Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nevermore - Nevermore

Confessions of a Former Fanboy - Vol. I: Secret of the Ooze

Well folks, it’s been years, but it’s high time for another review series of mine. This time, across the next seven reviews, we’ll be learning about, dissecting, and overall critiquing the music of one of the bigger names in metal and the owner of one of the most rabid and headstrong fanbases on the planet. If you’re reading this at all, you already know that the band in question is the mightily dubious modern-progressive-groove-whirlygig metal band from the land of Starbucks and grunge, Nevermore. 

Before I get to the meat, I want to preface this with a quick explanation of the series title and my motivation behind this. When I was 12 years old, I heard my first Nevermore song (“I, Voyager” from Enemies of Reality, if you were curious), and was blown away. This was the perfect time for me to discover the band, as my nu metal phase had passed and I had gotten back into real metal, but I still couldn’t quite wrap my head around extreme metal and frankly couldn’t stand listening to anything too abrasive.  This was easy on the ears that couldn’t handle the cacophony of death or black metal, but was still heavy and undeniably metal while retaining melody and accessibility.  The main draw for me was actually Loomis’ solos. I was a young bassist but guitar theatrics always interested and impressed me, and it’s hard to deny the man’s skills. Everything fell into place at the perfect time, there was no other band I could have discovered at that time that could have interested me as much as Nevermore did.  From ages 12 through 16, Nevermore was always within the top 3 of my favorite bands, and many times claimed the top spot.  I won’t claim that my taste “improved” over time, but it certainly changed.  I really got into Mercyful Fate and other classics, Gamma Ray to help introduce me to power metal, Children of Bodom as a gateway to basically anything heavier than Death Angel, and others. My musical taste branched in so many directions that Nevermore ended up neglected and malnourished.  Now, several years later, I’ve gone back and revisited the band’s catalog.  The years and intrepid exploration of music coupled with my analytical experience as a once popular critic have forced me to see the band differently. Perhaps it’s all perspective, maybe the kids can see something that the jaded veterans can’t, but I’ve made the transition from one of those raving fanboys to one of those hard-to-impress cynics who made a name for himself by comparing Wolf to lasagna.  Since I’ve undergone this change, I feel I’m qualified to really detail the inner workings of the band as I have several years’ experience within the ranks of the surreally loyal fanboys.

Now, I won’t spend too much time delving into the history, since nobody reads the reviews to learn where the members grew up.  Therefore, I’ll just come right out and say this, Nevermore’s self titled debut is worlds different from what they have become known for.  Is this difference a positive or negative thing?  I suppose if you were introduced to the band through Dead Heart onwards, it’s a bad thing.  Apart from Loomis’s fiery leadwork, there is a much more simplistic approach to songwriting on this record.  The issue is that a lot of times the songwriting… well just plain blows.  Take the opener, “What Tomorrow Knows”.  The first track on your debut album, to me, should really define what your band is about and not only set the tone for the album, but the band itself. If Nevermore agrees with me, they give the impression that their band is all about driving one boring, not catchy, uninteresting riff into the ground for about six minutes longer than necessary.  Even when I considered myself a shameless promoter of the band, I never really “got” this song.  It just kind of happens, there are some guitars and vocals and some other noises but none of it means anything. 

This brings me to a point of contention amongst haters and a controversial topic in general whenever the band is discussed, Warrel Dane.  Fanboys are IN LOVE with Dane’s lyrics and seriously, this man is probably the most overrated lyricist on the planet.  He drifts in and out between laughably pretentious and bat shit crazy.  His metaphors are either painfully obvious and delivered with a subtlety akin to Scrubs or make absolutely no fucking sense.  Check the chorus for “Godmoney” for an example.

Send your money to Jesus Christ
Mail order your eternal life
Bend your mind, make you turn around
Don't believe it when they tell you
That even god needs money
God needs money from you

There really wasn’t a more eloquent way to put that?  For a band that seems to pride itself on intricacy and a fanbase that endlessly slobbers over the virtuosic ability of each and every member, that is painfully stupid.  I whole heartedly believe that Dane writes shitty poetry and then tries to tack it on to whatever song the real musicians are writing.  There are tons of times in where the vocals completely distract the listener with just how poorly they fit with the music underneath, but there are better examples later down the road, so I’ll save the remainder of this point for later.

