Thursday, January 31, 2013

Kelly McKee - You're Lost


This is one of those very, very special albums.  I'm being 100% serious when I say this is the funniest album I've ever heard, and to understand why that is, you first need to go to his Soundclick page and read everything there.  Yeah, it could take a minute but trust me it's a goldmine.  I wish I could just quote the whole thing, but that would be ludicrous.  Here are some choice excerpts, so you can understand the nonsense that goes on in his head.

"The band name, for the present time is, Kelly McKee. In ancient Gaelic, my name translates to 'Warrior, Son of Fire'. My ancestors came from the Cape Wrath region of Northern Scotland."

If your name were in ancient Gaelic it'd be "Is Minic a Gheibhean Beal Oscailt Diog Dunta".  Your name is Kelly McKee because your father's last name was McKee and your parents thought you were going to be a woman.

"My musical influences include JS Bach, Beethoven, D. Scarlatti, Tchaikovsky, and many other classical and film score composers, medieval, and renaissance music."

So deep, bro.  Everybody knows that you can't be taken seriously as a musician if you don't start off conversation with how you love classical music first and foremost, since nothing else is high art. 

"Unlike some of this genre's most famous exponents, I have never borrowed (or plagiarized) melodies from any classical composers, without giving the composer credit."

I am also an innovative genius who is overflowing with rich new ideas!  No really, check it:

"Physics is the same on every continent, but the only music that takes these basic observations about nature into account fully is classical music, which originated in Europe and paralleled the the advent of the science of physics during the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. This is literally the reason why many other forms of music sound primitive by comparison. Any music that goes along the path of a fixed set of rhythms and scale use, is more limitedly defined"

"My bandmates went on and had their families. I was much more serious about music, had a lot of ideas, and kept going with it"

Before listening to anything, I need you to read the entire "Anything Else?" section.  Trust me, it's amazing.

Have you done all that yet?  Okay, good.  Now listen to his music.

*waits an hour*

You didn't actually listen to the full 62 minutes of this did you?  No no, that's okay, I don't hold it against you, I'm amazed at my own showcase of human endurance and stamina by managing through the entire ordeal.  Is this not the funniest shit in the world?  Oh my god, for a man as full of himself as McKee here, you'd expect there to, ya know, actually be some semblance of skill here.  But no, this man makes the most out of nothing by being a terrible songwriter, terrible guitar player, terrible drum programmer, and terrible historian with an ego the size of a red hypergiant.  This man believes his shit doesn't stink simply because his head is so far up his ass that he's gotten used to the smell.   If you can write, record, and release this and feel it's not only good enough to be well regarded, but actually "ahead of most of the rest of the genre technically" or "practically the test of excellence in melodic composing", then you are on some new, experimental super drug.  Seriously, is this guy snorting Keith Moon's remains?

I cannot stress how laughably amateurish and downright atrocious You're Lost is.  The entire album (this is not an exaggeration, I literally mean 100% of the album's running time) is spent with either a rhythmically inept guitar, or tone deaf atonal "shredding".  I consistently put "shredding" in quotes because I can say with the utmost confidence that I am a better guitar player than this man... and I'm a bassist... who hasn't practiced in over six years.  You know when you first get a guitar how you'll kind of randomly flail on the high end of the fretboard with no regards to rhythm or melody?  You're just overwhelmed with "Holy shit, I'm playing guitar!  It's awesome!  Listen to this, I hit strings and frets and notes come out!  I'm finally creating music, holy shit this is so cool!"  That initial enthusiasm to just wail on the notes because it's completely new to you, regardless of how bad it would sound in the context of a song or a jam or even a warmup exercise is what Kelly McKee has apparently been basking in for over twenty years.  The melodic sensibilities he lauds himself for are non existent, as the plays in keys he makes up himself (seriously) and even when he double tracks two guitars (which is a huge rarity), they don't mesh with each other and end up being this buzzy, dissonant mess.

The journey into Kelly's delusional mind is probably best encapsulated by the transcendentally horrendous "Into the Night", mainly because it's the only track with vocals, and these vocals are golden.  It's just McKee, at first apparently just talking, narrating his track in a the absolute worst Boris Karloff impression I've ever heard.  But when the timbre starts changing, you realize that oh god he's trying to sing.

"My music features a new, fully 3 dimensional musical arrangement style that brings to life imagery and morphology. 'Into The Night' achieves a 3-dimensional quality, like being inside of a cathedral, for example, in addition to being about one. The singing on the piece has proper 'affect' - the singing style matches the setting and intended character part of the song."

So it's shitty on purpose, got it.  The fact that it includes a snare drum, a single tracked distorted guitar, and a low speaking voice does not make it 3 dimensional.  This album would be worth a zero percent based on the music alone, but the extracirricular attitude of the artist is so grand that it actually manages to surpass such a thing.  One crutch he always leans back on when faced with criticism is that his music is full of themes and musical representation of historical events, architecture, and physics.  Even if that made more sense than none at all, it would fail on that level as well.  Explain to me, how "Battleground" represents the philosophies of ancient Greece, or how "Statue Courtyard" represents a statue being torn down, or how "Encounter at Vermillion" (unfortunately not featured on this album, you'll have to check the Soundclick page for that one) is a musical representation of a knight in armor and his fight with a dragon?  I didn't make any of that up, these are all words from the man's mouth.  Apparently all these things sound like free-time noodling with nonsensical snare drum baps when put to music.  Silly me for thinking they might be orchestral or grandiose in scope, obviously they're most accurately expressed via one aspergery megalomaniac with a single tracked electric guitar with the songwriting skills of a mallard with a headwound.

"Centurion's Outpost" is the best song on display, which is horrifying since it's 11 minutes of structureless plucking and twanging on an acoustic guitar, but at least we're spared from the comically thin distortion and irritating as all hell drum machine.  It's amazing how Angelo Sasso is used so sparingly yet still manages to almost be the worst part about the album.  There is never a real rhythm, instead opting for seemingly non-sequitur strikes of mainly just the snare drum at completely unfollowable times.  Of course, he claims this is intentional and based on classical percussion as opposed to conventional rock drums (apparently he hasn't realized that the percussion in an orchestra plays a hugely important part and does actually do the exact opposite of what he does).  There are long stretches of most of the songs where the percussion will drop out entirely, leaving the stage completely clear for his guitar work.  The theatrics on display are on par with Jeffery Lebowski's neighbor's one man interpretive dance show.  I spend so much time laughing at this album that I should petition the genre be changed from "shred" to "stand up comedy".  This truly does need to be heard to be understood.

I'm honestly struggling to come up with things to say, this is just easily the most inept recording I've ever heard, and I've heard Rainfall and other z-grade bedroom black metal bands that would make your dead relatives weep.  There are no tempos, everything is in a strange free-time since McKee couldn't keep a beat if it was attached to his spine, the sound is weak and dull (but it's literally impeccable if you're to believe the artist), the songwriting is so far past the bottom of the barrel that it's firmly cemented into the lower mantle of Earth's crust, and the playing is so haphazard and amateurish that I can't even think of a comparison for it.  It's truly a sight to behold, I can't imagine the level of delusion it takes to honestly believe that one free-time track of you flailing like an imbecile with no rhyme or reason is as full as an orchestra.  I know I've given only one 0% in my reviewing career (to Five Finger Death Punch), but really, I couldn't have known what else was out there.  This is something else, something diabolical.  I'll leave you with some other quotes that truly show the insanity at play here:

"The march back into Athens at the end of 'Battleground' alone, makes Battleground one of the most significant pieces of rock composing in the last 5 years"

You heard the man, this is among the most significant pieces of rock composing in years.

"Those who would like to compose deep music about history, must study study study study
study study study study for at least 20 years to come close to my work in this area."

And you need twenty years of practice to even think of composing something as brilliant as this.

"Furthermore, I am an optical engineer, who can and has designed astronomical telescopes for viewing the heavens. You have likely not; therefore it is you, who is likely full of pretentious babble."

And he built a telescope!  So really I'm the asshole here.

Want to know what song is genuinely better than anything on You're Lost?  This three minute explosion of nonsense bullshit that my friend recorded one depressingly sober night.

No lie.  You're Lost has earned the dubious honor of being the only album to actually score below a zero.  Let that sink in.

