themselves are complemented by some great ballads and some bombastic rock opera.  The last Avantasia album I cared for at all was The Metal Opera pt.II waaaaay back in 2002, and even then it was mostly on the strength of "The Seven Angels" and "Final Sacrifice", and Ghostlights basically took everything great about those two songs and spread them out across an entire album and dropped David DeFeis's stupid rasp (screw you all, he sounds like a joke on that album).  So basically this is the exact album I've been secretly wishing Avantasia would make for over a decade.


RATING - 86%

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Suffocation - Breeding the Spawn

Sublimely butchering itself

Suffofuckingcation.

If I had it my way, I'd review every album in their original run with that one made up word and be done with it.  That tells you everything you need to know.  It's not unrealistic to say that probably half of modern death metal is at least partially Suffocation's fault, their flair for the technical, the chaotic, and the punishing all rolled into one package was simply inhuman in the early 90s, and every release from Human Waste to Pierced from Within showcases this with aplomb, and I'd argue none more so than the world's most well known underappreciated album, Breeding the Spawn does this the most clearly.

Now yes, there is an elephant in the room that I'll just address right away.  Yes, the production is trebly and shitty.  Yes, it hurts the overall package to an extent.  No, I don't fucking care.  I can understand being disappointed with the tinny, hollow sound found on the album, but to act like it completely ruins the experience for you just outs you as some sort of dork who's never actually heard a death metal album before.  Yes, Effigy of the Forgotten was primal and savage while Pierced from Within is probably the heaviest sounding record to ever grace the 90s, but those two masterclasses in sound engineering have no bearing on Breeding the Spawn, and shouldn't be used to taint your memory of this album.  The sharp splashiness of the album gives it a unique character anyway, and whatever lughead they hired to clumsily fuck up the entire album actually did a pretty good job of keeping the bass prominent, letting those low end licks get their moment in the spotlight when it's time.  Yeah I would've preferred this album gotten the Morrisound treatment like nearly every other worthwhile early death metal release, but I've grown to love this bizarre, mangled hackjob of a production over the years, and you should to.

And on that note, I know it's really lazy to quote another review in my own work, but veteran MA scribe, Cheeses Priced, really said it best when he said "They tend to be pretty good about not playing the exact same bar of music over and over again – but neither do they shift about at random – instead, they deliberately mangle the hell out of whatever it is that they’re playing as they go, offering a number of variations of each idea, making for music with a real sense of depth and complexity."  That sentence alone sums up basically everything there is to know about Suffocation's unique style as a whole.  That's part of what makes Breeding the Spawn so special, as it's arguably their most chaotic album, with their trademark brand of twisted evolution naturally leading every song down a craggly chasm into the pits of Hell itself.  Take a look at one of my personal favorites from the album, "Epitaph of the Credulous".  From the start, it takes what logically should be an archetypical thrashy death metal song, but they present it with a hint of dutch angled lunacy, where everything sounds ever so slightly tilted countercockwise, and as it progresses it hurls left-field bass runs at you that flick the air like a serpent's tongue, before leading into an arrhythmic breakdown that straddles the line between the kind of slam that the entire Sevared Records roster would rip off a decade later and an almost Meshuggah-esque eschewing of logical flow, never entirely sure when the next beat is going to come until it slaps you in the face like Tyson haymaker.  That's really the whole album in a nutshell: as unpredictable and creative as Ali with the raw power of Tyson.  "Beginning of Sorrow" showcases this tendency right off the bat, drawing from an unfathomably deep well of riffs and growing organically along a twisted vine.  It's a colossal, pulsating katamari of nightmares and rotting spleens.

Mike Smith further cements himself as one of the standout drummers in the initial swell of American death metal, with his unhinged and chaotic creativity being matched only by sheer inventiveness of Pete Sandoval.  The intensity in the rhythm section is completely off the charts, with his signature hammer blasting pummeling listeners at every 120 degree turn.  It's neck snapping and unpredictable without being pointless noodling, always throwing in a crushing groove whenever the music starts to get a little bit too close to "normal".  I've always maintained that Doug Cerrito had to be the hidden genius in Suffocation, since their albums in the 90s are so vastly superior to everything since the reunion in 2003, but in all honesty his contributions are pretty split between he and the heart and soul of the band's sound, Terrance Hobbs.  Cerrito seemed to be one of the chief architects of the band's identity of spiraling madness that I keep jerking off, but Hobbs seemed to have a more nuanced sense of sinister morbidity.  A track like "Animalistic Offerings" can be downright unsettling when he takes the forefront for a bizarre lead or solo.  An easy way to remember it is that the more overtly heavy tracks are Cerrito's, and the more chaotic and unhinged ones belong to Hobbs.

Basically the only flaw the album has is that the production is obviously bunk, and Frank sounds ever so slightly less awesome than he did on Effigy of the Forgotten two years prior.  Here he's a little less savage and a little more coherent (which would eventually grow into one of my few pet peeves with the band around the turn of the century), with his hilarious "New Yawk" accent peeping through when you're paying attention.  But even then, this is a comically tiny complaint, as his roar is still powerful enough to provide energy to a small village.

If you know anything about Suffocation, it's that they've been slowly rerecording this album over time, with one track appearing on every successive album barring Souls to Deny, and to date the only ones missing are "Epitaph of the Credulous", "Ornaments of Decrepancy", and "Ignorant Deprivation".  The true tragedy as that those are potentially the three best songs (the breakdowns on "Ignorant Deprivation" seriously rival something like "Brood of Hatred" in their sheer force).  But what it really shows is that the band understands how brilliant this album was and how tragically it was handled by the label with the production job and mistreatment of the whole ordeal.  So Breeding the Spawn stands as the "forgotten" album that everybody seems to know about, and it's absolutely worth your time.  Suffocation is one of the greatest bands on the planet in the realm of death metal in all of its subniches, and if you're wary about checking this one out because it's infamous for it's trebly mix, then you're depriving yourself of some of the most creative and hard hitting metal ever penned.

Basically just don't be a pussy.


