Monday, October 5, 2020

RELITIGATING HIGH SCHOOL Vol VII: Job for a Cowboy - Doom

IT'S A FUCKIN' GOOD CHEESE
 
I knew which album I was going to end this series with way back when I got the idea to do it.  Job for a Cowboy isn't strictly metalcore, per se, but they provide a nice narrative conclusion to the whole thing in my eyes.  When nu metal died out, metalcore became the predominant heavy genre in the mainstream, and after few fruitful years at the top, it was eventually supplanted by deathcore.  I don't consider JFAC to have invented the style or anything, I'm sure there were plenty of lesser known bands to blend those heavy breakdowns with more traditional death metal and add pig squeals on top before them (I tend to think of them more as one prong in the trident along with Whitechapel and As Blood Runs Black when it comes to bringing the genre to the forefront, but even then I'm sure somebody can make a convincing argument otherwise), but this was the first I had heard.  It was the first that tons of people had heard, frankly.  JFAC is the first band I can remember that truly hit it big off the back of Myspace popularity, the first band to utterly blow the minds of kids who were into heavy music but weren't interested in old shit from the 90s, the first to speed past mere "aggression" and land headfirst into utter "brutality".  Us jaded internet folks understood that death metal had been a thing for like fifteen years at this point, but after spending the last few weeks completely immersed in early 2000s New England metalcore, I get it now.  Killswitch Engage and All That Remains sound like shuddering pissbabies in the shadow of "Entombment of a Machine".  If I hadn't had a cool mom and access to the internet and had instead followed the natural trajectory of Pantera > nu metal > metalcore, Doom would have wrecked my fucking brain too.
 
Looking back from the perspective of the wizened old know-it-all that I am today, I can pretty safely say that Doom is actually a fairly normal death metal EP for the most part.  Take away the bree bree vocals and the breakdowns and this is fairly standard technical death metal, with ripping tremolo riffs and punishing blastbeats aplenty.  It jumps around very often, never riding on a static section for more than a few seconds.  The drums are constantly spazzing out in a dozen different directions, the riffs twist and slither all over the place, quickly snapping into place on a dime and constantly throwing power punches at you with little regard for a logical flow.  It's chaotic and nasty, and the band's eventual progression into standard DM is much less surprising now that I'm revisiting this fifteen years later.

However, if this were regular death metal, it would have neither set the metalcore world on fire nor would it have drawn the ire of so many traditionalists.  No, it earned the reputation it has because of those different elements, and their inclusion did indeed meaningfully change it into something beyond simple death metal.  I'm not gonna pretend Autopsy didn't exist but let's be real, JFAC didn't include massive slamming breakdowns because of any traditional influence.  In essence, what made Doom what it was was that it was musicked in a way that bent much closer to hardcore/metalcore than death metal.  You don't listen to Cannibal Corpse the same way you listen to deathcore.  Instead of taking in entire songs as a whole, with different riffs and motifs working in tandem with one another, you listened to relatively disconnected blasts of intensity as the song built and built and built until it finally burst with a massive, devastating breakdown.  This is what Doom did spectacularly well, and if this had never gotten the grassroots success that it did then heavy music as a whole probably would've looked a hell of a lot different for a solid ten years.

Unfortunately, this is far from a perfect release.  Hell it'd be a stretch to even call it "great".  What Doom has going for it are two fantastic songs packaged along with three totally inconsequential snoozers.  "Entombment of a Machine" is the iconic deathcore song, and it's earned that reputation.  It's a four minute long cavalcade of chaotic blasting sprinkled in between gargantuan heaps of big stupid mosh riffs and big stupid breakdowns.  It's a big stupid song and it turns out that JFAC's strength at this point in their career is just being big and stupid.  This kind of knuckle dragging simplicity is beautiful in its primitiveness and the EP's greatest crime is that every song isn't like this.  "Knee Deep" stands out as the other great one, and frankly it could've logically been written by a different band considering how much more normal it is.  That one sports an opening riff that could've been written by fucking Deicide, and it absolutely rules.  Like I said before, if the vocals were different nobody would've bat an eye at this song, because that's really the only thing nontraditional about it.

The other three songs?  Eh, they're all fine but that's about it.  Opening with "Entombment of a Machine" was a brilliant choice because it instantly smacked you in the face with a sound that was genuinely new to most people and was the strongest song anyway, but it also carries the unfortunate burden of setting expectations way too high for the rest of the album.  "The Rising Tide" has like three separate moments where the band drops out and you know when they come back they're gonna fuckin' slam their hearts out but they just... don't.  They come crashing back in with more or less run-of-the-mill death metal with some heavier chugs interspersed in from time to time.  This happens time and time again, and it wouldn't really be a problem if these other tracks were as good as "Knee Deep" but they just aren't despite being fundamentally similar.  I remember their first full length, Genesis being a shock to me at the time because there was nothing deathcore about it and it was just straight ahead death metal with no twists, but going back to check out this debut EP 15 years later reveals that they had pretty much telegraphed that they'd be totally pedestrian without those breakdowns and pig squeals and that already took up the lion's share of what they were doing.  "Entombment" was so ubiquitous and so iconic that I think we all collectively tricked ourselves into thinking the entirety of Doom sounded like that, because it categorically does not.  And that's not to say that it's only good because of the deathcore cliches necessarily, because they'd go on to prove with Ruination that they fucking smoked when they shifted to a more tech death style, but it's probably not a coincidence that The Big Stupid is where all of the most memorable parts of this album can be found.  I bet you don't remember a single note of "Relinquished" but you all know that ridiculous screech in the intro to "Entombment" whether you want to or not.

Doom didn't kill the more melodic side of metalcore by any stretch, tons of iconic albums in that style came out after this (All That Remains had their biggest hit a full year after this came out and the hands down best As I Lay Dying album was released two years later), but I do see it as the signal flare.  It wasn't the nail in the coffin, but it was the writing on the wall, the changing of the tides, anybody paying attention to this scene knew that things were going to change for the heavier, and Doom is what opened their eyes to the possibilities.  Job themselves more or less stepped aside and let Suicide Silence or whoever lead the charge but I'd say it's pretty uncontroversial to say they got the ball rolling here.  At the time, I hated this for what it represented: a total bastardization of a style of music that I loved, taking my beloved death metal and ruining it with dumbass 60bpm breakdowns and bree bree vocals, but nowadays I appreciate it more for what it is than for what it isn't, and even then it's mostly pretty average on the whole.  And after listening to that New England style for a few weeks solid, I totally understand what made this such a smash hit at the time.  This must've been what it felt like to hear loads of late 80s Anthrax and Exodus for years before stumbling into Altars of Madness.  


RATING: 70%

Saturday, October 3, 2020

RELITIGATING HIGH SCHOOL Vol VI: Avenged Sevenfold - Waking the Fallen

They still ripped off Chaly though
 
Well we're nearing the end of this series.  My initial plan was to do ten reviews because that seemed like a nice round number and there are more than enough albums to relisten to from this era of my life, but over time I wound up shaving it down to seven for a couple reasons.  I was gonna touch on The Fall of Ideals by All That Remains because it would pull double duty and allow me to rewrite an old review, but really I'd just be repeating the Killswitch review so it wouldn't be interesting.  I was gonna tackle a Chimaira album but honestly all three of the ones I listened to just bored me to tears and I only managed to get through a full listen once and that was purely because I had it on in the background while I zoned out and played Dynasty Warriors.  And lastly I cut out Bullet For My Valentine because other than pointing out how much the clean vocals sounded like Green Day I just didn't have anything interesting to say about it.  This isn't exactly relevant to the review, but this is gonna be a LOTB exclusive since Avenged Sevenfold isn't listed on MA so I wanted to take this opportunity to meander a bit and give a look behind the curtain in case any readers thought I left out some obvious candidates.  For the curious, my opinions on the three albums I cut are "lame", "bad", and "meh", in order.