RATING: -15%

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Metallica - Kill 'em All

Some things you just shouldn't "grow out" of

While most of the stuff I review tends to be popular to some extent, I've still never tackled the metal band.  I mean, I've touched on Iron Maiden twice, but one of those was written when I was fifteen and it's really atrocious, and the other one I crapped out in half an hour and haven't read since I submit it initially five years ago.  But Iron Maiden is really only the co-biggest metal band ever, and we all know who the big dogs in this game are.  The most realistic estimate I've seen of Maiden's worldwide sales are something around 80 million albums, which is a monstrously huge number, especially for a heavy metal band.  And with that in mind, Metallica has roughly 100 million with a shorter career and less albums.  In terms of fans, influence, and continued relevance, I'd give the edge to Maiden as the biggest metal band of all time, but the numbers are certainly on Metallica's side.

And because they're the biggest, they're also the most visible and most controversial.  Everybody has an opinion on the great dramas of Metallica's career, like how Dave Mustaine is the only good thing that ever happened to them (saying their early era was only good because of his influence is like saying The Courtyard of the Old Residency, Munich is only good because Hitler painted it), or how the commercialization would have never happened if Cliff Burton hadn't tragically died in that bus crash (he was a huge REM fan and wrote many of the melodic parts on Master of Puppets, he would have had no problem with, and in fact probably would have encouraged, a new direction), or how Lars is a wretched fame whore and money snatching gremlin who is a smooth talker but a crappy drummer (well... that one's true).  The point is that no metal fan's development went by unblemished by the unmistakable scent of Metallica.  They're just ubiquitous and profoundly influential on the development of heavy metal as a whole, and unless you entered the scene via Brenoritvrezorkre and Enbilulugugal, you've heard the first four or five albums at least once.  

And with that, I need to do something strange and direct you to an Achewood strip:

You now have my official opinion on early Metallica.  This is how it is for me, and I know I'm not in the minority here.  If you can't go back to the days of your youth, put yourself back in that frame of mind, and appreciate the entry-level metal acts the same way you used to, you've become jaded.  I get it, your taste evolves, you grow away from what you once loved, but if you can't even spin Kill 'em All and wreck your neck to "The Four Horsemen" or "Metal Militia" on an even nostalgic level, then you need to reevaluate your life.  What you've got here is some of the most aggressive and innovative metal of the first third of the 80s, and even disregarding the historical significance of this album, it still holds up today as a showcase of melodic fury, the fast paced rage of youth, and the purest form of early thrash, when it was still just a mix of heavy metal and punk.  

You see, at this point in time, Kill 'em All was essentially in a league of its own.  There were demos of Overkill and Exodus floating around in the bits of time surrounding the release of this album, yeah, but the only other full length album to come out in 1983 that can really be considered a thrash metal album by any stretch was Slayer's phenomenal debut, Show No Mercy, and that was released six months after Metallica's debut.  Thrash at this time wasn't really a distinct entity yet, the sound we'd come to have solidified on later albums like Reign in Blood, Eternal Devastation, Bonded by Blood, Beneath the Remains, and other genre defining classics is nowhere to be found on Kill 'em All, but the groundwork is there.  There's no denying that the triplet break of "The Four Horsemen", or any given section of "Whiplash" and "Metal Militia" are anything other than some of the earliest thrash metal ever put to tape.  That fast, hard hitting grittiness of Discharge mixed with the riffing supremacy of Diamond Head and layered with the attitude of Motorhead; that is how thrash started, and it's a mindset that 97% of these newer "retro" bands need to get back to.  Before there was a template to ape, Metallica just set forth by blending the stuff they liked.  So what we're presented with is a little bit Saxon, little bit Ramones.  Little bit Mercyful Fate, little bit Misfits.  Little bit Venom, little bit Thin Lizzy. That alone makes this one of the purest tributes to that beloved style of music we all love.  Kill 'em All was basically a love letter to all of Metallica's early influences, and in their aim to pay homage to their idols while simultaneously pushing the envelope, they kind of accidentally invented an entirely new style and stumbled into history.  Even if they'd broken up or died after the release of this, I'm sure the benefit of hindsight, especially now with the internet, would have granted this album the notoriety it deserves.

And that's another thing people, especially younger folks, need to understand.  They weren't superstars in 1983.  Megaforce sure as hell wasn't Sony or EMG or anything like that, it really wasn't until after the two subsequent albums that they really reached the levels of success we normally attribute to them, and it was even more impressive back then, with how obnoxious and abrasive they were in comparison to everything else American audiences had access to.  This is really just me scratching an itch more than anything, but the amount of historical revisionists who go on about obvious ballyhoo like that just drive me up the wall.  Mustaine fanatics who get all butthurt about how they took all the success from Megadeth need to realize that they had just as much time to break out, the fact that Megadeth was always Metallica Jr. sure didn't help their perpetual shadow dancing, but that's another rant for another day.

But the main point here is the music itself, and as I've said dozens of times already, it's a stupendous blend of early rebellious music.  Tracks like "Motorbreath" really showcase the punk edge and rock 'n roll attitude gleaned from Motorhead (the title likely wasn't a coincidence), while "Hit the Lights" could be seen as a double-time reimagining of "Highway Star" or "Heavy Metal Thunder".  Pretty much everything here has something to enjoy, and nearly every song can be picked apart to discern all of the band's influences at the time.  But with all that said, I have to say the band's age really does show, mainly in James's vocal performance and lyrics.  The former is a positive quality, as there's such an inimitable charm to him shouting his adorable little peach fuzzed lungs out, giving it nothing less than 100%.  His squawky yelp is very earnest and resonates well with the spirit of youthful backlash against the establishment.  While on the other hand, the lyrics here are pretty inconsistent, and usually pretty bad.  "The Four Horsemen", apart from making the odd mistake of replacing "War" with "Time", is pretty solid in this respect, whereas "Seek and Destroy", "Metal Militia", "Phantom Lord" and others just fall completely flat from a lyrical standpoint.  Part of me wants to not hold this against them since lord knows I'm embarrassed about the lyrics I wrote when I was 17, but the fact of the matter is that they're here and they've been immortalized, as silly and stupid as they may be.

There are other kinks that really needed to be ironed out as well, like the painfully dull "Anesthesia".  Really, of all the cues you could have taken from Battle Hymns, you didn't take the irreverent attitude, hard rocking riffs, or big choruses, you chose the torturous extended bass solo?  Literally the only thing about Manowar's first album that I don't like and one of their most irritating trademarks throughout their career has always been that damn stupid, sloppy distorted bass solo that they always shoehorn in.  Thankfully Metallica kept it contained to just this first album, so the overall damage was reined in.  The track has taken on a life of its own after Burton's death and is often pointed to as evidence of his prowess, when really it's a pretty simple ditty that sounds like it was recorded impromptu in one take.  Cliff's strength lied in his melodic sensibilities ("Orion" was his baby, and the strange, noodly parts from later albums were his main contribution), not his boring bass jam.  I also can't help but dislike "Seek and Destroy".  I know it's become a concert staple but it just sounds so corny forced that I can't get behind it.  It works in a live setting, but here it sounds to me like a dirtier and heavier version of the glam rock bands that Metallica was rebelling against at the time.  The main riff lacks urgency and just kind of piddles along lazily.  And if I'm being excessively nitpicky (which I am), the first half of "No Remorse" feels kind of awkward and not entirely thought out.  The second half is strong as hell, with that primitive thrash sensibility shining through a truly venomous vocal performance, it just takes a while to get there.

With all that said, I have to admit I'm just being extra tough on this since it's such a major album.  It's legendary for both noobs and seasoned vets, so it really deserves to spend some extra time under the microscope.  Those small quibbles aside, Kill 'em All is a stellar record for pretty much any other reason you can think of.  Lars's drumming is technically mediocre, but his one-dimensional style works for what they're doing here.  They weren't attempting any long epics like "Call of Ktulu" or "Orion" yet, they were still just a band of kids, full of piss and vinegar and unleashing their frustration in the only way they knew how.  His signature style lends itself to the more punk rock attitude that's so prevalent on this album, and I wouldn't have it any other way.  But for my money, above even the great early trad metal riffs being played at blazing speeds, the absolute highlight is Kirk Hammet's soloing.  Man this album is just loaded with leads and solos at every possible opportunity, there isn't a single dead spot on the album.  And every time he lets loose, he lets loose the goddamn kracken.  Slow, emotional solos?  Fuck that with dynamite, the goal here is to go as over the top as possible, and holy lord do they succeed.  That outro solo to "Jump in the Fire" could well be the best one ever put to tape by the band, and the solo break in "Phantom Lord" (structured eerily similar to the famous section in "Hangar 18" seven years later, just let that swirl around in your heads for a bit, Megadeth loyalists) is fucking furious.  Pretty much any song can be pointed to as an example of the blistering leadwork that helped define the band in the early days.  Very fast, very melodic, very simple pentatonic flailing that sticks in your head and is instantly recognizable.  