RATING - 95%

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

GOSPEL OF GARGOYLE: Gargoyle - Yaiba

XV: Blade

So Moderngoyle is in full swing now.  The goofball party songs and the flittery uplifting songs are either excised completely or weaker than ever.  So that must mean all the effort goes into the heavy songs now, right?  And logically they should be better than ever, right?  Well, sorta mostly.  All the bizarre out-of-left-field moments from the 90s era managed to be integrated in so seamlessly that the albums stayed cohesive despite all the different ideas going on (an album like Tenron or Natural looks all over the place when you're zoomed in, but in the big picture it was all one humongous unit where every moving part had a purpose and the albums sounded amazing as a result).  So these newer albums sound even more unified at a glance, and to be completely fair, they still run like a well oiled machine, it just seems like some parts need to be tweaked.

And that's what Yaiba does.

Had I been following the band since their inception, Ronpuu would have scared the shit out of me, because it seemed to signal the band trying less and less and finally just going through the motions, plugging in what needed to be plugged in order for it to sound like a Gargoyle album.  Thankfully, Yaiba corrects their first major misstep by once again focusing on essentially just one style of song, but making them fucking awesome again.

Right from the opening notes of "Jet Tiger" (another one of their "Best Song Ever"s), there's this feeling of overwhelming relief in how intense and catchy that opening sequence is.  That really was Ronpuu's major failing, it simply wasn't as ear catching as the rest of their oeuvre.  It was arguably one of their heaviest albums, but it lacked that inherent X factor of singalong togetherness that other unrelentingly heavy albums like Future Drug and Kemonomichi had in spades.  Yaiba throws all of that upbeat nonsense back to the forefront, and you'll find yourself unable to overcome the urge to hold back from pumping your fist and warbling "GOGOGO! GOGOGO! JET-TU TAIIIGAaAaAH!" like an unstable lunatic.

OIOIOI! OIOIOI! JET-TU MEE-EeEeEEE!
This album also holds possibly my favorite song from the Moderngoyle era right next to "Aoki Kobushi" and a few secret ones later down the line, with "Iconoclasm".  This one stands out to me for basically two major reasons, the first of which is that, while the band is fairly notorious for remodeling earlier songs by changing the riffs but keeping the general templates the same from album to album, this is one of the first songs I can think of that finally does that to what you might remember as my overall all time favorite Gargoyle track, "Shouryakukeitachi Yo" from Tsuki no Toge.  It starts the same, with a huge, punishing chug riff (even heavier than its predecessor, largely because of how far productions values leaped from 1994 to 2007) before breaking into an all out thrash frenzy.  Seriously, that verse riff is completely out of this world, modeling itself really closely to what that earlier classic laid down.  Katsuji even basically just blast beats during the first vocal section, and the venom in Kiba's voice is more potent than it has been in ages.  The aggression comes to a head in what comes to be the second reason this song stands out so much, the chorus.  The chorus in "Shouryakukeitachi Yo" is a sublime, commanding vocal line over triumphant guitar lines, while "Iconoclasm" distinguishes itself from it's primary influence by taking a completely different approach.  There's no soaring majesty here, "Iconoclasm" instead just goes for the throat and bellows out a vicious countdown backed by riffs so punchy that they actually gave me a black eye.  The climax of all of this is just as perfect as they've been at any point during their heyday, and it makes the whole journey of dirty destruction leading up to it completely worth it.  "ICONOCLA-SUMUUUAAAAHHHH"

So with those two major highlights out of the way, what else does the album hold?  Well, mostly just more awesome Gargoylian thrash.  Unlike the previous album, none of it is exactly disappointing, particularly because of the heightened catchiness.  "D.Exit" runs with some excellent stop-start riffage and ascending "whoa whoa whoa WHOAAAA" parts in the chorus, sounding like a choir of drunken Gorons making a toast.  "Idaten" sounds like, and this is going to sound like gibberish until you hear it, a character select theme in a fighting game.  The main riff is groovy and simple, looping just the right amount of times before the double bass and traditional thrash riffage crashes through the door to start spree punching children.  "Gokuraku Full Throttle" is a more melodic number with subtle power metal influences (essentially this is the "Kaze no Machi" of the album without an extended intro), "Last Heaven" is a more laid back track, et cetera and so on.  Yaiba is a great album because it runs the gamut of what it gives itself.  Earlier albums kept a stunningly high quality despite being all over the place, and this one keeps a much narrower focus, but still manages to bounce off of every self imposed wall.

Despite all the praise, I have to admit that this is one of my least listened to Gargoyle albums.  I'm not entirely sure why, basically all the songs are good, and the sticking power is much higher than the comparatively weak Ronpuu, but I guess the fact that "Jet Tiger" and "Iconoclasm" are so astoundingly great makes them overshadow the rest of the album.  Hell, I've been caterwauling about the death of the wacky horn filled party songs and yet this album has "Shippai R Ni Jou", which is exactly that kind of song.  It's basically a reimagining of "Doumushishubai" or "Baby Cat" but with beefier production.  I literally forgot this track existed, that's how often I listen to anything that isn't "Jet Tiger" or "Iconoclasm".  I'll admit that that is more my own failing than the band's, but it's worth noting at the very least.  I promise this time, "Shippai R Ni Jou" is the last overtly dorky Austin Powers swingers party song.  For real this time.

So yeah, it took me two and a half years to finish the third block of the Gospel, but I swore I wouldn't abandon this project, so here I am.  This is one of the more difficult eras of the band to talk about, so it'll likely end up as the least enthusiastic, but don't let that dissuade you from checking any of these albums.  They're all at least good, and that's the scariest part about Gargoyle.  Even their worst album is still "quite good".


RATING - 86%

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

GOSPEL OF GARGOYLE: Gargoyle - Ronpuu

XIV: Dragon Wind

*groan*

I'm gonna be honest, this bit of Gargoyle's history is the only part of this series I was dreading.  I crapped out the first ten reviews in like eight days and had a blast with every single one of them, they're a band with an insane frontman and a legendarily eclectic approach to songwriting.  There was a ton of shit to talk about, dozens of wild ideas on each and every album, so many different branching paths to work with, just... damn.  I wrote the review for Wa on December 9th, 2013, and Bushin and Kemonomichi about a week apart in April of the next year.  Now I'm sitting here on January 23, 2016, almost two and a half years removed from the start of this pet project, just struggling to find words on Ronpuu.  It's sad and I've done my best not to telegraph it, but this is really and truly the first fully Moderngoyle album, and it's the first in their discography that I just can't get myself to give a shit about.