On topic, I have a bit of a confession to make, I'm not entirely unfamiliar with A7X here, because I've long been a defender of their third record, City of Evil.  Even when I first heard it, back when the band was persona non grata for metal fans, I thought it was a weird flukey home run where every dumb element of their sound just worked.  It was fun, it was fast, it was catchy, it was and is a brilliantly well written slice of modern hard rock/metal that stood head and shoulders above the shitty metalcore they started with and the overblown Guns n' Roses imitation they'd go on to milk to death.  But the dirty little secret here is that I had never actually known any of their other albums beyond like two songs across seven albums or whatever.  They just weren't worth listening to, who the fuck cares about a group of dorks who dress like Good Charlotte, give themselves dumb names like "Zacky", and rip off Overkill's mascot?

The extremely obvious revelation I'm leading to is that holy shit Avenged Sevenfold is genuinely good and I think I'm just an unironic fan now.  Despite always kinda-secretly liking City of Evil this was genuinely the band I had the lowest expectations for based on my memory.  But man I'd be lying if I said I hadn't gone back to listen to Waking the Fallen more than a few times since the original relisten, not because I needed to take notes or anything, but just because I wanted to hear it again.

The thing that stands out the most is something that I remember hating the most as a kid, funnily enough.  M. "Night" Shyadowlan easily, and I mean fucking easily stands out as the best vocalist of all the bands I've covered in this series.  Back when I was 14 I remember hearing a song or two and thinking he was super whiny and then switching the music to Angel Witch without a shred of irony.  Hearing so many lame, weak, dry, or tuneless vocalists in a row really makes his skill incredibly fucking obvious and I have no idea why I hated him at the time.  His cleans have a lot of grit to them and he carries a tune extremely well, even showcasing a surprising range on "I Won't See You Tonight part 1".  His harsh vocals, while dropped entirely after this album, are very good as well.  They're extremely venomous and sound like they're coming straight from the gut despite being on the higher end of the register.  I focused on vocals so much throughout this series because it seemed like nobody could get the harsh/clean combo right and they so frequently took center stage, but Avenged Fucking Sevenfold of all god damned bands winds up being literally the only one to nail it and my jaw is still on the floor.

Even the instrumental side excels in a way that most of the other bands couldn't.  They are by no means the most aggressive or heaviest band in the genre (their drift away from metalcore to a more hard rock and (apparently) progressive metal direction over the years isn't really surprising) but these guys are incredibly fucking tight songwriters.  Despite the length of these songs, they have the girth to make it worthwhile.  The typical metalcore breakdown of open string chugs in perfect time with a rapid fire bass drum shows up plenty of times here, with "Unholy Confessions" sporting probably the most basic one to ever exist, but they hit surprisingly hard whenever they show up and more often than not the band will just subvert them by slamming down a meaty groove that smacks more of Pantera than anybody else instead.  Waking the Fallen runs through a lot of different moods, from caustic bursts like "Unholy Confessions" and "Eternal Rest" to melodic anthems like "Chapter Four" to mournful ballads like "I Won't See You Tonight".  That last one actually hammers the Pantera comparison home even further, since it's technically a two-parter, with the first part being a slow ballad and the second part being a shotgun blast of aggression.  There's absolutely no way that wasn't intentionally modeled off "Suicide Note", right?  Am I crazy?  Regardless, the album ebbs and flows between all of these different approaches and for the first time in a half dozen reviews a band actually manages to be good at all of them.  I seriously can't get over how much I like "Chapter Four".  Seriously, I'd be willing to consider that as my favorite song in the entire genre.  There is barely a wasted second on that one and every stupid element of it hits bullseye, and I'm saying that with full acknowledgment of the completely pointless section that repeats a ten note chug pattern eight times in a row.  It (and the rest of the album, frankly) is so basic that it should just be corny schlock, but there is so much sincerity here that I can't help but adore it.  That chorus is just fucking sublime with that incredible vocal hook coupled with the sliding octaves on the guitar in the background.  In comparison to their peers, Avenged Sevenfold doesn't have a single new or novel idea in their collective head but they played their fucking hearts out and torqued the lugnuts so damned tight that they wound up writing a dozen songs that effortlessly steamrolled everybody else trying to make metalcore accessible.  

I do have one complaint though, and it should be obvious to anybody familiar with both this album and my reviews in general: it's way too fucking long.  No metal album should get this close to the 70 minute mark unless every single song is a standout on its own, and Waking the Fallen is not immune to this criticism.  There are a lot of different ideas here but they're all pretty well worn and the album works best as a unit despite a few standout tracks.  So as a result it really does start to blur together after the first handful of tracks, which isn't the biggest problem since I think this works pretty well as a unit but it's a problem nonetheless.  The good news is that none of the tracks themselves feel too long, which is shocking considering the shortest one (barring the intro) is still only a few seconds shy of five minutes, and three of them breach the seven minute mark (with the first part of "I Won't See You Tonight" stretching out to nine), so the arduous runtime isn't really the end of the world since I was entertained the whole time at the very least.

Really, I didn't see this coming, but Waking the Fallen is genuinely the best of the bunch here.  My lifelong love of Pantera helps me appreciate the stomping groove metal parts, my lifelong love of Guns n' Roses helps me appreciate the overblown epic parts where Synyster "Bill" Gates goes fucking feral on his fretboard (though they wouldn't fully lean into this until later), and my lifelong... well indifference to melodeath helps me appreciate the heavy parts simply because they're so much better than the legions of mediocre trend chasers that defined this era of music.  The word I keep coming back to in my head that I've been trying not to overuse is "tight".  Waking the Fallen is simply a remarkably well written album in a style that was absolutely saturated with mediocre chumps pumping out first draft songs and cashing in, delivered with enough sincerity to turn the corny simplicity into something truly endearing.  All this really needed was a bit of a fat trim and maybe dropping one or two songs entirely and this would genuinely be a classic, and I'm not kidding.

I wouldn't have bothered with this series if I wound up thinking everything still sucked just as much as I thought it did when I was a teenager, but really, the fact that Trivium and Avenged Sevenfold, the two bands I vocally hated the most, wound up being the ones that surprised me the most and churned out some genuinely great albums (Heafy's awful vocals are literally the only thing dragging Ascendancy's score down, remember) is seriously not at all what I expected.  I figured it'd be Killswitch, honestly, since I've been a fan of As I Lay Dying ever since 2007, but the world is really fucking weird and here we are.  Avenged Sevenfold is Good Actually.  Feel free to hold that against me forever if you wish, I'm not backing down, I genuinely adore this album.


RATING: 89%
 
 
(Pre-Publication Edit: Since writing this I've started listening to their other albums.  The self titled is actually worse than bad, it's exactly as awful as I remembered their metalcore era being when I was a kid, oddly enough.  Nightmare was much better, it was super corny but very City of Evil if it had a huge shot of the Black Album in it, though there were way too many shitty ballads that dragged it down a ton.  Still gotta check the rest but that's three albums I'll stand up for now so yeah I guess I'm just a fan after all, whoda thunk)

Thursday, October 1, 2020

RELITIGATING HIGH SCHOOL Vol V: God Forbid - Gone Forever

Yo this fucks
 
I've been trying to touch on every corner of this era when choosing albums for this series.  Shadows Fall was the collective macrogenre in a nutshell, Killswitch was the most standard metalcore band, Atreyu occupied the more radio-friendly and alternative side, et cetera.  So when it came time for "the heavy one", the obvious answer was Lamb of God but I've already covered their entire discography, so my brief research led me to two possibilities: God Forbid or Unearth.  I decided to go with God Forbid almost entirely because of the hilarious way Suffocation's Frank "The Tank" Mullen pronounces those two words on "Funeral Inception".

