Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tyranny - Tides of Awakening

An album for the mentally ill

Remember back in my review for The Crimson Idol where I mentioned that when I'm feeling blue, I tend to just listen to depressing music to wallow in for a time?  And do you also remember my review for The Day It All Came Down where I basically wrote a really roundabout suicide note and framed it around a review?  Well I'm in that kind of mood again.  And since I don't drink or beat my children, I purge my negativity and cope with sadness by writing reviews about depressing metal albums and covering them with swaths of esoteric imagery.  The culprit today?  The ever absorbent Tides of Awakening, the only album from Finnish undertakers, Tyranny.

As far as I know, this is the first funeral doom album I've ever reviewed (depends on if you count Year of No Light I suppose), and one of the reasons I've always held off on writing about this genre, despite liking it plenty, is because I feel like once I write one, I'll have written them all.  It's a good style, no doubt, and it's all about mood and atmosphere as opposed to riffing or melodies or something, like most of the high octane music I listen to.  But the problem with the genre as a whole is that you can use the same four words to describe every album, and then just fluctuate how well each band handles every element.  We know it's gonna be atmospheric, we know it's gonna be slow, we know it's gonna be based in doom/death, we know the vocals are going to be distant and deep, the only new information I can provide is whether or not each of these elements are handled competently on whichever album I'm talking about.

As far as I'm concerned, Tyranny handles everything marvelously.  And yet, at the same time, I don't even really know what it is that they do at all.  I mean, I can gather that there are Lovecraftian themes, but I don't give a shit.  I hear they take big heaps of influence from genre progenitors like Thergothon and Skepticism, but I couldn't care less about that if I tried.  All that really matters to me, and all that should matter to you, is that Tides of Awakening is monumentally heavy, and completely suffocating in its unbelievably oppressive atmosphere.

The songs themselves don't do much to differentiate themselves from one another, but once again that's not really the point.  "Coalescent of the Inhumane Awareness" has a really haunting lead melody, but that lead melody doesn't sound all that different from the rest of the melodies to be found, so I wouldn't feel right singling it out like I just did, but I'm a hypocrite in the throes of crippling depression rambling about depressing music.  The point is that when it comes to the actual musical aspects, this is exactly what you'd expect.  Glacial pace doom/death riffs underneath layered backing synths and melancholic, haunting lead guitar.  What I love about this guitar is that it doesn't ever come off like a guitar normally would, it instead manifests as this completely different entity; a completely abstract spirit that sends down gentle coos of reassuring warmth that get twisted into demonic abominations by the time they reach your ears.  It's both pleasant and unnerving at the same time, and it works towards the overwhelming atmosphere in ways I previously couldn't imagine.

It's really the atmosphere that makes this album work.  If I'm being totally honest, it's the only element that I can even recall or appreciate about it in most instances.  Here I am giving a high score to an album that I'll fully admit to not even knowing the track names for (and there are only fuckin' five of them), but it's because this doesn't stick with you for the same reason something from a more energetic genre will.  I'm never going to hear a part in any given funeral doom album that makes me go "Whoa shit, that was awesome, what track was that?" like I would with an album in pretty much any other genre.  That's a characteristic of funeral doom as a whole to me, and Tides of Awakening just exemplifies it.  From start to finish, this is basically one monstrous plateau of misery and helplessness.  Sure, each song builds and climaxes appropriately, but at no point does the music take me anywhere other than the loneliest place imaginable.  It's basically just one huge, hour long experience where you just sit at the bottom of the ocean while the weight of all the water pushes down upon you, and you struggle for air for a short while before understanding the cosmic futility of your perseverance, and then simply waiting to lose consciousness underneath all the pressure.  The entire experience is just one long funeral dirge, wherein you spend all of the time alternating between reflecting upon the mistakes you made and then cursing yourself for allowing it all to end with those loose ends still hanging.  I can't even call this a "journey" like I tend to when trying to be vague and metaphorical with my description, because it's very static.  At no point do I feel like my story is progressing, I'm just sitting here, being pummeled ever so slowly by the increasing weight of each wave. 

See, I feel like the metal album that most accurately sums up the frustration of bipolarity, depression, anxiety, and most other self-crippling mental illnesses of the sort is City by Strapping Young Lad.  Hell, there are even other albums within this very genre that I'm sure deal with much more emotional themes than whatever dystopian ballyhoo Tyranny drones on and on about here, but the general mood is almost perfect for what this kind of lethargic self loathing represents.  When you're in a spot where the entire world is grey, and every attempt to move forward is met with your own body resisting you, sapping your will to even bother trying to improve yourself since you know that swimming ten feet upwards isn't going to get you out of that ocean, Tides of Awakening is the album that is playing in your mind.  It's just dirge after dirge after dirge, reminding you that you are worthless and weak and will never get ahead as long as every time you look upward, you're met with miles of crystal clear water.  You can see the surface, but my friend, you are not getting there.  The vocalist may be deeply roaring about Yog Sothoth's pubic lice for all I know, but in my mind it's just the disgruntled bellows of my subconscious reminding me of all the mistakes I've made in my life and why I'll never see better days. 

I can't keep doing this, all I can do is constantly compare the album to like being trapped under an ocean and then hamfistedly relate my own psychoses to it.  Most people who suffer from these same issue (the sads and the mads) can understand where I'm coming from, and can likely relate to the album in this way as well.  It's atmospherically debilitating and as emotionally weighty as a metaphoric iceberg.  The four traditional songs are crushing and monumental, and the ambient outro is reflective and moderately horrifying.  It's the extracurricular aspects of the album that makes Tides of Awakening so effective to me.  It's the fact that beyond all the suffocating atmosphere, there's a vivid image of myself drowning in my own misery.  Everything is overwhelming and I, personally, drown every time I experience it.  This is an album (and admittely, a review) for me, not for you.  This works because I can relate the smothering atmosphere to my own fears, it works because I react to certain stimuli the way that I do.  If you don't share these same problems, then this just simply isn't going to connect with you on the same emotional plane that it does for me.

RATING - 91%

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Heavatar - Opus I: All My Kingdoms

The Ballad of Diarrhea Girl

Let's talk about my sex life for a minute.

*chorus of uncontrollable laughter*

Yeah yeah, the mental image you're currently conjuring of me touching any part of a woman with my tongue is either repulsive or hysterical, depending on how low your self esteem is, but like most other men in the world, I have a wiener and I like when other people touch it.  The point is, a couple years ago, there was this girl I really, really liked.  My friends know her as Diarrhea Girl (if you want to know the story behind that moniker, feel free to preorder my first book, Poor Decisions, Worse Timing: The Collected Tales of an Unfortunately Hilarious Doofus), and in the realm of purely physical looks, she was... decent.  Most of the time, you could describe her as cute and that was about the extent of it.  She had an illuminating smile, but she tended to present herself as frumpy.  She didn't take much pride in her appearance, she looked like she belonged in a yogurt commercial about 90% of the time.  Sweatpants, hoodie, hair tied up, no makeup, you know the deal.  There were other things about her that made her irresistible to me, but based on pure physicality, she was never going to be cast as the woman in the red dress in The Matrix.  Most of the time.  On occasion, and I only saw this firsthand a few times, she would "get all purty" as she would call it.  Man, when she put effort into looking good, she would just blow me away.  All the greatness I knew she hid underneath the layers of her constant laundry day outfits would just smack me in the proverbial jaw with the force of one of those Punkin Chunkin torsion machines.  Our relationship may have ended on a bizarre, diarrhea scented note, but that's one of the biggest memories I have of her, just how stunning she could look on the extraordinarily rare occasion she would make an attempt.

Apart from simply wanting to plant the visual of me wrestling with my libido through a smog of fecal vapor inside your subconsciousness, this relates to the album at hand because Heavatar is an exercise in painstaking averageness punctuated sporadically with moments of gorgeous brilliance.  This band's existence initially got my blood pumping purely because I'm one of the weird guys who really likes Van Canto beyond the gimmick.  Yeah, their covers are almost always the best songs on any given album (with the exception of Tribe of Force, a legitimately excellent power metal album all the way through), but I find the songwriting to be pretty solid and the arrangements to be interesting at the very least.  Despite this, I've never actively found myself seeking out any of the member's other projects, so hearing lead "guitarist", Stefan Schmidt, behind the mic as a lead vocalist was a sweet prospect for me.  Heavatar is presented as a super group of sorts, although that's pretty misleading considering the rest of the band consists of some dude who played in the pre-Van Canto band, Fading Starlight, the most inconsequential member of Powerwolf, and Jorg Michael, who was awesome in the 80s and 90s with Avenger/Rage, Running Wild, Grave Digger, and others, but hasn't done anything worthwhile in roughly two decades (unless you like Stratovarius, in which case I can safely assume you suck at music).

The band sets the stage in grand fashion, "prophetically" (read: naively) subtitling their first album Opus I, but I must admit that the opening track, "Replica", does an excellent job of conveying the epic attitude the band is aiming for.  It's a very operatic and bombastic tune, devoid of some of the typical power metal crutches like googols of orchestrations, but still retaining the over the top choirs and gesticulating-inducing chorus.  This is the kind of power metal that I just eat up.  It's huge and magniloquent and shows absolutely no shame or restraint, packed to the gills with swagger and machismo.  It's unbelievably catchy and at the same time very meaty and heavy with a healthy twist of neoclassical guitar lines; the kind of power metal that people who hate power metal can enjoy, not unlike a not-quite-as-punishing Persuader or a less boring Morgana Lefay.