Kill 'em All is just goddamn impressive, both for the time and today.  The hour long runtime (I'm assuming most of you are familiar with the CD version that I also grew up with, which features covers of Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" and Blitzkrieg's "Blitzkrieg", both of which are awesome) never drags and pretty much every song remains a classic.  Everything here is fun to sing along with, fun to air guitar, and just fun to headbang like a caveman to.  It's not a perfect album, to quote a much more recognized and influential writer than myself: "Even the first wheel was kinda squareish", but for what it is there isn't much else I could ask out of it.  Metallica clearly gave it their all on their first whack at a full length, and it shows.  It's primitive but it's clean, and the vibrant production helps the album shine brightly.  The fact that I and so many other people whose noses aren't turned up so high that they could drown in a rainstorm consider this timeless isn't an accident.  I'm not saying elitist snobbery is the only reason one could not enjoy this album, but chances are that you enjoyed this when you were young and first discovering heavy metal, and the fact that you've since collected every Vomit Sodomy tape and seen Njiqahdda play in a moldy basement in front of six people (including you and their parents) shouldn't stain your enjoyment of it now.  Go back and listen to this now, remember how you felt upon first hearing early Metallica for the first time.  You'll likely find that you can still find room in the shriveled black stalactite that was once your heart for a little bit of warmth and adoration for a timeless classic.

RATING - 88%

Saturday, January 26, 2013

W.A.S.P. - The Crimson Idol

Excuse me while I raid the medicine cabinet

So last week I rallied against a cult classic that I cannot for the life of me grasp the universal adoration for (Toxik's Think This), and was swiftly called out for my atrocious taste.  I won't deny it, I dislike a lot of things that the general metal fandom adores (Dark Angel, Manilla Road) and vice versa (Lamb of God, As I Lay Dying), I'm bound to butt heads with people fairly often.  But, while I adore being the center of controversy and attention, every once in a while I feel the need to wheel backwards and join in a good ol' fashioned circle jerk.  The biscuit in the center of it all today?  Why no other than W.A.S.P.'s most ambitious, and amazing, most outstandlingly mindblowingly great concept album, 1992's, The Crimson Idol.

I would like to run a quick experiment on you if you've yet to hear this album.  First off what the fuck is wrong with you?  Secondly, go to Youtube and look up "Doctor Rockter" (here, I'll even do that for you too, you lazy sods).  Take in that song, it's the shortest one on the album outside of the intro track, so it's not much of a time investment.  It's a fun, hard rocking track, while at the same time carries a very strong, dark overtone.  The Deep Purple styled rock organ keys keep the tone bleak and dreary despite the high tempo, and the broken plea for salvation in drugs in the chorus just gives this sick feeling of cognitive dissonance.  It's a jovial rhythm coupled with a layer of dirty, horrifying tragedy on top of it.  It all works perfectly.

It is also the worst song on the album.

Seriously, almost no other record in the history of heavy metal can shake a stick at the consistently stratospheric quality of the songs on display in The Crimson Idol.   This is one of those one-in-a-million albums where every idea hits bullseye, all but one or two minor nitpicks about this album are just perfect.  Not a single note is wasted, Blackie's ear for melody was always astonishing, but here it just reaches a new level.  No solo is excessively noodly, no riff is overdone, no chorus repeated too often, everything is perfectly portioned and hits every target.  I can't stress enough how nearly every single element at play falls into place with absolutely no awkwardness.

Now before I derail into foaming-at-the-mouth fanboy lunacy, I have to make a preposterous claim really quickly that I'm sure will make perfect sense once I explain myself.  Simply put, The Crimson Idol is the heaviest metal album of all time.  I mean this on a purely emotional level, no other album, besides maybe Wormphlegm's Tomb of the Ancient King carries the sheer emotional weight that this album carries.  The first time I heard this, I knew it was a concept album, but I didn't really know the story behind it.  I didn't listen to the lyrics very closely, but by the time the closing notes of "The Great Misconception of Me" were wrapping up, I just felt... awful.  I felt like the worst human being on the planet, for absolutely no readily discernible reason.  My whole world was bleak and grey, and I just felt like I lost my best friend, and that it was somehow my fault.  Every single time I listen to this album, even now that I know the narrative, I end the experience feeling drab and depressed.  Seriously, this album should come packaged with a revolver and a solitary bullet, it's so goddamned bleak.

Two of the reasons the emotional impact hits so expertly close to the soul are the pacing and repeating motifs.  The opening overture, aptly named "The Titanic Overture" introduces at least two of the main themes of the album, with other riffs, melodies, and vocal lines being introduced down the road that resurface more and more as the album goes on ("Only love can set me free", "Long live the King of Mercy", and "I don't want to be..." are the three most prominent).  Throw this in with the flawless pacing and you have a recipe for clinical depression.  The album starts off with a hat trick of high octane rockers, all layered with enough ominous foreboding to last an entire Axis of Perdition album, before giving way to a ballad break (and a fittingly dark one at that), two more rockers, and ends on two and a half ballads, with the last ten minute track being half and half, with a reprise to the opening sequences of "The Titanic Overture" to wrap up the album nicely.  What this does is allow us listeners to experience the album in the same way that the narrator (Jonathon) is experiencing the story.  With the urgent start out of a dark beginning, our appetite is whet by the promise of this monolithic experience, and as it progresses, it gets darker and darker, eventually slowing itself to a peaceful crawl.  By the time "The Idol" is done, you're really to just lay down and accept death as your punishment for all the decadence that preceded that moment, just as Johnny is unfulfilled by the fact that his newfound success still doesn't earn him the respect of the always cold and distant family that had disowned him.  "The Great Misconception of Me" ends the album in the most beautiful way imaginable, a remorseful plea for forgiveness followed by a public suicide.  This shit is so heavy and tragic, and the way it's laid out lends itself to vicarious shame and hopelessness.  The repeating themes and motifs are so brilliant because the same things that were so epic and entertaining in the beginning of the album are the same things that are slowly killing us by the end.  The same imagery in a different light, and it really puts the entire theme of the album in perspective.  And all of this emotional depth and complexity is coming from the same songwriter that routinely delivered no less than six songs about masturbation per album back in the 80s, go figure!

That previous paragraph really sums up what makes the album work so well, but it would all be moot if the songwriting wasn't stellar as well.  Every element meshes in a brilliantly dark way, particularly those keys.  They're mainly that rock organ sound that Jon Lord made his trademark a few decades prior, and they're almost always layering themselves over the classic metal riffage in an ominous fog.  Each and every riff also manages to capture the emotion of their respective tracks perfectly, with "Arena of Pleasure" being a giant riff monster that is both fulfilling and at the same time numbing, whereas "I am One" sounds initially triumphant before descending into more foreboding territory.  The unconventional use of two different drummers (Stet Howland and Frankie Banali) produces some incredibly busy and frantic rhythms.  Seriously, these fellas really channeled their inner Bill Ward for these performances, there are rolls and fills all over the place.  While flashy, they always work to the advantage of the musical narrative, increasing in complexity and frequency the more urgent the guitar work would get.  And all of this is masterfully contained within the framework of that special brand of fist pumping heavy metal that W.A.S.P. was always so stunningly good at.  The infectious hooks are still around, however dark they may be nowadays.  The first three songs in particular nail this particular strength of Blackie's the strongest, with "The Invisible Boy" being one of the catchiest songs about neglectful, abusive childhood ever written.  Every chorus sticks in your mind, from the sorrowful plea for forgiveness of "The Idol", the celebration of debauchery of "Arena of Pleasure", or the rock n roll excess of "I am One".