God Foopee is similar to Shadows Fall in the sense that they were actually fairly early to the party, forming in the mid/late 90s and not seeing success until nearly a decade later, and even then their success was pretty modest compared to most of their contemporaries.  Based on everything I've seen and read, they were always extremely respected by scene veterans and inadvertently acted as a great promotional tool since basically the entire northeastern American metal scene of the era opened for them at some point, but merely through bad luck they just never broke out above the second tier.

And that's kind of shocking because they honestly have one hell of a leg up on most of their contemporaries.  They were without a doubt the band with the most "metal cred" in the scene if you ask me.  While most bands I've covered so far seemed to play metalcore because they were simply influenced by other metalcore bands or did a very cut-and-dry blending of In Flames styled melodeath and emotional hardcore (in a way that kept the elements mostly separated, like a salad instead of a soup), God Foopee played metalcore seemingly by accident by playing hella fast paced melodeath closer to At the Gates or The Haunted with a massive dose of intense thrash metal and simply included breakdowns into the formula that came off sounding more like Pantera than Madball.  Every metalcore band was aggressive, but few of them were violent.  This unhinged sense of danger is something that Gone Forever absolutely fucking nails in a way that the All That Remainses of the world couldn't even imagine.  The clean parts are more effective here than anywhere else because they're so much more rare than usual and the heavy parts are so overwhelming and destructive.  

I've found myself focusing on vocals a lot in this series and I think that's because this scene had a weird problem with most bands featuring both harsh and clean vocals but basically no band being good at both of them (if either).  God Foopee is no different, with the cleans being clearly inferior to the screams, but I actually think the fact that the cleans are so rough adds to the authenticity.  Killswitch may have hit a home run with Jones's stunning cleans, and while brothers Doc "tor Death" and "Diamond" Dallas Coyle are several rungs below his smooth majesty, their more scratchy and less tonally punched-in cleans lend a level of sincerity to the music that no amount of theatrical histrionics could dream to match.  That "What are we waiting for?" part on "Force-Fed" sounds downright desperate, and the more intense than average music surrounding it helps them blend in so much more than the saccharine cleans of other bands.  Byron "The Butcher" Davis's screams, on the other hand, are some of the most caustic and vitriolic I've heard since undertaking this project.  He does the Shadows Fall thing of layering over himself quite frequently, but his scream is much more full and menacing than Fair's, so when the layering happens it sounds less like a studio trick to fill out the sound and more like a horde of pissed off minions preparing to eat your insides.  He doesn't dig deep into the death metal register or anything, but his mid range screams absolutely stand out from the pack due to the intense amount of rusted nails he chewed before tracking.  I can't stress enough how night-and-day the intensity of the vocals are here when compared to basically every other band in the scene.

That applies to the instrumental attack as well.  I may be overselling the speed of Gone Forever, but I'm not overselling the aggression.  "Washed Out World" has more clean vocals than it probably needs but check out that rollicking thrash riff 25 seconds in.  "Living Nightmare" kicks off with an incredibly mosh friendly riff before careening headfirst into a short double bass section that leads into a bloody-knuckled Pantera section.  Gone Forever just starts knocking teeth out from the word go and basically never stops.  Even the melodic choruses that every album needed by law in 2004 sound dirtier and more chaotic than I'd been getting used to.  There's a surprising amount of Nevermore in the sound as well, from the solos to the more skippy riffs to the way the clean vocals are delivered (even if they're wildly different from Warrel Dane's off-broadway overprojection), tons of signs point to that Seattle institution on here.  And just like with Trivium, the amount of epic 80s metal in here is surprising as well.  "Antihero" and "Soul Engraved" open with speedy riffs that were probably more inspired by Whoracle than anything else but they come off sounding like if In Flames was ripping off Judas Priest instead of Iron Maiden, if that makes sense.  The lithe riffs that zip along at high speed and the mid paced open string breakdowns are equally devastating, and I can't help but envision the band tearing the walls off of every venue with their bare hands when these songs are played live.  

If there's any flaw here, it's that the tracklist could've used a reshuffling, since the only two songs I don't really care for all that much are "Better Days" and "Perfect Lie" (the latter of which is super clunky and probably should've just been cut entirely), and they're unfortunately placed directly next to each other pretty early in the album.  Otherwise the disparate influences are all combined into a super taut package and delivered with an overwhelming amount of venom.  God Foopee gets bundled with Unearth mentally for me fairly often because they were both the two bands most frequently recommended to me back in the days I'm looking back on, and now that I've finally gotten around to giving them both good faith listens, I can say they both kicked ass at this niche and I regret passing on them the most.  I'm not gonna review Unearth but just imagine they got an identical review and score.


RATING: 84%

Monday, September 28, 2020

RELITIGATING HIGH SCHOOL Vol IV: Trivium - Ascendancy

I'm not making the boat rudder joke
 
I've recently learned about the theory that the kind of music you hate the most tends to actually be superficially similar to the kind you love the most.  Your natural assumption would be that somebody's least favorite style of music is the one the most opposite to their favorite, but ask any outlaw country fan what they think of Florida Georgia Line, or any jazz fan what they think of Kenny G's schlock.  Most pertinent to this series, ask any underground metalhead in 2005 what the worst genre was and they'd probably say metalcore.  The idea is that this is due to a sort of "musical uncanny valley", where you hate what you hate the most because it's almost something you love, but something about it is just too off, too artificial, too wrong to truly be what it is you love, and that gives us a sort of fight-or-flight reaction of visceral disgust.  I've been thinking about this a lot as I explore these metalcore bands for this series, and I think Trivium here is the poster child for metal's uncanny valley.  I know I spend a lot of time harping on how metalloids are obsessed with aesthetics and reflexively reject bands that don't look the part, and I still think that's true to an extent, but this way of thinking has really helped me to understand why this entire scene got shat on by the underground for so long, and Trivium in particular got it real bad.  They were an internet punching bag for years and I didn't even really question it.  Of course they sucked, I mean come on, have you listened to them?
 
I didn't start this series with the intention of pointing at maligned releases and just saying "Thing Good, Actually", but it was inevitable that it would happen at least once and I'm just as surprised as you are that Trivium wound up being the lucky winner.

The reason I think Trivium hit that musical uncanny valley more than any of their peers is because holy shit I never realized how 80s these songs are.  Seriously!  There are loads of things for classic metal fans to enjoy here, mostly in the absolute heaps of influence they took from Metallica and Iron Maiden.  The Crusade is obviously their "We're thrash now for real please respect us" album, but Ascendancy is the one I remember being their breakthrough and the one that started all the backlash, and I can see why people had that reaction to it.  Sure there are tons of dueling solos and harmonized melodies and bona fide thrash riffs, but there is enough that's just left-of-center enough to feel inauthentic.  Something simple is the fact that the album is played in Drop D tuning.  For the non musicians, all you really need to know is that dropped tunings simply aren't the approach that most bands take if they're aiming for the sound Trivium was aiming for here.  That's more the domain of grunge, nu metal, and, well, metalcore.  It's very easy to get huge sounding powerchords that jump around the neck with that top string down a step and it's conducive to writing big fuckin' breakdowns and really fast chug riffs (both of which this album doesn't necessarily shy away from, in fairness).  Hearing somebody take that tuning and basically rewrite "Trapped Under Ice" with it just feels different, and even if you don't know or understand all that, your brain picks up on it.  The tuning isn't the be-all-end-all wrong part, but it's one element of several that divorces Ascendancy from its roots just enough to feel like some sort of forgery.

