Monday, January 16, 2017

QUICK HITS CLASSICS: Descendents - Everything Sucks

I generally stick to new metal albums, but occasionally I'm going to want to return to my roots and gab on about older albums, so please enjoy this slightly rebranded but functionally identical Quick Hit. 

GOT UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF LIFE THIS MORNING

Hey look, I'm not reviewing metal!  My listening has been split nearly 60/40 with punk ever since I realized Bad Religion was the greatest band in rock history (next to Queen of course), I just never talk about it because that's not why anybody reads my shit.  Today I got a bug up my ass and I want to talk about Descendents, in particular their fifth album, Everything Sucks.  I posit to you all that Everything Sucks is actually Descendents' best album, above even the seminal early American classic that is Milo Goes to College.  You see, early Descendents really tapped into teenage fear and angst in a way that hits home with most lonely high schoolers.  Tales of unrequited love and fear of growing up are interspersed between energetic blasts of goofy nonsense, sexual fantasies, and toilet humor.  That was their big appeal for me, they fearlessly explored every facet of adolescence, with all of the incongruity and tonal shifts that that would imply.  The band suffered two hiatuses early on brought on by lead vocalist and frequent cover art model, Milo Auckermann, leaving to pursue his studies and career in biochemistry.  After nine years, he got the itch and helped Descendents get back together (though they never truly left and the band always soldiered on as All without him) for their first album in nine years.  The reason this one is special to me is because the band actually grew in a way without abandoning one iota of what made them so iconic on the early albums.  Milo Goes to College and I Don't Want to Grow Up were based on the balking of adulthood and wanting to remain in the halcyon years of youth forever, and then Everything Sucks shows up and gives it all a new perspective.  They are adults now, and everything is exactly as shitty as they'd always feared.  Songs like "When I Get Old" are presented with a bit of wistful nostalgia, while "Everything Sux" and "This Place" confronts the bullshittery of adulthood with that passionate rebelliousness of adolescence that they never lost in the meantime.  That's what's so great, the music itself didn't "mature".  They didn't start adding new elements to the songs, they didn't mellow out, they didn't slow down and write more accessible radio friendly songs, the songs are almost all entirely the fast paced melodic poppy punk it's always been, with the sub-minute energetic blasts of "Coffee Mug" and "Eunuch Boy" being odes to spazzing out after drinking too much coffee and how much it would suck to not have a dick, respectively.  The goofiness is still there, and now the Nice Guy songs are presented in a slightly more pathetic light, and "Sick-O-Me" details how a long term relationship falls about due to boredom and complacency.  They're basically the weird uncle of punk rock, the guy who drinks a few too many beers and tries out his nephew's new pogo stick at Christmas with predictably disastrous results.  They're still ineffectual dorks, but they're more experienced about it now, but still wholly unwilling to let go of that youth they cherish so much, and it's a very sincere look at the whole situation.  And that's why it's their best album, it's the perfect snapshot in time between the stages of youthful rebellion and desperately trying to recapture it.  Everybody should love this.


RATING - 95%

Sunday, January 15, 2017

QUICK HITS: Beheaded - Beast Incarnate

The Maltese Falchion

Apparently I've got a theme going, because yet again, I sit here with another Unique Leader styled brutal tech death album that found itself on the internet in the opening weeks of 2017.  This time, I find myself getting my eardrums ravaged by the veteran Maltese maniacs, Beheaded.  This is actually sorta different because for once this is actually a Unique Leader veteran, and I've gotta say that Beast Incarnate is one of the more immediately grabbing albums from the roster I've heard in quite a few years.  The only previous Beheaded album I'm familiar with is Ominous Bloodline from the surprisingly distant year of 2005, and all I really recall from that one is that the production was so obnoxiously bass heavy that it severely hindered my enjoyment of what was otherwise a solid BDM album.  Luckily, they take on a more "normal" sound for this one, similar to that impossibly beefy and steely tinge of later Nile and Krisiun, and it's a major boon to the album's potential longevity.  The subtle melodies that make themselves known through the solos and just generally badass riffage (check out a track like "Punishment of the Grave") are a great touch, since this style tends to focus on blistering technicality more than the more inherent simplicity of strong songwriting.  Beast Incarnate instead strikes that venerable nexus of muscle bound strength and quick fingered shredding that bands like Hour of Penance and Neuraxis have made their bread and butter over the years.  There are a surprising amount of catchy moments as well, like the title track and the more midpaced epic of "The Black Death", which call to mind some of the better moments of Abnormality's debut.  Special shoutout goes to the vocals as well, since Frank Calleja's roar is one of the rare in the style that has some strong charisma instead of merely being a secondary percussive force.  This isn't the same vocalist as Ominous Bloodline and I think that may be another one of the reasons this stands so much taller over that one.  In short, Beheaded got their shit together when I wasn't looking and delivered and early surprise for 2017, and I'm stoked to keep track of the band from here on out.


