Monday, November 15, 2010

Shuriken Cadaveric Entwinement - As the Shroud of Suffering Suffocates the Land

Catastrophic Panoramic Brouhaha

Sevared Records will probably go down in my own personal history book as one of the worst metal labels to exist. Almost every release I've heard from them (and believe me when I say I've heard plenty) has been repugnant. "Repugnant" could actually be a compliment since I'm sure the over-the-top brutality and thick slams that punctuate most of the records are entirely the aim, ignoring songwriting, memorability, technical skill, and everything involved in music making. You always know what you're going to get, but most of their fodder tends to be low rate slam death with little thought behind it, and it's not the good kind of stupid (Jungle Rot). With that said, North Carolina's own Shuriken Cadaveric Entwinement is probably the least repulsive act I've found flying the Sevared flag.

First off, the band has to have the worst name I've ever stumbled across. They sure managed to pick three cool words, it's just unfortunate that they make no fucking sense when put together. I understand this seems like a superficial thing to be hung up on, but for Greek's sake, the name of your band is your first impression. It's your image, your identifier, it's how people will remember your band forever. Perfunctory Wingnut Calamity may be aiming for stupid, but this is mind numbing. And while I'm focusing on the flash as opposed to the substance, I must applaud the band for focusing their imagery on feudal Japan. This is a brutal time in history, rife with tales of battle and savagery that seems strangely untouched by much of metal. The burning of HonnĊ-ji, the battle of Mikatagahara, the... resurrection of the undead Genma forces? The demonic plaguewielding supervillian Nobunaga Oda? Oh, I see. This band learned everything it knows about Japan from the Onimusha videogames, nevermind.

The main problem with As the Shroud of Suffering Suffocates the Land is that it drags like a dog's ass on the carpet. The opening track is nearly seven minutes long, which is an insane marathon length for brutal death metal like this, and it's amplified by the fact that it's boring as hell and feels twice as long. Obsequies Quixotic Barbecue eschew the normal pig grunts and other assorted animal noises usually associated with Sevared denizens in favor of more traditional, Glen Benton-esque double layered death growls. Musically this also carries a slight Deicide vibe, although a paradoxically more laid back yet more crushing version. The two riffing styles on display are fast, atonal tremolo picking, and relentless pinch harmonic punctuation. The former style is much more interesting, as the stop-start dweedling of the pinching is extremely noticeable to the point of it being detrimental. Most of the time it doesn't fit, whereas the tremolo attack keeps the pace up and actually crafts interesting lines from time to time (the main riff of Ascension of Nobunaga is a prime example). There are a few slams and breakdowns here and there that attempt to spice up the mix but they don't do much help. The thing that makes this album so confusing to me is the drumming. It's fast, it's prominent, but it's also weak at the same time. The production is partially at fault for this anomaly, as the drums are pushed to the front of the mix, yet the bass drum sounds like somebody slapping a basketball and the snare sounds like it's covered in Ritz crackers. It entirely decimates the power they clearly intend to highlight. The other huge problem is the man's playing style in the first place. Double bass is pounding about 85% of the time, but his upper half seems stuck in half time. This gives the illusion that the song is moving at half the speed, despite what the riffs and bass drum are doing.

Despite the complaints, Phantasmal Blinkering Squeegee isn't all that bad. As the Shroud of Suffering Suffocates the Land is an enjoyable, if bland and somewhat weak, romp through bloody battlegrounds and demonic carnage. Standout tracks would be "Ascension of Nobunaga", "Screams of the Genma", and "Crumbling the Throne of the Fallen", but listening to the entire album can be a bit of a chore if it isn't used for background purposes.

Invertebrate Merriment Squirrel.

RATING - 67%

Rhapsody - Power of the Dragonflame

Of lumpy feet and kernel obstructed pooturds...

Rhapsody was nothing more than a punching bag for me before I was truly familiar with their music many a moon ago. I knew little about the band, but I knew that they were a ludicrously over the top power metal band with a metric shit ton of symphonic fluff and hilariously bad narration. Now, that's a very easy target for a thrashoholic Borisite like myself circa 2004. Since growing my own pair of testicles and developing my own musical taste as opposed to just taking popular writers' opinions as gospel (I truly was a cretin early on), I've fallen head over heels in absurd love for Rhapsody's signature sound. I find 2000 - 2002 to be the band's peak, encompassing Dawn of Victory, Rain of a Thousand Flames, and the subject of today's discussion, Power of the Dragonflame.