But honestly, it's not really an impostor because the music is surprisingly legit.  That opening attack of "Rain" is absolutely devastating, "Drowned and Torn Asunder" is genuinely just thrash metal with a beefier low end, "Declaration" sounds like a squadron of machine guns, "A Gunshot to the Head of Trepidation" has a main riff that sports an incredibly infectious hook and transitions into some of the most Maiden melodies that Maiden never wrote.  Everywhere I look there's something else I enjoy.  My memory told me this had very pedestrian drumming but it's actually mega energetic, and the solos are some of the best the genre ever produced.  The sound is great, the songs generally smash (though of course the more melodic ballady songs like "Departure" and "Dying in Your Arms" are incredibly boring and throw a monkey wrench in the album's momentum), hell even the common problem of bands strictly adhering to pop song structures isn't as obvious or irritating this time, even though they pump out a lot of standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus songs regardless.  There's enough variety in approach that it doesn't get nearly as tiring as it did with Killswitch.  The cliches are still here of course, the choruses are almost uniformly cleanly sung and the most intense part of any given song is the first fifteen seconds, but it feels less dogmatic and more loose here.

However there's an elephant in the room here.  I haven't brought up the vocals yet, and that's because "Beefy" Matt Heafy has the absolute worst scream in the scene.  His harsh vocals are unbearably inept, to the point where they genuinely hinder my enjoyment to a surprising degree.  His cleans are fine, unremarkable but serviceable, but his harsh vocals are leagues below anybody else I've heard so far.  They're very hoarse and scratchy, like somebody running their nails down drywall.  He sounds like he was moderately thirsty but decided to track every single song in one long take before getting a glass of water.  I like to imagine his clean voice is his only real voice, and the screams are just the result of something like that Finnish cough drop commercial where the black metal guy takes a lozenge and then starts singing like Pavarotti.  That bit at the end of the second verse of "Pull Harder on the Strings of Your Martyr" where he goes "I'LL BURN YOUR WOLLL" sounds drier than Ben Shapiro's wife.  More than anything, Trivium needed to tell Heafy to just stick to guitar while they hired a real vocalist, because he's pretty good at guitar and unbelievably bad at vocals.  I know Trivium is still releasing new albums to this day and I hope to god he's either improved or dropped them entirely to focus on clean singing, because god damn I can not stress enough how awful they are.  Imagine starting a thrash band and then letting some kid who has never screamed before but was into Terror last summer handle the vocals, because that's not too far off from what we got here.

It's such a shame that the vocals are as bad as they are, because they're really the only element of the album that I actually think sucks.  On an instrumental level Ascendancy sits somewhere in the high 70s/low 80s range; not great but it's consistently quite good.  But those screams are so prominent and so bad that they seriously shave off like twenty fuckin' percent off the final score for me.  Running classic non-extreme metal through a filter of modern melodeath that makes it both heavier and catchier should be easy as hell to do, but the vocal choices they made here just amount to a stake through the heart.


RATING: 62%

Friday, September 25, 2020

RELITIGATING HIGH SCHOOL Vol. III: Atreyu - The Curse

I am not sober enough to think of a title
 
I'm going to preemptively dock ten points off this score because listening to it several times across the span of a few days is likely going to irreparably fuck up my Spotify recommendations.
 
Like most bands in this series, I'm mostly totally unfamiliar with Atreyu.   I know I hated them before I ever listened to them just because I knew they weren't "true metal" (and correcting that is the whole point of this series) and I remember "Right Side of the Bed" very vaguely from the soundtrack to Burnout 3, but that's all I got.  This is likely the blindest blind listen I'm going to cover, because even though I wouldn't call myself all that familiar with Killswitch, I'm almost positive I've heard "A Bid Farewell" more than a handful of times throughout my life.  Not so with this one.  So because of that, I actually did some research into the band's history before starting this one.  And in doing so I came across this hilarious quote from frontman "Howlin'" Alex Varkatzas:

"This is going to sound a little cocky but I’m a singer in a band. I don’t think we fit into any genre. I think we are hard to pin down. When we first started it was a little easier. We were a metallic hardcore band with singing parts. There wasn’t any else like that when we were doing it. People get confused and say ‘you’re a metalcore band’, but we invented metalcore. That may sound cocky but I don’t care. We pre-date Poison The Well and Killswitch Engage and all those bands. I’ve been doing this since I was literally 12 years old."
 
What kind of coconuts shit is this?  For my metal readers, this is like Dark Angel saying they invented thrash metal despite very obviously not doing so while also claiming they didn't fit into any genre despite being the musical lovechild of Kreator and Slayer.  For Sobek's sake I started this series with fuckin' Shadows Fall, who formed three years before Atreyu did and released their third album the same year Atreyu released their debut.  Yeah it's not apples to apples to compare the two bands but they unquestionably had some fan overlap and there's absolutely no way this pinhead didn't know he was spewing bullshit.  Though, in his defense, if any genre was invented by twelve year olds, it's metalcore.

Extramusical nonsense aside, does The Curse hold up, and did I do myself a disservice by ignoring it when it was culturally relevant?

Well that's a hard fuckin' no this time.

Of the entire batch of bands I checked out for this series, Atreyu is by far the worst one.  I hate to blow my wad early but here we are.  My issue with Killswitch is amplified here to the bazillionth degree.  Not only do they constantly reuse songwriting cliches and cause the tracks to bleed together into a totally unmemorable goulash of paint-by-numbers metalcore, but even the good bits of Killswitch are entirely absent.  The drummer, "Salty" Brandon Saller, handles the clean vocals with this band, and I want to give them props for that because I simply find singing drummers to be a cool thing on a personal level, but his voice is god damned annoying.  "Annoying" is a shitty descriptor, but that's really the purest distillation of what he sounds like.  He utilizes the same amateur theater inflection that Killswitch's cleans tend to use, where they sound like they're aiming for something really grand but just end up sounding unbearably corny.  He sounds like he delivers every line with his eyes closed and his bottom lip curled like a crying baby, and it comes out sounding very forcefully goofy, like the deepest falsetto in history.  Varkatzas's screams somehow come out sounding worse.  You know how grunge singers had that weird inflection that made it sound like they always had a soft "r" noise permeating every syllable?  (REEEVERN FRLOOOWWWR)  Well this guy's screams do the same thing except with a "w" sound.  They're this completely monotone mid range scream with every vowel sound replaced with some indistinct "wuh" noise and it's unintentionally hilarious.  "Right Side of the Bed" has a quick line around the 1:20 mark that says "all the memories of", and it's delivered like "BWUH BUH BUH BWUH BWAZOWF" and it's absolutely kills me every time.  That's what my dad sounds like when making fun of the music I like.  Both vocalists seem to have trouble enunciating with any clarity, which seems like an odd thing for a death metal fan to point out but when the cleanly sung line "Have you ever cried so hard?" comes out sounding like "Will you have a pretzel horn?" it becomes a really funny problem.  It's like they both have enormous tongues.  Or they're Seth Green's brother in Rat Race.