RATING - 84%

Thursday, January 12, 2017

QUICK HITS: Maze of Sothoth - Soul Demise

IA! IA!

So it looks like 2017 is going to start off with a slew of brutality, as here I sit with another early release that revels in bone crunching devastation; Soul Demise by Maze of Sothoth.  I feel like tech death has really fallen out of favor with most metalheads, with special exceptions reserved for the old guard like Origin and Wormed, so hearing a new(ish) band unapologetically shred and riff my ears off like this is a nice surprise.  Maybe it's the Italian connection, but I'm hearing a lot of Hour of Penance and early Fleshgod Apocalypse (before they decided to be Death Metal Rhapsody of Fire) in this, and if you've been following me for a while it should come as no surprise that I love itSoul Demise is much less about just showing off their instrumental skill and more about cramming as many badass hyperspeed riffs into each second as possible.  Of course, this naturally comes off as something of a riff salad as a result, lacking in overall cohesion across the board.  Honestly, that doesn't bother me when it comes to this type of style, since that's basically the norm, and albums like Hour of Penance's Sedition are glorious exceptions.  Oddly enough, I actually thought this was an instrumental band initially, as I didn't even notice vocals until the third track.  Once I did though, he seemed to take the Origin approach and just never shut the hell up.  So all told, it's pretty standard for the modern tech death game, with sprinklings of Immolation and Morbid Angel in the more spastic and squealy riffs found in songs like "Blind", but it's a really solid offering for fans of the style, and I'd recommend it to anybody who thought death metal was thriving from 08-11, because this is a welcome throwback to an era that only recently left us.  Certainly better than Archspire, if nothing else.


RATING - 78%

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

QUICK HITS: Brain Dead - Disaster Ahead

Thrash is known nowadays as an artistic dead end and I continue to refute that notion.  However, bands like Brain Dead make it really hard for me to make that case.  This is another one of those books you can very accurately judge by its cover, with the cartoon style, plethora of tropes and cliches that add nothing more than a juvenile "wink wink nudge nudge" to the band's image and attitude, and a mascot that is, surprise!, a long haired zombie thrasher with high tops and and upturned flat billed cap.  Oddly enough, that sentence actually describes the band's music pretty well too, if that makes sense.  If there was some semblance of tongue in cheek self awareness, this kind of thing can work.  Smash Potater makes it work, Brain Dead does not.  This is played completely straight and it's the exact kind of brainless idiocy that's neither fun nor satisfying to listen to.  I love Municipal Waste a whole ton, I can get behind this sort of thing, but Disaster Ahead completely lacks the songwriting ability of those Virginian party animals.  The production does nothing to help the stale riffs and cliche yelping vocals, since everything sounds very distant and separate from one another.  It just feels hastily slapped together without a whole lot of real thought put into it.  For every good idea there are five bad ones.  Like some of the riffs are pretty good (like the chugging part in "Last Obsession"), but even the best are creatively bankrupt.  It's pretty neat that they felt inspired enough to write an ode to the fallen Scumdog, Oderus Urungus, with "Flight of Oderus", but every other song is the exact toxic waste and thrashing all night and war is hell crap that has been beaten to death for 30 years now.  The sample of the "I'm mad as hell" speech from Network is pretty overdone at this point but it does set the stage well as an opening sample, but the rest of the song lets it down with the tired yelping and lame riffage, and the samples that carry out the title track of people telling the band members to get jobs and even a god damned terrible Mickey Mouse impression is just the most obnoxious sequence ever.  Listen to those people.  Get jobs.  This is going nowhere for you guys.


