Monday, December 24, 2012

Warhawk - Sic Semper Tyrannis

Vir prudens contra ventum non mingit

If you look back through my reviews, if you see which albums I namedrop as my favorites and the genres I normally stick to and things of that sort, you'll notice I tend to prefer stuff with cleaner production.  I get why people say super clean production jobs sound sterile and plasticky, but they don't bother me at all.  I understand why people feel the music loses aggression, but I disagree and feel like a different sound doesn't necessarily mean a worse sound.  I mean, I listen to a fuckload of new age tech death, and I can't imagine how Hour of Penance or Fleshgod Apocalypse or any of my other pet Italian bands would sound with a production any less pristine than the ones they already carry.  It's something I've grown accustomed to over the years and something that never really bothered me.

But then every once in a while, I get reminded why the old schoolers feel the way they do, and Warhawk's debut full length, Sic Semper Tyrannis, is one such reminder.

It's rare that I come across a thrash album where I have more to say about the sound than the riffs, but this here was such an unexpectedly great kick in the teeth, and a large portion of the reason why is because of the stripped down, organic, sloppy sound of it all.  It's a rough, unpolished, and unsanded piece.  There are still splinters near the cuts and the corners aren't smoothly rounded off, but to further tweak the piece would strip it of it's natural splendor.  Okay so woodworking is a bad analogy, sue me.  The point is that even if Warhawk was yet another Kreator or Exodus clone like 93% of thrash bands that started post-2003 (they aren't), the precise sound they employ is freaking perfect.  The bass is punchy, the riffs are sharp, but it all sounds as though a bunch of drunk and/or high thrashers were just rocking out to a bunch of Venom and Slayer records back in 1985 and then just ran to their garage and started improvising equally fast and dirty tunes.  This is like walking into that garage.  There's an unrefined dirtiness to Sic Semper Tyrannis that calls to mind those early 80s classics, and to the surprise of precisely nobody, it rocks as a result.

Now I always gab off about how thrash is a super restrictive genre and all, and Warhawk really don't do anything to disprove that theory.  You've heard hard and angry thrash like this before, but what the band lacks in Vektor-esque experimentation it makes up for with solid riffs, songwriting, and sheer enthusiasm.  To drop a whole bunch of totally great names, they're like Exhorder, but not quite as brutal, like Rigor Mortis, but not quite as precise, like Slayer, but not quite as intense, but despite all these "almost there" qualities, they're not even remotely close to a middling band like Testament.  Warhawk owns what they set out to do, and that's shove some visceral, bone breaking thrash straight down your gullet with riff after riff after riff.  "Hungry are the Damned" and "Projected Aggression" are potentially the most vicious cuts on display, with "Outbreak" and "Litany of Woes" (both from the previous demo, Peace and Quiet, though now improved with a less trebly production) taking the tag team runner up spot.  "Hungry are the Damned" in particular is based around one of the more ear catching riffs this side of the millennium. 

I always stress how I like my music to be fun most of the time, and while this isn't the most apt description, it's certainly vicious, which is probably my #2 most looked for quality in metal.  It's not perfect, as "The Chalice in the Square" is a bit too ambitious for its own good, clocking in at well over twelve minutes while feeling like two or three tangentially related songs just being smooshed together, and like with most thrash nowadays, the tracks don't always lend much to distinguish themselves from one another (notable exceptions with "Hungry are the Damned", "I Love the Guillotine", and obviously "The Chalice in the Square").  The vocal performance is inconsistent as well, with him switching between a mid 80s snarl and a more eccentric wailer, something like an odd cross between Show No Mercy era Tom Araya and Paul Baloff.  It's certainly a good performance, just a bit across the board and not entirely reined in.  I could yak forever about how much old school thrash was simply the purest form of aggression and how so few bands really nail that genuine feeling nowadays, but all you need to know is that Warhawk nails it harder than John Holmes.  Frantic leadwork, sharp riffs, rough sound, everything that made 1985 such a great formative year for the style is represented here in spades.

Oh, and the band offers it totally for free, with a handful of physical copies to be pressed in the near future.  Listen to this shit, SPREAD THIS LIKE A DISEASE.

RATING - 80%

Monday, December 10, 2012

Artas - The Healing

Jemand hat in meinen Koffer geschissen!