When it comes to the two series of albums, The Emerald Sword is far superior to The Dark Secret, and it's not because the story is significantly better. Honestly, the epic story is essentially just extra fluff that serves little purpose apart from giving the fanfares some sort of backdrop. This is the fourth and final installment of the first series, where our unnammed Warrior of Ice commences in the final showdown with the Dark King Akron after surrendering the Emerald Sword to the dark lord. There's also a Shadowlord by the name of Dargor and some Black Queen but it's all totally useless. Typing out those last two sentences made my genitalia shrivel inside itself and gave me the uncontrollable urge to throw ping pong balls at people whilst yelling "LIGHTNING BOLT!", and that may have something to do with the strong nerd fanbase that Rhapsody carries. These Italians love their fantasy to the point that it's nearly alienating to people who've never voluntarily endured a D&D session or would rather spend their time headbanging and shouting about Satan. If the story is fluff, then the narration is toejam. I don't know if this Sir Jay Lansford character is just Fabio Lione's pseudonym for when he begins his narrator shtick or what, but whoever the culprit, he has one of the most incredibly awkward speaking voices of all time. Thankfully, he only appears on the last track on this album, so you don't find yourself fighting urges to go dunk his head underwater until the bubbles stop like on the Rain of a Thousand Flames EP, but his mere presence makes me roll my eyes and hope that nobody else is listening. He over emotes and strains damn near every word to the point of hilarity. Listen to him say "Guy-Ya" or "Gar-gooyles" and do your best to at least not smirk.

I look at Rhapsody similarly to how I look at Bad Religion. I'm not here for the riffs, I'm here for the vocals and melodies (although admittedly the punk legends have a massive lyrical edge). Most of the riffs rarely evolve past fast palm muting and the drums stick to the power metal standard of double bass with occasional sprinkles of more double bass. But like with Timeless Miracle, the draw is not in the guitars, but in the keys and lungs. The over the top fanfares and soaring keys are, while not nearly as overpowering as many people seem to imply, doubtlessly the instrumental highlights right next to Luca Turilli's excellent, if predictable soloing. The symphonics do more than just play roots and the occasional solo, here they add an epic atmosphere and create their own unique melodies. They aren't memorable for how in-your-face they are, but more for their quality. The choirs also add a great touch to Lione's already great vocals, adding a fantastic backing boom, depth, power, and sense of epicness that would be sorely lacking if they were absent. Of course, this is Rhapsody we're talking about, so worrying about them holding anything back or not pushing something to it's cheesiest extreme would be like Hugh Hefner worrying that his sex life might possibly be weak. Lione's voice is also surprisingly varied for the style. He switches up with some harsher stylings on "When Demons Awake" and, while he never really shows it off, also touts a decent range when he so pleases.

To me, the main draw here is also the main turnoff for most of the band's detractors, and that is the fact that this is cornier than Fat Bastard's shit. This is shameless, over the top, and ridiculous in all the best ways possible. The only time it feels like the band is restraining itself is on the ballad, "Lamento Eroico", which is undoubtedly the low point of the record. The amount of references to ancient powers, swords, heroes, fairies, dragons, and Rapunzel are frequent to the point of childish, but you never find yourself doubting the conviction of the boys. The tough, metalhead badass inside us all will look at the guys and prolly threaten to beat their heads in with our Phallic Christhammer or Satanic Chainsaw ov Doom or whatever and they'll just draw their swords and cast a pussy spell on us. Rhapsody offers an escape into the sprawling lands of vagabond warriors and epic struggles against good and evil as opposed to hellish torment. Their optimism and virtue are, while fairly common for power metal, a welcome alternative to the dark and visceral that most metal likes to dwell inside of. Being one of the biggest names in the style certainly helps them stand out, but they didn't get to this status by accident, they're insanely good at the melodic symphonic style they play.

So melt some Velveeta and dunk an ear, let yourself get swept up into the heroic anthems and fantastic choruses and fight against the forces of darkness for an hour. Yeah, the album hits a dead patch with "Lamento Eroico" and the following two songs are pretty pedestrian but the first five proper songs and the nearly 20 minute closing are fucking sublime. "Agony is my Name" and the title track are probably the standouts, but almost everything is as infectious as syphilis and infinitely more enjoyable. Yeah, I feel the need to turn off my natural manilness genes when chanting about vanquishing the Dark Lord of Hargor or whatever, but the power the band conveys completely makes up for it.

RATING - 88%

Winds of Plague - The Great Stone War

MOO! MOO! MOO! MOO! COW! COW! COW! COW!

No way around it, Decimate the Weak was shit. I maintain my stance that Winds of Plague had potential underneath the laughable posturing and trendhorning, but they needed to focus on melodic death metal with a strong symphonic presence and drop the hardcore pretenses. I understand that the vocalist is basically a pure hardcore guy judging by his vocal stylings, but the rest of the band was always hopping between hardcore, melodeath, symphonic metal, and deathcore. There was no cohesion between the style mixing, creating more of a dry salad bowl effect instead of a much tastier melting pot. Therefore, I had initially completely passed on this album because of my bitter cynicism and past experience (most bands don't make the changes that I feel will make them improve (see: All That Remains, Meshuggah, et cetera)). Eventually, like it always does, curiosity got the better of me. To my bewilderment, they actually kind of did it right this time.