If I'm going to be nitpicky on an Antwilerian level, I do have to point out that, while the pacing of the album is perfect, I can't help but wonder if "Hold On to My Heart" is misplaced.  "The Idol" ends with Jonathon's parents essentially telling him that he's dead to them, and so the broken man is told that "it's showtime", and a roaring crowd crescendos in.  Smash cut to silence, and then the fantastic acoustic ballad, "Hold On to My Heart" plays.  When it concludes, the finale ("The Great Misconception of Me") begins with Jonathon saying "Welcome to the show...".  It just feels like time stopped and the obvious power ballad was kind of shoehorned in right there.  It's literally the only moment the narrative suffers, and I feel like the two ballads should have swapped places, because the pacing is still beautifully flawless with those two slow songs being at the end of the album, but story-wise it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

But that's it, that one little nitpick is literally my only issue with The Crimson Idol.  Everything else about this album is among the best in the genre.  The songwriting, the hooks, the riffs, the solos, the choruses, the ballads, the mood, the tone, the pacing, the atmosphere, the story, every single thing works magnificently, most importantly of which is the emotional connection that most people can make with this album.  It revels in an upbeat darkness that initially veils a bottomless depth of brooding sadness that eventually takes center stage by album's end.  This is among the weightiest metal ever written, across any subgenre.  When I'm depressed, I rarely listen to optimistic music in hopes it'll cheer me up, instead I like to find something sad or hopeless and just wallow in my negativity for an hour, and The Crimson Idol is right up there with Sunn O)))'s Black One and Tyranny's Tides of Awakening for such a task, the main difference being that I one can listen to this without a requisite mood, but don't be surprised if you, like me, end up feeling like you need to grab a straight razor and head to the bath by the time it wraps up.

RATING - 99%

Monday, January 21, 2013

Unicorn - The 13th Sign


I'm going to come clean right off the bat.  I've been wanting to review this album for roughly five years now purely so I could make that pun in the title.  I'm tempted to just end the review here because that really sums up everything you need to know about this album.  You already know how it sounds.  I mean really, look at that cover.  Look at it.  You know the album you're imagining in your head right now?  Yup, that's exactly what this is.  Review over.  I'm going on break.


Okay fine, I'll humor my self indulgence for a few hundred more words and really dig in to Unicorn's only release, 2005's The 13th Sign.  I hate to play the regional discrimination card, but raise your hand if the fact that a melodic flower metal band named motherfucking Unicorn hails from Italy surprises you.  Luckily, despite the vibes I'm surely giving off, this ranked as a positive sign for me.  The Italian metal scene basically excels at two things, ridiculously over-the-top tech death and ridiculously over-the-top symphonic power metal (unless you do both, then you're mediocre at them (looking at you, Agony!)).  Now of course, metal is at its best as a genre when it's being pushed to an extreme, regardless of innovation.  So if The 13th Sign didn't have a single original idea, I wouldn't mind too much as long as it was exceedingly ridiculous or melodic or catchy or fast or fun in any conceivable way.

Unfortunately, Unicorn nails the hat trick of being boring, cliche, and weak.  I mean, you don't need deductive skills on par with Sherlock Holmes to guess this probably isn't a very heavy album, nor was that the band's intention so it's kind of hard to hold such a criticism against them, but this is thin to the point of distraction.  Axa's vocals are spread thinner than a soap bubble, the guitar tone is plasticky and I'm convinced the keyboards are actually played by a children's toy, and the drums sound like somebody just hitting the box the keyboards came in.  If you could personify the tone here, the resulting human would look like Jack Skellington; hauntingly pale and thin but at the same time completely non-threatening.  Again, I realize it wasn't the band's intention to come roaring out of the gate, fueled by the blood of their enemies, but damn nearly half of the album is essentially soft rock, and really fucking dull soft rock at that.  It's not soothing, it's not pleasant, it's just a by-the-numbers flower metal album with half of the tracks being painfully uninteresting ballads and the other half being shameless Helloween and Gamma Ray knockoffs.

And this isn't knocking off good Helloween albums either, this takes inspiration from the bewilderingly popular Keeper of the Seven Keys saga.  Those weak, syrupy packets of shite will have their day eventually, but that is neither here nor there right now.  The 13th Sign has moments of fun sprinkled here and there, with "Avylonia" being damn near uncomfortably infectious and "Vampyrial" being a shining example of how to write a great power metal song without adding anything new to the genre.  Those two songs are excellent showcases of the songwriting prowess the band can shit out when they put their minds to it, so it's unfortunate that they end up being the only two songs that really nail "it".  Whatever "it" is for the band, "Avylonia" and "Vampyrial" are the two songs that embody "it".  They're fun, bouncy tracks with catchy choruses, choral backings, dual melodies, lighthearted solos, everything that makes light power metal worthwhile as a genre is jam packed into both of those tracks, and I can't recommend them enough.  The reason the album falls flat on the whole is because nothing else strikes the gold those two do.  "One in a Million" is the most shameless copy of Gamma Ray's timeless anthem, "Beyond the Black Hole" I've ever heard, and it manages to lack the magic that makes the original so marvelous (mainly the urgency and greatly open to interpretation lyrics), and "The Book of Drake" is Unicorn's attempt at a more folksy, medieval romp that Rhapsody likes to deliver at least once an album ("The March of the Swordmaster" and "Village of Dwarves" are great examples of the style of song done right (aka: when Rhapsody is doing it)).

But apart from those?  Ballads and ballads and more ballads.  I'm not opposed to ballads on principle, obviously, that'd be stupid, but this album is just loaded with them, and none of them are any good.  "Fight for the Wings" and "Waiting For..." just happen with no consequence, while "Elysian Fields" drags and drags for over eight minutes without so much as one passage that feels heartfelt or genuine or touching or smooth or emotional or anything that makes a good ballad.  The best one is "Dance of Passion" because it's a relatively short instrumental along the lines of something Joe Satriani would write (with far less technical skill, obviously).  But when they're all so boring, it's pretty disappointing that roughly 22 minutes of the album are occupied by the four ballads, while the four flower metal songs get closer to 20.  This is of course not counting the (good) cover of "Eagle Fly Free", which doesn't count in my eyes since it isn't an original song, however well done it may be.

Sadly, that's all there is to offer here: weak production and mostly dull songs.  I hate to sound stereotypical, but when Unicorn writes higher tempo, more melodic, fun flower metal tracks, they're pretty good.  Nothing groundbreaking or exceptionally great, but they're good.  So it's unfortunate that a majority of the album is spent not doing that.  This is metal for Air Supply fans (and I'd like to point out that Air Supply is trumped only by Hollywood Undead as the worst band ever), and I can't really recommend anything past the two great songs in "Avylonia" and "Vampyrial", though the other metallic songs are decent in their own right, just not as good.  You could do worse for light, flowery power metal, but this ain't got shit on Athena or Timeless Miracle.

RATING - 40%

Friday, January 18, 2013

Toxik - Think This

Let's be real here...

For years, I'd always given the title of "most overrated thrash album" to Dark Angel's only legit claim to notoriety, Darkness Descends.  Over time, I've been forced to reevaluate my selection.  Darkness Descends is often hailed as a masterpiece despite it having nearly nothing going for it outside of a completely rabid intensity.  No doubt the album is fast and unhinged, but with a middling vocal performance and unmemorable riffs, I'd always seen it as the hyperactive little cousin to much more memorable and (rightly) visible albums released that same year like Pleasure to Kill and Reign in Blood.

But despite me finding it overrated, I still recognize why it's so universally adored.  I acknowledge the merit in the completely crazed performance, no matter how inconsequential the songs end up to me.  I get it. 

Think This?  I don't get it.

I was introduced to the East Coast thrash maniacs, Toxik, via their 1987 debut, World Circus, thanks to a recommendation that I would like them based on how much I like Realm's Endless War.  I fell in love with World Circus pretty quickly, with its completely shitnards bonkers approach to songwriting and the concept of restraint.  It was loaded with Josh Christian's high octane thrash riffs and Mike Sanders's completely inhuman shrieks, and with the help of the great songwriting it all managed to coagulate in such a way that ended up being one of the most memorable albums of the extraordinarily specific "melodic technical thrash with a high pitched squealy vocalist" subniche that seemed to be blooming around this time in metal's history.

But let's be real here, their follow up, the much lauded Think This, is dialed back.  It's less ridiculous, less over the top, more restrained, and more... well, boring.  This is an attempt at maturity, but not the good kind.  It's a good maturity when you grow up enough to realize that everything you believed as a 15 year old was fucking stupid, it's a bad maturity when Metallica decides thrash is below them and they'd rather make dad rock.  This is Toxik jumping straight from Kill 'em All to Load.  I keep seeing terms like "progressive" and "intelligent" thrown around when praising this album to high heaven, and while they aren't wrong, they seem to manifest in all the least interesting ways.  The previously straightforward yet absurdly passionate riffs are now more precise and surgical than before.  This could have been a really cool thing, but it's all dialed back in the sense that the fire they used to carry is almost entirely sapped in favor of this herky-jerky, mechanical guitar playing.  That crazed lunacy is absent in favor of a cold, bereft approach.