Ever come across one of those albums that you enjoy even though you know it's shit?  Like, you can point out specific reasons why it's terrible, why certain ideas don't work and why they never would have, where the band fails and why, but there's some enduring charm that keeps you hooked despite the obvious, glaring flaws.  We all have a few of those.  I have The Sword's debut, despite its awful drum production and lazy vocals, Arsis's United in Regret despite hilariously feeble themes and slapdash songwriting, and a few others I plan on getting to in the future.  And then there is Artas.  What Arnold Schwarzenegger is to acting, these Austrian dorks are to music .  They're not very good, but god bless them they're trying.  Their failure is in a way, the exact reason they're so entertaining.  Nobody can deliver a hammy one-liner quite like Arnie can, and not many bands can rip off both The Crown and Disturbed in three separate languages in the same song.  Give Arnie a giant machine gun and watch him eat Green Berets for breakfast; give Artas a big, silly breakdown and watch them play it twice as fast as they're supposed to.  Arnold is the king of silly, over-the-top action flicks, something that sucks on a purely cinematic standpoint.  The stories are cliche and dumb and the acting is usually awful, but the violence is ridiculous on Tom and Jerry levels and are packed with so much comedy (intentional and not) that they're just a blast to watch, and you'll never catch me turning down an opportunity to watch The Running Man.  Artas takes two cliched and played out styles (metalcore and nu metal) and throws about four songs too many at you, but mixes in a healthy dose of death/thrash attitude and riffing, polyglot lyrics, and the stupidest shit imaginable played with the most headstrong enthusiasm you're bound to ever hear.

The nu metal influence is a huge turnoff to most, and I'm firmly in the camp that really doesn't like it at all apart from fleeting moments of nostalgia from when I was eleven years old and had a mohawk because I'm a special kind of idiot.  But the way the influences are presented on The Healing are so earnest and blended so confidently with the highly metallic metalcore ala As I Lay Dying and the high speed death/thrash influences like my beloved The Crown (never name your band "The [singular noun]", it makes sentences awkward as fuck) that it never really feels all that out of place.  This was their plan all along, they just dug this style as much as the others and made it work somehow.  "Through Dark Gates" could straight up be a Korn song (unsurprisingly it's the worst track on the album), but much like "AAA" from one of my absolute favorites, Strapping Young Lad's City it's merely one strange quirk that sticks out in the grand scheme of things.  Then there's "Kontrol", which is the otherwise most overtly nu metal influenced track, but the goofy, Turisas-style chorus of "LA LA LA LAAA LA LA LALA LA LA" is such an ohrwurm that I can't stay mad at it, despite the rest of the song sounding like it a b-side to The Sickness.

But strip the nu metal influence away and you're left with a very heavy and thrashy take on metalcore, somewhat akin to what Fedhja did before mercifully splitting up two years ago.  The title track is one of the most obvious examples of what I guess you could call their signature style, if such a thing exists.  It's really and truly an As I Lay Dying styled metalcore song with a strong thrash bent, a catchy chorus, big breakdown, and strange nu metally "BWIP!  BWIP!" vocal flourishes that he spits during transition riffs.  That's what The Healing really is down at its core, it's a bizarre mixture of three or four styles that are all apparently related juuuuust enough to prevent the album from sounding like a hackneyed mess.  I keep using the same couple bands for reference, but that's really what this sounds like.  Take the core elements of The Haunted, The Crown, As I Lay Dying, and Disturbed and put them together, that's Artas.

I can't stress enough how catchy The Healing is, it's stupid but I find myself quietly singing the choruses to "Barbossa", "The Healing", and "I Am Your Judgment Day" under my breath when I think nobody can hear me.  They all feature the same elements I've been gabbing on about, and they're all stupid and fun.  For some, the first word there can really turn some people off, and I don't blame them.  The lyrics are juvenile as hell at times.  Hell, take a look at the few English lines in "Bastardo" (a song entirely sung in Spanish)

Don’t care about the familia
Give a fuck about the policĂ­a
Your rules cause diarrhea
My amigos smoke sensimilla

And that's the chorus... Yeah it can be a problem.  If I could speak/read/understand Spanish or German, the other two languages used heavily throughout the album (I'd say it's maybe 40% German, 30% Spanish, 30% English) I'm sure I'd be able to find dozens of other stupid sections.  I mean hell, they cover Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise".  Just... right there in the middle of the album like it ain't no thang.  And weirdly enough it actually fits, thanks to the ever prevalent nu metal influence.