Once again, go pick up your socks.

The album opens with a purely symphonic intro, entirely devoid of the insipid breakdown underneath like what was featured in Decimate the Weak's opening track. No, this time the goons restrain themselves and actually let the keys alone create a grandiose atmosphere as a backdrop for a spoken word intro. Right around here, two things came to my mind. 1) These guys are really channeling their inner Rhapsody, which could totally be a good thing. 2) This is going to be a concept album. The latter realization scared the hell out of me. I'd spun the previous album several times in a futile attempt to wrap my head around the disjointed mess, so I was no stranger to John Cooke's absurdly awful lyrics. For a concept album to be properly done, you can't just shit one out. It requires forethought, storytelling skill, and lyrical prowess, none of which this man possesses. Not to mention his hardcore/deathcore vocals wouldn't do well to carry a story anyway, and were poor by the genre's standards in the first place. Well spoiler alert, that much hasn't changed since the last outing (the title of this review is actually featured at the one minute mark of "Soldiers of Doomsday"). A couple guest vocalists show up to presumably break the monotony, but since they're the guys from Terror, Hatebreed, and Suicide Silence, they don't add much of a new flavor. Martin Stewart appears on the first proper song, "Forged in Fire", and he's the only one I can actually pick out during the album; Jasta and Lucker just pass through without much presence.

And this brings me to my next point, and by far the most important and most improved, the actual music. The disjointed cut-and-paste style of songwriting that was so prevalent and so nut twiddingly irritating on Decimate the Weak actually only manages to rear it's malformed head a few times. The aggressive melodeath riffing actually takes front and center for a majority of the record, relying on the backing keys to provide the necessary atmosphere and melody. Whichever pretty face they're using to manipulate these keyboards now has a more important role this time 'round as well. She doesn't get any solos or anything, but it's actually really noticeable when she's silent. Her main job seems to be mimicking the melodies the guitars utilize and to play simple backing chords, (apart from the occasional quiet piano passage) but it's just... better on this album. The guitar work is actually the biggest improvement to be found. The riffs aren't anything to drool over and most won't stick in your head, but they aren't purely shit like they used to be. There are a few memorable moments like the slowed-down-Bodom moment near the end of "Approach the Podium" or the simplistic yet not downright retarded guitar solos in "Battle Scars" and "Our Requiem".

I must warn the potential listener that the ever dreaded breakdown is still around, as Winds of Plague is still deathcore and therefore will not part with it unless it is pried from under their cold, dead extended earlobes. Thankfully, most of them are short lived and not too horribly flow breaking. But unfortunately, the few insipid, blatant slamdowns that occur do indeed throw a large, tattooed monkey wrench into the gears of the metal machine. A breakdown by nature is supposed to be hard hitting and brutal, it's entire purpose is to switch up a song or throw the listener off balance or just plain smash them over the head with a brick. Bricks don't flow, you've never heard of the Brick River Rapids because it doesn't fucking exist. You know what demands flow? Epic, soaring symphonics telling a tale regarding an apocalyptic conflict between good and evil. The two main forces at work here are diametrically opposed to one another, and it's really distracting. I'll concede that most of the breakdowns on display are actually somewhat subtle and manage to continue the previously set pace of the songs, but there are a few of the dreaded breed regardless. Let's loop back once again to the first proper song, "Forged in Fire". The entire song rides on a few heartfelt, if somewhat unimaginative, melodic death metal riffs. It's high speed, it's pure aggression, it's a well oiled machine running on all cylinders. Three minutes into the track, near the end, we finally get hit with a breakdown. It's at the same tempo, it flowed into itself nicely, it's just basically a fast chuggada chugging section, nothing to be too awfully upset about. Fifteen seconds later, the entire band drops and we're left with Cooke's stupid yelling. You know exactly what's coming. Yup, it's the asinine, significantly slower, one note bonehead slamdown. It's big and stupid, and that can have it's appeal if the entire idea of the music is based on it, but it isn't on The Great Stone War. The album isn't built on breakdowns, it's built on high tempo melodeath and sweeping keys. An impromptu ninja fight has no place in this experience. They never add anything to this album and serve no purpose other than to aggravate the listener. This really stupid kind isn't featured on every track like the previous album, but when they show up they're definitely distracting.