But after that?  Be prepared for a host of completely unremarkable, pedestrian, uninspiring, paint-by-numbers power metal.  It's hugely disappointing because "Replica" shows how intricate and entertaining the band can be, but after that they all just kinda sit back and mechanically churn out very bland and faceless songs for most of the rest of the album.  Tracks like "Elysium at Dawn" and "Long Way Home" just happen with utterly zero consequence.  Schmidt has a really neat voice, being deeper and rougher than most singers the genre is so saturated with, but he rarely puts it to good use.  In fact, it's best when being complemented by the choirs, which shows that the band could probably stand to be a little more cliche for the sake of some more entertaining songs.  This ties into my opening because All My Kingdoms isn't bad, but it's pretty unremarkable if not for the cool frontman.  Basically it has a great smile, but the other wonders that surface from time to time are largely hidden by very plain clothing.  I mean really, the title track is completely forgettable, which makes me wonder why on Earth it's even the title track at all.  Shouldn't the song you name your album after be... I dunno, special in some way?  No?  Just a fully unremarkable power metal tune with nothing interesting in it?

I'm being sort of mean here, because despite "Replica" being far and away the best song, there are other good moments.  "Luna! Luna!" is a pretty great song on the whole as well, and the chorus and pre-chorus of "The Look Above" are very exciting and evocative (particularly that "We are running faster!" part), but otherwise there's almost nothing to be found that could raise the seasoned power metal fan's pulse.  Lots of low chugging and soaring choirs, but they're rarely put to good use.  I can guarantee you the band has probably made comments in interviews like "We have great chemistry, the songs came together very easily, they almost wrote themselves, yadda yadda", and I totally believe that, because if a song could hypothetically write itself, it'd probably sound like "Born to Fly".  It's just not exciting, it feels like the band didn't challenge themselves at all and just wrote a bunch of very safe, surefire tunes and called it a day.  With moments like the choruses of "Replica" and "Luna! Luna!", it's pretty clear that the talent contained within the band is very capable of meshing together and crafting some very memorable songs, but it just... never does.

At one point, All My Kingdoms was actually in my Top 13 for the year, but the more I listen to it, the less passionate it feels and the more faceless it becomes.  This still gets a good score because, as I said, it isn't a bad album, not by any stretch of the imagination, but on the strength of songs like "Replica", I could compare the band to heavyweights like Blind Guardian or Kamelot, but with the rest of the album it just kinda falls into an echelon slightly above bands like Power Theory and Torian.  I guess it's worth a listen, the Mattie Jensens of the world will lap this up if nothing else, but for me, it's a very average album on the whole.  Just like Diarrhea Girl, it's cute, but generally nothing you'll dream about inseminating in the bathroom of a classy restaurant (except of course for the rare occasions where it takes pride in its natural gift and presents itself as such).

Also, the closing track, "To the Metal", is goddamn stupid.  It's clearly about how metal is taken too seriously and we all need to remember to have fun with it, which is a message I champion frequently (hence my vocal love of Powerwolf), but it's presented in a very blisteringly stupid way, being largely a solo campfire type song with Schmidt yelling like a goon.  It's cool to be self aware, but just because you know you're making a joke doesn't mean you're allowed to be shitty.

RATING - 67%

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Running Wild - Resilient

Just... ugh

Honestly, I can't think of a more blundered finale to an epic saga in the history of storytelling.  I know that's an altered quote from Spoony's review for Ultima IX, but the fact that he isn't a Running Wild fan shows that he doesn't understand true disappointment as far as I'm concerned.  I mean yeah, Ultima IX is a hackneyed rush job that cornholed what roughly ten or eleven previous games had spent building up and was shit out to meet a hard deadline and failed to live up to all the promise the series had built and whatnot, but that's different than what Rolf has done here.  Rolf had a legendary band, with a legacy nearly unmatched in the annals of metal history.  Running Wild's first eight albums are all considered essential listening by most fans of the band and genre, with some people like me even thinking they were damn near untouchable even further than that (I personally think they were great through Victory), and they were starting to stumble with age.  The Brotherhood flipflops between good fun to snore inducing vomit, and the less said about Rogues en Vogue, the better.  But after a few years of silence, Rolf had decided to hang up his ceremonial robes and bow out gracefully.  He gathered his band and performed one last time, with a set list in part chosen by fans, in front of thousands of boozed up and screaming fans at the biggest metal festival in Germany.  It was an emotional departure, and a great swansong for a great band.

And then Peter Jordan happened.

Look, I know this is Rolf's baby, I know everything that's happened since the very first days of Granite Heart in the mid 70s has been at the behest of Rock'n'Rolf, but ever since Peter Jordan showed up, things went from "bad" to "unbearable".  Rolf's obsession is 70s and 80s cock rock has never been a secret, he openly dedicated "Kiss of Death" from The Rivalry to KISS, and there have always been big hard rock songs from as far back as Port Royal, but they were never the focus until near the end, they never became ubiquitous until the last two albums before the initial disbanding.  And I feel like Rolf's favorite yes-man probably had a pretty big hand in convincing him to resurrect the Running Wild name.  Because let's face it, Running Wild, Toxic Taste, and Giant X have all been the same fucking band for the past eight years now.  Rolf doesn't want to do Running Wild anymore, he doesn't want to write another Blazon Stone or Death or Glory, no matter how badly we fans want such a thing.  Clearly, he's into stadium oriented buttrock, because that's what he keeps writing, and that's all he's been writing ever since Jordan started leeching off the man like the world's most heartbreaking parasite.  The thing that sets this apart from Ultima IX is that Shadowmaker and Resilient weren't rushed or compromised, these albums are what the creator really wants to do.  It's clear that Rolf has poured his heart into these tracks, and that makes the fact that they sound so unbelievably lazy and half-baked all the more heartbreaking.

On one hand, it's pretty neat to see Rolf being so productive again, releasing three albums in the span of little over a year and a half (because let's face it, Giant X is just Running Wild and vice versa, with the same shitty members, same shitty production, and same shitty buttrock songs), but clearly the man is running on a renewed fuel, his passion for music definitively reignited.  It's just sad because he isn't writing Running Wild music anymore, and if he'd've just stuck with Giant X, I wouldn't be so profoundly offended by these last handful of albums he's released under the Running Wild name.  I passed on reviewing Shadowmaker when it was new because there really wasn't anything to say about it.  It was an offensive trainwreck of lame buttrock songs with only a couple tunes worth hearing.  "Piece of the Action" was a decent Billy Idol song and "I Am Who I Am" at least sounded like a Running Wild song (albeit a rather uninspired b-side from The Brotherhood), but that's really all there was amidst a mire of bad "Me & the Boys" type songs.  So how does Resilient differ?

Well, it's a lot less overtly arena rock I suppose, but it's still pretty weak.  There's no outright offensive songs like "Me & the Boys", but it's pretty much an entire album full of "Black Shadow"s and "Riding on the Tide"s.  It sounds more like Running Wild than the rest of the Giant X albums he's been releasing lately, but they're not very good Running Wild songs.  It's an album that starts with filler, continues with filler, and nearly ends with filler.  It'd be like if Pile of Skulls opened with "Roaring Thunder", and then had no other songs until "Treasure Island".  Resilient is full of songs that sound like worse versions of better songs, but the songs they're emulating were always among the weakest on any given album.  It's basically an album consisting of "Raging Fire", "Evilution", "Fight the Fire of Hate", "Land of Ice", "Lonewolf", "Man on the Moon", "Unation", and "Into the Fire".  If that list of filler songs meant nothing to you, then I'm afraid we can't be friends.

At the very least, I can give this album some credit for its energy.  It feels like this should have been released first instead of Shadowmaker.  That album didn't sound like a man resurrecting his legendary metal band due to a renewed passion for the music, it sounded more like a tired old codger trying to desperately relive his glory days.  Granted, Resilient still sounds like that, but it just feels more genuine.  Unlike its predecessor, this doesn't start feeling tired and obligatory until the last handful of songs, everything from the opening to "Run Riot" at least sounds like Rolf had a smile on his face while writing and recording the songs.  They're fun and upbeat, if nothing else.  Now, they're not very good, mind you, but they do at least feel like they were written by a man who wanted to write them.  There are a couple highlights, I will admit.  I can't justify why, but I really like "Run Riot", it's probably the most familiar sounding song on the album, in the sense that it wouldn't have been out of place on an album like Victory (fuck you, that album rules, if you can't dig "Tsar", "Timeriders" or especially "The Hussar", then you are dead to me).  It offers a sense of cozy nostalgia, a warmth of familiarity that I gladly welcome.  And "Adventure Highway" isn't bad either, though not entirely striking.