If this review has turned you off and made you believe The Healing is destined to be awful, then welcome to the club.  I'm amazed I like this at all, it has so many components that are made of nothing but pure failure incarnate, but I can't help but enjoy it for it's starry eyed enthusiasm.  This is a very earnest and well meaning record, despite how silly it can be at times, and that's why I like it.  Artas is a band of youthful exuberance and enthusiastic vibrancy, and it shows here.  I never once doubt for a second that these guys couldn't give less of a shit about their peers or "haters" (man I hate that term) if they tried.  They're doing this because they love it, not because it might make them money.  I feel like there's a pure hearted naivete behind the music, and that's very charming.  Despite the weird choices and juvenile ideas and nu metal influence, I can't help but find The Healing to be rather endearing.  I don't expect most people reading this to like it, but the fact remains that in spite of myself, I do, and I find that it's a lot of fun to spin.  NO SHAME.

RATING - 75%

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Arsis - United in Regret

For never was a story of more woe...

There's a lot going on with Arsis lately.  Their not-so-hotly anticipated fifth album, Unwelcome, is due out in a month or so, and Scion A/V is continuing their quest to be the hippest car company in the universe by releasing their new surprise EP, Lepers Caress, (aren't they missing an apostrophe there?  That title looks weird...) for free today.  This is all shortly following frontman James Malone sitting out a recent tour, which is significant because Arsis has always been his baby, it's essentially a one man band with some other dudes who play along.  It'd be like Lemmy sitting out of a Motorhead tour, it's just preposterous to think of.  And then there was the joke article stating that Malone had quit music altogether to take a job as a strength and conditioning coach for the New York Mets (that I totally didn't fall for out of sheer absurdist optimism...).  And now they're embarking on a tour with Sonata fucking Arctica of all bands.  So to celebrate all of these recent headlines surrounding a band that nobody has cared about for about four years now, I'm gonna take y'all back to their forgotten album, 2006's United in Regret.

This one holds a special place in my heart.  Their previous two releases, A Celebration of Guilt and A Diamond for Disease have both been collectively coated in so much fanboy goo that you get a free wipey when you buy them, and everything after this album has been part of a surreal, circus style slide into failure and insanity.  United in Regret, in hindsight, can be seen as the harbinger to the carnival fire that Arsis became around the time Starve for the Devil came out.  A lot of the warning signs are there, the songs are a lot less cohesive, the lyrics and themes are even more laughably whimpy, and Malone is more visibly just a whiny teenager who happens to be a great guitar player.  Even though the debut is clearly better, there's a strange personality to this album that its predecessor lacks.  Simply put, United in Regret has got charisma.

If nothing else, this record has to be the first concept album about being friendzoned in all of heavy metal.  Love is a powerful emotion, and one of the easiest to write about and relate to.  It's a great base to start from, and I have no qualms with romantic themes in an otherwise dark style, it definitely has potential to work in a strange harmonic dissonance way.  The way Arsis approaches this, however, is with the same teary eyed angst and frustration of a fifteen year old boy in a mad dash to his diary after breaking up with his girlfriend of one month.