RATING - 20%

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

QUICK HITS: Ekpyrosis - Asphyxiating Devotion

Profound Decency

This is some old school to-the-bone death metal, and it works for what it tries to accomplish.  Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Italy's Ekpyrosis is that it doesn't even attempt to tread new ground.  Not that that is a death sentence in itself, but it's disappointing to hear a band that clearly has chops and songwriting talent bog themselves down in the mire of worship.  Basically any second of this album can be attributed to early Death or Dismember, with a few hints of New York stalwarts Immolation and Suffocation.  Really, all that needs to be listened to is the opening salvo, "Profound Death".  This track fucking nails it.  It's over seven minutes long and is chock full of enough ideas to extend it to a theoretical double digit runtime.  There's a punishing segment in the breakdown that calls to mind the aforementioned NYDM legends, and it's very clearly the high point of the album.  "Obsessive Christendom" has a similarly savage middle section that shows where the band's strength lies, but unfortunately the rest of the album is unimaginative (if solid) OSDM worship.  All of the slower, more midpaced crushing segments stand out with aplomb, but the rest of it is just kinda there.  Asphyxiating Devotion is another album to be thrown on the pile of solid death metal that's been flooding the scene since 2011ish, but it's not going to rise up and take the scene by storm like Horrendous have in the past.  Bands like Portal and Ulcerate, while I'm not the biggest fans of them, at least work to move the genre forward in some tangible way, whereas this is content to sit in its comfort zone.  It's certainly good at it, but not great.


RATING - 72%

Monday, January 9, 2017

QUICK HITS: Eternal Champion - The Armor of Ire

AH! AH! Ah! ah! ah. ah...

In my eyes, Eternal Champion's The Armor of Ire is 2016's answer to Visigoth's The Revenant King from last year.  Most of the similarities are obvious, from the Texan origin to the massive Manilla Road influence, and that's honestly not a bad thing at all.  I fucking adored The Revenant King, and this is pretty much more of the same and that's a-ok to me.  The band shares a handful of members with Sumerlands as well, another new heavy metal band that made waves last year, including Arthur Rizk, who also produced both bands' debuts, and it shows.  What we have here is just straight up fucking muscle bound heavy metal with no pretension.  From the first legit riff at 1:50 in "I am the Hammer", the band makes its presence known with sheer, unmitigated power.  There are two noticeable flaws to me though, one of which is the vocals.  We all know my opinion on Manilla Road, and Jason Tarpey clearly takes roughly 95% of his vocal technique from Mark Shelton.  I don't care for the Road's vocals and I don't care for Eternal Champion's in kind.  That really nasally type of thing works well enough but I feel like a band like Visigoth showed us all how beneficial an undeniably powerful voice can be in a band like this.  As a result, the strength that defines the riffage is let down a bit by the vocals that carry so much of the melody.  Secondly, they're not afraid to pick up the pace, which is usually a huge plus to me, but here I feel like their strength is very clearly in the more pounding mid paced numbers.  There is such a crushing, powerful stomp in songs like "I am the Hammer", "Invoker", and "Sing a Last Song of Valdise" that I feel is missing in the title track and "The Last King of Pictdom".  However, I feel like the best song apart from the opener is "The Cold Sword" and the coolest moment is the high octane riff in the bridge of "Sing a Last Song of Valdise", so really what the hell do I know?  Regardless, this is a great album and any fans of skull crushing old school metal and high fantasy barbarism should give it a listen.  At less than thirty five minutes, it's certainly not a time commitment you'll end up regretting.