At the same time, I understand that that was the point, and that it fit conceptually with the themes of the album.  This is late 80s Big Brother/Reaganomics thrash at it's finest.  The themes of looming nuclear war and the destruction of mankind with the simple flick of a switch and greed and inhumanity and all that happy crap are thrown to the forefront, hammering you over the head with the whole "evils of the government" stuff that every thrash band seemed to be getting off on during the late 80s.  This is fine, I have no qualms with the themes, but I feel like the more lifeless album was a result of the band trying to sonically match the concepts they were presenting.  But this is thrash, technical and progressive as it may be, the music doesn't lend itself to such a dry, barren production.  This shit needs life, and the simple fact that it isn't overloud or brickwalled doesn't mean it isn't suffocatingly dry. 

Musically, I can admit there isn't anything wrong with Think This when standing on it's own.  I'm sure prog fans can love the hell out of this for how technical tracks like "Technical Arrogance" can be, and also for how calm and soothing the ballad, "There Stood the Fence" is.  Personally, I hate that fucking ballad.  It sounds so sappy and weak and out of place in what is otherwise a pretty rocking album (as middling as it may be).  It throws the whole pace out of whack, especially when it's bookended by an ohrwurm in "Black and White" and the absolute best track on the album in "Spontaneous".  Yeah I should clarify that, I don't hate this album.  I think it's overrated to hell and lacks the intangibles that made World Circus so fun, but there are things I like.  "Spontaneous" is by far the best track, with an infectious chorus featuring gang shouts, a fast paced main riff, and rather impressive vocal acrobatics from Charles Sabin.  The parts where the band takes a more traditional approach come across so much better than the needlessly noodly stop-start parts as well, hence why I love "Spontaneous" and "Shotgun Logic" the most. 

Since I brought up Sabin in that last post, I feel I really need to address some quibbles I have with he and the rabid fans of this album.  Namely the fact that he's mediocre as can be.  I don't deny his ability to hit a zanily stratospheric falsetto, but everything else is so goddamn average that the mere existence of them bothers me.  I mean, Sanders wasn't anything special either, but he wasn't going for this clean, melodic performance.  He was an unhinged wildman, Paul Baloff on helium, so his technically "eh" performance was forgivable since he had so much character.  Sabin's mid range notes might as well be him talking with a vibrato, and sometimes I could swear he gets possessed by 1986-era Joey Belladonna because he just wails on notes that sound... wrong.  Like they're flat, he should be juuuust a semitone higher and it'd sound fine.  Hell, on "Spontaneous" (a legitimately awesome track that I adore, I should remind you all), he sounds atonal as fuck during the chorus.  Actually, I think that's my main problem with him.  It feels like he's wandering out of key all the time, he sings like a really slow Kerry King solo.  Listen to "Wir Njn 8/in God" or "Black and White", tell me you don't hear this at all.  The latter song is catchy and all, but I don't necessarily feel that it's for the best reasons.  I get that dull, descending one-phrase chorus stuck in my head whenever I listen to this album, which is more often than I'd care to because I'm always trying to convince myself that I just don't understand how great it is yet.  The more I listen to the disjointed, overly technical riffs coupled with the inconsequential songwriting and Sabin's weird warble, the more I just cement my position that Think This is... well kinda shitty. 

I admit this may be a case of me knocking this album down a couple pegs simply because I liked the previous one so much, but fuck how could I not?  Think This lacks nearly everything that made the previous album so entertaining.  There's no vibrancy or life to this album, it's a strange automaton instead of this wacky carnival explosion that World Circus was.  I understand that Toxik was trying to take themselves in a different direction here, so the fact that it's different shouldn't surprise me, nor should I see it as a failure on a technical level, since they did succeed at making the much more oppressive, cerebral album they'd set out to.  But... but damn they just aren't as good at this.  Sabin's vocals irritate the hell out of me and I'll never understand why he's so universally revered, especially since this is the only album he was ever featured on, across any band.  Christian's riffs are good but have almost zero staying power and are often weird for the sake of weirdness instead of the sake of flow.  I like bits of it, the bass playing is impressive and the solos are wild, and the straightforward bits are good, but there're just so many attempts at cleverness and convoluted oddities that just fall flat that I can neither enjoy this album fully, nor can I comprehend why nearly every other thrash fan on the planet can.  If this herky-jerky, broken, front loaded album with a tone deaf wailer who just happens to have crazy high range is really among the best thrash has to offer, then I'm afraid I'll have to turn in my leather jacket and cut my hair, because this just is not for me.

RATING - 51%

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Warseid - Where Fate Lies Unbound

Where... something lies unbound

Blatantly Obvious Fact of the Day: I tend to like music that comes from my hometown region!  Shocking, I know!  But whenever I find myself talking about Midwestern metal, I find it to be thrash metal most of the time.  I guess a bit of black metal too, as the legendary Judas Iscariot hails from DeKalb, and the more modern take in Arbor comes from Milwaukee, and I guess there's a lot of death metal too, and there's some great trad metal like High Spirits... okay so I didn't think this sentence through before starting it, but the point is that epic viking metal isn't normally what the scene is known for.  And obviously, that is what Madison's so-young-even-the-Greek-wouldn't-fondle-them kids in Warseid provide listeners with.

With Wisconsin being the frozen wasteland devoid of anything other than ice cream and shitty sports teams, it's no surprise the desolate atmosphere comes across so vividly in the band's newest EP, Where Fate Lies Unbound.  Despite hearing the particular descriptor tacked on to nearly every Scandinavian black metal band to ever exist, it's rare I hear music and think to myself "Yup, this sounds like winter", so Warseid earns points straight off the bat for getting something as abstract as a season synethesially put to music.  Basically all of the slower passages (and each of the four tracks feature at least one slow section) present the bone-chill and inherent hopelessness of trekking through snow-swept landscapes and traversing icy mountains.  The clean passages in the 11+ minute closer, "Farewell" coupled with the harmonized vocals really get across a feeling of cold sadness, whilst casting away a fallen brother before lighting his boat on fire and pelting him with flaming arrows (Viking funerals are fucking hardcore). 

The fact that I've used a lot of Viking imagery to describe the feel of the album shows that Warseid has managed to tap into a vein that so many bands aim for and miss with damn near hilarious frequency.  Where Fate Lies Unbound truly deserves the tag of "viking metal", as opposed to the hideous misnomer I see consistently applied to bands like Amon Amarth and Hammer Horde.  Yes, this smacks of Vintersorg and mid-era Bathory much more than any type of dorky folk metal or melodeath babble, though I can't help but feel like the aggressive aspect of the music is given a bit more time in the limelight than their predecessors.  Coming from a fan of thrash and tech death and punk, obviously more aggression is something I love to hear in any style of music, it's why I like Ortagos more than Xasthur and it's why I actually like this young outfit more than many of their peers.  And with that said, I must point out that these boys manage to balance the downtrodden sounds of needless bloodshed, the fire of battle, and the epic relief of triumph masterfully.  I can't point to any of the four songs on display as "the fast one" or "the ballad" or anything like that, all four of them act as their own self contained tale of honor and bloodshed, and the EP feels more like one cohesive experience as opposed to merely a collection of songs as a result.

Now, granted this does mean that the album is somewhat lacking in variety from track to track, with each and every song containing a segment with soaring keys and triumphant tremolo riffs and an accompanying section of sad clean guitars and whatnot, but the variety within each track makes up for it in my eyes.  A full length album of this would surely wear out its welcome before the end of the running time, but as a four track, 30 minute EP it works marvelously, and there really isn't much more I can ask out of the band.  Maybe it's because I've heard somewhere between zero and two Borknagar songs in my lifetime, so there's a chance I'm reaching a bit when it comes to similarities, but in addition to the obvious Nordland type Bathory influence, I can't help but also think of Northland.  Yeah, that obvious Ensiferum knockoff from Spain, that Northland.  The harsh vocals sound nearly identical to me, with even the same minor distortion when they get louder, so that certainly helps in the comparison, but really and truly it's simply the fact that sounds like if Freezing Sadness was more ambitious, better produced, and written by a band mature enough to reach for more than one band for inspiration.

So basically if you like legit viking metal (think Twilight of the Gods, not Twilight of the Thunder God), then you really can't go wrong with Warseid.  I see them constantly tagged as "symphonic black/folk metal", which I guess isn't wrong, but really all I can think of when listening to Where Fate Lies Unbound are the OG, real viking metal bands.  Listen and judge for yourself I suppose, which you can totally do effortlessly since you can stream this entire EP for free on the band's Bandcamp, and if you're a super nice soul you can buy the darn thing too, along with some killer merch.  I'm not even affiliated with the band, I just like this so much that I can't help but act as a shameless promotion machine, bite my anus.