I feel like the reason a song like "Adventure Highway" or "Fireheart" can stand out on this album is because the rest of the running time is so goddamn samey and uninteresting that anything approaching catchy is instantly caught in your mind.  "Down to the Wire" and "Crystal Gold" are 100000% forgettable and completely unnecessary, and it has a lot to do with the very formulaic writing.  Almost every song on the album sits comfortably around the four and a half minute mark, and they're all structured in a nearly identical and conventional pop structuring.  Every single song is verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus-fin.  It never deviates, it's as bad as All That Remains or Kajagoogoo.  That's not to say that Running Wild was always adventurous with their songwriting, but they never felt as paint-by-numbers tedious as they do here, and it really drags down what could logically be a lighthearted and fun hard rock album.  Rolf even does that fucking thing he always does on "Desert Rose" and "Down to the Wire".  You know what thing I'm talking about.  It just sounds like he's going through the motions for most of the album, even if he's having fun with these motions for the first time in nearly a decade.

The production woes of the past are just as present here as they always have been.  It was never completely clear to me until Shadowmaker, but Rolf's voice needs reverb.  In this pristine, controlled environment, his signature snarling croon becomes the sound of a laughably arthritic old man trying to prolapse a hot dog out of himself.  I'm not kidding when I say the final vocal flourish in the title track sounds damn near identical to the sound I make when wrestling with an unusually resilient poop.  The guitar sound is strangely robotic as well, sounding almost industrial with how tinny and hollow it sounds.  It doesn't sound like a guitar as much as it sounds like a really unconvincing MIDI patch, and when you couple that with Angelo Sasso's mechanically dull drum performance, you get a pretty disingenuous sounding record.  Man, now that I think about it, if you don't believe the rumor of his death in 2007, Angelo Sasso is the longest tenured member Running Wild has ever had.  Isn't that just the saddest fucking thing since Old Yeller?

But throughout all this, I've been noticeably ignoring one track in particular, the signature closing epic, "Bloody Island".  Like every fan worth his salt, I recognize the brilliance in a track like "Treasure Island".  The long buildup, the instantly memorable chorus, the extended soloing section in the middle, the legendary hooks and melodies, there's practically nothing wrong with that song, and it's rightfully regarded as one of the band's best songs nearly universally.  They've never quite captured the same lightning in a bottle again, with "Genesis" and "The Ballad of William Kidd" both being great songs, but not quite on the same echelon as the godlike "Treasure Island", and "The Ghost" and "Dracula" (yeah yeah, I like that song too) both being serviceable and not complete embarrassments, with the only epic of theirs actually falling to utter shit being "The War", from the already snakebitten Rogues en Vogue.  So how does "Bloody Island" stack up against such a pedigree?  Fairly well, actually.  It is without a doubt the best song to be found on Resilient, and easily the most "Running Wild-y" song featured here.  It's pretty much a direct carbon copy of "Treasure Island", but it's almost unspeakably welcome on an album as dull and devoid of that legendary flash like this one.  The main melody is straight out of the Blazon Stone era, the chorus is closer to The Brotherhood, but it's one of the good songs from that album at the very least.  This is what the fans wanted to hear, this is what we wanted.  Even if it wasn't quite as good as the late 80s and early 90s, we wanted to hear Rolf put his effort into doing what he does best: epic, classy melodies and strong, barbed hooks.  I know that's exactly why I criticize an album like Death Magnetic, but really, Rolf has clearly defined his strengths in the past, and what he's been doing for the past decade is little more than a self indulgent vanity project.  It's nice to see him doing what he loves, because he has earned it, but a little throwback like this shows that he isn't completely sapped out of his former magic, he just... doesn't want to do it anymore.

In a way, this is actually a more disappointing than Shadowmaker, because while that album was bad and boring, Resilient is bad, but even more boring and yet somehow shows some flashes of Rolf's former magic, something that was conspicuously absent on the previous album.  Resilient is better, don't get me wrong, but at this point it may just be Stockholm Syndrome.  Despite the slight step up in quality, this is still bad, still boring, still bland, and still disappointing.  It's better than Shadowmaker, but do you know what's better than winning a silver medal at the Special Olympics?  Not being retarded.

RATING - 30%

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Deafheaven - Sunbather

Maybe life is like a ride on the freeway?

I'm gonna do something a little different here, an experiment if you will, so bear with me.  Deafheaven is a band that's been generating a lot of fuzz.  Neckbeards around the world have been ovulating with excitement over this new "different black metal" band since the hype of Liturgy and their unbearably inane frontman seem to have fallen by the wayside in recent months.  Places like Pitchfork and probably Anthony Fantano (I haven't looked yet, but I can guarantee he's reviewed and loves this album) have just been drooljizzing all over the place since the release of Sunbather in the middle of June this year.  Now, this will be an experimental review for me for a few reasons.  1) Hipstery post-black metal is entirely out of my element.  I like post rock and I like black metal but I rarely seem to fall in love when the two are blended (notable exception for Altar of Plagues' first album), and 2) This is clearly the kind of album you need to sit down and lose yourself in.  "Experience" more than "listen to", something with many layers that you can tune in and drop out to, ya know?  Well I'm not doing that.  Nope, I listened to this once about a half hour ago and now I'm reviewing it.  Consider this different because it's a first impression from an outsider.

And what do I think?  Well... I like it.  I like it a whole shitload, to be more precise.

You see, most reviewers I know and trust have been pretty lukewarm about this album, whereas others with taste I rarely mesh with and unknown noobs and noted hipsters and whatnot have just been showering this with praise.  This usually indicates that the album's content and quality is probably more in line with the minority I trust, but here I actually think I'm gonna have to side with the jizzlobbers, though not nearly as fervently.  I don't find Sunbather to be any sort of world changing effort, nor do I foresee this ranking on my year-end list, but I do find it highly enjoyable, and even when this experiment is done I can easily see myself spinning it more often.

I'm not going to pretend that I'm entirely well versed in this style.  I mean, I'd like to think that I'm pretty kvlt with my post rock tastes (Godspeed You! Black Emperor is good in theory and atmosphere but sloppy in execution, Gifts from Enola is sheer brilliance, God is an Astronaut are basically a pop band but I love them to death anyway, and then I can namedrop a bunch of horridly obscure bands that I adore like Yndi Halda, Foxhole,, Up+C Down+C Left+C Right+C ABC+Start (I swear to God they're way better than their name implies), The Samuel Jackson Five, Six Parts Seven, et cetera), but most of the bands Deafheaven are compared to are bands I have little to no experience with.  I haven't heard a single note of Alcest's music,  I know who Liturgy and Weakling are but I've never actually listened to their music, Wolves in the Throne Room are pretty rad I suppose, and Skagos is okay, but I haven't heard Fen or Lantlos or anything like that.  Basically the entire atmospheric-post-black-shoegaze-cascadian-whateverthefuck scene is entirely foreign to me, and so I have no preconceived notions on Deafheaven or Sunbather, nor do I think they're diametrically opposed to black metal for simply trying to be pretty and not singing about Satan buttraping virgin ibex.

"But what do they sing about instead?", you may find yourself asking.  The answer is simple: mundaneness.  Of course the band has some really esoteric sounding explanation but it really boils down to "inane shit".  I suppose they're trying to be poetic or something but there are only so many ways you can screech about ogling topless women from afar before you're forced to throw up your hands and just admit that there's no higher art here and move on with your life.  Luckily the lyrics are as inconsequential as they are stupid, because the music itself is very evocative and romantic, along with a sense of psyched out urgency, remorseful interludes, and frenzied blasting atop very soothing melodies.  I feel like whatever the band was trying to achieve here, they nailed.  I'm sure there are much better things hidden in the underground within the style based on how many casual fans are blown away by this record and how many well acquainted with the style are underwhelmed, but dammit I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a very strong, emotional sounding album that can't help but make one hell of a connection to the listener.  Maybe it's because it's so accessible (who am I kidding? Of course that's why) that it's been so successful, but I have to hand it to the band, after merely one listen the entire experience stuck with me.  I remembered the weird, hypnotic pulsing of "Vertigo" and the soothing melodies of "The Pecan Tree", I remembered the spoken word sermon in "Windows" and the major melodies permeating throughout "Dream House".  I can't lie, the songs are all very well written, and the atmospheric black metal transitions to the post rock sections so smoothly that it never once comes off as clunky or forced.

Of the seven tracks here, only four are really traditional "songs" like you'd expect, with each one being broken up by a shorter (semi)instrumental interlude.  These interludes are actually very well done and flow remarkably with the mood and pace of the album.  "Irresistable" in particular really stands out for me, being so damn calming and gorgeous, though "Windows" is also extremely captivating with the aforementioned spoken word samples.  Of the more structured "songs" on the album, I feel like it's cliche to say but I really find "Vertigo" to be my favorite on this first listen.  It's the longest one, but it never feels like it's being stretched out.  It moves along at a deliberate pace and contains a lot of ideas, but it's all very well thought out and the complexities make themselves known without being obnoxious about it.  What I mean is that throughout all the pretentiousness and cliches of post-black metal, this entire album is very well written and yet doesn't seem to feel the need to be all in-your-face and intellectual about it.  It's content to tell you its story, relay to you its imagery, and just sit back and let you soak it all in.  I like that about it, Sunbather is a very passive album.  It's a pleasant listen, with many moods and relatively simple execution.  It's basically a lot of ideas boiled down to a minimalistic approach to songwriting and it knocks it out of the park.  It's not showy or irritating, it's just... good.