I spent so much time on the vocals because that's really all there is to offer on this album, because if the instrumental part wasn't an afterthought, it definitely feels like one.  "Right Side of the Bed" has a standout riff in the beginning, but even I immediately recognized it as damn near plagiarism of In Flames's "The Hive".  I don't even fuckin' like In Flames and I still immediately thought I recognized that riff from a better song.  This is some of the most inoffensive cookie cutter metalcore I've heard, and I've done deep dives into Christian metalcore where the music is a distinct and intentional second behind the lyrics.  Even For Today's worst albums have more effort put into the music than The Curse does.  If they're going for emotional intensity, they fail to elicit any emotion beyond total boredom.  The vocals are so front-and-center and so rarely shut the fuck up for more than a few seconds at a whack that it's pretty clear what the intended focal point of the band is.  I can't intensely hate something that isn't there, ya know?  I'll give them some credit for precisely one song buried in the back half.  "My Sanity on the Funeral Pyre" sounds like they hired a completely different backing band, because while it isn't necessarily great or anything, there is so much more effort put into this one it's genuinely shocking.  The verses ride on this punishing chug riff while the bass does a whole bunch of dwiddly doodles before they come crashing into lockstep in the pre-chorus for a genuinely good galloping melodeath riff.  It took them eleven fucking tracks to prove it but there are actual musicians in this band as opposed to it being the project of two mediocre vocalists trying and failing to punch above their weight so hard that they're getting KO'd by Glass Joe.  

I have no ending to this review.  Atreyu is bad.


RATING: 14%

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

RELITIGATING HIGH SCHOOL Vol. II: Killswitch Engage - The End of Heartache

The End of Fartache
 
I always namedrop Killswitch as the prototypical metalcore band by the definition that caught fire around this time in America, but in all honesty As I Lay Dying was always right there with them and I've always seen them as sister bands to each other.  I came around to AILD years ago, but KSE has no such love from me, almost entirely because I'm only familiar with with their 2013 album that nobody listened to and have a vague memory of them being one of the wimpier bands in the style when I was a teenager.  In giving The End of Heartache a full, good faith listen well over a decade after the fact, I think I lucked out with my assumption being more or less right on the money.  At least when compared to AILD, as they so often were back then, Killswitch is definitely the less threatening band by a pretty wide margin.

So when I say they're one of the earliest examples of metalcore to break through, I'm obviously not talking about the Converge style where manic hardcore got dashed against metal.  I'm talking about this very specific substyle with an identical name that spawned an inescapable scene in the early to mid aughts.  This style (and so by extension, this album) is basically just Swedish melodeath as popularized by In Flames (which I sometimes deconstruct into "Iron Maiden with growls") blended with a vaguely hardcore proclivity for big knuckle-breaking breakdowns and a more explicitly post-hardcore love of emotive lyrics about inner struggles and relationships delivered with sugary sweet vocals in the invariably cleanly sung chorus of every single song.  So what you get when you hit play here is a sequence of predictable songs that start with double bass and screaming over aggressive Slaughter of the Soul b-sides before transitioning into expressive cleans over a half-time melodic chorus.  Repeat once, do a big heavy breakdown, bring the chorus back with harsh vocals layering in the background.  Rinse and repeat twelve times for a guaranteed success.

From what I understand, The End of Heartache was a major moment for Killswitch Engage, since judging by what I've picked up in my research, this was a bit of a hard melodic turn for them.  This could well be due to the introduction of vocalist Howard "Bones" Jones.  According to people I asked who like this band, the original (and now current again) vocalist, Jesse "The Body" Leach, is a better screamer, while Jones is a better singer.  So in theory it was the correct move to pivot to a more melodic approach in order to play to his strength.  And I won't deny it, Jones has a fucking beautiful voice.  His screams are nothing to write home about but his cleans are these booming injections of tender mid-range smoothness into the music that I can't help but admire unironically.  "Smooth" really is the operative word here, because once he switches to his cleans he doesn't have an ounce of grit in him, but they work marvelously in the context of what the music is trying to do with these grand melodic choruses.

The issue is that he works with what the music is trying to do.  In practice, the actual instrumental component of this record is so uninteresting and dull that he winds up being a wonderful singer miscast in a really average metal band.  Going straight from Shadows Fall to Killswitch has shown a positively canyonesque gulf in riff writing ability.  The End of Heartache is just as formulaic as anything in the niche tended to be, but apart from the crazy intense intro of "When Darkness Falls" and an awesome straight-to-the-point riff about thirty seconds into "Wasted Sacrifice" they fail to squeak out something that's even accidentally exciting.  "Simple" is not a dirty word for me, but god damn half of this album feels like first draft riffs that sorta fit into whatever song they were working on at the time that they failed to workshop even a little bit.  This feels lazy because that's such a hard criticism to back up, but it's really the best I've got.  I imagine a scene where "Mad" Adam Dutkiewicz sits down in his bedroom with his guitar.  He's already done his warmup exercises and jammed through some classic tunes he likes, so now it's songwriting time.  He closes his eyes and says "Okay, let's just play a metal riff", so he opens his eyes and plays the very first generic melodeath-y pattern that pops into his head before proudly saying "Done!" and emailing Jones to let him know the eighth track is ready.  I know they're professionals so I'm sure they worked really hard on all of these songs but man that's the vibe I get and it's hard to elucidate further.  Listen to that first riff on "Rose of Sharyn" and tell me with a straight face that that wasn't the first god damned idea he had before laying it to tape.  Hell it even sounds remarkably similar to the first riff on "Breathe Life"!  Same tempo playing similar patterns with the only substantial difference being a few more trilling bits on the latter track.

Even though I'm 100% sure these aren't literal first drafts, that's really the approach that makes the album make the most sense to me.  Structures are reused and so many sections are similar to one another throughout the album, from the tempos to the drum beats to the interplay between the guitars in the most melodic sections, The End of Heartache sounds like three songwriting tricks being flogged to the point of tedium and that's really the overarching problem with the whole album.  I can dig simplicity and pop song structuring, not everything needs to showcase some sort of avant-garde wizardry, but this goes too far in the other direction and plays everything so safe that it's actively un-fun to listen to.  At the end of the day, I'm walking away from this experience feeling like I just listened to a royalty-free audio pack labeled "metal-1.midi" with an inexplicably good vocalist crooning over the top.  It's a weak final thought but it's a weak album and I don't have much to work with, capice?


RATING: 38%

Monday, September 21, 2020

RELITIGATING HIGH SCHOOL Vol. I: Shadows Fall - The War Within

If you've been around here for a while, you may remember my aborted Preteen Wasteland series from a few years ago, where I planned to revisit the nu metal albums I loved as a tween with the added gimmick of my mom writing a paragraph for each review since we listened to this albums together all the time.  It petered out because that gimmick was a gamble that didn't pay off, since she's a much more busy person than I am and just never found the time to revisit all of these old albums her dumbass son liked twenty years ago (if you're curious, the only albums that held up for me were Wisconsin Death Trip and Iowa, and Linkin Park, despite not being very enjoyable, at least stood out for their vocalists being one of the only good singers and the only rapper who clearly actually rapped for a living in the entire genre).  The secret part of all that is that I had a sequel series also planned, and now three years later I'm finally gonna take a break from playing Dragon Quest to get started on it.
 
I mentioned that I grew out of nu metal because as I got older, I got more interested in classic 80s metal and started to reject new, modern movements out of hand.  Because of this, the entire "NWOAHM" scene completely passed me by as it was happening.  Metal fans at school would see my Metallica shirt and try to start a conversation, and I'd snottily dismiss them based on their Killswitch Engage shirt and stupid haircut.  I'm sorry, does your shit thrash?  Then I don't fuckin' care, Kyle.  So help me god if I hear one god damned breakdown or one lyric about being sad then I'm going to screech like King Diamond at you until you leave me the hell alone.  It's no surprise that the few friends I had were also lame nerds.  