All nine of the tracks on display are based around some unnamed Mary Sue (whom I shall henceforth refer to as Sheldon Noodlespine) lashing out angrily at some woman he "loved" (let's call her Annabelle Gobelcocque) who didn't love him back.  Basically she was a whore who cheated on him with somebody who presumably wasn't a spindly anorexic dork with abandonment issues.  Each and every song references this whore's lies or her lips or some odd reference to a monument or the word "indifference".  That last word makes me think the true motivation behind these vitriolic diatribes is something more akin to this: Sheldon really liked this girl.  He liked Annabelle so much that he convinced himself he loved her, but because he's a clingy nerd with as much confidence and sex appeal as a biscuit with two shits inside of it, she wasn't attracted to him, but liked how nice he was to her, so she saw him as a good friend and nothing more.  James grew more and more obsessed every day, convincing himself that she was this immaculate seraph whose very existence was proof of the divine.  Every day in history class he'd zone out googly eyed at the back of her head, daydreaming of picnics under falling cherry blossoms while she'd daydream about getting getting her pink tortoise mounted by the hunky star quarterback for the school football team (let's call him Mike Henn).  This is because Annabelle is a normal horny teenager and Sheldon is an ineffectual wiener.  Naturally, Annabelle shacks up with some douchebag who drives a Mustang and says "yolo" a lot because he has an older brother who buys beer for him (normal horny teenagers are also extraordinarily stupid, you see).  This devastates poor Sheldon to the point of existential despair.  "How could this angel be so corrupted?  This guy wasn't good enough, why can't she see how perfect we are for each other?!" he'd choke out to himself between sobs into his Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann body pillow.  Later he'd share his plight on the internet, and all of his equally maladjusted /b/rothers would tell him that she's just a whore who was out to break his heart, and he needs to drop that bitch and get on with his life.  Sheldon of course follows this advice and leaves poor Annabelle without who she thought was a great friend, all because she was a normal person who had the gall to not reciprocate the feelings of an unhealthily focused sperg.  Sheldon is of course blind to the fact that he's merely a different kind of asshole for bailing on somebody solely because they don't have feelings for him, and instead picks up his guitar (the only thing he's good at) and writes nine songs about this horrible slut who broke his heart by committing the awful crime of being "indifferent".

What all that amounts to is BOO FUCKING HOO.  The thing about Arsis is that they're probably the nerdiest non-USPM band on the planet, and I never understood why until really paying attention to the lyrics around this era of the band.  Socially awkward kids can relate to the above story, they've all been there.  Nearly everybody has seen the object of their affection trek down the dark path away from the purity we thought he/she embodied.  Hell I've been there, because I too am a dork who had no idea how to be comfortable with himself until I stopped watching Naruto.  You had unrequited feelings, welcome to being 15 years old, time to fix your stupid asymmetrical haircut and stop writing shitty poetry about it.

Now I realize that the previous ~600 words seem like a really unnecessary tangent, but really it's symbolic of what the album does to you.  You are just constantly pummeled over the head with this extremely blunt message of "this girl is a whore and I'm an angsty twat" over and over again throughout the duration of the album.  This is hard to ignore for a few reasons.  One is that Malone isn't a very gifted lyricist.  Most musicians writing a song with this theme would veil their finer details behind some sort of symbolism.  This number about a demon rising from the depths to torment some poor shlub could well be an allegory for something else entirely.  They could work with some clever imagery to get their point across.  But no, Arsis just clobbers you in the gob with upfront accusations of manipulative sluttery.  I get the feeling they tried to be somewhat clever, but the fact that Malone still refers to a vagina as a "wound" he wants to "be inside" shows that he's still got a few lifetimes worth of practice before he can call himself anything resembling a poet.

The second reason this is so distracting is paradoxically a good reason, United in Regret is catchier than herpes.  One thing the band has always done right is that even at their most disjointed and confusing, they can always deliver a handful of songs that are a lot of fun to sing along with.  Tracks like "Oh, the Humanity" and "The Cold Resistance" have real choruses that I find nigh impossible to restrain myself from rasping along with.  The vocal patterns manage to be sing-songy and infectious despite being delivered in a harsh monotone, and that says something about Malone's songwriting ability.  Namely it says that he's one of the flukiest and most accidentally brilliant songwriters this side of Jari Maenpaa.  Unlike Jari, who is clearly good at writing one particular style of music and mediocre-to-shit at everything else, I can't really pinpoint what it is that Malone excels at.  Nearly every Arsis song since the beginning of time has been a haphazard goulash of unrelated technical melodeath ideas that he strings together with noodly classical Necrophagist style solos, but a good chunk of the time (especially early in the band's history) he somehow finds the correct order in which to assemble these random parts.  I'm convinced that A Celebration of Guilt is some kind of divine accident, where his dozens of unrelated ideas all fell into place flawlessly this one time on a count of beginner's luck.  The intricate melodies and leadwork that has been the band's trademark since day one is still here on United in Regret, but the problem is that the album on the whole is a lot less cohesive than its predecessors.  The slapdash songwriting just doesn't mesh well with this new sound.