In the realm of pretty, atmospheric black metal, I may not be an expert but I suspect that Sunbather is far from one of the worst in the genre.  The vocals are very distant and brash, the guitars are clear yet kinda dirty, it's basically everything you'd expect from a production standpoint, but therein lies what I like about the record.  Nothing in particular strikes me as horribly new or innovative, but it's just a simple album with a simple goal and it's done very well.  There's nothing worth hating (nor praising to high heaven for that matter), and overall I can't think of too many bad things to say about it.  For a first impression, Sunbather left a hell of a mark.  Again, I don't see this making my top 10/13/15/however many I decide to do this year, but if there's not much I would change about it and it keeps me engaged for a full hour despite stupid pretentious lyrics and waves of unnecessary hype, I'd have to say that Deafheaven hit a pretty strong ball.  It's no 700ft over-the-bleachers moonshot, but it's a solid double in the perfect seam between two outfielders.

RATING - 83%

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Eternium - Repelling a Solar Giant


Let's talk about maximalist, over the top, ridiculous bullshit for a minute here.  In the realm of over the top metal, I tend to prefer the catchier stuff, hence my love of Rhapsody (stop being idiots, you know they rule).  But with that in mind, there is another subsect that can work equally well, despite my miniscule inclination to seek it out or listen to it, and that is the long, drawn out narrative.  The terrible, terrible city responsible for both Nelly and the worst bunch of goons currently in hockey has produced such a band that has in turn produced such an album, Eternium's Aura Vesuvianite: Repelling a Solar Giant

Basically what we have here is a hearty mix of Emperor, Sacramentum, and Septic Flesh.  Or more succinctly, symphonic black/death metal with a high arching concept of love, balance, betrayal, and hatred and insanity permeating sonic soundscapes that traverse astral planes and other obscenely pretentious adjectives.  Really, I can't go into too much detail because that would be doing a disservice to the storytelling present on the record, but I wholeheartedly recommend you read along with the lyrics as you listen to this, as it works along the same lines as something like Traveller where simple knowledge of the story behind the music adds and entirely new dimension to everything.  Knowing precisely what the creator had in mind here actually does make everything just a bit more enjoyable, as it at least gives some sort of background to the ridiculous Tengu wails.

Yeah, let me address the things I don't like first, because really there are only two.  One of which is half of Markov Soroka's vocals, the other thing being parts of Chad Griffin's keys, namely the awfully cheap violin patch.  Oh lord these strings sound cheap as shit.  I realize we're not talking about a Fleshgod Apocalypse style budget here, but everything else manages to sound good enough for what it is, so it's really distracting when this straight-out-of-Runescape MIDI sound just comes tearing through what is clearly meant to be a very emotional passage.  It's not enough to ruin anything, but it's enough to be distracting.  And then the vocals... well, about 80% of them are very, very good.  He wanders around from a deep Johan Hegg or Niilo Sevanen type roar to a more traditional Swedish black/death rasp, and he does both of them extraordinarily well.  The problem lies in what I've dubbed the "Tengu screams", because everything I do can somehow be tied back to videogames.  For those who weren't just going through puberty in the early 2000s, Tengu is the final boss from the bouncing game, Dead or Alive 2.  Now, I haven't played this game in ages, and I don't remember at all what Tengu sounded like, but I know that when I hear the completely crazed and whacked out ramblings and cacklings that signify certain characters in the story of Aura Malachite losing their sanity, all I can imagine is that Soroka looks like this fucking guy:

But other than that and one or two really nitpicky things (the opening lines of "Aura Titian" sounding weirdly too dissonant and the tapping section of "Aura Rubicon" ending extremely awkwardly and abruptly), there's nothing really to complain about here.  Despite the big sweeping atmosphere and the epic backdrop of the music, it does well in keeping itself grounded with more traditional elements, and never strays too horribly far into symphonic wankery, instead basing the songs around ripping tremolos and atmospheric chord progressions.  Fans of hard hitting riffs aren't going to get their fill here, but that's clearly not the intent of Eternium so I'm not at all fussed about it.  Aura Hambergite is all about atmosphere, and yet it can never really be considered "atmospheric" black metal, ya know?  It's very well done, very guitar heavy, and very ripping and intense, but there's always a soaring sense of majesty carrying it over in the background.  Tracks like "Aura Titian" and "Aura Infernum" are very opaque in their beauty.  I hate to get all Opeth-y here, but yeah, this is a gorgeous album.  Beyond all the twisted morbidity, there's a very prevalent sense of splendor, and the backing keys are always filling the role quite nicely.  And if you exclude the damn Tengu jabbering, there isn't a dead spot anywhere on the album.

All in all, Aura Tourmaline is a very dense album, with a lot of things happening within every given passage.  This works to its advantage though, as the songwriting is definitely up to par with the adventurousness of the compositions.  It shouldn't be a surprise that there are no pop structured songs here, all of them being these sprawling journeys that branch out in all directions at once.  The entire album is surrounded by an aura (fuck you) of emotion, and it's a surprisingly very feelsy album.  The aggression is only at the forefront about 60% of the time (especially on "Aura Amethyst", easily my favorite track to be found), while the rest of the time the center stage is taken by the always present atmosphere.  Amongst all the tremolo and blasting, there are also these dissonant, droning passages that just ooze the essence of sadness and loss.  The feeling itself is easily discernible anyway, but the feeling is amplified when the lyrics are read along/understood as well.  The band has really already mastered the art of getting emotions across without blatantly yelling about them, instead channeling them through the music itself.

Despite the rough edges in spots, Aura Feldspar is a flawed gem (fuck you again) that is most definitely worth listening to.  I feel like if enough time is taken with the sophomore album, and more attention is given to the little quibbles I've nagged on, it could really launch the band into the upper echelon of extreme symphonic metal that Fleshgod Apocalypse has been helping to make so popular recently.  When the vocals are good, they're great, and when they're off, they're just plain silly.  It's a very mature and well composed debut effort regardless, and if nothing else, you should check out "Aura Amethyst", because it's by far the most intense track, and "Aura Sentium" is by far the most emotional.  Those two show the two sides of the bands at their strongest, without either side being devoid of the other.  The album as a whole is... well, just well put together.  I'm not sure I see it cracking my year end list quite yet, but it's a hungry enough effort to at least be gunning for a low spot.

RATING - 84%

Monday, September 9, 2013

Tyr - Valkyrja

Runes carved to my memory...

Is... is it safe to officially declare Tyr a sellout yet?

I mean let's face it, the days of the longwinded prog epics and four minute guitar solos backed by orgiastic vocal harmonies and poetic, traditional Faroese lyrics are pretty much long gone now.  They have been for five years now.  The calming acoustic passages and soothing melodies and progressive digressions have been stripped down more and more ever since Land went over the top with two 10+ minute tracks.  I feel like they realized that these songs were difficult to write, difficult to arrange, and difficult to play.  The first two can make the writing process a stressful bitch, and the last one can make live renditions of said songs not transfer over very well.  Now, I saw Tyr twice around the Land era, and I thought they knocked it out of the park both times, but the second time I saw them, they debuted "Hold the Heathen Hammer High" off the then-upcoming By the Light of the Northern Star.  By a long shot, that song was the highlight of the set.  It was so simple in contrast to what the band was known for, it was a very aggressive song with a much more urgent and pounding rhythm than we fans were accustomed to, and it worked brilliantly.  Come a few months later when the album dropped, it sounded just as great on record.  That album showed Tyr experimenting with shorter, punchier songs; and if you ask me, the experiment was a resounding success.

Two albums and four years later, Tyr has unleashed their hotly anticipated seventh (and first for metal monoliths, Metal Blade) full length, Valkyrja, and it's... well, about the third iteration of By the Light of the Northern Star.  It seems like the band realized that while Eric the Red may be their initial claim to fame, the simpler style showcased on that wonderful 2009 album really helped set them over the top and up their exposure to casual fans of prog, folk, and power metal.  I claimed Eric the Red was really overrated back in the day, and I still believe that to an extent, but there really is a lot to like within that album and there are no less than like five or six absolutely masterful songs to be found, and with the benefit of hindsight I've grown really fond of the album purely because it's been made clear that Tyr never plan to revisit the more melodic and progressive side of their signature sound again.

Now with that said, this simpler, more rocking, less folking, more power, less progressive style is something that Tyr actually does indeed excel at, so Valkyrja may be disappointing in the sense that we're not getting any truly new ideas from the band and it's blatant selloutiness (it's a word now, bite me), but it's still very well written and well executed.  Heri Joensen's voice may have gotten a bit sandier over the years with the new aggressive style, but his ear for melody is still damn near unmatched, the the harmonies are just as sublime as they've always been, it's really only the subject matter that's shifted dramatically over the last few albums.  Yeah, it's been made clear that Valkyrja is an album about women, or more specifically, the way men can turn into idiotic, slobbering Tex Avery cartoons they instant they get a nanometer of cleavage or how they can put their entire lives on hold to cater to the whim of the latest cute girl in math class with a pretty smile (obviously I can't relate to either of these scenarios, I'm too busy knocking back Dr. McGillicuddy and banging your mom).  Luckily, unlike some other bands I've written about in the past (looking at you, Arsis), Tyr manages to handle the subject matter with an astounding amount of class, keeping everything grounded with their trademark Nordic flavor, obviously sticking to themes like Valkyries, wars fought in their name, and spirit women blowing you in your sleep.