RATING - 84%

Sunday, January 8, 2017

QUICK HITS: Gotsu Totsu Kotsu - Where Warriors Once Dreamed a Dream

Tries to please everybody and succeeds to a point

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. It seems to be a midpoint between Legend of Shadow and Retributive Justice. Theoretically that should rule since I fucking adore both of those albums, but it's actually kind of disappointing since one of the reasons RJ hit so hard was because it was such a headstrong progression from LoS. Where LoS was really long and organic (which ruled), RJ was really tight and ferocious (which ruled). I was sorta hoping for them to keep refining themselves in that direction, which the first teaser track showed they would be doing. The rest of the album isn't quite as streamlined and brutal as "Sôran no Shichi E", instead reaching back into the bag of tricks they utilized on Legend of Shadow, with generally longer songs that feature an organic flow, as a result the album is ten minutes longer than its predecessor. Keep in mind this approach is awesome, but it's not as tight and fierce as Retributive Justice in this regard, so it does feel like a step back of sorts. With that said, there are some great moments and interesting new twists. "Bumei" is probably the most RJ-esque track on display apart from the opener, in that they're both fucking furious death metal with those thunderous roars I love so much. The title track has a fucking monstrous groove, but it also features an extended section where each instrument gets a solo, and it just feels weird and out of place for a band that finds so much of its strength in remaining consistently energetic. "Kiga no Kyofu" also stands out a bit for being significantly more technical and melodic than the band usually is. On one hand that's awesome to see them spreading their wings like that, on the other hand it sounds like they're getting a bit more "normal" in a sense, and it lacks a tinge of that signature character they've carved out for themselves. Then there's "Chinurareta Tabiji", which sounds like a lost Legend of Shadow track and it completely owns that album's sound, with the high tempo grooves, lack of blasts, and twisting narrative told using almost exclusively fucking badass riffs.  It's still great, which is to be expected from GTK, but it's sort of a blend of the last two albums, which will definitely be a problem for people who thought Legend of Shadow was too bloated and Retributive Justice did a good job of streamlining everything while also amping up the intensity. I loved both albums so I love this too, but it's not as good as either of them I think. Sorta just feels like it came out too fast and the band didn't have enough time to really grow or evolve in any capacity.


RATING - 85%

Saturday, January 7, 2017

QUICK HITS: Ranger - Speed & Violence

Last year, I managed a paltry 20 reviews for the entirety of 2016, five of which were mostly pre-written pieces for the Gospel of Gargoyle series that I swear I'll finish some day.  Frankly, I have all kinds of stuff to talk about but very little of it can be stretched into the lengthy essay style I've made my trademark over the last nine years.  So in an effort to get back into this reviewing game I adore so much, I'm breaking from the 1500+ word style that I've gotten too comfortable with, and I'm bringing back my short, one paragraph blurb style reviews that I would occasionally crank out back when I first launched this blog in 2011.  Back then they were called Bite Sized Reviews, in an obvious ode to my love affair with chocolate.  They are now named Quick Hits, which is not actually a weed reference, but instead a quip about how utterly broken the skill is in Final Fantasy X.  Shove me in a locker, please.

STAAAAAND BY FOR EXCIIIITAAAAH

The latest group of shameless throwbacks to land on my radar, Helsinki's Ranger, are pretty much the exact kind of creatively bereft loons I've always secretly loved.  Speed & Violence barely contains more than three original notes strung together in a row but it's such an unapologetic blast of 80s nostalgia that I can't help but love it.  Ranger specializes in early speed metal, but less the German kind that evolved into power metal like Blind Guardian and Running Wild, and more the Canadian variant that evolved into thrash metal like Razor and the band's chief influence, Exciter.  There are some smatterings of early Slayer as well, with "Satanic Panic" basically being the most obvious knockoff of "Black Magic" I've heard in eons.  Despite the overwhelming deja-vu offered by the album, it's such a bucketload of fun that I don't really care all that much.  Speed & Violence doesn't present itself as anything other than exactly what it says on the tin.  It's fast, loud, and rude and that's all it needs to be.  You look at that low budget album cover and you already know you're going to get semi-tuneless wailing over relentless double bass and non stop riffage delivered at 200mph, and that's exactly what you get.  It's high speed cheese and nothing else, and while that's certainly enjoyable, it does get old and generally lacks in any real staying power.  That's the album's sole downfall, it does what it does so well that it just makes you want to go put on Heavy Metal Maniac or Executioner's Song instead because at least those albums have already proven themselves to be timeless classics instead of shameless copies of themselves.  So yeah, it's a fun listen but it doesn't have a whole lot of use beyond just reveling in how much fun the music was way back then.  It is, by it's very nature (and the exact reason I chose it for the first of these short reviews I'm going to start doing), a quick hit.