RATING - 83%

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Lamb of God - Resolution

A self fulfilling prophecy

"This is the resolution / The end of all progress"

So speaketh Randall Blythe, nine years prior to the release of 2012's Resolution.  I note this because not only is that one of the better moments of one of the better songs ("Ruin") on that particular album (As the Palaces Burn), but it also wound up being hauntingly prophetic.  I understand that not every band can be Sigh, not everybody can reinvent themselves with every album, but I also understand that not every band can be Vader either, and just pump out album after album with almost no deviation from their set formula or  experimentation apart from the odd foible once per album.  Lamb of God churned out six eh-to-good albums if you include the album released under their old name, Burn the Priest.  Each of these albums was distinct from one another, and showed the band continually growing and learning and branching out and solidifying the sound they'd become so infamous for.  Burn the Priest was raw and primal, a very rough outing from a young, hungry band, New American Gospel was dirtier, and one of the most genuine albums that the metalcore genre had ever given us, with the visceral frustration shining through with a tragic, one-of-a-kind vocal performance, As the Palaces Burn saw the band present a more song oriented album, Ashes of the Wake saw the technicality bumped up a massive amount and the sound cleaned up considerably from the intentionally harsh and sloppy production of the early albums, Sacrament marked the point where the band almost entirely dropped the concept of breakdowns and instead focused on more melodic lines and straightforward Pantera-esque groove, and lastly Wrath presented us with a renewed youth, as it was the angriest and harshest effort the band produced in nearly ten years, with Blythe's deteriorating voice showcasing more high screams and semi-clean yells.

That was a long history lesson that you didn't care about, I get that, but the point of that was to illustrate that, despite how much shit the band gets among the underground metal community, I can still point out how they had grown and evolved from each album to the next.  Resolution marks "the end of all progress" for Lamb of God.  This is the first album where I can honestly say that it sounds like they're out of ideas.  They've had the same five members since the name change, quite an admirable feat, but I can't help but feel like they've stopped pooling their different ideas from different tastes and backgrounds when it comes time to write the songs, and instead just decided "yeah this is what we sound like, let's just do that again, we can't tour in support of Wrath forever".  And so they trudged their way into the studio, with a handful of songs each member had written (since songwriting isn't as much of a collaborative effort with the band as it is just each dude writes a few songs and that's it), and in a stunning display of professionalism, decided not to cull it down to the choicest cuts and instead just recorded all four-fucking-teen of them.

Yeah, despite "only" being 50 minutes long, Resolution is a marathon listen if only by virtue of the fact that there are so many songs with so few ideas between them that you have to sit through.  From the painfully dull attempt at sounding doomy with "Straight for the Sun" to the painfully dull attempt at sounding epic with "King Me", everything about this album is painfully dull.  I know I just harped on how safe and predictable this album is and then used "doomy" and "epic" to try to describe the bookends of the album, but trust me everything else in between is a dull attempt at sounding like themselves.  The Pantera influence that became their primary outside source of inspiration around 2006 smacks you in the pie hole harder than ever here, except with Pantera's Southern edge, we're treated to the signature Lamb of God scale.  I know fuck all about theory so I can't tell you what mode it's in or what scale they rape all the time, but if you've ever heard a Lamb of God song before, you know what that particular sound is.  "The Undertow" here is based on a riff that I could swear was featured on at least three different songs on Ashes of the Wake

The saddest part about that is that "The Undertow" is one of the better songs off the album.  Lamb of God has always kind of been a "hit single" type band, with each album having a few obvious standouts that become singles and live staples, while the rest of the album will feel rushed and partially uninspired.  I like every previous release by the band, and I can still acknowledge this obvious problem in their career.  Resolution is no exception, it's front loaded with all of the good songs ("Desolation", "Guilty", and "The Undertow") in the first third while the rest of the album is left to flop around helplessly like a fish out of water as it tries desperately to repeat the past success they once so easily reaped.  "The Number Six" and "Insurrection" mess around with these awful nu-metally passages that had absolutely no chance of succeeding within the confines of the songs, so those stand out in a negative way, as does literally every other song I haven't already mentioned by name.  The first time I heard the advance single, "Ghost Walking", I immediately declared the album dead on arrival, as I knew the band had a knack for promoting their best songs, and if this was the best their longest album to date had to offer, I knew for sure it wouldn't be worth an established fan's time.  That song alone is indicative of almost the entire album.  Chris Adler (the one member of the band that even detractors can usually freely admit is stellar) just baps away at his drumset with almost no creativity, no interesting fills or patters, he just goes through the motions along with the riffs, which are also completely phoned in groove metal riffsets taken straight off the shelf.  "Invictus", "Cheated", "Visitation", "To the End", all of these songs can be described exactly the same way.  It's the sound of a band getting older and more robotic and just going through the motions.  There's almost no fire left anymore.

The key word in there is "almost", as those three good songs I mentioned are all fiery as hell and rock like nobody's business.  "Desolation" is easily the choicest cut on the album, being strongly reminiscent of the band's most tragically underappreciated track, "Beating on Death's Door".  It's a fast paced, semi-thrashy track that takes the element of groove and speeds it up far faster than it should logically be grooving.  "Guilty" and "The Undertow" are more in line with their heavy grooves and catchiness being blended with exhilarating intensity and a blistering drum performance.  Lamb of God has always been known for their simplistic straightforwardness (as misleading as that is, really), but I felt the band was always at their best when kicking up the tempo past the easily digestible mark.  I love "Laid to Rest" and "Hourglass" as much as any other fan should, but there's an inimitable charm to their over-the-top fast songs like "Forgotten", "Purified" or of course, "Beating on Death's Door".  These three songs fit into that category of the specific substyle of LoG song that I adore so much, and for that reason alone, Resolution isn't a complete embarrassment.

But it's pretty close to complete.  It's clear to me and to many others that the band was pretty much sapped at this point, just phoning in a new album to give them an excuse to hit the road again.  Perhaps the recent arrest of Randy Blythe could spark a new flame within the band to reignite their passion that Resolution so blatantly lacks.  As it stands, this could be either the death knell for their career or the unfortunate stinker in their discography.  I'd prefer it to be the latter, but with the constant in-fighting and tension within the band (each new album since 2006 has been coupled with me proclaiming my surprise that they managed to not break up yet) I suspect that Lamb of God's reign on mainstream metal may soon be coming to a close.  Easily skippable, if not for "Desolation" at the very least.

RATING - 36%

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

BH Awards 2012 and All That Bollocks

Once again the snow is falling everywhere except for where I live and the year is drawing to a close.  Currently, at this instant, the turn of the new year, some of y'all are making some terrible decisions and macking on your married friends, some are currently blacked out and won't remember vomiting in the hot tub, others are upset because they missed the countdown while on the toilet with the taco shits, and there are probably even some of you sitting at home, quietly weeping into your hanky because you have as many friends as a half Orcish midget.  Did that make any sense?  Fuck no, but it's New Years and if I gave any less of a shit, I'd be taking one.  Also this could potentially be my last year end list for reasons I'll make clear when they become available, but just know this blog will be put on life support sometime during 2013.  Wow, this is a pretty dark opening, isn't it?  OH WELL let's quit moping about how my greatness will have to go on hiatus and how you're going to explain the hole you put in the basement door whilst falling up the stairs hammered, let's opine on some malted reveries and take a look back at what albums released in 2012 stack up as the cream of the crop.  Last year I ranked 15, and while I actually believe 2012 to have been an overall better year (to my surprise) than 2011, this is an awards ceremony and a "best of" list, not a wiki entry.  So I've compromised my list (read: ripped off my former colleague in Sargon the Terrible) and set it at 13 this year.  Yak yak yak let's go!


13: Black Breath - Sentenced to Life
These Seattle dirtbags got a lot of press early in the year, thanks largely to their presence on Southern Lord (how I hadn't heard of their previous album is anybody's guess), and damn if they didn't deserve it.  I know fuck all about crust, but Sentenced to Life, according to people smarter than I, is a gorgeous mix of crust, thrash, and death metal, and I'll just agree that that's probably correct.  The punk aggression underneath the layer of dried dirt makes for easily the dirtiest album on the list, and one of the best surprises out of Seattle since Russell Wilson.