Wait, what?

Yeah, "Mare of My Night" is a little distracting in its explicitness.   Most of the lyrics here are as poetic and metaphorical as they normally are, but this one is just as upfront and downright raunchy, and it's uncharacteristic for the band and really, really hard to ignore.  Yeah, I get it's based off an old legend and explains where the term "nightmare" even comes from (though most dreams I have of this nature can hardly be considered nightmares (unless we're counting the one where Rosario Dawson turned into a dog halfway through)), but it still stands as possibly the only time the band ever dropped their trademark tact and class for something bizarrely crude.  Now, I don't mean to come off as a missionary-in-the-dark-purely-for-procreation style prude here (I mean come on, I'm the guy who invented a sexual maneuver combining cunnilingus and a jackknife powerbomb (I call it Erectile Destruction)), but hearing Heri belt out heartfelt lines about being sucked dry are just fucking weird, okay?

That aside, how's the rest of the album stack up?  Pretty darn well, I'd say.  It's basically nothing you're not expecting at this point, which at one point I'd consider a massive slap in the face considering the band in question here, but they've proven themselves to me so it's really not as big of a deal as I may have initially made it seem.  The main reason for this is because the songs are just flat out catchier and more memorable than they were on The Lay of Thrym.  "Mare of My Night" is very catchy and fist pumping, reminiscent of the marvelous "Hold the Heathen Hammer High", and the other two singles, "Blood of Heroes" and "Another Fallen Brother" follow the same vein.  This raises the point of the album being somewhat samey, essentially being mid-paced, double bass driven, nebulous, Amon Amarth styled metal songs with incredibly charismatic vocals, impressive guitar soloing, and hearty hooks and grooves.  This isn't untrue, but there are a few standout spots that break the mold, like the duet with the chick from Leaves' Eyes in "The Lay of Our Love" or the basically straight up power metal track and definite standout of the album with "Lady of the Slain", or even the hearkening back to longer, more developed and complex songs like the title track.

It's unfortunate that I sense a bit of pop structuring in the sense that this album is front loaded with a ton of great songs in the beginning before starting to get stale in the middle with two standouts at the end, because this means that Tyr's penchant for mid-album filler is still clearly prevalent.  It's also unfortunate that tracks that start off interestingly or more epic and creative than the rest ("Grindavisan", "Fanar Burtur Brandalijoo") just end up reverting to the tried and true "Amon Amarth with folk melodies, clean vocals, and less heaviness" formula they've been (admittedly successfully) milking for three albums now.  So yeah, with the theme of women being so highlighted, the pop structuring, the fact that non-metal fans can easily like this just as much as people like me who also listen to 7.H Target, really make this clear to me that Tyr is just a very musically accomplished pop metal band at this point.  Now, just like with other bands like Amon Amarth and Children of Bodom and other bands I feel like the label can apply to, this isn't an inherently bad thing, as Valkyrja is still a good album, in fact I'd say it's a solid tier above The Lay of Thrym and only marginally worse than By the Light of the Northern Star.  The sameness gets a little tiring and the songs are definitely less interesting than the band's early era, but I'd argue that a majority of them are more engaging, so it's still a very good album that I don't mind recommending.  This isn't going to be making my year end list or anything, but it's solid, and at the very least it's worth hearing for "Hel Hath No Fury", "Another Fallen Brother", and especially "Lady of the Slain".

RATING - 80%

PS - The covers of "Where Eagles Dare" and "Cemetery Gates" are both good, though the latter is slower than the original, and both of them showcase that while Heri is a marvelous singer, he doesn't really have a commanding upper range, and the climactic high notes of both songs feel kinda flat.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

GOSPEL OF GARGOYLE: Gargoyle - Future Drug


And as the second block of the Gospel of Gargoyle draws to a close, I find myself sitting in front of another lightly colored album with an English title and break in the classic album cover theme.  So yeah, flashbacks of the bizarre and experimental Natural are flooding through my head.  And really, Future Drug?  If that doesn't signify a headfirst dive into longwinded progginess and outright fucking weird song choices, ballads, and psychedelic jams, then I don't know what does.  I wouldn't put it past them, Gargoyle is certainly not afraid to toy with new ideas and outside, non metal influences.  You know, maybe they can do the tripped out proggy thing pretty well.  I mean, "Ruten no Yo Nite" is a great song, right?  I've been comparing every single long and proggy song they've done since 1992 to that one.  Though then again... that means none of them have been nearly as good as that one.  Maybe I'm being unfair, I'm just going to brace myself for a very experimental, and very, very different Gargoyle.

*listens to the album*

This is the heaviest, most straightforward, and motherfucking brutal Gargoyle album ever.

Seriously, Gargoyle hurls knee-buckling curveballs at me so effectively and frequently that they're essentially the Sandy Koufax of thrash metal.  Really, Painkiller is for Judas Priest fans who wished every song was "Freewheel Burning", and Future Drug is for Gargoyle fans who wished every song was "Piichiku Paachiku".  Of course I'm being somewhat facetious, as there are two light ballads and yet another "Ruten no Yo Nite" type song (although the one here is the closest they've ever come to replicating the brilliance of that song), but really, of the fourteen tracks found here, over half of them are searing thrash classics, and the remaining four or five are no slouch either.  I don't know what happened here, maybe they got all the weirdness out of their systems with Gaia, maybe some sort of tension within the band lead to a much heavier and more focused album like Persistence of Time or Painkiller (this WOULD be Yotaro's last album, so who knows? (yeah yeah, he got married and decided to focus on his new family, shut up)), maybe they had another off-the-wall wacky album written but Kiba didn't have his morning cigarette when recording started and in his crankiness he wouldn't stop shouting all of his lines like a whacked out hobo, so they just rewrote the riffs to be heavier and had Katsuji just take the Immolation route and try to play his entire drumkit at once, I have no idea, I just know that the heavy tracks here are by far the most consistently ferocious they've ever penned, and the intensity has never been higher.

Because of some label buffoonery and Gargoyle finally just taking shit into their own hands and releasing this album the way they intended after starting their own label, this "complete version" features a whopping 14 tracks, and amazingly none of them feel like filler.  It takes a lot of skill to pack an album full of so much content and keep it interesting for such a startling length of time.  The time is somewhat padded by the longer, more traditionally odd Gargoyle songs being in the middle of the album, with "Mandara no Tami" being the first time the band really managed to emulate another long, psychedelic, spaced out chunker like "Ruten no Yo Nite", and this 8 minute plus dirge would be the clear standout on an album like Gaia, but when it's stacked up against "Open the Gate", "Future Drug", "B.B", "Ese Gari", "Genom", "GUSH!!", "Zipang", "It's Battle Time", "Gaki Teikoku", do you get the picture yet?

Look, I'll just up and say it, nothing sucks here.  Even the slower, lighter ballads like "Kakera Reincarnation" and "Sakura Mankai" come off as eclectic and dreamy as opposed to flow breaking and boring like "Natural" and some others in the past had come off.  They're good, but they're just completely overshadowed by the overabundance of energetic metal songs.  From start to finish, Future Drug shows that the band is still quite fond of just doing whatever the fuck they feel like doing, but it just so happens that they're a lot saltier this time around, and thus loaded the album up with bone breakingly heavy grooves and lightning fast, neck snapping riffage backed by thunderous rhythms and layered over with frenzied leads.  Really, Gargoyle was never necessarily a band all about DUH RIFFS, and no Gargoyle fan was only here for DUH RIFFS, but goddammit, Future Drug is all about DUH RIFFS.  It's a huge, stomping, swagger-filled album, bursting at the seams with over-the-top machismo at an urgent pace. 

Take something like "B.B", which starts off with these huge chants and Anthrax style stomping riff before breaking out into one of the best riffs off the Kentyotaro era (I mean, it's no "Satori" or "Shouryakukeitachi Yo", but goddamn is it close).  Remember waaaay back in my review for the BlazBlue soundtrack (wait... I used to review non-Gargoylian things?) where I said "Gluttony Fang" surprisingly carried one of the most legitimately awesome riffs that metal had produced in years?  Yeah well that's because it sounds like the main/chorus riff of "B.B".  It's hard to describe it, because most bands don't write riffs the same way Gargoyle writes riffs.  They're very twisty while being instantly memorable and simple, they're oddball and maniacal while at the same time fast, rough, and decidedly Japanese in flavor.  I'd love to sit here and list awesome examples of this album's brilliance all day (and I could, not as a Gargoyle fanboy, but simply as a metal fan, seriously, this is God Tier stuff), but really, take your pick.  Pick any song and I'll tell you why it's awesome.

