Sunday, December 20, 2015

Grailknights - Calling the Choir

A tale of two songs

One look at Grailknights and it's incredibly obvious why I wanted them to become my favorite band.  Look at them!  That's so unbelievably dorky and silly that there's no fucking way I could ever not love them.  Aaaaand that's why their music is so disappointing.  In a way, they live up to their image of silly superheroes perfectly, because they're nothing but cornball cheese from the word "go", but they've always had a huge problem with making more than a handful of songs per album memorable in any way, and that issue has carried over to their new album, Calling the Choir.  I can wrap it up right now if I wanted to by simply saying that the title track and "Morning Dew" are the only songs worth really listening to.  There, you're done, nothing more needs to be said.

But there is more here, and unfortunately the biggest issue is, oddly enough, what isn't on this album.  That, obviously, is Mac Death, the bassist who used to carry the songs with a superb deep growl that had no right being as good as it was.  He kept the songs fresh with pummeling melodeath parts and a voice on par with Johan Hegg or Niilo Sevanen.  He was a guy whose talent clearly far outweighed the rest of the band, and so with his departure the band is left reeling with a huge component of their sound missing.  There are harsh vocals thrown in here and there, but they're nowhere near as memorable or massive as they once were, with Sir Optimus Prime (I'll never get tired of typing that) taking over all vocal duties since the split.  His clean voice is deep and powerful and leads to some pretty great choir sections, but unfortunately that's the sole redeeming factor on this album.  Basically the entire band other than him was replaced in 2011, which means almost all of the personnel from the frankly way-better-than-it-should-be Alliance is no longer present, and it shows.  A lot of character has been lost, and now what we're left with is a very average folky power/melodeath band with a silly gimmick.

When "Calling the Choir" opened up the album, I caught myself rocking out with a really stupid smile on my face.  "Oh yeah", I said to myself, "it seems like they haven't missed a step in the six years since the last album, this is just as fun and goofy as it should be".  With pounding double bass and soaring melodies, plus one of the catchiest choruses they've ever laid to tape, I had my sights set on a great, fun power metal album loaded with beer swigging, fist pumping anthems.  The next track, "Now or Nevermore" felt like a really strange one to follow that huge anthem up with, riding on a really boring galloping riff and a passionless chorus that couldn't elicit any emotion from me if I was on shrooms and my period.  It went in one ear and out the other, with nothing of consequence passing through the speakers for the entire five and a half minute runtime.  Thankfully, "Morning Dew" picked things up again, being a hilariously jaunty tune with a phenomenal folky pre-chorus that plastered that idiotic grin right back on my face.  It's a live staple of Wacken-metal if I've ever heard one, and I love every second of it.  This is the kind of thing the band is great at, and they really need to focus on songs like this.  It's full of terrible cliches that most bands should really try to avoid, with a standard progression and stereotypical Finntroll style folk sections, but it works marvelously with the silly cliche the band shamelessly tries to be.

And then the rest of the album happens, and it's quickly revealed that "Now or Nevermore" was really the only other idea they had, because I swear that track might as well repeat for the last seven tracks (apart from the god awful ballad, "Anna Lee").  It's a bunch of identically structured, lame-ass half-songs that just pass by with utterly zero consequence.  Bland power metal with semi interesting vocals wrapped around a dumb gimmick, with the even the occasional heavier melodeath part being passionless and boring on the few occasions it actually rears its head (like on "End of the World"), as it's been all but completely excised.  It seems like Alliance was a total fluke, and even then that album is merely good.  They've fully embraced the fact that they're just a silly comedy band at this point, which is a shame because they had flashes of actual songwriting brilliance in the past, and even a few flourishes here on the two songs I singled out.  Every song sounds the same, they're all of a comparable length, just nothing stands out and it isn't worth listening to.  It's just slightly above mid-paced power metal and essentially hits one note the entire time, that's all.

And the cover of "Holding Out for a Hero" is pointless and inconsequential.  I've always been of the mindset that metal bands covering pop songs is a useless novelty that works out roughly 1% of the time, and this doesn't change my mind.

RATING - 49%

Ningen-Isu - Kaijin Nijuu Mensou

Witty titles are beyond me

Ningen-Isu (named after the extremely disturbing story, The Human Chair (read the Junji Ito manga about it, if you hate sleeping)), has a long and illustrious career that's ended up all but invisible in the grand scheme of things outside of their home country.  This unfortunate invisibility has extended even to me, a fan of bands from Japan that eschew the stereotype of excessively overproduced flower metal and instead take more traditional and extreme forms of metal and twist them with that inimitable oriental flavor (Sigh and Gargoyle being the two most obvious culprits), and as such I'm only truly familiar with the three most recent albums; Shigan Raisan, Mandoro (my favorite of the bunch), and Burai Houjou (though this album has "Namahage", which is their best song of what I've heard).  So with that in mind, I decided to snag a completely random album from some other time in their career, and with that I ended up with 2000's Kaijin Nijuu Mensou.