RATING - 75%

Sunday, January 1, 2017

BH AWARDS 2016 YAK YAK

Hello, Capital Wasteland.  It is I, BastardHead, struggling once again to think of a good opening line to my annual awards post intro! 2016 was a fucking terrible year, as most of you know.  Between the stress of the election here in America, lack of motivation or free time necessary to do this whole review thing that y'all know me for, horrible gas, and just a general malaise around the entire world, not a whole lot of people are going to look back on this year as one of the highlights in recent memory.  However, it was a great year for music, in particular heavy metal.  After the low points of the first few years of the decade, 2016 seems to be continuing the upward trend of high quality releases across the board, rivaling 2012 and 2015 for the best year so far.  Weird things happened, like Sabaton apparently taking over the world despite being terrible, several bands (notably Metallica and Running Wild) releasing solid albums after decades of awfulness, and some of the most astonishingly flooring albums I've heard in eons.  I don't really know what to do for a preamble since I've been doing this for so long and you all know what to expect anyway.  So here, let's all nurse our collective hangover and celebrate:

THE TOP 13 ALBUMS OF 2016

Rules are the same as always.  No EPs, since that's just the way I do things, and now that I've been listening to enough of other genres to feel confident ranking them against metal albums, the list is not metal exclusive.  However, as luck would have it, when it comes to new albums from 2016, I pretty much only listened to metal albums, so the list turns out to be metal exclusive anyway.  Who'd a thunk?

13. Rotten Sound - Abuse to Suffer 
I'm gonna be honest, there were a whopping seven albums I wanted to put in this spot.  This year was so insanely stacked that the number 13 spot on my list was almost impossible to narrow down.  In the end, weighed against each other, none of them were quite as refreshing as the new Rotten Sound.  Granted, "refreshing" is a bit misleading since this is the exact brand of hyperviolent grindcore you'd expect from these guys, but after the underwhelming Cycles and five years of relative silence, it felt *damn good* to get an album of this consistently high quality from the frantic Finns once again.  This may not reach the same dizzying heights of uncompromising violence and devastation as their unscalable 2005 album, Exit, but it's pretty close to being right next to it.  This wrecks everything, don't listen to it near anything easily demolished.

12. Sinbreed - Master Creator 
In terms of traditional power metal, almost nothing ripped as hard as Sinbreed's Master Creator.  This doesn't break any boundaries or do anything too out of left field, and apart from the vocalist being a little more gruff than your average Europower band, this could have easily been forgotten in the yearly swamp of middling power metal.  It it broke out for good reason; the songwriting is just insanely good.  This doesn't bend your mind with subtle complexity, it's just straight ahead, meat-and-potatoes power metal with great hooks and memorable songs.  The lack of flowery bombast does a lot to accent just how good the hooks are from the ground up, with a punchy guitar tone and pummeling drum performance.  This is just straight up, classic, early Iron Savior styled metal updated with a sheen for the modern era.

11. Agatus - The Eternalist 
This is a late entry, as I usually don't add things I first heard a week or so before the end of the year, but Agatus truly ascended above that mental roadblock of mine.  I'm not familiar with the band's history, but they allegedly began as a black metal outfit, and touches of that still seep through on occasion, but this is through and through just dark and dirty heavy metal.  I love it when a band can focus on riffs and manage to make them all so uniquely their own.  It's the exact reason Mercyful Fate's initial run is so legendary.  The Eternalist is loaded down with so many riffs that it must weigh as much as an ocean.  It's a very eerie, uncomfortably dark listen that carries enough pomp and bounce in the riffs to still be something easy to throw on for a fun listen.  This laid-back approach to trad metal with a black metal spirit is one to behold.

10. Wormed - Krigshu 
Good fucking lord this is nuttier than a squirrel turd.  This kitchen-sink approach to brutal tech death that Willowtip and Unique Leader inundated listeners with in the late 00s fell out of favor with me and many others, but these Spaniards blasted through the dimensional gate to remind us all how awesome it can be when executed properly.  This damn thing just never lets up, it's non stop insanity from the word go, and I wouldn't ask for it to be anything else.  Just like Origin in their prime, Wormed finds so many different ways to pulverize your skull into dust that the unconventional tides of the runtime never become overwhelming like so many bands struggle with.  Definitely one of the best albums in the style since Hour of Penance were unstoppable (though admittedly, Cast the First Stone next year may see them reclaim the crown).