12: Reinxeed - Welcome to the Theater
This is, surprisingly moreso than my hotly anticipated Luca Turilli's Rhapsody's Ascending to Infinity (which didn't make the cut), the perfect amalgamation of every corny cliche I love about over the top and exceedingly theatrical power metal.   Welcome to the Theater is a love letter to Hollywood, with each song representing a big blockbuster franchise.  Even before hearing this, I knew it would rule for one reason alone: there's a triumphant, bombastic, over the top and silly song about Back to the Future.  It would be illegal if this had turned out to suck.

11: Spawn of Possession - Incurso
I'm gonna be honest, I only got this album because the cover art reminded me of that underground boss from Ninja Gaiden II.   For my first Spawn of Possession album, I am thoroughly impressed.  This is a blend of the two styles of modern tech death I love; the Decrepit Birth style hypermelodicism, and the Neuraxis style riff writing.  Basically it's like Hour of Penance with a slightly more prevalent melody, and man what fan of Timeless Miracle doesn't want melody crammed into every style of music he listens to?  

10: Abnormality - Contaminating the Hivemind
This is pretty much the only good album I've ever heard come from Sevared records, and it's not merely "good", it's fucking incredible.  Everything about brutal death metal that should be, this is.  It's ear twistingly catchy, spine contusioningly heavy, brain falloutingly brutal, imaginaryadjectivingly well written.  Whereas so many bands on this roster use brutality as the end in of itself, Abnormality does it correctly and merely uses it as a tool to reach their chosen end, which is a great album instead of merely a brutal one.

9: Sectu - Gerra
The relatively unknown Sectu makes an appearance for the second straight year, this time with an even better album than last year's surprise of the year, Inundate.  Sectu continues their progression as a more surgically precise and melodically inclined reimagining of Immolation, and I couldn't possibly ask for more out of them.  This is a weird album because I haven't listened to it nearly as much as anything else on this list, but goddamn there isn't a single thing I would change about it.  You want to modernize OSDM?  This should be your bible.
8: Gargoyle - Niji Yuugou
The more I listen to Gargoyle, the more I realize there that they have a midas touch unseen outside of the likes of Running Wild's golden era.  Every album they produce ends up kicking me in the teeth with the force of twelve Mirko Cro Cops.  I'm on my eighth pair of dentures now.  I struggled with myself on whether this truly deserved to be on the list, considering there is no new material, and this is entirely made up of rewritten and rerecorded tracks from their early days.  But at the end of the day, it's one of the best of the year, it'd be an injustice to snub it.

7: Enabler - All Hail the Void
You may have noticed that I didn't specify this list was metal specific like I normally do, and that's because there are two albums that are so tailor made for metal fans and so good that I cannot in good conscience leave them off the list, and Milwaukee's Enabler is one of them.  This is maniacally high speed hardcore, brutal to the bone and probably loaded with crust influence since it reminds me of Weekend Nachos (though again I know nothing about crust so keep that in mind).  This is raunchy and violent and ear catching, and features the drummer from Fall Out Boy.  That's how good it is, I didn't even notice that last part until I'd been a fan for months.

6: Jess and the Ancient Ones - Jess and the Ancient Ones
And this is the other non-metal album that deserves a place on any metal fan's year end list.  This new wave of doomy psych rock and Blue Oyster Cult style music like Ghost, Year of the Goat, The Devil's Blood, and such has produced some good stuff (like the aforementioned), but JATAO just completely smokes the competition in my eyes.  If you can't appreciate the fiery call to the darkness in "Prayer for Death and Fire" or the absolutely haunting buildup of "Come Crimson Death", then your opinion simply does not matter anymore.  Also the vocalist for Demilich is the rhythm guitarist, how is that not awesome?
5: Dying Fetus - Reign Supreme
As much as I like Dying Fetus, I honestly never expected them to release an album of Top 5 quality like this, especially in a year as stacked as 2012, but by golly they did it.  Reign Supreme rivals their seminal, Misery Index backed Destroy the Opposition, and frighteningly frequently even manages to surpass it.  This is a more "normal" album for Fetus, but it works brilliantly.  The slams are there, the grooves and blasts and sweeps and everything that makes this band what it is is here in spades, but it's just the best it's been written and executed in over a decade.
4: Accept - Stalingrad
This new, Udo-less era of the band has been surprisingly stellar, hasn't it?  After the tragically flawed Blood of the Nations raised my expectations above their previous resting place of "none", Stalingrad stormed in and fixed every problem that plagued the previous album.  It's about three tracks and twenty minutes shorter, with more in your face rockers and less meandering plodders.  I can barely say anything bad about this album, and at one point in time it actually topped this list, which really only speaks to how fantastic the following three albums are.

3: Hour of Penance - Sedition
It's pretty much a given that any year Hour of Penance releases an album, it's going to make an appearance on my year end list.  These Italians have never slowed down and never changed their focus away from crushing the cross with as much vigor and resolve as a sentient jackhammer on 'roids.  These guys one-up themselves with each and every album, which nearly every band aims for and claims to do, but so few actually succeed in doing.  HoP is a special breed, and as long as they're doing what they do best (that is manically brutal tech death), this trend of seeing their name on my lists will not abate any time soon.

2: Cannibal Corpse - Torture
The first time I heard the preview track, "Demented Aggression", I called this as my album of the year.  This was back in February, and for only one album to come along since then to dethrone this is quite an accomplishment.   People give Cannibal shit all the time for never changing what they do, and Torture serves as a giant middle finger to those critics.  This is faster, more aggressive, and more frantic than anything they've done in years, and as a result is probably their best since Bloodthirst, maybe even the best they've ever done.  And in a discography that includes Kill, Tomb of the Mutilated, and the aforementioned Bloothirst, that's a bold statement.

And the winner is...

1: Sigh - In Somniphobia
You all knew this was coming, this doesn't surprise anybody.  Really and truly, no album deserves this honor more than Sigh's latest masterpiece, the inimitable and frankly flawless In Somniphobia.  I've gabbed on and on and on in what (if I remember correctly) is my longest review to date, so if you'd really like to know what makes this album leagues above everything else released since the early 90s when Painkiller was released, go on ahead and read that.  Believe me, Sigh completely owns the market on "weird" metal, and I maintain that no metal track has been as good as "The Transfiguration Fear" since as far back as 1984.  This album throws absolutely everything at you and it never once falls flat.  The long jazzy songs, the creepy nuances, the eerie jubilance, just everything that gets thrown sticks, every single idea hits a bullseye.  Albums like this happen once a generation and I'm glad I was able to see this one happen in its own time.  Easily my BH Award for Album of the Year 2012, and I'm just going to preempt it as my Album of the Decade as well.  

Honestly, this is the happiest I've been with a year end list since I started doing this as unofficial forum posts back in ~2006.  What I have here is solid, and unless I really somehow managed to miss a gigantically important album, I don't see this one changing too drastically.  And with all that said, it's time for the more minor categories, plus a new one I don't normally do!


Stormrider - The Path of Salvation: It sucked to leave this one off the list because I really like it and want to help give the band some exposure, but it was juuuuust a bit under the other ones I have up there.  This is what Iced Earth would sound like if Jon Schaffer never existed.  Instead of lazy dun dududh dun dududh dun riffs over and over and over, we're treated to creative song structures, wild basslines, out of this world riffs and a vocalist who could convince Matt Barlow that he was listening to himself.

Desultor - Masters of Hate: The spiritual successor to last year's Satan's Host album.  I love this new idea of extreme metal with soaring clean vocals, and I'm really, really hoping it catches on, and Desultor is pretty much the only band I've heard all year to do it, so they get mad respect from me on that point alone.  Keep it up, new bands!  I want more of this shit!

Cronosphere - Envirusment:  It's just thrash, that's all there is to it, but it's really good thrash.  It's the highest ranking pure thrash album on my full list of the ~140 releases I heard this year, so y'all should check it for that reason.  It's like if Chuck Billy fronted a band that wasn't boring as fuck.

Allegaeon - Formshifter: It was a great year for tech death, and this gets a mention for also blending itself with melodeath and doing it beatifully.

Running Wild - Shadowmaker: I HAVE TO BE CLEAR ON THIS: SHADOWMAKER IS NOT MENTIONED HERE BECAUSE OF HOW GOOD IT IS.  It isn't, it's pretty lame overall, but it's getting a mention because of how awful it really isn't.  I was expecting this to be a soul crushing disappointment, and the mere fact that there are threeish songs that I classify as pretty good means it absolutely shattered my expectations.  This isn't for fans of Running Wild, because it's basically just The Brotherhood part II, but it's still better than Rogues en Vogue.  Granted that isn't much of an accomplishment, but for an album that I had dead and buried the instant it was announced, it was a pleasant surprise to not want to throw it in a fireplace after first listen.