All this blabbering about Dane has yet to even touch on his main contribution to the band, his actual voice.  As a fanboy, I loved it.  It was unique, it fit with the music, there was nobody like him, he dared to actually sing as opposed to scream at a time when all these different kinds of abrasive styles were taking the market by storm.  Now that I’ve grown up and listened to thousands more bands, I really have a hard time stomaching his incessant warbling.  I’ve heard claims that he was classically trained as an opera singer, but if that’s the case I understand completely why he ended up in a complicated groove band from the asshole of Seattle.  There are plenty of instances where an over the top vocalist has worked marvelously, Messiah Marcolin sounds (and looks) like he was kicked off of the Broadway rendition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Ice for being too ridiculous, but find me a guy who thinks his work with Candlemass sucks and I’ll show you a guy who is in dire need of an ass kicking.  Mr. Dane here, on the other hand, is fucking annoying.  He always sounds like he’s projecting too hard, straining his voice, swapping between high and low registers at totally inappropriate times, and warbling out of key.  His work with Sanctuary shows that the man carries an absolutely killer falsetto, but it’s used so sparingly with Nevermore that he may as well have just said “Fuck it, I have one legitimate talent and I think it’d be awesome to squander it, just because I’m a douchebag”.  His performance on this debut is completely representative of everything to come.  The straying out of key, the bizarre and nonsensical fluctuations between stylings, and the straining/whining over either ridiculous and/or retarded lyrics, it’s all here.

Of the core group (Dane’s vocals, Loomis’s guitar, Sheppard’s bass, and William’s drumming), the former two get the most attention.  Dane for his inability to not raise my blood pressure, and Loomis for his fucking mindblowing guitar skills.  Seriously, he may look like the little girl from The Exorcist, but he is probably the most gifted guitarist in modern heavy metal.  His riffwork tends to fall flat about half the time, but give this guy a soloing section and tell him to have at it, and he’ll melt the faces off the Easter Island Heads.  He has a couple really noticeable sections here, particularly in “The Sanity Assassin” and “C.B.F.”.  I fully believe that this band is holding him back.  His solo project proved what he could do with a progressive metal premise and total control, and I really want to hear more of that.  Hearing him reduced to slightly complicated chugging patterns for the majority of a record is like Michael Romero playing in Machine Head, it’s fucking heartbreaking.

Fanboys call this album “diverse”, but I call it “disjointed”.  This is such a totally different style compared to what half the band did with Sanctuary beforehand.  Two words I’ve used a lot so far are “progressive” and “chugging”.  This surely brings one particularly popular Swedish band to mind, but let me assure you this sounds absolutely nothing like Meshuggah.  There is one thing that Nevermore is obsessed with that Meshuggah seems to be afraid to touch, and that is melody.  Many songs here kind of break down on themselves in order to cram a slower, half assed melodic section that barely fits with the rest of the song.  “Sea of Possibilities” is a great example.  The opening measures give the impression that it’s going to be a fast paced, thrash influenced piece reminiscent of the Sanctuary days, but by the time the chorus rolls around, it barely sounds like the same song anymore.  It turns into this slow, horrid attempt at being haunting and just ends up sounding stupid and ill fitting.  That songs stands as the closest they get to touching the brilliance of Refuge Denied, there’s a section near the end of “Timothy Leary” that carries a sweet USPM riff that could have been featured on the aforementioned album, but on the whole that song is a terrible exercise in meandering plod riffs, much like “What Tomorrow Knows”.  “The Sanity Assassin” and “The Hurting Words” stand as the two ballads, and while the former retains a slow pace, it manages to switch between a haunting acoustic verse and a legitimately crushing heavy section in the bridge that helps keep it interesting.  The latter on the other hand is an overlong, whiny, boring sack of clean guitars and awful lyrics.