"Gaki Teikoku"?  At no point during the song does the bass ever follow the guitar.  It takes a blisteringly fast thrash song along the lines of "Haretsu Ganbou" and then throws in the relentless slap bass of "Karappo" and ends up making the two clashing styles blend together majestically.  "It's Battle Time"?  Well is starts off with an extended intro utilizing one of my favorite folk instruments of all time, the shamisen.  For those who don't know, a shamisen is basically a square banjo with a four foot neck that you play with a putty knife, but it sounds so goddamn awesome.  Once that part makes its exeunt, it launches into a very Tenron-esque ripper with optimistic, soaring lead lines (think "Shinpan no Hitomi" or "Kaze no Machi").  "Kakera Reincarnation"?  It's a bouncy, gypsy-like choon with ethereal backing vocals complementing a distorted, manic yell in the verses.  The chorus is one of the most soothingly poppy things the band would ever write as well.  "Toki no Kaze"?  It's a short interlude, but it's the most soulful and heartfelt soft song the band has written since "Ningyou no Mori" way back over a decade prior.  It surpasses even "Taiyou no Tsubasa" in the realm of heartbreakingly romantic songs, despite there being zero lyrics to translate.  It's in a language that everybody can understand, and it just oozes longing and remorse.  "Ese Gari"?  It rides on a very punkish, Motorhead style riff and unbridled aggression.  For all the different influences and the inherent undertone of thrash, it's impressive that this is the first song I can feel comfortable describing as "punky" in any way, and even then it's only the first main riff.  Basically Gargoyle knows only how to rock, they don't really give a fuck how it gets done.

I could do this all day, but I'll just wrap it up by saying that two of the band's best songs close out the album.  "GUSH!!" and "Open the Gate".  This is going to be weird, because as much as I say Gargoyle is a band that sounds only like Gargoyle, "GUSH!!" (yes, it needs to be in all capitals with the exclamation points... every time) can actually be compared to other bands for a change.  That opening stomp is very reminiscent of "No Remorse" by Metallica, and the fast riff that follows it up is definitely in the vein of Agent Orange era Sodom.  These aren't bad things, because Gargoyle makes these things their own with minimal effort, and the rest of the song is full of Kiba's trademark yodeling gibberish, light leads, and more awesome violin sections, all without ever slowing down.  "GUSH!!" is one of the most consistently heavy and interesting songs the band would ever pen.  And then "Open the Gate", man there's only so much I can say about it.  The main theme of running on natural harmonics is very creative and memorable, the chorus is contrastingly light and melodic against the maniacal frenzy of the verses, and it's just an all around very memorable and furious track.  It's certainly a marvelous closer to a marvelous album.

See, it's hard to really do justice to Future Drug, and I'm amazed that this is the first review for it, because it is just jam packed with quality material from front to back, managing to be one of the more varied and simultaneously most focused albums in the band's career.  To me, Future Drug is the best intro to the band.  If this huge discography intimidates you, if the fact that there are 16 full lengths feels like scaring you away, consider this the definitive statement.  This was not my introduction to the band, but after listening to so much of their material for so long, I feel pretty confident in laying my reputation down by saying that Future Drug is the album you should look to when beginning your journey.  It features soft songs and a "Ruten no Yo Nite" type dirge, plus their most impressive and consistent array of fast, heavy, thrash songs ever.  Furebumi stands as the definitive Gargoyle album, Tsuki no Toge has their best song, but Future Drug is, from start to finish, the best album.  I don't care if that's a spoiler for the second half of the series, this is their high point.

RATING - 96%

Wednesday, September 4, 2013



Well at this point it'd be pretty hard to know what to expect in the Gargoylian realm, since Natural threw everybody a curveball by upping the amount of light, experimental songs, only to be followed up with a much more back to basics thrashfest with Junreiin.  Well, a mere five months later, we were given our answer, with the yellow and robin egg blue flower adorned Gaia.  Well... shit.  The band always knew how to keep things interesting, there's no doubt about that, but considering the fact that their thrash songs are almost always the highlights of their work, continually seeing signs like this, signs that imply they're trying to move away from that direction, is pretty disheartening for metal fans. 

But with this in mind, these Osakan mad scientists decide to pretty much specifically say "Hey BastardHead, fuck you, stop doubting us" (because my ego only marginally smaller than my penis) by opening the album with "Wakakusa no Kimi", which is the most Tenron-esque track the band had written in five years at this point.  It nails that uplifting spirit within the context of a fast heavy/thrash song that that previous album exemplified so alarmingly frequently.  The main difference of note is that Kiba's voice is a lot calmer and more restrained than it was in the past.  Could... could the man finally have completely obliterated his throat with that otherworldly rattly warble?  I can't imagine how Gargoyle could ever sound without Kiba's trademark warble, but I guess "Wakakusa no Kimi" would be a decent idea of how that might turn out.  Buuuuuuut like always, "Who Are You?" shows up and just gets right back to what the band is good at doing.  In fact, the warbly nonsense is probably more pronounced on "Who Are You?" than anywhere else on the album.  It's like "Welp, the intro track was too clean, better rough it up a bit".

My issue with Gaia, honestly and truly, is that most of the songs just don't grab me the way others have, basically the same issue I have with Junreiin.  Like, I can acknowledge that "Unknown ~Annon~" is a very good song with an awesome chorus, but I'll seemingly never want to listen to it on my own, same thing with the aforementioned "Wakakusa no Kimi", and that's kind of my overarching problem with the album as a whole.  Like Natural before it, this is a much more off-the-wall and experimental album, with tons of outside influences and weird ideas being pushed to the forefront, and it makes a somewhat inconsistent listening experience.  I feel like this just isn't quite as well written or put together as its predecessor, and that's really the most I can say about it.  I like it, it has a few classic tracks that are totally worth hearing, and it revels in that trademark quirky weirdness that Gargoyle always had surrounding them, but the thrash songs aren't quite thrashy enough, the weird songs aren't quite weird enough, et cetera et cetera. 

With that said, "Unknown" is a good song, and definitely worthy of Gargoyle's setlist.  It's a very fast, light song with a great contrast between tempo and heaviness.  "Sanbika" is yet another attempt at doing the "Ruten no Yo Nite" thing and not doing nearly as well ("Bokuwa..." was a much better attempt at the long, crawly, proggy track), and "Yagate Hikaru" just bores me to tears in its inoffensive radio-friendliness, though it is still somehow interesting in the sense that it's just so different from the hard and fast stuff that the band is so good at doing.  And goddamn the vocals on "Sayounara Zibun" are annoying as fuck.  Seriously, there's no way this one is a fan favorite, I'm calling it.  It's a lighter metal song and it's pretty energetic, but goddamn fuck those distorted vocals with dynamite.

Luckily, the songs I do like, I like a lot.  "Unknown" may be in that weird nebulous zone where I like it but don't feel like listening to it very often, but there are a few moments that are just beyond awesome, and prove that even when they're at their most experimental and bizarre, Gargoyle know how to fucking rock.  But before we get to the rocking, I need to address "Baby Cat", which is by far the best horn filled party choon they've pumped out in years.  Really, this is "Hito no Tame" part two as far as I'm concerned, and it's every bit as lighthearted and fun as the original.  It's not quite as bombastic I suppose (no super happy BANZAI shouts peppered throughout), but it's super cool and without a doubt one of the highlights of the album.  The other three complete standouts are both the heaviest, fastest, thrashiest songs on the album (no surprise considering the band we're talking about here), "Yuibutu Chuudoku", "Kamikaze", and the mighty, mighty "Meditation".  "Yuibutu Chuudoku" ranks as the shortest track the band ever released, clocking in at fifty eight seconds, and it doesn't waste a single one.  It just opens up with a simple, stomping, groovy thrash riff, and then proceeds to lose its fucking mind.  It rips, shreds, and tears just everything in front of it apart.  I'd rank it as even one of the heaviest songs in the band's repertoire if it wasn't immediately followed up by "Kamikaze".  Good fuck, remember how there were damn near blast beats and obnoxiously fast riffing that just overwhelmed everything on "Senzaiteki..." from Tsuki no Toge?  Yeah, same deal here, but even faster.  "Kamikaze" easily ranks up next to "Dilemma" as the heaviest Gargoyle song ever written, and it's amazing that it's featured on an album as generally light and innocent as Gaia, because goddamn this is some brutal fucking thrash. 

But as much as I like those four songs, none of them hold a candle to "Meditation".  Really, this is another one of those just damn near flawless thrash classics that Gargoyle is so known for.  It opens on one of the most simple groove riffs ever (which will later show itself to be the same as the vocal melody in the chorus) while being also one of the most ear catching things I've ever heard come from the band.  And when it really gets moving, it's not unlike a locomotive powered by the youthful energy of a thousand young Tokyo biker gangs ala Akira.  As if the riffs weren't already some of the best the band had crapped out in years (excepting the marvelous "Satori"), Kiba also turns in one of the most madcap performances since "Shouryakukeitachi Yo".  Seriously, that pre-chorus is one of the most memorable moments of the entire Kentyotaro Era (as I have dubbed it since just right this instant), with the awesomely manic call and return with the very creative looping theme.

The solo section is awesome like always as well, keeping with the theme of speedball melodicism and over the top ridiculousness in any sonic form the band can muster.  Basically, this is another top mid-era Gargoyle song that deserves all the attention that fucking Overkill was getting at the time.  But really, you should know that by now.