The base idea of taking Black Sabbath and shifting everything 90 degrees counterclockwise is still the main idea here, with smatterings of 70s hard/prog rock and other assorted influences from all across the board, and it's just as great as their newer stuff.  Ningen-Isu is renowned for a stunning consistency in their work, and I'm starting to understand the praise, as these songs are all varied in their approach, while all focusing on a trench digging groove that bores its way into your psyche and refuses to leave.  Much like Manowar's debut (an obviously entirely different style of band and album), the assorted hard rock influences keep everything upbeat and creative, refusing to rely on the time tested tropes of trad/doom metal like this so easily could have done.  Tracks like "Keimusho Wa Ippai" and "Meitantei Toujou", and the title track have a very distinct 70's classic rock feel to them, while tracks like the absolutely stunning "Daidanen" and "Ashinagagumo" revel in the Vol. 4 era of Sabbathian psychedelic doom hypnosis, and there's even a few curveballs late with "Jigoku Fuukei" being a straight up blitzkrieg of thrash metal and "Tanoshii Natsuyasumi" starting off as a late 70's Judas Priest styled speed metal track before descending into some downright trancelike progressive doom.  The band is positively bursting with fresh ideas at every turn, and there's nothing that they seem to be uncomfortable with.  I feel like this is what truly happens when a band decides to put all of their influences into their music, no matter how diverse.  Instead of a slapdash tossed salad of random dickery, you get tons of creative, flowing, organic songs from all corners of your mind across a decades long career. 

I've heard Shinji Wajima, the guitarist and lead vocalist, described as the metal version of Master Roshi.  He's this tiny, frail, goofy old man who hides a monstrous, planet splitting power.  The riffs here may not be as skull splittingly heavy as Mandoro over a decade later, but there's a punishing weight held behind the more sinister riffs on display that showcase the latent destructive force he's clearly holding back.  Kaijin Nijuu Mensou is overall a very lighthearted and upbeat album, with songs that groove more than churn for most of the runtime, leaving a smile on your face instead of a menacing sneer, but it's clearly there, and quick explosions like "Jigoku Fuukei" and the pounding ritualism of "Yaneura no Neputa Matsuri" showcase this masterfully.  Wajima's vocals are crystal clean, with a strong presence that pushes its way to the front without snubbing the rest of the band, and the mid ranged croons and howls stand out as one of the identifying features of the band.  When you imagine old Japanese monks, this is the voice you're imagining voicing their hymns.  He sounds like a desperately passionate daimyo cooing down a mountainside while a small group of shirime follow him with instruments crafted out of a dying sakura tree, playing odes to something mystical that nobody truly understands. 

Despite my natural inclination towards faster, more energetic music, there is a simple beauty in simplicity that I absolutely adore, and I think that's why I have such respect for Ningen-Isu.  They revel in this focused and deliberate style of songwriting and riff crafting, and that's how the world ends up with riffs as beautiful as the main riff in "Hiruta Hakase no Hatsumei", potentially my favorite track.  It's four notes, just a simple pattern and simple progression, but it works unlike anything else.  It's a very Sabbathian riff that conjures up so much wild imagery that it should be taught at fucking Berklee.  Unfortunately, in a paradoxical twist, this simplicity is also the reason behind the album's sole downfall, that being the fact that two of the three long songs just feel like they take fucking forever to finish.  "Imomushi" rides on a very pleasant melody that's soothing to listen to, but wears thin before the final section of bouncy riffage, and despite being the most overtly heavy song on display, "Yaneura no Neputa Matsuri" just drags on and on.  Only "Daidanden" is spared for simply being written slightly better, I don't know how else to explain it (it helps that the bass groove is just the damn grooviest thing ever).  But that's really it, two songs that I think are a little bit too long, everything else is a wonderful experience that more people need to hear.  Despite the obvious parallels, I don't see myself ever giving this band the Gargoyle treatment (ie. just never shutting the fuck up about them), but they're a wonderful group of tight, skilled musicians that understand to keep things simple and focused, and the expert grooves and general joviality of Kaijin Nijuu Mensou make it a worthy listen for anybody of traditional styled metal and hard rock.

RATING - 88%

Tyranny - Aeons in Tectonic Interment

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn


I don't know what else to say, Tyranny is just ludicrously heavy, and basically nothing this year had me quite as hyped up as the promise of a followup to the stellar Tides of Awakening a decade prior.  I'm not the most well versed in funeral doom, but I know good music when I hear it, and Tyranny was damn fucking good at what they did.  Ten years is a long time to go with nary a peep from a band, so I'm sure that skepticism (I'm so fucking clever) was high leading up to this album, but I can confidently say that the band hasn't missed a step.

Now, that's not to say that Aeons in Tectonic Interment surpasses its predecessor, because it doesn't, but it's pretty close to being on equal footing.  The skull squeezing heaviness and overwhelming crunch of everything is just as apparent as ever, and the fathomless misery is on full display here, but overall I feel like it's missing some sort of intangible to push it over the top like Tides of Awakening did.  It's a fantastic album, and I love almost everything about it, but it doesn't quite have that latent ability to make me want to kill myself, perhaps it's the cleaned up and slightly less murky production, I dunno.