Overall, it’s hard to rank their first outing as Nevermore amongst their later works.  This self titled album is really a wholly different beast in comparison to the progressivism and overindulgence their later records would come to exemplify.  On the whole though, it isn’t their worst, but it's close.  There are some truly terrible tracks here (“What Tomorrow Knows, “The Hurting Words”), but when they manage to hearken back to the Sanctuary days (“Sea of Possibilities”) or just focus on a nice groove (“Garden of Gray”), they aren’t all that bad.  Unfortunately, “aren’t all that bad” really isn’t “fantastically great”, and they spend most of the album sucking hardcore.  If somebody was looking to get into metal, progressive or otherwise, I’d never recommend this album. 

RATING - 44%

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rings of Saturn - Embryonic Anomaly

Can we agree to just forget about this, please?

I'm tempted to just copy and paste my Brain Drill review for a third time here (a trick that surprisingly not one single person called me on, shame on you all), but I'd rather not overdo one of my gimmicks like I'm so prone to doing.  But really, every problem I have with the merry band of Californian sodomites is amplified here to a level I thought unimaginable.  The technicality isn't even impressive at this point, it's so in your face and unabashed that there's nothing to marvel at anymore.  When every percussive instance is part of a blast beat and every guitar note is part of a breakdown or sweeping section, there's just nothing to impress anymore.  It's akin to an exploitation film beginning with an incestuous rape scene that climaxes with Bigfoot barging into the room and jerking off on a corpse before shitting on the victim and eating them both, but then the movie ends with the main character just being stabbed.  Sorry, a sword to the sternum isn't all that shocking when compared to the sheer insanity of the hypothetical opening scene, and that's what Embryonic Anomaly really is.  The first few seconds off the album feature intense sweeping and other assorted fretboard noodlings before degenerating into a cliche breakdown.  This formula repeats itself over and over and over and over again throughout the album and the only different element that gets introduced later is some lame keyboard effect that bangs out a chord or two occasionally.

The problem I touched on when reviewing Origin is present here to a degree, and that's that there is so much going on that it's hard to take it all in and really digest it.  The main problem is that Rings of Saturn throws exclusively piles of shit at you, so it's hard to even WANT to take it all in.  There are two things you're gonna get, excessive weedly weedly noises and ultra distorted chugdowns, and the band isn't very good at writing either.  The noodly parts aren't even Weedling as much as they are Beedrilling themselves into your brain and absolutely refusing to back off.  I bet the waveform looks like a brick wall.  There's no variety despite there being a bazillion different notes being played each track, there's no way to differentiate which song is which since each sweepy doodle, each breakdown, and even each occasionally real riff sounds exactly like each one that came before it.  I'm having trouble even describing this shit in detail because there aren't any details to analyze.  Everything is to be taken at face value, which isn't much to gawk at.

There are a few common praises that I just have to dispel here, both regarding the sound of the album.  One is how the pristine production for once completely adds to the album.  This is legitimately bullshit because the sound isn't all that clean.  Sure, it isn't muddy, but I don't have to be smothered in wet dirt to need a shower.  Does everybody remember the uproar that Death Magnetic caused with it's insanely compressed production?  The same fucking thing is here, 100% exactly the same.  There is audible clipping and horrid oversaturation throughout the whole deal, it's torture for the ears.  Even if the album was well written, I'd still have trouble listening to it because it's akin to having a brick shoved into your ear for 35 minutes.  The other issue I have is how this was heralded as being very "spacey", which is the descriptor that made me interested in checking the band out in the first place.  Let's get something straight, Space Invaders is NOT spacey.  A bunch of high pitched beeps and boops is not spacey in the least fucking bit, it sounds "electronic" or "technological" or "malfunctioning".  Space is a vast, infinitely desolate place, larger than any human mind can conceive and overwhelmingly devoid of life.  Fucking Wormphlegm is spacier than this and they sound like they're recording in the center of the Earth.  Even if you don't take the desolate approach to space and instead look at it as a majestic canvas which we can project our wildest imaginations upon, this is still an utter failure as it feels manufactured in every way.  Every bit of this noodly mess is completely calculated and meticulously designed to fit this ridiculous tech-deathcore template.  I know space and science seem to go hand in hand, but outer space is about as organic as you can get.  There is virtually nothing man made in the great expanse of nothingness, and yet people consistently associate this entirely unnatural and manufactured mess of an album with it.