New sound?  Oh yeah, the production is wildly different here as well.  Everything is considerably more muddy and incoherent than the crisp, trebly precision of the previous album and EP.  The thing about this is that it doesn't make the album feel more organic (which I suspect was the reasoning behind trying to fix what wasn't broken), and instead makes it harder to follow and less sure of itself.  The rhythm guitars especially sound muffled and chained in stark contrast to the crisp percussion that kicks through at nearly every opportunity.  There's an odd fuzz surrounding all of the stringed instruments as well, and again it isn't an organic feeling element.  I'm not saying this should be clinically clean or anything, but the music is surgically precise in it's approach, so it'd be nice if the production would allow the sound to express itself a bit more clearly.

And in the end, maybe it's a good thing that the production is working against the actual music, because compared to their earlier efforts, this is the album where Arsis started to go off the deep end and stop filtering themselves at all.  I mean, there are so many instances where I can't help but feel like Riff X and Melody Y don't go together at all and I'm just finding myself disoriented with Drum Beat Z making things even more awkward.  Seriously, the drumming is handled as if Brann Dailor and Flo Mounier decided to have a "Let's see who can give less of a fuck about keeping time" contest.  There is no such thing as a solid beat presented anywhere, it's all fills and rolls and tossing the snare in a tumble dryer and crap like that.  It's disorienting to a point where it never was before.  The parts where the band reins itself in to a more traditional styled riff or chugging stomp like "Oh, the Humanity", "Lust Before the Maggots Conquest", or especially the chorus in the title track are actually very good, and this is indicative of the band as a whole.  When Malone puts everything together as a band, some really neat shit can happen, but when everybody goes bonkers and tries to take center stage with their instrumental acrobatics, everything falls apart into a cacophonous mess.  Even though Malone handles all of the guitars on this record, it still sounds like there are two different players playing two different parts at the same time, cattily swatting at each other in the studio as they fight to have the more prominent part.

Now as I stated earlier, I do indeed really like United in Regret.  Every time I bring up a positive aspect I have a habit of saying "one thing the band has always been good at", but when I mention this next point I want to clarify that I mean THE thing the band has always been good at: Malone fucking slays at complex and intricate riff writing.  Now I don't mean he plays what a less ambitious band would consider a solo as a verse riff, but I mean the riffs he crafts are one of a kind and unmistakably his work.  The way he weaves an inherently strong melody into a simultaneously pummeling riff is nothing short of modern art.  He takes the mindset of a traditional Gothenburg styled band like Dark Tranquility, and somehow transmutes their melodeath riffs into something where the rhythm and melody are being played by the same guy at the same time, but at double speed and with a sixth finger on his left hand.  Check out "Lust Before the Maggots Conquest" or "I Speak Through Shadows" for prime examples of this phenomenal skill.  I truly do believe that this stunning ear for melody coupled with the completely off the wall melotech riffs are a huge reason the band catapulted to popularity with their debut eight years ago, and it's all still in top form here. 

All of the good bits mixed with all of the crummy bits make United in Regret a very memorable experience.  I'll be the first to admit that A Celebration of Guilt is a better album (but then again the cover to that album looks like the Icon of Sin from Doom II, so it was destined to rule from the outset), but over the years I've found myself spinning United in Regret more often.  It's this strange, oddly cut and grimy jewel.  There is a ton of shit wrong with it, from the blunt force trauma of the crappy angsty lyrics to the disjointed mishmash of the songwriting, but it all amounts to a sort of character that their later releases sorely lack.  The problems here really came to a head a few years later as the band toiled on, downwards into the realm of pink guitars and music videos featuring your long faced and stringy frontman windmilling in front of strippers in a trashed classroom and song titles as bewilderingly stupid as "Half Past Corpse O' Clock".  But for what it is, United in Regret is only slightly less enjoyable than its predecessors, and while it's not the best starting point for new fans, it is at the very least fascinating in hindsight.  This is where their sheen and prowess of heavily melodic technical death metal started to develop sores before falling into full blown leprosy on the following We Are the Nightmare.  If nothing else, check out "The Cold Resistance" and tell me you won't have that chorus stuck in your head all day.

tl;dr - This album is the musical equivalent to that episode of The Office where Michael proposes to his girlfriend in front of all of his coworkers on their ninth date.  It's just as painful of an experience just for the sheer vicarious embarrassment, but it's also just as much fun.