9. The Infernal Sea - The Great Mortality 
Y'all can accuse me of cheating on this one if you want to.  Technically, this was first released in May of last year, but it was limited to a paltry 100 cassette tapes with no online presence, sold only on tour.  The band was basically completely hidden from the world until Cacophonous Records came around and give it a proper worldwide release in February of this year, so I'm going to allow it.  This is some brutally vicious black metal, and maybe it's because of the bubonic plague theme running throughout the album, but it calls to mind the unending ferocity of a band like 1349.  Some of the longer tracks flirt with gloomy clean passages, but the glut of this album is chock full of blistering intensity, and there is almost nothing I like more in my black metal than that sort of frantic insanity.  

8. Sarcoptes - Songs and Dances of Death 
I normally tend to stick to more popular, visible releases in terms of my listening cycle, simply because randomly digging for obscure gems usually turns up so much forgettable nonsense.  But frequently, an underground band will generate enough hype to land a blip on my radar, and this year the biggest one in that department was Sarcoptes.  These Californian freaks delivered a frighteningly tight and percussive slab of black metal with little sprinkles of thrash riffing and epic choirs.  All six tracks on here are blistering and otherworldly, remaining grounded with instantly memorable riffs and soaring melodies.  With only six tracks to choose from, I amazingly still can't decide on a favorite.  They're all of such a stunning consistency that it's truly a sight to behold.  One of the most vicious and epic albums of the year, at the same time no less.

7. Desert Near the End - Theater of War 
If there's any album that defied my expectations in such an extravagant fashion, it's Desert Near the End's Theater of War.  I'd heard their debut years ago and promptly forgot about it, so coming across their third album here was basically a shot in the dark to see if they'd improved at all.  The answer is a resounding holy shit yes they did. This is a masterful, bizarre blend of Iced Earth riffing, harsh screaming, and death metal drumming that somehow all coalesces into this sublime collection of songs that beat the listener into the ground.  This is almost painfully aggressive and destructively hooky at the same time.  Really, the cover art sums up the overall feeling of the album quite well.  This is what dark forces completely leveling a grand city sounds like, and I love every second of this malicious blend of conflicting influences.

6. Death Fortress - Deathless March of the Unyielding 
I already gave this a full review, and I stand by everything I said in it.  I actually probably never would have heard this if it wasn't for a friend and I swapping albums to review for some silly game we play sometimes, and fucking hell I'm glad we did this time.  I've been using a lot of the same words to describe albums as I go on down the list, but trust me when I use them all again in a row here.  Deathless March... is a fucking blistering, pummeling, ferocious blast of dissonant black/death, completely, well, unyielding in it's assault on the senses.  Honestly, the best way to describe it is to just use the song titles.  "Merciless Deluge", "Scourge of Aeons", "Power from Beyond the Stars", "Deathless March of the Unyielding", etc.  If that doesn't give you an idea of the single minded focus of completely destroying everything you see, nothing will.

5. Blood Incantation - Starspawn 
Coming into the top five, we meet one of my most anticipated releases of the year.  I don't normally hype myself up for upcoming releases just because I'm let down so often, but their EP last year, Interdimensional Extinction, crushed me so fucking hard that I just couldn't wait for their debut full length.  One of the biggest problems with modern death metal is that too many bands sound alike.  Most are at the very least good, but too many sound like an interchangeable mashup of Demilich and Incantation.  Blood Incantation here doesn't have that problem.  They take those influences and blend it with such twisted, extraterrestrial morbidity that you don't doubt for one second who you're listening to.  Nothing else released this year riffs nearly as hard as this one does.  It's Morbid Angel on meth cut with Kryptonite, and it rules.

4. Anaal Nathrakh - The Whole of the Law 
I haven't cared much for Anaal Nathrakh since the stunning In the Constellation of the Black Widow seven years ago, but holy hell did they pull themselves from the swamp of mediocrity with this one.  Everything that made them so good in the 2000s is back in full force here, with all restraint flung straight out of the fucking window.  The endless insanity permeating through every note of this album makes this their strongest in a long time with little doubt.  The furious percussion, distorted howling, and frantic riffage behind the epic, cleanly sung hooks sound like the chanting druids as meteors rain down and bathe the entire planet in fire.  This is a musical extinction level event, and any self respecting metal fan should love it.  Also, "Hold Your Children Close and Pray for Oblivion" is the most badass song title ever.