Now, that's not to say it's a bad album.  I mean come on, it's Gargoyle, of course I like it to some extent.  The problem arises in that I can tell you to check out "Ningen no Joken", "1.618", and "Thanatos" and then just skip over to the next album.  Most of the songs are decently okay, but apart from those three, nothing reaches the lofty heights they used to conquer with alarming regularity.  And hot off the heels of the incredible Kemonomichi, this is a pretty hefty disappointment.

It's a confusing quandary for me, because I've always rated their heaviest and fastest songs among their best, and from this point on that's basically the only kind of song they crank out.  Future Drug is my favorite album of theirs and it's the first time they put nearly 100% of their effort into the thrashiest and riffiest parts, and Ronpuu seems to care about almost nothing else except those thrashy and riffy parts.  But despite this essentially being the sort of album I always secretly wished they'd write, it stands to show us that all of the quirky riffage and cultural oddities they'd throw in at every opportunity were a huge part of why those previous albums worked so well.  Apart from the child chorus on "Zettaisei Riron", almost all of that fun stuff is absent.  There's no cornball honky song like "Baby Cat", there's no random electronic influences like "±0" or "Hakkyou Gamer", it's 93% songs like "Dogma" and "Kichiku".  Now, those two songs are incredibly good, but they stood out on their respective albums, whereas "Ikusa", "Spark", and "Sorenbushi" are just par for the course here.  Even the songs that do sorta toe the line into their old ideas like the "Ruten Yo no Nite" and the "Kaze no Machi" ("Tabi no Dokeshi" and "Rakuen ni Shisu", respectively) just feel like they're not going all out into it.  It's the most standard sounding album they've released up to this point, sounding like a band going through the motions and sorta halfheartedly swatting at the formulas they used to make sound so original and breathtaking.  Now it's more "Dammit, I guess we need to do a song like this now, don't we?  Just play the first downtempo chugging riff you can think of and we'll throw some meaningless strings over it and that'll be our 'Ruten' this time".

Even though the band doesn't sound as inspired as they usually do, they still find ways to crank out classics, even on albums I'm only halfway on board with.  "Ningen no Joken" is a face crushing punisher that sounds like the logical continuation of what they were doing on Kemonomichi.  The chorus riff is the exact kind of Oriental flavored, extra crunchy thrash that they whipped me up into a frenzy with on the last album, and it works just as well here.  Part of me wants to say that it's because it's the first track and you don't have time to be disappointed yet, but that's not exactly true.  The quality of the riffs are just through the damn roof, and that's always been their bread and butter.  It really just comes down to most of the songs here just not being quite as good, despite ticking the necessary boxes.  "1.618" also lives up to it's name as it throws in the absolute perfect ratio of blistering speed and pummeling stomp, sounding like the spiritual idea of what Anthrax had always wished they were (if they were secretly Overkill).  If this isn't a Battle Gargoyle staple, it damn well needs to be.

"Thanatos" stands as the best song, with a distorted yelling intro like "Shinpan no Hitomi" that gives way to one of the best riffs on the album, and the absolute best bridge they've ever written.  Holy hell that bridge is something else to behold.  The solo ends and the band slowly breaks down while the bass plays what sounds like it'll be a simple descending run before devolving into some utter chaos.  When the band finally pulls themselves back together, they morph into this gigantic black creature of the abyss, with high pitched dissonant staccato chords ringing out over a slow war march.  Kiba generally doesn't sound quite as unhinged and insane as he normally does on this album, but he expertly chooses this moment to let loose, and he does so in a way that he's never really done before.  Instead of his manic warbling, he hunkers down to the lowest register he's managed in eons, while the rest of the band chants along with him, sounding like a demonic chain gang bellowing out a slave song while they angrily yet despondently chip away at brimstone while Satan whips their backs raw with forty five knotted penises.

Unfortunately, aside from the assorted highlights mentioned above, Ronpuu is pretty clearly my least favorite Gargoyle album at this point in time.  The ideas they used to exude so effortlessly sound tired and obligatory now, with unconvincing nods here and there to the quirks and trademarks that populated every prior album.  The quality of the riffs just isn't quite as stellar as it usually is, and as a result the whole album feels moderately bogged down and halfhearted compared to its predecessors.  Like every Gargoyle album, it isn't worth skipping, but there's a startlingly small amount of gold here compared to everything before it.  If this is one of the first albums you hear, I can guarantee you'll love it, but if you're intimately familiar with their earlier work, it's a letdown.

Yes I know that's unfair, shut up.


RATING - 74%

Monday, January 25, 2016

GOSPEL OF GARGOYLE: Gargoyle - Kemonomichi

XIII: Beast Road

I'm obviously more in love with this band than I am with my wife and children, that's not really a secret (little Kazuhisa and Toshiyuki Head will have to live with that for the rest of their lives), and every other album has me proclaiming a different song as the new official Best Song Ever.  Kemonomichi here, the band's tenth full length, is no exception.  I'll get to my rant about the Best Song Ever in time, but I also have to preface this whole deal by saying that Kemonomichi is both one of the best, and one of the worst, Gargoyle albums in their career.  "Why the hell is that?" you may ask, and the answer is somewhat simple.

This is Future Drug-esque in terms of consistent riffwork and hooky heaviness, but it also marks what I consider to be the last "classic" sounding album, and the beginning of Moderngoyle.

I need to accent that I said classic sounding album, because you'll see as the series goes on that there are still albums down the line that I like more than Aratama or Gaia, but from this point on, Gargoyle starts to shift their focus away from the oddities that made them so unique and more towards just being tighter, heavier, riffier, and just better songwriters than every other band in the style.  That's not to say that they just become any old thrash band from here onwards, not even fucking close.  I've done my damnedest to not mention any future albums as I've been writing this, but it's only fair to warn you that "OOO ~Zero.Wa.Maru~" is one of the last tracks of its kind you're ever going to hear from the band, and the horn filled cornball songs like "Baby Cat" and "Doumushishubai" are practically extinct for the next decade.  It's sad, but so are those fucking ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan and those are effective as shit (assuming the goal is to make me bawl into a bucket of ice cream while cuddling my dog).