Orden Ogan - To the End: This album isn't bad really.  It has some good songs and some not so good ones, and overall I'd consider it decent, not something to really avoid.  But the fact of the matter is that this album is blowing the socks off of nearly every power metal fan on the planet, with some relatively high profile ones proclaiming that this blows Blind Guardian out of the water, and for the life of me I can't fathom how one could hear this and come to such a conclusion.  It's not a bad album by any means, it's on the positive end of the spectrum, but god damn if you expect this to be as life affirming as so many others seem to feel it is, you'll be sorely disappointed like I was.

Ahab - The Giant: Call of the Wretched Sea is great.  It's baby's first funeral doom, but it's still a very well written and enjoyable album.  I'm in the minority who prefers The Divinity of Oceans, as the melodic bent works extremely well with their lighter style of megaslow doom.  The Giant, on the other hand, is just a great big flop.  It's more melodic, so it had potential, but it's life drainingly boring.  There are little to no interesting sections and it's just a huge disappointment after how much I enjoyed the previous album.

Wintersun - Time I: This didn't necessarily disappoint me on a qualitative level, as I was expecting this to be as bad as it was, but the disappointment comes from the brazen lack of respect for the patient fans who'd been waiting for this album for the past eight years.  You have to have quite a set on you to push back so long and so frequently and then only deliver half of the final product and wait god knows how long to release the second half.  It's a slap in the face to fans so monumental that even I, a non-fan, feel personally slighted.

Ensiferum - Unsung Heroes: Ensiferum is a very, very important band to me.  I have so many good memories tied to their music and they were seminal in helping my taste evolve to what it has become.  They were hinting at experimentation and a bold, ambitious new path they intended to blaze on From Afar... and then Unsung Heroes comes out and just takes a big smelly shit right on their legacy.  The fact that something this lazy and phoned in managed to pass the band's acid test shows me that their heart isn't in this anymore.

Striker - Armed to the Teeth: Keep in mind this is in my top third for the year, but after how hooky and fun Eyes in the Night was, this just feels tame.

Now, I didn't listen to as much non-metal this year as I usually do, so instead I'm going to indulge my dark side and present:


10: Manowar - The Lord of Steel
Do I really need to explain why a post-1988 Manowar album is shit?  Of course not, but this one earns bonus points for how awfully the release and reaction to criticism was handled.  First the album is given away with Metal Hammer magazine, and when everybody pointed out that the album is not only shit, but sound like it was exported from Guitar Pro, we get Joey DeMaio acting like he was some brilliant mastermind and cackled as he released the "real" version several months later, with an improved (muffled) mix and unimproved songwriting.  This was a buzzy mess and everybody defending it simply has bad taste.  No exceptions.

9: 3 Inches of Blood - Long Live Heavy Metal
It's amazing how everybody complained about the metalcore screamer, and then when he left the band the music suddenly got inexcusably lazy and boring.  This is right in line with the precedent set on Here Waits Thy Doom, dull, tired heavy metal tracks that can at least keep the tempo consistently high and the vocals always entertaining, but they can't write an interesting song to save their lives anymore.  Seeing the fourth installment of the "Upon the Boiling Sea" saga was pretty much an unnecessary slap in the face to me since that's a perfectly finished trilogy and feels like the band is needlessly teabagging Advance and Vanquish, which I consider a modern day classic to be revered in the future.

8: Kalopsia - Amongst the Ruins
I almost feel bad placing this here because there's nothing really and truly offensive to be found here, but there's really no better example of safe, bland, faceless, cookie cutter BDM with no interesting qualities within a galaxy's reach.  Perhaps I'm unfairly singling this out, and I'll admit to that, so just consider Kalopsia to represent the current modern, non slammy BDM scene as a whole.
7: Saratoga - Nemesis
This band apparently has a very lengthy history that nobody gives a fuck about, and if this exceedingly boring album is indicative of their normal output then I completely understand why.  Spanish power metal with an unbearably flat production and the least catchy choruses I've probably ever heard.  I can't even say much about it because it's just so goddamn dull.

6: Fields of Elysium - Capax Universi
I've been over this a thousand times so I'll just recap this really quickly.  Tech death is awesome when it's focused and contextualized, it's awful when it's a haphazard mess of unrelated sweeps and one second long blast beats.  Add in an unbearable amount of dissonance and this becomes just fucking painful to listen to.  It's like Dillinger Escape Plan, Behold the Arctopus, and Rings of Saturn all got super hammered together and decided to have a "who can make less musical music" contest.  Despite it being in the lower half of this list, it's one of the few that's actually painful to listen to.

5: Memoria - Inner War
This is tagged all over the internet as "heavy metal", and considering they're a Chicago band, that must mean I'd be pretty generous toward my hometown, right?  Fuck no, not in this case.  How this is simply heavy metal to so many people is a mystery to me, this is straight up 90s groovy metal/hard rock.  The vocals are lazy and reminiscent of... man I'm drawing a blank but it's some 90s grunge/hard rock band.  This is like if Prong was less interesting and Machine Head was less heavy.  Stick with High Spirits if you want killer trad metal from Chicago.  Also, cover art... Coma of Souls much?  You hacks.

4: Whitechapel - Whitechapel
I'm not one to shoot fish in a barrel (I prefer it to be in a suit, I think they appreciate the extra professionalism.  WAKA WAKA), but this really and truly is wretched.  Whitechapel has always been my textbook example of a great name being wasted on a terrible band, but really A New Era of Corruption wasn't that bad.  I won't want to rip my ears off if somebody puts it on, like I would with any Suffokate album.  But this is just falling off the deep end.  Almost full on into Emmure style nu-deathcore, and it's really, really awful as a result.  There are flashes of what used to make the band passable, but overall they are GONE.

3: All That Remains - A War You Cannot Win
I don't even want to think about this album anymore.  Phil's vocals are lazy and phoned in, the songs are lazy and phoned in, the solos aren't even entertaining anymore.  I can't even use the excuse that "Well at least Oli deserves to be in a better band" anymore because he really doesn't at this point.  I can just keep saying "lazy and phoned in" and that really sums all of it up.  What makes it even worse is that it was already lazy and shitty three albums ago.  All That Remains needs to just break up and disappear already.
2: Brute Forcz - Out for Blood
This album doesn't exist as far as I'm concerned, just read my review if you really want to know why it's so terrible.  What?  My review has no musical description and is merely a cavalcade of juvenile fat jokes?  Oh well, it's still better than the album.  I hate creators talking up their shit like it's something amazing, but really, saying you created something better than Brute Forcz takes essentially 1% effort.  I create something better than Brute Forcz after every meal.


1: Permafrost - On That Side of Life
Believe it or not, there really was something worse than Brute Forcz that came out this year.  How bad is it?  Well Brute Forcz is still on my iPod, fucking Permafrost got deleted.  Not unchecked, deleted.  Not to make room for more music, just because it was so fucking bad that I didn't want to see it in between Pense and Perpetual Fire.  I barely remember anything about it other than it was beyond retardedly lo-fi brutal death metal that sounded like it was written on the fly and recorded in one take.  Maybe I'm wrong, but I trust my past self in assessing the merits of this album.  This only reinforces my belief that nothing good comes out of Russia (keep your weird obscure BM bands to yourself, that's a mood music for me and I much prefer Northern Europe and Scandinavia's brand than Eastern Europe's anyway).  Congratulations, Permafrost, on the dubious honor of actually being worse than Brute Forcz, be... proud I guess?

And there we have it!  It feels weird to actually get this out on time for once, and right at midnight too!  Working ahead is a good thing I guess.  I hope you've all had a wonderful 2012 like I did.  I was rather surprised at how awesome this year turned out to be for my taste in music, as all the pre-year hype seemed to be centered around black, doom, and sludge metal, the three subgenres I listen to the least.  Thankfully it looks like death metal really stepped up to the plate this year, whereas thrash was pretty inconsequential and many of the worst albums I'd heard were trad or power metal.  Who knows?  It seems like there wasn't a whole lot of creativity and instead a ton of safe mediocrity coming from those camps with less stellar standouts.  We can't win 'em all now can we folks?  

Anyway, I wish you all a happy and safe New Years celebration.  Don't do anyone I wouldn't do.  Actually, do do those whom I would not do so I can do those I would.  I get lonely around the holidays, okay?  Buy me a Sigh shirt!