Would you stare at a strobe light for 35 minutes straight?  If so, then Embryonic Anomaly is definitely for you.  It's just a flashy trick being done over and over again for the whole album and very rarely gets interesting.  Rings of Saturn disappoints the hell out of me because on a purely technical level, these kids have some real skills for their age (I think the guitarist only recently grew hair on his testicles or something).  It's just upsetting that their songwriting skills aren't nearly as mature and developed as their ability to move their fingers incredibly fast.  "Corpses Thrown Across the Sky" and "Final Abhorrent Dream" actually have pretty good riffs in the middle of them, and the beginning of "Seized and Devoured" sounds like I just beat a level in Sonic 2, but otherwise there's nothing of interest.  Lame, predictable music for the average, droolingly stupid tech death fan. 

RATING - 24%

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fleshgod Apocalypse - Agony

Fleshgod of Fire

Fleshgod Apocalypse is a strange breed.  They're insane tech death, no doubt, but they take the intensity factor and turn it up to 11 as opposed to widdly-widdlying the living hell out of listeners.  Yeah, their drummer knows basically one beat and then just make believes a drum solo whenever he isn't blasting, but riff wise they're basically peerless in their genre.  As if that wasn't enough to set them apart, they interspersed their mind bending insanity with classical passages on Oracles and introduced clean, operatic vocals on Mafia.  Now there is literally no metal band on the face of the earth that sounds exactly like them, and they've built a pretty considerable fanbase at this point.  After signing to Nuclear Blast Records, they were officially at the top of their game, poised to become one of the world's most popular and creative death metal bands, what else could they possibly do?  They could either take the Krisiun route and stick to what they know they're good at, or they could continue to introduce the classical elements in their music and continue to forge this new path.  I would have said the correct choice was the latter, but now that they've released Agony, I'm only half sure it was the proper choice.

You see, their image and aesthetics helped them stand out as much as their creative take on tech death, and since the first details released about an upcoming album are purely aesthetical, it's understandable that I prepare for the worst when the aesthetics take a nose dive.  The band's stage gimmick hasn't changed (described as "undead gentlemen" or "Akercocke got in a car wreck") but let's face it, the album art and new logo really, really suck.  Worse yet, was that upon the release of the cover, the band commented on its meaning by giving this very long winded description of what it symbolized when really it was an extremely verbose way of saying "Mankind has a dark side that they must learn to control".  No, really?  I thought the raggedy man bound in chains symbolized the Disney's dominance of children's animation in the 1990s.  Silly me.  Also, every track barring the intro and outro is titled "The [Word]", much like Dimmu Borgir's fantastically hated In Sorte Diaboli... not the best precedent to go off of.

So the band is pretentious and artwork has been dumbed down, doesn't necessarily mean the music is gonna suck, does it?  Of course not, but the music here finds itself balancing upon a slack wire several stories in the air between "awesome" and "terrible".  I'm really, honestly not sure if I like this album or not.  The metal portion of the music is largely unchanged.  The percussion is extraordinarily loud and furious, almost never slowing down for a more relaxed beat.  Even the slower songs, "The Egoism" and "The Forsaking", are slow by guitar only, as the drums continue to blast and double bass their way along.  The riffing style has also been left fairly intact, consisting of hyperfast tremolo chords or hyperfast chugging chords.  I don't think any note outside the aforementioned slower tracks are longer than an eighth note, and considering the speed at which the songs fly by, that's pretty impressive.  "The Oppression" and the album's lead single, "The Violation" are probably the fastest tracks on hand, and some of the most intense that Fleshgod has ever put to tape, which is saying a whole hell of a lot.  The intensity is overwhelming, but that's exactly what made Oracles such an enjoyable release.  And when it comes to solos and leads, this is actually a huge step up, as they're both prominent, melodic, and memorable every time one appears.  When one focuses on the traditional metallic instruments, this is every bit as incredible as the previous stuff.