But okay, so the electronic tinged and bouncy as hell "OOO ~Zero.Wa.Maru~" marks the death rattle of that goofy style of song, if you pretend I'm not sitting here spoiling the ending for you, it stands as yet another worthy addition into their catalog of goofy upbeat party rockers.  It's also a bit unfair to harp of that previous point when this record contains "Futatsu no Ten", which is pretty much the only song of it's kind the band would ever release.  It's a fun, upbeat and poppy punk song with Kentaro on vocals, and it ranks as one of the catchiest things the band would ever produce (those female vocals in the chorus are just sublime).  And of course, that trademark downtempo dirge is back as always with "Fukaki Rurou To Hateru Kageru".  This one is one of the better ones, in my opinion, as it has a main riff remarkably similar to that super famous on in "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin.  I am far from a Zeppelin fan, but if you forced me to choose one song of theirs to listen to for the rest of my life, I'd very likely pick "Kashmir".  It presents this imagery of being lost in the desert, wandering aimlessly as every oasis and obelisk and settlement you happen upon turns out to be merely a trick the heat is playing on your dehydrated eyes.  It's a six and a half minute excursion that elicits feelings of both hopeless futility and intrepid adventure.  I constantly compare these kinds of songs to the obvious predecessor from Furebumi, but I'll give "Fukaki...", despite being one of the most thematically similar to said originator, the benefit of it's own distinction.  Admittedly mostly because I just like it a lot.

But I said this album focuses mostly on preposterous weightiness and sharp ferocity, didn't I?  Oh shit son, does it ever.  "Kichiku" ranks itself as one of the heaviest songs in their oeuvre, and has become a Battle Gargoyle staple over time.  And for good reason as well, listen to that pummeling intro and how it segues into that fucking maddeningly infectious main riff.  Every single second of this song is just primo Gargoyle, and it's hard to call it anything other than the most Battle Gargoyle-y song they've released oustside of that moniker.  It's heavier than dark matter but faster than a train.  In that vein, there's also "XXX ~Batsu.Kakeru.Peke", another one of their heaviest songs to date, but with a similar electronic twinge (SUPER subtle) like the previous "Hakkyou Gamer", which I don't actually consider a highlight but it still stands for once again being one of the last bastions of the quirkiness the band exuded so strongly in the early 90s. 

But I just have to stop and do what I always do.  There are, like always, three absolutely stellar classics that everybody absolutely needs to hear.  "Bakudan Chuudoku", "Kemonomichi". and "Aoki Kobushi".  I don't know if you've noticed or not, but very frequently, the opening track on any given album is going to be a highlight, and "Bakudan Chuudoku" is no exception.  In fact, if I had to pinpoint the exact kind of song that exemplifies Moderngoyle, it'd be this one.  The almost Iron Maiden-esque lead melodies over the vicious riffing, extraordinarily strong melody, and tons of awesome gang shouts.  The hooky heaviness pretty much reaches it's apex on songs like this, and it's what Gargoyle has always done best.  Lots of bands can make you involuntarily headbang and air guitar, but there are a precious few who can put such a gigantic shit eating grin on your face at the same time.  The title track does the exact same thing, with the transcendentally catchy chorus lines, except it ups the ante by making the main riff very similar to the main riff from "Satori" from Junreiin.  It's been a while, but just in case you need a refresher, "Satori" is one of the greatest songs ever and has no less than two of the Best Riffs Ever in it.

And despite that, I still haven't gotten around to explaining Kemonomichi's entry into the Best Song Ever pool, "Aoki Kobushi".  I just... goddamn this song does everything right.  Previous contestants like "Kaze no Machi" fluttered around with epic melodies, while "Shouryakukeitachi Yo" was just a riff salad with an unbelievable chorus, and "Doumushishubai" can only be described as what I once referred to (running on three hours of sleep across two days) as a "goof balloon".  "Aoki Kobushi" just takes all these and aims for sheer catchiness over blistering riffage and hits bullseye better than anybody ever has in the history of anything ever.  It doesn't even fuck around with intros or silly shit like that, it just starts with the chorus and goes from there.  Oh, it's also the best chorus they've written since "Shouryakukeitachi Yo" and will be stuck in your head for fucking days, end of story.  I can't even describe it, it's so good, so upbeat and aggressive, so goddamn flawless that it makes me utterly suck at my job.  Throw in a clean guitar solo that leads into a soaring traditional metal one and there's just nothing wrong.  Every single segment of the song is just flawless.  It has one goal in mind, homes in on it, and never deviates from the course.  Fuck all these bands trying to do too much and be masters of everything, just find something you're good at and then work on doing it better than anybody.

Despite opening the review with a statement that this is one of the lesser Gargoyle albums for what it signifies historically, that's actually just a heaping load of bullshit, because Kemonomichi is, really and truly, just the transition album, and it's still every bit as good as classic Gargoyle.  And hell, I like it more than Wa, which was an album that still felt like Yotaro could have been involved.  Kemonomichi is the sound of Kentaro finally fully taking over guitar duties, and it's also the sound of him being really goddamn good at it.  There are honestly almost no weak tracks here, completely unlike the previous EP and LP that had some undeniable filler.  This is an absolute classic of transitional Gargoyle, and anybody who doesn't like "Aoki Kobushi" is officially off my Christmas card mailing list.

RATING: 91%

PS: "Shouryakukeitachi Yo" is still totally the best song.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

GOSPEL OF GARGOYLE: Gargoyle - Bushin

XII: Great Bishamonten... God of War....

For those of us on the other side of the pond (which pond? Japan is surrounded by ponds) who don't/didn't have the luxury of seeing the band live on a frequent basis, there have been rumors swirling about Ga-Goiru's alter ego.  A band which had so prided itself on cultural oddities permeating through high octane thrash/heavy/power/justgoddamnawesome metal was allegedly shedding their kimonos and tribal masks and instead adorning themselves with gute olde ketten und leder.  A band that crafted nine straight albums of quirky melodies intertwining with pummeling thrash was apparently eschewing that former quotient and just ripping faces left and right with naught but riff after riff after riff.

Basically, around the time of Gaia, Gargoyle started occasionally doing small tours and one-off shows as "Battle Gargoyle", the alternate persona where they'd play only their hard, fast, and heavy thrash songs.  Fans may also know these songs by their parallel distinction: "all of their best songs".

Well shortly after Wa marked the reluctant departure of longtime guitarist, Yotaro, the remaining four boys decided to release a short EP under the banner of Battle Gargoyle.  The reason?  Probably nothing special.  They probably all woke up one day and flipped a communal coin to decide which awesome thing they would do today, and said coin happened to land on whichever side represented "release a blisteringly crazy EP".  And release a blisteringly crazy EP they did, and it's title was Bushin.