So what we're left with is yet another flawed effort, but a massively improved one. The problems that punctuated Decimate the Weak are still here, but they've been scaled back significantly. Yeah, some tracks just go by with no consequence ("Creed of Tyrants", "Classic Struggle") and some are peppered with poor decisions ("Chest and Horns", "The Great Stone War", "Forged in Fire"), but overall the few good aspects actually manage to at least match up in weight against the bad ones this time. I actually feel it manages to outweigh the bad slightly. I'll give the band credit this time, it's clear they're trying their asses off, but I just wish they'd drop the stupid core pretense and work towards a totally symphonic melodeath release. That Twizzler chain from the previous album has been replaced with a plastic chain. It still isn't entirely strong, but it can hold some weight now and is definitely sturdier than licorice.

RATING - 60%

Fleshgod Apocalypse - Oracles

If this album had a dick, I'd suck it

When it comes to hyperspeed death metal, I've always been really picky-choosy about which bands I praised as awesome and which I condemned as pointless noodlers. I think Origin is great fun, but Brain Drill is so insane that its hypothetical brain has actually begun to deteriorate. This type of brutal technical melodic reversible what-have-you death metal walks a very fine line in terms of quality. When it spends too much time focusing on being brutal, it has a habit of sounding like one of the squintillion Suffocation clones, and when it takes a more precise approach, it carries a blinding sheen that totally overpowers the grit that is so important in the first half of death metal. The mushroom stomping plumbers in Fleshgod Apocalypse have found the line and straddled it beautifully (not much unlike your mom). If you want a visual representation of Oracles, think of the censored (but far superior) album art for the legendary Severed Survival by Autopsy. Make no mistake, this shit is brutal and dirty, yet also surgical and calculated. It's frenzied as much as it is barbaric and as precise as it is gritty. These motherfuckers got chocolate in my peanut butter, and god dammit I love them for it.

Like most brutal tech death albums, the experience runs for less than 40 minutes, but this is slightly disheartening in this case since the music is so damn superb. A lot of albums in this style have a nasty tendency of having one idea and stretching it out for the duration of the release, but Fleshgod has managed to take their one idea, hack it into nine little pieces, paint each piece a different color, and then intermittently sprinkle in a totally different idea along with it. What I mean is that every track is fast, intense, and filled with enough guitar theatrics to warrant an investment in fretboard pyrotechnics technology, but each track stands out as it's own entity as opposed to one faceless blur of minigun-esque percussion and more sweeps than Mickey Mouse could ever command. Take this profound songwriting talent and combine it with classical passages tastefully placed throughout and you've got yourself one of the very few song oriented brutal tech death albums. I won't lie to you and say this is as blatantly varied as, say Beyond the Permafrost, but it's more like one of Rhapsody's finer moments. Every track follows the same basic idea (in this case, warp speed brutality and finesse) but they all kick insurmountable ass. There are a few parts like the chugging section in "Infection of the White Throne" and downtempo segments in "Requiem in SI Minore" that deviate from the cast somewhat, but on the whole you know what you'll be getting once the album starts.

That said, these noble Romans were kind enough to give we, the listeners, a chance to gather ourselves a few times during the album. The classical sections come and go tastefully a handful of times throughout the album and offer a pleasant breather between the metallic madness that otherwise saturates the record. Be it the maniacal piano intro to the album's highlight, "Embodied Deception" or the purely grand piano outro of the title track, not one second of Oracles is wasted, even during these breathers. "In Honour of Reason" even manages to mix some female vocals alongside the totally masculine bellows of the lead vocalist. The juxtaposition of beauty and bowel evacuating horror is constantly explored, and can make one ponder about the dual nature of human existence. Is there truly beauty in ugly? Is there really a selfless good deed? One could ask if this is actually one of the most sophisticated, complex, and intelligent metal recordings of all time. One could ask this if they weren't too busy punching the snooty types who ask these questions in the face thanks to the sheer power of this album.

Fans of Hour of Penance and the like will eat this up, and with damn good reason. There is some member sharing between Fleshgod Apocalypse and the aforementioned group, and it's evident in the sense that both bands manage to stand out in the flooding scene of technical death metal. I'll end this review with a true story that should hopefully help you, the reader, understand the all consuming fury contained within. A while ago, I was listening to this album whilst dicking around on the internet. Three minutes into "As Tyrants Fall", my girlfriend walked into the room. Her eyes lit up at the pleasant ensemble emanating from my speakers, so she pulled me out of my chair and begged me to dance with her. Reluctantly, I obliged. We waltzed in the computer room for just under a minute before the track changed and the waltz abruptly shifted into furious blasting death metal madness. Instinctively, I headbutt my dear girlfriend in the face hard enough to break her nose and give me a nasty headache. Consumed by the music, I then dropkicked her dog and punched a hole through a nearby wall. I was only recently released from prison.

Translation: "This slays, buy the hell out of it"

RATING - 95%