So Gaia ends up being the last 90s album for Gargoyle, and it's also worth mentioning that there was a three year gap between this and Natural, whereas before the band had put out six albums in seven (only skipping 1991 from the time between '89 and '95) years, so I don't know if this signifies them taking a lot more time in the writing process, some massive tour for the previous album taking up all the time, or just internal problems with personnel/labels/whatever.  The point is that it seemed like they lost a bit of that kinetic energy, and it shows somewhat in the duller spots, but on the more energetic cuts like "Kamikaze", "Meditation", and "Baby Cat", it feels like they never left.  On some level, Gaia is a bit of a disappointment in the sense that it isn't consistently great like some of the early albums, but the good songs are so mindbendingly good that it almost doesn't matter.  Not one of their better albums, but certainly a good one considering there aren't really any out-and-out terrible moments, just some that fall kinda flat amidst some absolute barnburners.  It's probably their weirdest album in a way, so if you liked that aspect about them, you'll probably dig this a bit more than I can.

RATING - 81%

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

GOSPEL OF GARGOYLE: Gargoyle - Junreiin

VIII: Seal of Pilgrimage


RATING - 100%

I'm sorry, but this otherwise solid-but-nothing-particularly-special EP is made instantly essential by the mere presence of "Satori".  I mean, the other songs are all good.  They're all quite good, but... none of them are "Satori".  I know it's childish and silly to be this focused on merely one song out of what is clearly an artistic compilation of many different and equally well thought out ideas, but I'd be lying to you if I told that that I didn't see Junreiin as anything other than a 33 minute run-up to that fucking brilliant closing track.  It's all the uplifting genius of their latest crop of album closers, the nardtarding heaviness of "Wa ga Tousou" and "Dilemma", and two of the band's best ever riffs (that first one and the one that plays in between the verses and under the solo).  Seriously, that opening riff gives me such an uncomfortably noticeable stiffy that I leave the room even when nobody is in there but me.  "Satori" is my Viagra, and were I a woman, I'm sure it'd turn my beanhood into a torrid Mordor (and the winner of the "least sexy description of a stimulated vagina" award goes to...!).  Try not air guitaring to the entirety of the song, I fucking dare you.  If the rest of the album was as good as that one last song, this would undoubtedly be their best release, by a galactic mile.

But unfortunately, it's not.  Junreiin is a bit of an oddity in the sense that it's considered an EP despite being as long as plenty of metal albums, it's just held back by the fact that it's only seven tracks long.  Taking that godly "Satori" out of the equation, it's a very solid romp that doesn't leave much to be desired.  It does its job as a Gargoyle release in the sense that it provides big rocking thrashers ("Mark"), cultural and quirky choons ("Shounen A"), soulful softies ("Taiyou No Shita De Ichiban Utsukushiku Ikiru Hito De Iyou"), and big, monolithic "Ruten no Yo Nite" wannabes ("Bokura Wa Yagate Mizu E To Kaeru").  Now, all of these songs are good, with the crushing slow track being the longest the band had written at that point, clocking in at just over eight minutes, but most of it really isn't the most memorable stuff that I feel the band could muster.  I mean, "Bokura..." is alright, but it just kind of trudges along and never takes command of my attention.  It's kind of a shame because this is pretty steadily the most consistently heavy album the band had released in years, and a very welcome effort in the sense that unlike the preceding Natural, it's also very focused.

One of the most immediately obvious changes that this EP brings is the guitar tone.  Fuckafuck it's really goddamn heavy.  Right from the opening notes of "Mark", it makes its presence known with the roughest, dirtiest tone the band has ever utilized.  It contrasts well with the always warm bass and furious percussion, and coagulates into the most suffocatingly dense sound Gargoyle had ever presented.  It's awesome and fits very well with every facet of the band's diverse songwriting, so even if every song sucked (which they don't, clearly) I'd certainly appreciate it for the incredibly well done production.

In the realm of quirky, progressive, melodic thrash, Gargoyle are pretty much always going to be the champs in my eyes, and Junreiin feels like merely another brick in the wall in the grand scheme of things.  There are cool moments (like the numerous fakeout endings of "Eien no Renzoku" or the deep narrated passages in "Moshimo Watashi ga Sekai no Rule Nara"), and it's overall a very heavy and well done album and certainly worthy of the Gargoyle name.  What Kaikoroku was for the experimental Aratama, I feel Junreiin is for the experimental Natural.  I just feel like, despite it being solid, there wouldn't be any reason to seek this out specifically if not for the stunning "Satori".  The only reason I don't ejaculate quite as hard over "Shouryakukeitachi Yo" (which I remind y'all is the best Gargoyle song of all time) is because it's housed on an album with only marginally less perfect tracks, whereas "Satori" is a clear standout amidst a bunch of "pretty good" songs.  Check it out just for "Satori".


Monday, September 2, 2013

GOSPEL OF GARGOYLE: Gargoyle - Natural

VII: Uhh... this one's in English...

I've done my best to avoid mentioning Gargoyle's image up to this point (though it's damn hard not to when it came to that fucking eyesore of an album cover on Tsuki no Toge), but Natural is an album that completely upends it and absolutely begs for it to be addressed.  See, the album cover this time, coupled with the title, are references to the fact that the band had at this point decided to shirk that legendarily over the top image.  Gone are the elaborate costumes and in are the stripped down, "natural" looks of the band members.  Was the point so that people could focus less on the looks and more on the sound?  Were they trying to shed their past skin while they forged a new direction?  They've probably explained, but I can't understand that silly moonspeak so I'm just gonna make up my own theory about Gene Simmons suing them.

Now, the aesthetics are drastically different than what they were before, does the music follow suit?  Well... you see...

Natural opens up with "Natural", which is... uhh, basically an acoustic campfire song with an admittedly creative rhythm section.  It's a very innocent, sugary, poppy song and is miles away from what the band was/is known for.  Think of something like that Mr. Big song that was huge in the 90s, but with ethereal, flittery keys in the backgrounds an Kiba's bizarre warble contrasting with very soft backing vocals.  I'll give it this, it is at the very least an interesting song, and an interesting choice to open what will soon prove to be a very interesting album.  I see this as Gargoyle making a definitive statement.  "This is who we are now, nobody can change us, and we will embrace this new sound, whether you follow us is of no concern to us at this point".  It's one of the most brazen sellouts that nobody except the Japanese and a very certain niche community of weirdos in the outside world had ever seen.  The large boner of thrash had been prepared, and it had gone flaccid for Natural, instead opting for a poppy new direction with obvious accessibility in mind.

And then the rest of the album happens.

The second track, "Shin I ~Providence for Decadence~" figuratively picks up the title track by the ankles and slams it against a tree trunk.  It takes precisely zero seconds for Gargoyle to pull the rug out from under the listener and just be like "PSYCHE WE STILL FUCKING RULE".  Yeah, "Providence for Decadence" is a goddamn furious hardcore thrash song.  Seriously, it's like, Znowhite level intense during the verses.  Is it among the best thrash songs the band has written?  Not at all, but it solidifies the fact that the band isn't going to be going the route of pure radio airplay like the title track had implied, and I love it for that alone.  Further proving the band's penchant for hurling curveballs at the listener, the third track, "Samurai Dynamite", is another poppy party tune.  Unlike the title track, this one connects wonderfully, bringing back memories of the brilliant "Naidzukushi".

This does bring up an underlying issue with Natural.  It's pretty inconsistent.  It's a great album, don't get me wrong, and is loaded with classic tracks, but the variety is so absurdly wide and diverse that it takes a very specific taste to really buy into this album fully.  Granted, this is Gargoyle we're talking about, so obviously they're good enough songwriters to overcome this problem most of the time, but it's still pretty distracting how the tone of this album is all over the place.  The fun tracks like "Samurai Dynamite" and "Renaniuyuji" clash so hard with the ferocity of "Providence for Decadence", "Hajimete no Satsui", and "Nounai Jisatsu", which in turn clashes with the industrial "±0", which goes against the soaring epicness of "Kaze no Machi", and so on and so forth.  There's a lot of different stuff to be found here, and a lot of it is very, very good, but it's an odd listen, no doubt (definitely moreso than anything prior, despite them all having a wide variety of ideas involved).

So yeah, Natural is potentially the least cohesive album in Gargoyle's repertoire, but it's a good album regardless.  In contrast to how Tsuki no Toge was greater than the sum of its parts, Natural is pretty much exactly the sum of its parts.  They do most of the styles very well, with special mention being especially deserved for "Taiyou no Tsubasa ~Icarus~" for being probably the most notable example of Kiba legitimately singing.  Yeah I know right?  Turns out that when he turns off is warbly rattle, he's more than just lovable charisma and boundless energy, he actually is a very talented legitimate singer.  He has a very smooth, clean voice, and the song itself is very romantic and emotional sounding.  I'd say it's the best ballad the band had written up to this point, but considering the popularity of "Ningyou no Mori" and "Yakusoku no Chi De", I feel like most fans wouldn't agree with me on that one.  And I have no choice but to do that thing I keep doing where I single out one song to just furiously masturbate over, and the winner (?) this time is the closer, "Kaze no Machi".  I maintain that "Catharsis" is probably the best closer in the band's catalog and one of their best uplifting metal songs, but "Kaze no Machi" certainly gives it a run for its money.  It follows suit in the sense that it runs on some pummelingly fast riffs while being lifted up by a soaring lead melody and a very melodious chorus, full of emotion and power.  Seriously, in the realm of melodic heavy/thrash metal, this is damn near untouchable.  It manages to be both heavy and light at the same time, being grounded in full, crunchy rhythms while sailing above the treetops with an overtone of jubilant optimism.  It's a huge song, with these soul-molesting (in the best, sexiest way) operatic female vocals over an atmospheric intro, transitioning into a massive, soaring metal anthem.  Really, this is yet another entry into the seemingly endless Gargoylian Tome of Flawless Masterpieces.