One thing I've noticed throughout this series is that the three EPs I've covered so far (this one, and the previous Kaikoroku and Junreiin) are usually much less ambitious than their full length brethren.  The songs are always shorter, punchier, and more to the point.  This fits in brilliantly with the ideal of Battle Gargoyle, since they would shun the grandiosity and magniloquence of songs like "Kaze no Machi" or "Wakakusa no Kimi" and would instead just rather bask in the headbanging fury of songs like "Dilemma" and "Haretsu Ganbou".  Bushin is exactly that.  It is a short love letter to all things neck wrecking, chock full of the band's signature pomp and vigor, except with none of the naturally quirky peripherals they're known for, instead focusing that extra energy on simply delivering a tighter, more ferocious performance of some truly brutal and pummeling thrash.

With that said... Bushin is not one of their better releases.  I like it a lot, don't get me wrong (Gargoyle did release it, so...) but in the grand scheme of things, it matches up with its predecessor in Kaikoroku in that it's kinda skippable within the scope of their entire career.  That doesn't mean tracks like "Underground Market" and "Busou Seri" aren't worth hearing (they definitely, one million percent are worthy of a spot in any setlist), but overall I just find myself listening to this very rarely.  That could honestly just be a result of the band's discography just being so bloody magnificent on the whole, of course, but hot on the heels of something ambitious and creative like Wa, Bushin feels kind of like a collection of discarded ideas that the band was fond of but hadn't found any way to fit them in the context of an album yet.  I know that isn't what this is, but considering its place in the band's catalog, I can't help but view this as a collection of B-sides and unreleased tracks as opposed to what it truly is; another frenzied example of how incredibly punishing this band can be when given a handful of expertly written riffs and a seemingly limitless supply of hooky melodies.

There are obviously standout moments here, like the marching beat of the intro track and the primal rage of "Busou Seri" (probably the best track on the album).  "Kaijuu Z" stands out for the two spoken word fake-out endings*, and "Hagure" has a breathtakingly intense soloing section, but... I dunno, these songs are all great, but they're all second or third tier Gargoyle songs.  There's a lot of crushing gallops and berserk screams like there always are, but the songwriting seems to be resting on its laurels a bit.  There are riffs aplenty, lordy loo is this the riffiest release they've put out yet.  I still think Future Drug has much better riffs on the whole, but this one just never slows down, never experiments, never does anything that isn't bone crunchingly heavy and furiously fast.  I suppose if you're one of those dudes who prefers their fast, no nonsense thrash above all else, this is exactly the kind of album you've been waiting for, but for me, I just feel somewhat let down by the general lack of memorability in the songs.  They're all good, and the first three (from "Shinu Koto To Mitsuke Tari" to "Busou Seri") are all fantastic, but the rest of the EP doesn't really stick with me.  It's basically the same issue I had with Junreiin, except this one is pure fucking thrash the whole way through, just the special way Gargoyle does it.

I wouldn't say it's worth skipping, but it isn't one I'd rank in the top half of their discography.


RATING - 80%

* -
HUUUEEEAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHH

Saturday, January 23, 2016

GOSPEL OF GARGOYLE: Gargoyle - Wa

XI: Grorious Nippon

Well, it's time to soldier on.  Time to lace up the boots once more and continue with my quest to review every goddamn Gargoyle album there is to review.  I feel like I've earned a nice little hiatus after my first two blocks came so quickly, and this also gave those newbies following along some time to digest all the music and history I've thrown at them throughout the length of the series.

(I wrote that paragraph in April of 2014, that's how long it took me to finish this block, fyi)

But that's all over now, and only about a year after the stellar, career defining monument that was Future Drug, Gargoyle unleashed Wa, the next chapter in their ever expanding ouvre of brilliance.  This release stands out because for the first time, Kentaro alone handles all of the guitar duties.  Yeah, it's a shame, but Yotaro has finally left the fold at this stage in the band's career, and his inventive riff writing will surely be missed (keep in mind he was an original member, and despite She-ja's brilliance as a writer and player, he was really building and forging his own path from the base that Yotaro had initially laid down).  So how does the band fare with arguably their most influential mind finally and for realsies gone?

Well, if She-ja could adapt to Yotaro's writing and forge his own creative path with it, why can't Kentaro?

Basically what makes Wa special is that it's merely a logical continuation of where the band was creatively with Future Drug.  It's relentlessly pummeling, time-bending heavy, and just as quirky and out there as any previous album.  Sure, it's not quite as eclectic as Natural or Gaia, but that's one of the things that earns it so many comparisons to it's monolithic predecessor; Wa is expertly focused.  Every Gargoylian trademark that fans have come to expect can be found here, but it never comes off like the band is just ticking off boxes on a checklist, it's still very natural for them.  We've got upbeat, funky numbers like "Gacha x Gacha" and "Kuruizaki Janguru", blisteringly quick and weighty monsters like "Kyokutou Gata Kansensei Seishin Osen" and "Yuki Yukite Massugu", uplifiting "Kaze no Machi" type quasi-power metal rippers like "Ushinawareta Jidai ~Lost Generation~" and "Mugen no Zero", and of course, the obligatory "Ruten no Yo Nite" style song in "Kisou".  I think that's something most readers have been able to cotton on to at this point; nearly each and every Gargoyle album has a certain "type" of song that will almost invariably show up.  Pinpointing exactly which of these type of tracks is the best of its group pretty much just comes down to personal preference.

It's kind of hard to write about Wa because, while it's pretty much equally as awesome as any previous album in theory, it's also the first album to seem kinda fillery and not memorable from front to back.  The last handful of songs are just nowhere near as punishing as the first seven or so.  "Kamikaze Gyangu Dan" has that awesome chorus, "Kyokutou..." has the Sodom-esque insanity in the percussion, "Gacha x Gacha" is another funky tune that they're so good at (like a slightly more subdued "Baby Cat"), "Lost Generation" is just epic as fuck, "Kuruizaki Janguru" is pretty much the catchiest thing since "Doumushishubai", and then... the rest of the album.  I can heap praise on to the first two thirds of the album because there are a lot of ideas that all connect brilliantly, and then the last three or four tracks are just kinda there to round out the running time.  I mean, they're still creative, they're still ripping and/or soothing depending on the kind of track they're going for, but they don't stand out as much as that stellar first portion. 