But now that I'm in my thirties and much less needlessly aggressive in every interaction, I think it's time I took a walk down memory lane, back into the halls of my high school, and take a look at the alternate timeline where I actually gave Kyle the time of day and gave his bands a shot.  The criteria here is fairly broad.  I'm going to be looking at the bands that had a foothold in the mainstream between ~2003-2006 that were netting good slots at Ozzfest, getting rotation on WZZN, and basically contributing to the musical zeitgeist of my generation that I stubbornly refused to even listen to because they probably didn't sound enough like Overkill and I desperately wanted the approval of the Elder Metalheads online.  From the initial boom of metalcore facilitated by As I Lay Dying, to the easier listening alternative emo metalcore or whatever the fuck Bullet for My Valentine was, to the nebulous blend of melodeath, thrash, and groove metal that Lamb of God made cool.  I'm not going in order of chronological release date this time, I'm just gonna sit here and think of a half dozen or so bands and albums from this era that I snobbily dismissed and go look at them with fresh senses.  You with me?  Let's go!

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The Light that Blands
 
Shadows Fall apparently has a pretty storied history within this niche, being one of the earlier bands to form (way back in 1995) and pulling an In Flames by having "Land" Phil Labonte (the meathead dipshit from All That Remains) sing on their first album before landing their iconic vocalist in "Flyin'" Brian Fair, and also accomplishing the rare feat of keeping a stable lineup for a solid 15 years and releasing several influential albums in a row with the same group of dudes in the studio.  That's why I'm choosing to start this series with them as opposed to bigger bands that broke out earlier.  Shadows Fall just kinda passes the smell test a bit better in terms of being a statuesque institution in the scene almost entirely due to their stability and, if fans are to be believed, consistency.  We're going to be looking at 2004's The War Within purely because a quick skim of the tracklist reveals some names that I vaguely remember hearing on the radio, so I'm not starting completely blind.

Let me tell you, I feel like a door in some deeply buried temple in my mind unlocked when I heard the main riff of "What Drives the Weak" that starts around the eleven second mark.  That fuckin' octave-slide-to-gallop-chug-to-pinch-harmonic brought back so many memories.  Hearing that was like unlocking the overworld map in Zelda.  It turns out that not only do I remember that riff, I also remember every note and lyric to not only "What Drives the Weak", but also "Inspiration on Demand" and "The Light that Blinds", the three I passively heard on the radio as a teenager.  This might seem like personal fluff to pad out the review but really I think it speaks to how finely tuned Shadows Fall's songwriting is.  These hooks never left my brain after picking them up via audial osmosis a decade and a half earlier.  The aggression inherent in most metal is definitely there in the speedy double bass and harsh vocals, but these guys have a very keen ear for melody and hooks, absolutely nailing that nexus between simplicity and complexity by crafting catchy riffs and In Flames style melodies that are different enough to be instantly recognizable and simple enough to be easily remembered.  The abundance of squealing guitar solos keeps The War Within recognizably metallic in its theatricality and the equal abundance of simplistic chugs and breakdowns interspersed between the high tempo melodeath riffing keeps it recognizably emblematic of the time in which it was made.  This is As I Lay Dying for thrash kids, and I absolutely should've loved this as a teen.

The problem arises when you listen beyond those three singles, because Shadows Fall definitely suffers from the same problem Lamb of God frequently fell victim to.  The War Within has a few obvious highlights and then a bunch of filler.  They're excellent at crafting these memorable hooks, but they're very reliant on a small handful of tricks to achieve this effect, and it doesn't take long for the simplified pop song verse-chorus structure to reveal itself to be a very workmanlike project.  Apart from the closest thing the scene probably had to a power ballad in "Inspiration on Demand" and the sweet guitar lick that opens "The Light that Blinds", the remaining eight tracks are all more or less interchangeable.  "What Drives the Weak" is clearly the best one thanks to that tasty main riff, memorable chorus, bass licks in the pre-chorus, and soaring leads, but everything else sounds like previous drafts of that song before the screws were fully tightened.  I've listened to this like four or five times in preparation for this review and I still can't remember what "Act of Contrition" or "Ghosts of Past Failures" sounds like.  "The Power of I and I" really should stand out for the first thirty seconds being honest to god Cannibal Corpse worship, but it very quickly shifts gears back into that nebulous monogenre that took America by storm in the mid aughts.  
 
It really doesn't help that Fair is uh... more "recognizable" as a vocalist than he is "good".  That's not to say he's bad necessarily, but his gruff monotone quasi-scream is basically musical wallpaper and it gets to be distracting when you pay attention to it.  It sounds like Fair knows that you can avoid damage to your vocal chords by screaming more from your diaphragm than from your throat, but he never really nailed the technique in such a way that would allow him to sound as menacing as he's likely trying to sound.  As a result they're very breathy and clearly layered over themselves a few times throughout the whole album, so they come off more like talk-level yells with a volume boost.  That legitimate death metal influence does shine through occasionally with random deep roars, but they're depressingly uncommon.  Shadows Fall is very much a guitar band, all of their best elements revolve around the riffs and solos, so it's bizarre to me that the vocals often take center stage considering how mediocre they are compared to the rest of the band.  If my memory is correct, the guitarists are the ones who handle the clean vocals that invariably carry every chorus, and they're fine I guess, but it just sorta adds to the plug-and-play nature of the songwriting.  The individual elements are occasionally fantastic, but the old dichotomy of "harsh aggressive verses - clean melodic choruses" never breaks, and it gets old very quickly.

The instrumental element of the band is surprisingly great, but the vocals are an obvious weak link and the songwriting is very formulaic.  As a result, The War Within is basically a blur of faceless aggression with a handful of spikes in quality every three tracks or so.  As much as I'd love to hear more of those death metal roots poking through, I feel like leaning into them any more than they have would fundamentally change what the band was going for, so that feels like an unfair way to critique the album, especially when all the best parts are clearly rooted in American melodeath instead of orthodox death metal anyway.  The overall color of the album is "grey".  Any splashes of vibrance to be found are pretty neatly sequestered into the handful of great songs and the rest of the album feels like a tedious sidequest before getting back to the good songs.  I'm still gonna give it a positive score because god dammit I really like the three songs I highlighted early on and the rest of the album is fundamentally very similar to them, but on the whole it loses its lustre pretty quickly.  If nothing else, I feel like this is a great primer to this scene because everything that made it what it is is here to some extent, and I feel confident in saying that everything I check out from this point on will focus on one element found here more than the rest.


RATING: 66%

Sunday, July 26, 2020

10 YEAR REUNION: Vader - Litany

Furious Blasting Death

This is actually a fairly difficult album to write about.  Not because it's bland or uninteresting (far from it), but because Vader is a pretty simple and direct band on their best days and I'd argue that Litany is also their most simple and direct album.  That's a pretty weighty charge on a band that also released Black to the Blind, The Beast, and The Empire, but as of this particular moment I think I'll stand by it.  Litany is a front to back banger but boy howdy is it exactly what it says on the fuckin' tin.

Vader has basically been coasting on attitude since the beginning, because even at their best (which is top tier) they don't do a whole lot of super creative things with their template.  They start with Furious Blasting Death and then just keep doing it for varying amounts of time.  Every once in a while there are more superficially epic things thrown in like some swelling strings or choral ooohs but even then it's happening over the top of more Furious Blasting Death.  And all that is said with the caveat that none of it appears on Litany.  No, this is just Furious Blasting Death for barely a half hour and there isn't anything else I'd rather it be.  Vader is on a whole other level when it comes to packing as much fury and aggression into everything they do, and something like the title track is basically the perfect representation of this.  It's called "Litany", the lyrics are literally a litany, it cycles through the same two or three riffs for three minutes and then fucks off to let the rest of the album shine, and that's Vader in a nutshell.  They never seemed like the type of band that elbows their way to the forefront as much as they just sit back and do what they do best and people can't help but take notice.  Vader's greatest strength as a band is carrying a hefty set of testicles and then never tripping over them, instead using them as a blunt weapon to beat you into submission.