But therein lies the problem with Agony, the actual metal is buried under layers upon layers upon layers of symphonic overtones.  The classical touches that would occasionally appear for a few brief moments in Mafia have been given center stage here.  There is literally about a ten second section in the middle of "The Betrayal" where there are no strings or horns blasting through the speakers, and after repeated listens that ten second section is still the only piece of pure metal I've managed to find on the record.  That isn't to say the symphonic stuff is BAD, per se, it's just such a strange mixture with the hyperspeed tech death insanity that lies beneath.  It doesn't help that the synths are by far the loudest thing in the mix.  It isn't even like it's going on in the background, it's right in your face like David Lee Roth's nuts.  I want to compare it to fellow Italians, Rhapsody of Fire, but with my favorite absurd flower metallers the keys are always carrying the melody or building and epic atmosphere.  If the keys aren't building atmosphere or accentuating the melodic themes, what exactly are they doing?  The correct answer is nothing.  That's right, the symphonics don't really ever do anything. They rarely carry a noticeable, repeating melody, and whenever they're playing solo they don't do anything to build atmosphere or introduce the song's main theme or anything. They always seem to just be there for the sake of it and that's really irritating. I'd like to think I'm a pretty creative person, but using the symphonics on their own and in conjunction with the death metal as a backdrop, I can't imagine a scene in my head. It doesn't paint a picture of inner struggle like the band seems to imply it should convey, the symphonics make it sound neither epic nor foreboding, and the blasty blasty weedly woo is just as in your face and intense as it was previously, so it just seems like there's an annoying, unrelated orchestra playing completely different themes and ideas next door to the recording studio.  There's no cohesion, it's rare that the riffs and synths relate to one another in any way, so there's always this disjointed something-or-other happening in the foreground.

Fleshgod introduced another new aspect to their ever distinguishing signature sound on last year's monolithic EP, and that's Paolo Rossi's clean, high pitched vocals.  There seems to be a split amongst fans regarding the quality of his voice, and I stand firmly on the bad side.  This dude has an awful voice for what the band is doing.  I understand it's supposed to be this classy operatic thing over the chaos below, but it's done so poorly that I can't help but loathe it here.  On Mafia his two choruses were interesting touches, and while he didn't really sound all that great, they worked fantastically in the context of the songs and really helped give the band an identity.  What the band did with that identity is the equivalent of a man realizing that he's gay, and then proceeding to wear exclusively neon pink, see-thru mesh shirts, assless chaps, and Elton John sunglasses.  They took this one identifying feature and sculpted their entire personality around it.  It's annoying when a person does it and it's no different when a band does the same.  Virtually every track features his hilariously bad falsettos, and not a one of them keeps him within a reasonable range.  He is always straining his voice to go much higher than it can go, and it makes me wonder why he even did it in the first place.  His first passage on "Thru Our Scars" has him stretch for at least one note he clearly can't reach, but the rest stays in a range where his voice is at least bearable.  "The Violation", "The Deceit", and "The Hypocrisy" all showcase wonderfully how much of his lesson he didn't learn, as his note choice is even worse on this album and is overfeatured to high hell.  The worst part about it is that the vocals are weak in the first place.  It's bad enough that there's almost no power behind the screeching when he ISN'T spreading his voice far too thin.  They really ought to have kept this particular trait relegated to a track or two, and not given it a starring role.

Despite all this negativity, I still kind of like this album.  It's insanely hard for me to judge, as there is certainly a lot wrong with it, and my favorite aspect (the intensity) is overpowered completely by their newfound love (the orchestra).  And yet, I can still feel the old Fleshgod underneath, and even though it's fighting against meandering symphonics, it still shines through to this fan.  I think the lesson learned here is the age old "everything in moderation, kids".  The adolescent band experimented with a few substances and found one they thought improved them, and then proceeded to go completely overboard and OD.  Perhaps future works will show whether this particular overdose killed them or not, but it definitely addled them.  The once thundering juggernaut is now chumming around scuzzy old apartments, hitting up passers by for change.  You got your fix, Fleshgod, not clean yourself up and get back to being a weekend warrior.  You've shown that too much is detrimental to your abilities.

RATING - 66%