That in itself is somewhat unsettling for the band in question.  Is this something to blame on Yotaro's absence?  I wouldn't say so, since they powered forward just fine with She-ja alone, and Kentaro is clearly no slouch.  But the fact of the matter is that this is probably the first time where I feel like the amount of good ideas they had didn't last for the full album.  But again, at the same time, the good stuff is super, super good.  "Kyokutou..." rivals tracks like "Haretsu Ganbou" and "Dilemma" in terms of sheer, testicle obliterating heaviness, and "Lost Generation" is the spiritual sequel to "Kaze no Machi" in my eyes.  The guitar lines are so overabundant and melodic, and the gang shouts in the chorus evoke a feeling of urgency that the band harnesses so consistently well.

In the end though, Wa is 10000% essential.  Even if the last handful of tracks are largely uninspiring to me, "Kamikaze Gyangu Dan" through "Kuruizaki Janguru" are all among the best of the best.  The truth is that Gargoyle has been so consistently incredible since their inception that anything less than a genre defining classic can be fairly judged as somewhat disappointing.  Wa is not a disappointing album, not in the slightest, it just has a very minor stumble near the end and it just ends up making the first chunk even more endlessly replayable.  I don't know what makes me a bigger fanboy, the fact that the mere fact of the album not being a transcendentally timeless classic makes it a minor disappointment, or the fact that despite a weak back end that I readily admit to being only half as good as the first seven tracks, the album still ends with a very high score overall.

The bottom line is that a solid Gargoyle album is better than a great album by most thrash bands.  Get over it.


RATING - 83%

Friday, January 1, 2016

BH AWARDS 2015 OR SOME SUCH BULLSHIT

Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends.  I've used that intro before, and I'm not sorry, it's hard to think of new ones.  Anyway we're here once again with yet another year in the bank!  2015 was good for many reasons, but the only one any of you turds care about is the fact that, for the first time in a while I feel like the number of quality releases actually rose.  I actually feel bad leaving quite a few albums off the list this year, with a couple that would surely rank if I had only heard them earlier and given them more time to grow (but I'll get to those in time (I had a fairly lengthy stretch of time during the year where I didn't have internet and my iPod broke in July, so my listening and learning capability was greatly stunted for a spell)).  It was a great year for the genres I normally dabble in, and for the first time since I've been doing these lists, I feel like I've been listening to hardcore enough to adequately rank more than one or two random ones that I really enjoyed.  So the list is going to be a little bit more varied than it has been in the past, thanks mostly to the fact that Gargoyle didn't release anything and the new Sigh album only has a handful of truly magnificent songs, so a few of my usual suspects are off the grid.  Anyway nobody gives a shit about my self aggrandizing meta-text, so let's get it going.  Only rule is, as usual, no EPs, full lengths only. 


THE TOP 13 BEST ALBUMS OF 2015

13. Mgla - Exercises in Futility
And here's the token black metal release that always wiggles its way into my top 13.  Mgla gets tons of hype around the metal underground, and they deserve every drop of it.  The Polish brand of BM ranks as my favorite anyway, but this pushes everything a little bit further over the line by being just a little bit more harrowing, bleak, and punishing than all of their contemporaries.  It doesn't fall into a lot of the same traps and cliches that so many BM bands like to fall back on, and as a result the album is extremely varied and diverse, with tons of midpaced grooves and haunting melodies.  These guys are the real deal, and the percussion in particular really stands out as unique.  I'm on the hype train right next to everybody else.  Who's with me? Choo choo.

12. Evra - Lightbearer
Evra is one of the more difficult albums for me in this countdown, being ostensibly a dissonant hardcore album with bits of metal thrown in, particularly in the melodies and trudging doom passages.  This stands out to me for managing to sidestep the cliches of sludge that so many metallic hardcore bands fall into, instead taking a chaotic approach to their music and keeping it grounded in churning doom riffs and tasteful solos.  The vocals also stand out for their inherent vitriol, not unlike the vocalist of Cancer Bats joining a more mellowed out The Chariot cover band that's sitting on a veritable mountain of downers.  It's both vicious and introspective, and that's amazing.  It's a unique experience that takes the listener on a journey of nearly every emotion possible, and it's stunning for keeping it wild and unhinged the entire time.

11. Symphony X - Underworld
I don't care what anybody says, Symphony X is one of the most consistently excellent metal bands in the business today, and they've been at the top of their game ever since they waved goodbye to their more sophisticated progressive roots and focused more on simplicity, grooves, excellent riffs, and bombast.  Russell Allen has done more than enough to cement himself as one of the greatest singers in metal, and Michael Romeo is possibly one of the most distinguished guitarists out there right now.  Nobody writes riffs like these guys, nobody makes the agonizing wait between albums feel so worthwhile like these guys, nobody crafts progressive power metal like these guys.  Everything they've been doing since 2007 has been hitting bullseye, and they're not slowing down now.

10. House of Atreus - The Spear and the Ichor that Follows
Their previous EP, Into the Brazen Bull, is the absolute best piece of Arghoslent Metal that has existed since Arghoslent went into hiding, and the fact that they don't revel in overt racism makes them so, so much easier to love.  The problem with this album is simply that it isn't Into the Brazen Bull, which is unfair.  The riffs are still here, the vocals are ferocious, and the songs are just as punishing and/or triumphant, depending on what they're going for, and they're still one of the only bands to play that wonderful style of death metal that utilizes more traditional metal riffs, and for that alone they deserve acclaim.  I've heard them described as "nothing special, it's just four jacked dudes from Minnesota".  Come on, there aren't even four jacked dudes in the Vikings' locker room.  This may not surpass the master, but it's close.

9. Sarpanitum - Blessed Be My Brothers
I don't know where this came from but holy crap am I glad it came.  This has gotten some criticism for mostly being a little cousing to Mithras, especially considering the fact that they share members, but the fact of the matter is that A) I've never heard Mithras, and B) this absolutely kicks an almost comical amount of ass.  Therefore I don't give a shit how similar this is to its spiritual predecessor, because this is a very unique album.  In essence, you could just call it melodic death metal, but it's approached in a way that, as far as I know, no other bands really have ever bothered approaching it (except apparently Mithras I guess).  The melody is very spacey and sharp, with a lot of high pitched squealing and screaming from the guitars over inhumanly fast percussion and blastfucking death metal riffage.  It's like Nile had a baby with Necron from FFIX.