Vader was my gateway into extreme metal, and I suspect the reason they were so good for this is because they are absolute masters of the hook.  Twenty one years later I can still only think of maybe a handful of albums that toe the line between chaotic violence and fine-tuned hookiness as well as this does.  A track like "Wings" doesn't happen on its own.  The upside-down windmill-punches of the riffs and percussion complement the simple hooks in a way that had to have been achieved with black magic.  The breakdown of that particular track is quite possibly the most devastating twenty seconds ever laid to tape and somehow manages to be a rousing anthem that crowd can't help but hoarsely shout along with.  "Xeper" achieves a similar effect by dropping the guitars for a few bars in the verses, allowing the propulsive double bass to continue the momentum during catchy syncopated vocal lines.  That's a fucking pop trope, Sabaton has basically made a living off of that, and here we have Polish death metal legends pulling it off so flawlessly in a context where it absolutely has no right being effective.  I think it brilliantly showcases Vader's phenomenal handling of their instrumental talent.  These guys came up in the early days of the genre, to the point where the thrash flavorings of Kreator and Slayer are never all that far away from what they're doing, and they frequently push the tempo to absurd levels of hyperspeed, but they know when to rein it in and swap the minigun for a jackhammer.  Nobody has ever been able to truly fill Doc's shoes behind the kit, and he shows off with absolutely dizzying fills and a bass drum tone so obnoxiously boomy that my wife referred to "Wings" as "death metal techno" once.  It concusses the god damned atmosphere.  He's front and center on Litany and his percussion is absolutely the JATO unit on the back of these riffs that make the album so god damned powerful.  The laws of physics absolutely should not allow something this heavy to move this fast, it's like if Brock Lesnar was a drumstick.  You know how in Grand Theft Auto games you can achieve absolutely bonkers speed by driving a tank and constantly shooting the turret behind you? That's Litany.

Litany is not without its flaws though.  I'll frequently put this at the top of the pecking order when it comes to Vader's discography but there's really no way around the fact that the A side absolutely obliterates the B side.  "Wings", "Xeper", "Litany", and "Cold Demons" are four of Vader's all time best songs, but they're positioned as tracks 1, 3, 4, and 5.  The back half of the album is the exact kind of faceless blur that their worst albums exemplify.  I don't think it's a coincidence that all of the best songs are more mid length, and that's actually kind of bizarre considering how blistering and destructive the music is.  You'd figure lightspeed maimings would be the order of the day but they're really at their best when they're giving these tracks some time to breathe and stretch out.  There are three tracks in a row in the back half that barely break 90 seconds, and I can't help but feel like the album would've been better off if they had just been cut and the band waited an extra year to write the best songs from Revelations instead.  These songs are by no means bad but they're definitely lesser than the utter behemoths that get the album started.  They pick up enough momentum early on for those weaker songs to not really matter all that much but if you were the type to score albums via some sort of math equation then this stretch would definitely throw a wrench in things.

Thankfully, I'm not that kind of critic, and I think the weaker back end of Litany can be more or less ignored since it keeps the pace up well enough to not really hinder anything, and the rerecording of "The Final Massacre" that closes the album out is so fucking monstrous that you can easily be tricked into forgetting that "North" was even here.  This album is greater than the sum of its parts and that's mindblowing considering how great the parts are to begin with.  Blastbeats and single note tremolo riffs have never sounded so superlative.


RATING: 90%

Sunday, June 28, 2020

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - Lamb of God

VIII: Bag of Mold

lol it was so fuckin' predictable that they'd announce a new album only a few months after I finished my discography retrospective.

There are two huge elephants and one burning question in the room right now, so I'm gonna just tackle all three of them right off the bat, Lawrence Taylor style. 

ELEPHANT #1: Chris Adler has been replaced by Art Cruz.  This was actually the impetus of the previous seven reviews.  It felt like the end of an era so I figured it was high time to revisit that era.  Lamb of God was notable for having a rock solid lineup for over twenty years, something basically unheard of in metal, so Chris's departure was a huge shock to people who weren't paying attention.  I say this because if you've paid attention to any interviews or behind-the-scenes material over the years you could tell he was clearly miserable and really felt constrained.  I've been prophesying a breakup ever since Sacrament.  It's been common knowledge for eons that Chris was the most talented member of the band as it was (like I've said before it's pretty rare in metal to find a drummer with an instantly recognizable style) and his frustration with the band's ever-safening songwriting was thinly veiled at best.  So last year, he finally had enough and walked away before being replaced by Cruz (who I swore was previously the drummer in All Shall Perish until this very sentence when I double checked and realized it was actually my perennial punching bag Winds of Plague).  So with all the background aside, the big question here is whether or not he holds up to Adler's dominant kit mastery.  The answer is... yeah, actually.  He was either playing way the fuck below his level in Winds of Plague or he's the Bruno Mars of metal and has a superhuman knack for replicating other peoples' signatures.  If I hadn't known beforehand that Chris had left, I never would've known he wasn't on this album.  His laser precision and ineffable groove is replicated with 100% authenticity here and I'm much more impressed than I expected to be.

ELEPHANT #2: They're on their eighth album and just now decided to roll with a self titled album.  A lot of people feel the need to point this out it seems, simply because it's odd for a band to do this at any point after their debut, but to me this was actually a fucking huge red flag.  Again reaching back to behind-the-scenes footage that I used to gobble up in high school, I distinctly remember that there was a disagreement between band members about what to name their upcoming album, and they were down to two choices: Sacrament or self titled.  I could be misremembering because this is like a fifteen year old memory at this point but I recall Chris being the most vocally against a self titled album because he felt like it was a cop out and a sign that a band had run out of ideas.  Considering the fact that I heard this exact same story for basically every following album, it's really not a surprise that they finally went and did it once he was unable to veto it.  They've been rewriting Ashes of the Wake for ages now, even when the external circumstance of Randy's stint in prison gave them the perfect inspiration to branch out, so yeah I absolutely feel Chris's apprehension that the band feels like they've run out of ideas at this point.  I know most bands who do this do it to either signal a reinvention of their sound or to declare that this is their definitive statement, but this simply isn't the band to be doing either of those things since pattern recognition tells me this next album might as well be Ashes of the Wake 4: Ash Free or Wake Hard

THE BURNING QUESTION: Is Lamb of God any good?  Do those two elephants stink up the joint as much as I and many fans expect them to?

...No?  I think?  I'm still kinda reeling because everything signaled yet another mediocre snorefest and then somehow they spat out their best album since Wrath.

The weird thing is that this absolutely feels like yet another rehash of Ashes, but the majority of the songs just fuckin' bang this time around.  I mentioned Cruz wound up being the perfect replacement for Adler, and honestly that makes me wonder if his mere presence reignited the rest of the guys' imagination.  It's not like this drum performance would be any different with Adler.  I've seen a lot of fans and reviews mention how Cruz is much more loose with his playing, but honestly I'm gonna make a sweeping claim and say that nearly everybody who says that is just taking Mark Morton at his word and aren't analyzing for themselves too closely.  Yeah Mark told the media that he's a refreshing change because Chris played to a click track while Art doesn't so they feel more free on stage, but this has somehow morphed into "Art is creative while Chris was a metronome", which is both flatly untrue and totally irrelevant since he replicates his predecessor's style so perfectly.  This is exactly as dialed-in and fully torqued as it always has been. 