3. Dynazty - Titanic Mass 
With so much of my list dripping in bleak, dark, and extreme metal, I almost forgot that melodic metal even existed.  Dynazty here beats the same path basically every hook-centric heavy metal band has beaten for decades now, but the execution is so grand, the songwriting so tight, the hooks so fine tuned, none of the simplistic retreading is worrisome in the slightest.  Basically every song follows the same formula, but the band is so energetic that it breaks out of the mold it put itself into. Each and every song is played with so much gusto and confidence that I can't help but buy into every note.  On one hand, it's a shallow heavy pop metal album.  On the other hand, it's one of the best ones released in a decade.  Fill your heeeeart with gasoliiiine!

2. Deathspell Omega - The Synarchy of Molten Bones
Yes, it's a full length.  I don't care if it's 4 tracks and under a half hour, it's a full length release and a monster one at that.  I'm not familiar with DsO, for whatever reason I just never gave them the time of day despite their reputation in the scene.  With this release, the almost impossibly awesome album title intrigued me enough to finally give them a listen, and lord have I been missing out.  After dozens of spins and an almost instant "this is going to be a top five album" reaction, I still don't exactly know how to describe it.  It's bizarre, dissonant black metal that relies on off kilter, angular riffing and frenzied drumming.  The whole thing is so frenetic, everything sounds like it's just two inches off to the left, if that makes sense.  It doesn't, but that's the point.  Think about it.

AND THE WINNER IS... 

1. Avantasia - Ghostlights 
I am just as surprised as you are, truly.  I have been very public about how wholly snore inducing I've always found Avantasia to be, and I only gave this a listen out of a sense of some sort of obligation simply because it was being talked about so much, but god dammit, it not only surpassed my admittedly quite low expectations, it utterly shattered them.  Somehow, this droning, dull ass power metal pet project that was always too full of itself to ever create anything truly compelling managed to craft an album that not only finally got what they were going for right, but made it so fucking undeniably great that I couldn't help but rank it as the absolute best album of the year.  Tobi's neverending rock opera reaches it's indisputable apex here, with all of the overwrought Meat Loaf-isms begging to be gesticulated along with, all the ballads (barring one) being soulful delights, and every legit power metal track being the catchiest song of the year simultaneously.  The centerpiece epic, "Let the Storm Descend Upon You" is the best longform epic that Tobi has penned since "The Seven Angels" (previously one of the only Avantasia songs I could ever bring myself to like), and the speedy metal numbers like "Unchain the Light", "Babylon Vampyres", the title track, and especially "Master of the Pendulum" are just unreal with how well written they are.  The guest vocalists all knock it out of the park, "Lucifer" is one of the greatest ballads written in a decade, "Draconian Love" was so great that it made me check out Sinbreed up there in the first place, "The Haunting" manages to use Dee Snider masterfully, just god dammit I love this album and I almost hate myself for it.  Astute readers may remember that I've actually reviewed this album already, and gave it a score lower than the album I put at number six here, but that really just speaks to how incredible this is.  It's done nothing but grow on me more and more in the following months and I don't even care how boring "Seduction of Decay" and "Isle of Evermore" are, everything else is so good that they don't even detract from the overall product.  I can't stop gushing.  This really fought with DsO, but at the end of the day, the BH Award for Album of the Year goes to Avantasia.  Dammit.

And now for something completely the same.