8. Powerwolf - Blessed and Possessed
Two albums with "Blessed" in the title in a row.  While many of my usual suspects are absent this year, Powerwolf appears for getting their shit together and making up for the stumble that was Preachers of the Night.  This is the same formula they've been milking ever since Lupus Dei, and it doesn't matter because they're still really fucking good at it.  It's the same bombastic yet stripped down heavy/power metal they always do, and Dorn is still an incredibly theatrical vocalist, with booming choirs complementing his voice at every turn, with fast double bass filled numbers along with the more anthemic fist pumpers.  I don't care that nothing changes, this album just has the most great songs they've ever put on an album since Bible of the Beast.  "Army of the Night" is potentially their fifteenth Best Song Ever.  It's big and stupid and so am I.

7. Satyrasis - ...of the Dead
Satyrasis almost defies description, ostensibly being a thrash band taking influence from every other conceivable subgenre of heavy music, from black metal to progressive metal (there's even a Rush cover), and every second of it shreds faces.  The best description I can muster is that this is the bizzaro Deceased, with vocals very similar to King Fowley, and riffs and melodies that reach so far beyond their initial inspiration that everything flows into a harrowing mush of blistering negativity.  They stand apart marvelously on their own despite the obvious parallel, and this stands as easily the most unique album I found this year that actually kicked immeasurable amounts of ass the entire way through.  I normally stick to more popular stuff, and that's obvious to any reader, but this is an unknown that deserves to break through.

6. Tyranny - Aeons in Tectonic Interment
Funny how last year I joked about Dark Descent owning everybody's lists except mine, and then this year two of them wind up in the top ten (spoiler alert, two more were close but didn't quite make it), and I think it shows that both of them aren't really of the style that the label is known for.  Tyranny here, as you all should know, play some of the most brutal and glacial paced funeral doom on the planet.  Almost nobody is heavier than these guys, barring maybe Wormphlegm, and their second album in a decade does nothing to change that perception.  I've given this a full review already, so all I can really do is reiterate the Lovecraftian horror that these five dirges evoke, and it's sublime in the most crushing, spiritually draining way imaginable.  More than one blood ritual surely took place during recording.

5. Enabler - Fail to Feel Safe
I almost didn't put this on here, and in a way I'm still a little uncomfortable putting this as high as I am, but the fact stands that this is one of the most intense and riveting albums of the year.  It doesn't matter what the band members are capable of doing outside of their music, and as harrowing as the accounts of sexual abuse the vocalist/guitarist inflicted upon his former girlfriend/former bassist are, in the name of censorship I just can't pretend it doesn't exist.  "Sinister Drifter" and "Drownage" are some of the best songs this band ever laid to tape.  Much like All Hail the Void, this is some of the most energetic and frantic metallic hardcore on the market, and nearly every second of it is skull crushingly heavy.  It's an uncomfortable listen thanks to non-musical factors, but if you can steel yourself past it, it's an incredible album.

4. Visigoth - The Revenant King
This is another one that's garnered more hype throughout the year than nearly anything else in recent memory, and once again I just can't find myself disagreeing with the swelling fandom.  This is some of the best classic metal I've heard all decade, and that's no exaggeration.  Lately it seems like the only new bands that routinely impress me are the more speed metal oriented ones like Enforcer and Striker, but Visigoth here is just powerful, muscle bound heavy metal with strong baritone vocals that pound everything before it into dust.  Everything about this is just strong, it's the exact kind of thing Grand Magus wishes they were.  Even the Manilla Road cover, which is noticeably out of place and somewhat jarring, does nothing to stop this thundering behemoth.  Visigoth tramples all of their contemporaries underhoof, and the future is bright for them.

3. Enforcer - From Beyond
Another year, another Enforcer album in my top 5.  I swear, this band just can't be touched right now, everything they've so much as sneezed towards for the past five years has been absolute gold, and nobody can hold a candle to them in the realm of 80s heavy/speed metal revival.  This is all the ludicrous speed and intensity of 1983 Metallica with the ear for melody and creativity of Judas Priest, and just like the two previous albums, everything is crafted with such care and attention to detail that even the more cliche moments are performed so earnestly and whole heartedly that a release date of 1984 would be completely believable.  They nail what so many of their peers miss, this is 80s because the spirit and energy comes straight from the heart that beats for the time, not because they knick a bunch of cliches that better bands did first.

2. Nasty - Shokka
And here we are with hardcore album number three.  In the realm of beatdown hardcore, Nasty has to be one of the most energetic and riff oriented, with their slams and breakdowns coming at such perfect intervals between lightning quick death metal/hardcore riffage that every track acts as an organic railroading into a steel gauntleted slapdown.  Neck snapping brutality is abound at every turn, and no matter how many times I listen to this, I can't help but find more things to love.  There's even a bit of levity here, with there being tiny, unobtrusive skits between a few songs of silly bullshit like the band working out and samples of The Neverending Story, and it helps to remind you that these are just four fun loving dudes who happen to love wrecking necks.  THIS IS WHERE THE TERROR STARTS.


And the winner is...


1. Gotsu Totsu Kotsu - Retributive Justice
Three out of the last four years, Japan has taken home the title, clearly cementing a dynastic supremacy over heavy metal in my eyes.  I've ranted over and over and over gain, but GTK is one of those bands that I swear was created specifically to my taste.  They specialize in frantic, head over heels tumbling death metal, with unique flourishes like tongue waggling slap bass liberally slathered all over everything, long, organically structured songs that grow slowly and naturally, and one of the most instantly recognizable roars in the entire genre since Ross Dolan or Mads Haarlov.  The previous album, Legend of Shadow ranked number 2 on my 2013 list, and every tiny little insignificant quibble I had or legit criticism leveled at the band by other critics has been addressed.  The songs are generally shorter and a bit more focused, the percussion is much more frantic and tempestuous than before (everybody other than the bassist/vocalist was replaced for this album) so there's much more variety and a few smatterings of traditional death metal with more light speed double bass and blasting, each song has a bit more going on in them, being treated less like jam sessions that become pummeling death metal monsters and are instead more rehearsed, calculated offerings, complete with some Suffocation styled all-over-the-damn-place soloing.  I was worried all of these factors would fuck up the mojo the band had going for them on the previous two albums, but they somehow made everything even better.  Everything I say about this band illustrates something that shouldn't really work on paper, but in practice they make it even better than whatever hypothetical best case scenario I can imagine.  Just listen to the few sections after the solo in "Kyoki no Senya (Insane Battlefield)", from the slap bass solo to the atmospheric lines over the frantic drumming, to the most fucking perfect breakdown of all time.  I can't gush enough without turning this into a full review, but there are so many little touches and flashes of songwriting brilliance that make this an almost no-brainer for the BH Award for Album of the Year 2015.