RATING - 78%

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cytotoxin - Radiophobia

Find the Spaceballs reference!

Okay, this confuses the crap out of me.  I don't usually talk about being a review mod because y'all would not be entertained by stories of me staring at my laptop for hours at a time, wondering if anybody has even so much as looked at previous reviews to know that just maybe their four line review might not be acceptable.  But there is one odd phenomenon I've noticed, and that's that a lot of people like Cytotoxin's sophomore effort, Radiophobia.  There's only one published here right now, but you'll have to take my word that I've had to reject at least six others for various reasons, all extraordinarily positive.  This blows my mind because who the fuck are Cytotoxin?  Did some famous dude I don't know pimp them out?  Was some guy from Job for a Cowboy wearing their shirt in a music video?  Somebody enlighten me here, these guys seemed to pop up out of nowhere with an already rabid fanbase in tow, and I can't think of a single reason why.  Why not?  Because they're fucking boring, that's why.

See, the thing about Cytotoxin is same thing about Cerebral Bore, it's really safe, cookie cutter BDM with an abundance of pig squeals.  The big difference between those two is that Cytotoxin is faster and more technical, making them more akin to the Italian scene I love so much.  But even then, everything on Radiophobia is something Hour of Penance did three times already and better, and without thirty minutes of pig squealing.  I know I probably seem like the -core hating cockdouche here, but really I never got behind this vocal flourish.  It's hard to inject personality into an inhaled squeal like that, no matter who you are or what language you're belching, it'll always sound like you're yelling REE REEE REEEEE and it just gets fucking old fast.  A band like, I dunno, Benighted or something that utilizes the technique every once in a while is one thing, but when you use it with the same mindset that Steve Asheim uses the blast beat, you're going to be repeating yourself an awful lot.  When you're playing a style as overpopulated as this, it'd be cool to help yourself stand out a bit, but this just is not the right way to do it for me.

And that's the thing, I really don't hear anything that makes Cytotoxin stand out above the rest of the bands of their ilk.  Really, this could be any band on Unique Leader or Willotip's roster (aside: I didn't realize until after writing this sentence that they actually are signed to Unique Leader, so basically I'm a fucking genius), it's that exact brand of faceless tech death that so few bands really manage to break out of.  If you'd put an album by Beheaded or Odious Mortem or Arkaik in the case here, I wouldn't have noticed.  It's brutal, it's technical, it has sweeps and breakdowns, it's nothing approaching special, and it's for that reason that I really don't understand their relative popularity.

But with all that said, even though there's nothing even remotely original here, it's still a style worth revisiting.  I can namedrop all these other bands this reminds me of because I like them all.  Generic brutal tech death is a fun genre to get lost in.  Smashing slams and breakdowns, blistering leads, and plaid drumming, everything you'd expect is here in spades and it's all pretty well done.  Radiophobia is structured the same way that The Browning's first album is, with back to back runs of four songs + interlude, and the better songs being in the back half.  "Fallout Progeny" is my favorite, with the breakdown at the end being both high tempo and punishing (my favorite kind of breakdown) and the fast tremolo riffs being ear catching and surprisingly melodic.  "Abysm Nucleus" is great as well for the same reasons, but those are the only two that really stand out overall.  I guess "Frontier of Perception" also has a really gnarly chugging part as well but those last two proper songs are the only two with anything that sticks when the album is done and over with.  But even with that being the case it's still not a bad listen if you can stomach the complete oversaturation of the pig squeals.

Basically if you like Cerebral Bore, but could handle them going more in the technical direction than the brutal one, then Radiophobia is for you.  I know I've compared them to the most accessible BDM band around a few times, but I'm still confused as to their sudden burst of popularity.  The pig squealing phenomenon seems to have passed in popular music, but that doesn't stop Cytotoxin from filing nearly 70% of all vocal lines with the technique, and that's really the biggest annoyance with the album apart from the lack of originality.  But really, those are two easy things to get over.  I wouldn't really recommend this since there are better bands doing this same thing but better right now (the mere existence of Hour of Penance makes this band redundant), but if you're a fan of the style I don't see how this could hurt.

Also, the band photo looks like it consists of four clones, and that just makes me laugh.

RATING - 63%