HONORABLE MENTIONS 

Japan - The Usual Suspects:  This is just a general catch-all for the three Japanese bands I always gab on about, since all three released great albums this year and all three wound up JUST missing the list.  They're seriously entries 14, 15, and 16.  First is Ningen-Isu with Kaidan Soshite Shi to Erosu.  Their inimitable brand of progressive trad/doom metal is just as great now as it was nearly thirty years and six hundred albums ago.  There are some amazing songs here, but overall it just barely missed the "it factor" that I feel Rotten Sound had, so here they are.  Next are the death metal giants in Gotsu Totsu Kotsu, with Where Warriors Once Dreamed a Dream.  This is actually almost disappointing since it's a bit of a regression back to the more organic fluidity of Legend of Shadow mixed with the tight ferocity of Retributive Justice and it's more of a mixed bag than it is a "best of both worlds".  Even though I was slightly disappointed, this still ranks extremely high up on the list of albums I've heard this year.  And lastly there's obviously Gargoyle, with Taburakashi.  This is probably the most straightforward and heaviest album they've ever penned, and that's awesome on paper.  But unfortunately, despite the stratospheric highs of the standouts like "Dragon Skull", "Be Daring", and "Yaban Kaito", it just doesn't stack itself up to be quite as memorable as other Moderngoyle classics like Kisho and Geshiki.  So there, all three of my Japanese favorites missed the cut this year.

Unfathomable Ruination - Finitude: This is one I didn't expect to be nearly as good as it was.  Their previous album was certainly good, but this was something else entirely.  Everything has been ramped up, and this should help cement them as one of the premier brutal death metal bands in the scene today.

Mithras - On Strange Loops: I'd never actually heard this band before, but my unabashed love of Sarpanitum's album last year led to more than a few recommendations to keep my eye out for this one.  Honestly, this is an amazing album and might have ranked on the final list if I had only heard it earlier, as it stands I only heard this less than a week before the year turned and I just don't feel confident ranking it above great stuff I've listened to all year just yet.  It sounds like Steve Tucker era Morbid Angel: Live from Neptune.

Protest the Hero - Pacific Myth:  Protest once again tried blazing a path in terms of how the release was handled, with each song being issued as a single over the course of months before finally giving us the full package late this year.  It's a great EP, loaded with their signature stylistic quirks that make them so fun to listen to.

Ripper - Experiment of Existence:  You'll notice there are no pure thrash albums on the list this year, but that doesn't mean there weren't any great ones.  Ripper is one such example, as this is easily one of the most unrelentingly vicious albums the genre has seen in years.


DISAPPOINTMENTS 

Vader - The Empire:  This one was just a victim of expectations being way too high.  It's a solid album I suppose, very serviceable.  But after how stunning Welcome to the Morbid Reich and Tibi et Igni were, this is just bland.  Some albums have filler songs, but Vader has introduced us to a discography with a filler album.

Furia - Księżyc milczy luty:  Disappointment of the year for me right here.  Their 2007 album cemented them as one of the all time standouts of Polish black metal in my eyes, right up there with Cultes des Ghoules, Plaga, and Mgla.  But with this one they dropped the ball hard.  Most of it isn't even metal, which isn't necessarily a problem, but the clean parts that dominate the album should have at least been interesting.  This is a very significant flop, and that's heartbreaking to me, because they had a ton of promise.

Nails - You Will Never Be One of Us:  Also a contender for disappointment of the year.  I don't know what it is exactly, but this just sounds so weak compared to Unsilent Death and Abandon All Life, two of the most unremittingly devastating and violent albums of the decade.  Maybe it's the heightened grooviness taking away from the violent grind, but this just feels wrong somehow.

Serious Black - Mirrorworld:  Touted as a power metal supergroup and fronted by the underground legend that is urban breed, this is just much too weak and unmemorable to be acceptable.

Serpentine Dominion - Serpentine Dominion:  Another supergroup, this time consisting of Shannon Lucas of The Black Dahlia Murder (who I love), motherfucking Corpsegrinder (who I love), and Adam Duckywicks of Killswitch Engage (who I couldn't care less about).  It's an interesting combo and the music is just as interesting as you'd expect based on the personnel.  Unfortunately, the cool death metal parts are totally soured by the Killswitch-isms stinking up the joint.  The melodic sections and clean vocals could have been an interesting contrast to the blasting death that makes up the rest of the record, but they're far too frequent, far too jarring, and just far too out of place and it just wrecks everything.  Rare case of an album that actually gets worse the more you listen to it.


That's all for this year folks!  I'm still busy with all kinds of assorted nonsense so pardon me for cutting this a bit shorter than usual, but I want you all to know that you're beautiful and I love ever last one of you idiots.  See you as the new year keeps chugging on!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Twilight Force - Heroes of Mighty Magic

Guys light farts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


RATING - 57%