And now for something completely the same

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Blacklisted - When People Grow, People Go: This is the hardcore album that missed the cut by nary a cunt hair.  Blacklisted specialize in a very personal yet very intense brand of traditional noisy hardcore that is just candy to my ears.  I wouldn't call myself the hugest fan of the band or anything, but this album struck a chord within me that made it hard to ignore.
Horrendous - Anareta: I know, I've given this band a ton of crap over the years for The Chills essentially being Human-era Death rewritten, and Ecdysis being AOR styled death metal with way more pretentiousness behind it than it deserved, but with Anareta, I'm starting to understand where all the praise comes from.  This is a creative dissection of what makes death metal what it is, and it's a fascinating deconstruction of tropes from all angles.  It carefully sidesteps the cliches it can avoid and revels in the great ones that it can't, whereas the predecessor bunny hopped over everything and constantly turned around and pointed while shouting HEY GUYS DID YOU SEE HOW CLEVER I AM FOR NOT DOING WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE DOES AREN'T I IMPRESSIVE??

Crypt Sermon - Out of the Garden: I'm not necessarily one for doom, but this one caught my ear and didn't let go.  If it wasn't for a few stretches of minor drudgery this could've ranked, and if the year wasn't so stacked it would have for sure.  "Into the Holy of Holies" still has one of the best riffs I've heard in years.

Rotting Out -  Reckoning: Like every year, there's at least one incredible EP that gets missed due to my full length only restriction.  Rotting Out was on top of the world for hardcore, gaining immense popularity very quickly and tearing into everything in front of them with reckless abandon, keeping things more grounded in hardcore punk (this short EP features two Circle Jerks covers), and "Born" has one of the best breakdowns I've ever heard.  They suddenly broke up this year, and for me it's the equivalent of Slayer breaking up after Hell Awaits.

Batushka - Litourgiya: If I'm being 100% honest, the only reason this is in this section instead of the main one is purely because I only heard it a few days ago and therefore it never fully got enough time to sink in.  What I've heard though, is fucking incredible.  It's creative Polish black metal, which is basically the exact niche of BM that I masturbate over, and it's intense and dark in ways I didn't even know existed.  The band members are unknown, with the only bits of information being released is that they're "from well known bands".  Rumors pin the identities as members of Mgla and Vader, and that A) sounds fucking amazing, and B) sounds fucking logical, as there are heavy traces of both bands to be found.


DISAPPOINTMENTS

Sigh - Graveward: This was an easy choice for disappointment of the year purely because In Somniphobia was just too monumental of a record to follow up.  There are some great tracks here, specifically "The Tombfiller", "Molesters of My Soul", "The Casketburner", and "Dwellers in Dream", but the rest of them just do next to nothing for me.  The unceremonious (and very public) ousting of founding guitarist Shinichi just put a dark aura over the whole experience, and the weak production does nothing to help things.  Sigh's I and H albums are uniformly great, the S albums are always duds, and the G albums are usually partially awesome and partially fall flat, and this does nothing to change the pattern.

Melechesh - Enki: I don't know what happened, something about these guys must have irreversibly changed after the flawless Emissaries in 2006, because every album since then has taken longer and longer to come out and they get less and less fun to listen to.  They're still an interesting and unique band, but these last two albums have just done nothing for me apart from a few scattered songs, and it's a shame that they're expanding their sound so slowly with how long it takes for each album to release.  "Temper Tempest Enlil Enraged" is a phenomenal song, but listen to something like "Multiple Truths" and then jump back to "Rebirth of the Nemesis" or "Of Mercury and Mercury" and the energy level is just so astoundingly different that it just sounds like a completely different band.

Black Majesty - Cross of Thorns: After stunning power metal classics like Silent Company and Stargazer, this is just a bland, lazy nothing-album that has no real reason to exist.

Battle Beast - Unholy Savior: Well they had to stumble sometime.  Battle Beast is routinely called a metal band with a pop heart that tries desperately to break through, and this is the first time where it truly did.  It's not as bad as my initial assessment led myself to believe, but shit like "Touch in the Night" is just a monumental disgrace, no matter how cool "Speed and Danger" is.

Lamb of God - VII: Sturm und Drang: With this being the first album since Randy Blythe went to prison in the Czech Republic, there should have been some massive emotion here.  Regret, vitriol, indignation, anger, somberness, fucking anything to help propel it forwards.  But instead the band finds themselves still on autopilot, with the only interesting song being an Alice in Chains worship song.  Yawn.

Suburban Scum - Ultimate Annihilation: Once again, the non-musical issues the band make this album hard to like, what with the vocalist participating in beating the drummer of Crosscheck into a near fatal coma.  Unlike Enabler though, this album wound up being completely bland and lifeless and not at all representative of the fire they carry during their live show or their split with Xibalba in the past.  It sort of exposes their cliche nature for being the void of creativity that it really is, and without impassioned performances covering it up, they end up producing completely forgettable crap.


Hey ya know what?  I don't have much of anything for the worst albums this year, I've been in a good mood all year anyway, so I'll save the bands the embarrassment and you guys don't need to see me complain about shitty music that nobody cares about (though spoiler alert, the worst album was by Starblind).  There were tons of great albums I had to leave off the list, like new ones from Blind Guardian, Clutch, Evil Invaders, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Blood Incantation, Tau Cross, White Widows Pact, Volcano, Traces of You, Motorhead, Lost Soul, and even the first new SikTh release in nine years, so this really was one of the toughest years I've had to whittle albums down.  I can't really think of anything other than Starblind that was just unlistenably bad, so I'm leaving you all with this, almost nothing but unbridled positivity.  Enjoy yourselves in 2016, and keep on keepin' on.  Love you all.  Except you.  Fuck you.