Saturday, August 27, 2016

Running Wild - Rapid Foray

Holy crap WHAT?

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

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

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

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

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

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


RATING - 70%

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Diamond Plate - Pulse

That's going to bleed when my heart beats

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

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

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

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


RATING - 34%

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Death Fortress - Deathless March of the Unyielding

Fortress of Maulitude

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

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

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

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

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


RATING - 88%

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nucleus - Sentient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


RATING - 81%

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Vektor - Terminal Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


RATING - 89%

Friday, May 6, 2016

Arsis - Unwelcome

Pornscar

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

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

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

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

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

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


RATING - 73%

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

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Abnormality - Mechanisms of Omniscience

Major label perils

Once upon a time, Abnormality was notable for being the only good band to ever release anything on Sevared Records, that murky swamp of lo-fi slam with precisely zero quality control.  So yeah, imagine my surprise the first time I heard Abnormality, the American quintet of death metallers who nail that perfect blend of brutality and technicality without falling into the frequent trappings of either niche.  On Contaminating the Hive Mind, there were neither endless stretches of noodly technicality, entirely lacking in adrenaline and instead sounding like the most impressively boring thing in the universe like the legions of Rings of Saturns of the world, nor were there 30 minute slogs of slam after slam after slam with no hooks or upticks in tempo or anything of the sort like basically all of their labelmates.  It was a masterful blend of the two, similar to how Suffocation so brilliantly pulled it off in the early 90s, with the key difference being that Abnormality generally kept the pace a little higher and had less out-of-nowhere time changes.  Basically it was easily one of the best albums of 2012 and I have been dying to hear more from them ever since.

Well that day has come, and they've since jumped ship from that self collapsing vortex of inanity that is Sevared and landed on the high profile home of Cannibal Corpse and Hail of Bullets, Metal Blade.  With a new major label backing and a juggernaut of hype, they have finally unleashed Mechanisms of Omniscience.  And how's it sound?  Well... kinda disappointing.

I'll admit right away that I'm being a little bit unfair, because the major problem with the record is that it simply isn't as good as Contaminating the Hive Mind.  I know that's unfair, but there is a lingchi of tiny annoyances that all sort of coalesce into one bummer.  The most obvious of which is that the production is just too damn sterile.  This is a weird complaint coming from me, because I like plenty of salad shooter styled tech death bands that are as spotless as a hospital floor, but Abnormality had already shown us a perfect production job on their previous album.  We already know that some added rawness adds a ton to the pummeling grooves the band has in store for listeners, so the opening notes of "Swarm" immediately made me switch back over to the previous album and see if I was remembering its sound wrong.  I wasn't.  The guitars are pushed back, the snare drum is piercing, and the vocals are louder than everything else by a sizable margin.  I hate complaining about modern production jobs, because I feel like most people who do that are oldnoobs who refuse to adjust with the times, but here it really does work to the record's detriment.  It lacks an explosive punch, and a little bit more harshness in the tone would have worked wonders for Mechanisms of Omniscience.

Another flaw is that, well, none of the songs particularly stand out.  For a tech death album that really isn't uncommon, but there are flashes of brilliance scattered around that show they have the ability to craft a standout song.  The harmonized solo in "Hopeless Masses", the rare example of an instrumental interlude in this style of "Assimilation", that part around two minutes into "Vigilant Ignorance" where the fermata hits and the band holds for a second before exploding into the strongest and most insane segment of the entire album, accompanied by potentially the best riff they ever wrote, those parts all dominate.  They have an ear for subtle and twisted melody that permeates every once in a while, but instead mostly stick to their trademark hyperblasting ridiculousness.  Granted, this is obviously just a band playing to their strengths, as they do wreck shit when they just go all out and unfurl the most high minded brutality they can, but the little touches of great songwriting hooks are few and far between, and most of the album ends up as a faceless blur as a result.

Generally that last paragraph alone is enough for a high fifties score, most likely in the negatives, but in all honesty, this is a really good faceless blur.  It's not the most memorable album out there, but for this style, it's up there.  "Vigilant Ignorance" alone is worth the price of admission, with that aforementioned insane middle section and some Cerebral Bore styled slams, it's varied enough to remain at full speed throughout the entire six minute runtime.  What the band doesn't feature deserves a mention too, because thanks to bands like Fallujah and Beyond Creation, the scene has been flooded with progressive, spacey concepts and longwinded noodly sections that impress guitar nerds and nobody else.  Abnormality doesn't fuck around with that shit.  When they do slow down, like on "Consuming Infinity", they take the harrowing Morbid Angel approach instead, and there are basically zero forced lead lines flittering around in the foreground at any point.  The only atmosphere they want to create is one of overwhelming desperation, a furious prisoner thrashing against his chains.  The twisted, angular, disjointed riffage and nigh endless blasting create a furious hellstorm of debris that keep listeners on their toes, never quite sure how the next section is going to pulverize you.  They also seem to be one of the few tech death bands that excel when the songs are given time to develop, since "Vigilant Ignorance" and "Consuming Infinity" are pretty easily the best songs here, and they're two of the three that run over four minutes in length (they're both nearly six minutes long).  They're a strange paradox in that their at their best when they're just blasting forward at full speed, but the moments when they add pummeling groove and slower/more mid paced sections seem to be the moments when their songs create their strongest moments.

So it's flawed, and it's an obvious step down from their debut, but Mechanisms of Omniscience isn't bad.  There are enough moments to help it stand out from the crowd, but not enough to launch it into the upper pantheon with Fleshgod Apocalypse's first album and the Vile Conception thru Sedition streak from Hour of Penance.  Yeah, the production is a bit sterile and the vocals are a little bland (there wasn't really a place to mention it before, but on the debut they were extremely savage (think Effigy of the Forgotten era Frank Mullen), whereas here they're pretty standard sounding apart from the few segments when they go deep and take on a more Cerebral Bore/Defeated Sanity vibe), but it's overall pretty good.  Fans of the style should love it for sure, it's just lacking that extra punch of the scattered hooks of Contaminating the Hive Mind.  We really need more sections like the chorus of "A Chaos Reserved"!


RATING - 73%

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%