The reason Lamb of God succeeds while the last handful of albums failed despite essentially being the exact same idea is simply because most of these tracks take have the fire and energy of "Laid to Rest" and "Desolation" instead of their usual shtick of constantly rewriting "11th Hour" at varying speeds with increasingly diminishing returns.  For the first time in a long while, they maintain whatever new ideas they have for the duration of the album instead of cramming them all into one song.  "Reality Bath" opens with the first prominent bass part in their career, "Routes" is basically pure thrash metal (something they've always flirted with for a riff or two each album but never really went whole hog with it), "Resurrection Man" is basically a misplaced Slipknot song featuring Randy's best Architects impression with the opening BLEGH, throughout the entire runtime there are more solos and overt melody than they've ever really done, there are just tons of little touches of the creativity I thought they'd been fresh out of for a decade.  Not all of these ideas hit bullseye ("Resurrection Man" is actually one of the worst tracks of the bunch) but it's nice to hear them branching out for a change.

However, their previously crippling filler problem is still here to some extent.  Lamb of God has always been a "hit single" type of band with only a couple of albums featuring any real deep cuts beyond the ones they play live constantly, and the self titled is the first to really break from that mold by having the singles be some of the weakest.  "Checkmate" is exactly what I was afraid this album would be full of.  It's a very LoG-by-numbers track that elicits exactly zero excitement in somebody like me who has been following them for almost their entire career and has grown very tired of them rehashing the same ideas over and over again.  "Gears" suffers mostly the same problem, and it's hard to really describe because its biggest problem is simply that it's the type of song they've already written like fifty times.  The breakdown riff would've been awesome if they didn't already use it in "Contractor", ya know?  The lone outlier in this regard is the opener, "Memento Mori".  I actually kinda hate the clean/spoken intro, but once the song picks up into familiar territory it plays out like any generic Lamb of God song would play out, but they... I dunno man they feel it this time.  That's basically how I can describe any track here.  They're still rewriting Ashes of the Wake over and over again but for the first time they've managed to do it in a way where it sounds lethal instead of focus tested.  "Reality Bath" is basically "The Faded Line" by way of Slipknot but it sounds like they're really putting their hearts into it.  "On the Hook" is "Beating on Death's Door" again but "Beating on Death's Door" is probably their most underappreciated track so hearing that type of high octane brutality again is a massive breath of fresh air.  I mentioned that the previous album's guest vocalists felt like pointless gimmicks, and somehow the two this time are paradoxically more transparently gimmicky but also work a hell of a lot better.  Jamey Jasta and Chuck Billy show up on "Poison Dream" and "Routes" respectively, and the former song morphs into a Hatebreed track when Jasta shows up and the latter sounds like late-career Testament.  Come on that should be cynical to so blatantly cater to these guys' original bands, but it turns out Lamb of God is surprisingly really good at ripping them off.  It takes what should be lazy and turns it into everybody simply playing to their strengths.

This is hard to write about, honestly.  This series was fun at the start because their first five albums are all actually very different from each other but this current era of the band is generally much less creative.  Basically all I can say is "read my reviews for the last album but pretend they're good."  I know how cheap and unhelpful that is, but it's true.  If Resolution maintained the momentum of "Desolation" the entire time it'd probably sound fairly similar to Lamb of God.  It's got all the fire and energy of that track with some pronounced influence from nu metal in spots and a renewed love of breakdowns that have been absent since 2006, which I'm sure is a turnoff for most of you but I maintain that the breakdowns were never the problem and if you're going to spike the nu metal influence, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse than Slipknot when it comes to inspiration.  The biggest flaw of the album is simply the track ordering, because putting the three most generic songs right at the start is a big fuckin' thonk.  The album picks up a ton of steam after "Gears" and it's refreshing to hear this much propulsion out of these old bones.


RATING: 73%

Thursday, June 18, 2020

10 YEAR REUNION: Blood Stain Child - Epsilon

It's a thing alright

Okay so it's less than ten years old, fight me.  I'm choosing to jump way ahead and redo something outside the purview of this series less because the original review was written poorly (though I definitely did that "lol japan so wacky" thing that I've grown to despise), but because while homophobia wasn't my intent when writing it, I definitely leaned on some insensitive tropes when trying to describe how sugary and poppy this album is.  I didn't really want to do the performative self flagellation thing, but I just know some smartass is going to bring it up so I'm getting ahead of it.  Eat my balls.

Epsilon is a weird album, though I suppose that was obvious from just a passing glance.  Take a look at that Waifu Fantasy XIII aesthetic and whatever music popped into your head probably wasn't too far from the truth.  This is the dumbest shit in the world, with effort-free pop melodies and exuberant dance beats taking up the lion's share of the runtime, usually slathered liberally over the top of punchy melodeath.  The dudes from Disarmonia Mundi contribute guest vocals on a few tracks, and man that just makes so much sense since what I remember of that shitty band was basically this exact kind of not-metalcore-but-the-exact-niche-of-melodeath-that-metalcore-always-rips-off.  That describes most of the heavy elements at play within Epsilon.  The drums are louder than the guitars by a pretty huge magnitude and it's produced to be weirdly trebly, and it does create a neat effect with the electronic elements by never being beefy enough to truly clash, it does tend to cause the cymbals to sound like a neverending fog of white noise in the background.  It winds up being more of a bap than a boom, punching through the sonic center with gusto whenever the percussion picks up.  People smarter than I am tell me that the non-metal elements at play here belong to a subgenre known as "trance", but that's way out of my wheelhouse as a guy who listened to an Infected Mushroom album once before going back to my Slayer records so I'll just take their word for it.

But despite the overwhelming amount of sugar and pop sensibility on top of aggressive melodeath, the actual weirdest part about this album is the fact that it actually wound up being solidly decent.  In fact I think it's enjoyable despite the gimmicky genre clashing, because the songs that are the clearest attempt at blending the two sides of the band's coin 50/50 wind up pretty awkward.  "Eternal" is a great example, with this cute animu girl cooing sweetly over blastbeats just sounding confused and odd for the sake of it.  There are four songs here I genuinely think are great that I've gone back to listen to plenty over the years, and they're split pretty cleanly between the light and heavy sides of the band.  "Sirius IV" and "LA+" focus much more on punchy and aggressive metal, while "Stargazer" and "Moon Light Wave" are basically pure electronic dance pop with guitars vaguely gesturing at distortion in the background.  That's not to say that they're only good when they're picking a side, "Dedicated to Violator" is a very un-metal track and it does absolutely nothing for me, but the hooks on the two aforementioned happy dance songs are phenomenal.  I've never really bothered listening to the rest of Blood Stain Child's catalog but a part of me really hopes they kinda just ditched metal altogether because "Stargazer" is far and away the best track on here and it's the one that flirts with metal the least awkwardly. 

Oddly enough there isn't much to say about this, really.  It's melodeath + trance and that's pretty much the beginning and end of it.  Some of it is surprisingly great and even the lame songs have some pretty infectious hooks, but there's no denying that the styles are pretty abrasive when it comes to actually comingling with one another.  It's a novel oddity that spits out a few surprisingly good tracks with "Stargazer" and "Moon Light Wave" but most of it is honestly just transparent filler.  The good songs are good enough to keep me coming back throughout the years but never for much longer than a quick sightseeing tour before going back to other bands that at least blended their disparate ideas more cohesively.


RATING: 59%