Natural is, in a way, Gargoyle's Load (gross).  This is the album that shows them doing just whatever the hell they want to do, toying with every fleeting experimental notion that pops into their brilliantly artistic minds and just running with it.  Not all of it hits bullseye, "Chouryokusai" and "Damage" feel a bit like filler tracks to me and I just never fully got behind the title track, but there are still a ton of worthwhile classics to be found like "±0", "Nounai Jisatsu", "Samurai Dynamite", "Taiyou no Tsubasa", and obviously "Kaze no Machi".  So yeah, this is worth a look even if only for how strange and all over the place it is.  It's wildly inconsistent in tone and I can see why that could be too distracting for some, but I think the band rocks hard enough to make most of these bizarre ideas work.  Natural is really an album you should look at more as a collection of separate ideas and songs as opposed to one single unit, otherwise it presents itself like an unsolved Rubik's Cube.

RATING - 88%

Sunday, September 1, 2013

GOSPEL OF GARGOYLE: Gargoyle - Tsuki no Toge

VI: Splinters of the Moon

This is too obvious to ignore, so I'm just going to come right out and say it: what in the unholy fuck is up with this album cover?  I mean, holy lord.  I mentioned it offhand before, but I really, seriously think that the theme Gargoyle used for their album covers was brilliant in its simplicity.  Stylized kanji album title in the center against a relatively simple background.  It's an easy theme and is very recognizable, especially for the people most likely to read these reviews I'm doing (aka: not people who understand the language and live in the country).  And then this, Tsuki no Toge, happened.  I mean, I kinda get it, there was a big personnel shift with She-ja exiting and opening the door for the young and spunky Kentaro and the original pre-Misogi guitarist, Yotaro, to enter the fold, but that doesn't mean you should slap their hilarious hairdos on the cover of your new album.  Really, it's like they're taunting me.  I know the internet wasn't really a thing at the time, but it's like they're saying "Hey kid, have you been listening to us on the internet and blissfully unaware of our image?  Well here, let's advertise to you the fact that you would totally bend Yotaro over the hood of your car and take him to Pound Town because don't fucking lie to me you know you would too holy shit he's gorgeous".  Gargoyle's eccentric image and over-the-top stage show is a huge part of their identity, but I've been doing my best to avoid talking about it because all that really matters in the scope of this review series is the music itself and how awesome it is, but Christ on a cracker, just... jeez.

So anyway, Gargoyle did indeed have a shift in personnel, and that rightfully suggests there was a shift in sound down the pipeline as well, and while they wouldn't quite tumble headlong into their ballsy new ideas quite out of the gate, Tsuki no Toge does indeed give a brief gli-


*shakes head furiously*

Okay okay okay... Tsuki no Toge does indeed give a brief glimpse as to what the future would have in store for the band, while still keeping the furious thrash and fist pumping heavy metal at the forefront.  I know it's the most cliche thing in the universe, but most transitional albums seem to fall into two categories.  They're either awkward or "best of both worlds".  This is Gargoyle, and I'm a big stupid blubbery idiot who loves everything they touch, so of course I see this as the latter.  Yeah, I harp on the stupid cover for this because it's probably the most ill fitting album cover of all time.  Despite this being a somewhat transitional album and featuring some more accessible and poppy numbers, it's still goddamn heavy in places, and features a few of the best thrash songs the band would ever write, but I'll get to those later.  What stands out to me most may be the more traditional and heavy songs, but the more experimental and oddball songs to be found here are absolutely no slouch either.  I love Toshi's funky slap bass on "Dokoka De Jimushi Ga Naiteita" and "Karappo", and the more ballady track in "Kuroi Hana" is surprisingly very good as well (surprising because this is an inherently energetic band, so the more laid back stuff doesn't always work as well), probably because of how dark and haunting it is.  "Yakusoku no Chi De" doesn't strike the same chord, and ends up being the worst song on the album to me (ironic because it seems like this is a signature song for the band, closing several shows with it).  I feel like "Fukyo" is probably the worst song for most people, but I love it for the same reasons I love "'Gi'", "Propaganda" and "Wa ga Tousou".  It's a really short, obscenely bizarre and heavy song.  The vocals mainly consist of Kiba grunting like a gorilla, but it works in some strange way.

Like always there are some standout behemoths, like the goddamn honorary Nile song title in "Senzaiteki Genkyoukaku Musabetsu Kakusei Kin Kansenshea" (which translates to something along the lines of "The Insidious Crazy Sense of Vision of One Infected with Indiscriminate Awakening Bacteria").  The buildup for that one is insanely massive, and the explosion with the damn near death metal riffage and blisteringly fast drumming make it more than worth it.  The soloing section deserves mention as well, as it shows that She-ja need not be missed, as his replacements are more than competent enough to shred as fluently and melodically as he was able to do.  Despite the silly glamness of the cover (those seven words pretty much encapsulate the entire overarching feel of the album as a whole), "Senzaiteki..." shows the band still hasn't forgotten how to be dark and heavy while also being adventurous and interesting.  On the lighter side of things we have one of the best closing tracks the band would ever pen, "Catharsis".  This is a much  more melodic track in contrast to the other standouts, but it retains a fiery pace and a very urgent heavy metal underpinning.  The leads and melody are very triumphant sounding and, dare I be pretentious, beautiful.  "Catharsis" sounds like just that, a purging of negativity and reveling in a beam of light as your trouble just melts away.  It's one of the most positive and uplifting things Gargoyle would ever write, and it's just so goddamn triumphant and strong that it makes a hard man humble.  The fadeout during the outro solo accomplishes the same feeling that Skeletonwitch's Beyond the Permafrost does in the sense that it rounds out the album and ends it on a very positive sounding high note, leaving the listener with a smile on their face, feeling very proud, optimistic, and pleased with the journey they've just completed.

But really, the two best heavy songs are, without any real competition, "Piichiku Paachiku" and "Shouryakukeitachi Yo".  This isn't because the rest of the album is not great, but because these two songs are just so flawlessly executed that they blow everything else out of the water by merely existing.  "Piichiku Paachiku" wastes absolutely no time in ripping out some of the best riffs since the legendary "Ounou no Goku", and oddly enough, it's probably the most "normal" thrash song the band would ever write.  There aren't many weird twists and turns, the harmonized solos aren't particularly bizarre nor are there any from-left-field violin shredding like I love so much, but there's really nothing at all wrong with this song.  It's just unrelentingly intense and surprisingly brutal.  The first two riffs are just face meltingly fast and melodic, thrashing like a maniac during these segments is less of a possibility and more of an encouragement (but most accurately, an inescapable demand).  And then "Souryakukeitachi Yo"... oh man.  I've looked up the lyrics, I've seen accurate transliterations, it is still just absolutely fucking impossible to follow along.  He shouts these verses so fast, it's incomprehensible.  He's like a Japanese Sean Killian, it's ludicrous.  It sounds like he's just shaking his head side to side really fast and making noises as his cheeks flop off his teeth and lips.

ABSOLUTELY MANIC.  And as if something simple and charismatic like that wasn't enough to catapult this song into the stratosphere and cement itself as one of the most memorable Gargoyle tracks of all time, it also is based around one of the best thrash riffs ever written (in 1994 no less) and carries one of the most insanely memorable choruses in the band's history.  I've been using silly images throughout this series to illustrate how ridiculous Kiba sounds, though I obviously love his voice and ballistic delivery, but the chorus here is one of the first times where it's indisputably commanding.  Instead of making a silly face, I can see his eyes closed, fist outstretched, entire audience in the palm of his hand while he wails his batshit lunatic gibberish and owns every second of it. I say this a lot, and I joke about saying it a lot, and I even made a definitive statement about this in the Tenron review, but this time I promise I mean it.  This is my favorite Gargoyle song.  I'll never say it again, no song in the following fourteen reviews reaches the lofty heights of "Shouryakukeitachi Yo", it's that perfect.  I fight the urge to burn down the nearest upright structure when the first fast riff breaks out, I've nearly put myself in a neckbrace windmilling like a mental patient during the verses, there's nothing wrong with it.  The solos shred, the riffs rip, this is the best Gargoyle song.  I don't care if it's a spoiler for the rest of the series, this is the zenith, folks.

Tsuki no Toge seems to be one of those albums that all Gargoyle fans agree on, and I'm no exception.  The best songs are leagues ahead of the rest of the album, which is saying a lot because even the rest of the album is damn good.  I'll find myself listening to a certain three songs ("Shouryakukeitachi Yo", "Piichiku Paachiku", and "Catharsis") far more than any others on the album, but it doesn't diminish the accomplishment of the album as a whole.  It's greater than the sum of its parts, and that is quite impressive considering how great the parts are.  Believe it or not, I wouldn't consider this my most recommended album (that title would go to Furebumi and one or two of the future albums down the line), but it undoubtedly has my most recommended tracks, and despite anything, is easily one of the best full lengths in the band's history.  Look past that fucking stupid cover and find out why everybody clamors to worship at the altar of Tsuki no Toge.

RATING - 94%