Regardless, this is a brooding, deathly dirge of an album, and the glacial paced riffage still evokes the appropriate mood and atmosphere to set the stage for the eldtrich summoning ritual they probably had going on in the studio.  The otherworldly gurgle of the vocals just swallows everything around it, and these riffs are just the musical manifestation of Lou Ferrigno.  "Sunless Deluge" has a fucking brilliant section near the seven minute mark that exemplifies what I'm talking about exquisitely, focusing not on that crushing monolith of a riff that the song sets up earlier, instead slowly building up to a climax with low tom hits that might as well be played with fucking mjolnir.  The climax is also immensely satisfying, with a haunting lead playing over the slowest double bass you'll ever hear, it all coalesces into this gigantic release that makes the dreary mood of the previous ten minutes pay off wonderfully.  Every track does something to this effect, keeping the mood as bleak as necessary and clawing the ground as the slowly descend back into the depths from whence they came.  Tides of Awakening felt like being crushed by the entire ocean, and Aeons in Tectonic Interment feels like getting the Giles Corey treatment with the entirety of stonehenge.  This is dank and grimy, and it's perfect in that regard, and easily stands as the top doom album of the year for me and an easy year-end finisher in my personal top 13.

I'm going to wrap this up by borrowing a quote from a very strange person, because this gorgeous sentence was the only thing running through my head upon first listen, and say this album has "riffs that sound like 8-foot vertical concrete cocks and has a guitar tone like a bus with marble windows, traveling at 8 miles an hour, on its side."  If that doesn't make you want to hear this, then I don't want to know you.

RATING - 90%

Dissect - Swallow Swouming Mass


I've stated time and time again that one of my absolute favorite niche movements in metal history was the early death metal of the 1990s, at the time when the genre was just starting to figure out its identity and as such was still a primordial soup of thrash metal mixed in with what we would later learn to know as death metal.  Dissect comes from the tail end of that time period, so their sole album, Swallow Swouming Mass, seems to be one of the ones that got their shit together and solidified the twisted ideals of Morbid Angel and Entombed into a solid, slimy, brutal death metal release.

Despite early OSDM being among my favorite niches, I never write about it, and that's because it's frankly really hard to write about.  You know what it's gonna be, and the fact that the quality of damn near every single release you can dredge up, from the high profile acts of Florida, New York, and Stockholm, to the underground gems that didn't fully get the praise they deserved until long after their time as a band (like Demented Ted, Wombbath, and others) was so consistently high, there's really only so much you can say about them all.  This is what makes Dissect such a difficult target for me, I can tell you that the vocals are among the top echelon of their peers, with a deep, punishing growl on par with Ross Dolan, but that's really the only thing that stands out in any way.  That's not a knock against anything else present on the album, the rest of it is astoundingly well written and performed (other than maybe the lyrics being a bit silly at times, but even then I always appreciate a bit of levity), it just falls in line with what almost every other band in the genre was doing at the time, which is totally fine by me.  This comes from a time before blastbeats were the go-to crutch for every song, instead relying on those fast thrash beats that Kreator and Slayer helped pioneer, tastefully interspersed with flashes of Morbid Angel and Suffocation here and there, and it helps keep the songs varied throughout their runtimes.  The skill in the percussion comes less from inhuman endurance and more from creative songwriting, and it's a lesson that many modern drummers need to take note of.

Like Demilich, Funebre, Rottrevore, and apparently 80% of all other bands around this time, the band only managed to crank out one album before packing it in, and it's a shame, because I'd like to see how this would have developed.  The riffs are all very morbidly twisted and the vocals are guttural and hellish, the drumming is creative and the songs all mesh together to creative a craggly hellscape that I can't help but enjoy romping through.  It's hard to really go on at length about what this album offers because it's so cohesive and rides on a solid plateau of quality throughout the runtime (which is entirely the reason I rarely review early death metal by the way), so I find myself throwing vague superlatives out there without much else behind them.  I'm sorry kids, but that's really all I can do.  This is dark, engulfing, mid paced OSDM with that trademark Scandinavian flavor that makes it just a little bit slimier and more disgusting, and apart from the quick bass run in "Growls of Death", there isn't much to single out.  It's a great experience from beginning to end, and it's just another jewel in the veritable pirate chest that was death metal from 1990-95.

Oh, and the closing track is an 8 minute ode to a deranged serial killer who murders people with a localized chemical agent that makes you violently shit until you die.  Get back to me when you find another song like that.

RATING - 85%

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Optimist - Entseelt

Gritstained Murderfest

Some of the few weirdos who follow my writing might have noticed that I slowed down drastically this year, and there are a few reasons for that.  One of which is simply that I work 46-50 hours a week and I'm just exhausted and don't have much free time, another is that I lived without my computer for five days a week for most of the year (that has recently changed), so it's really been mostly impossible.  But honestly, one of the biggest ones is that I've been spending an inordinate amount of time with genres of music that aren't metal, which, frankly, is the only reason anybody knows who I am.  So with like 60% of my listening cycle being  punk and hardcore this year (two genres I like a boatload but simply am not familiar enough with to write about as analytically as I do metal (which I've been listening to in some form or another since I was a toddler)), there just hasn't been much for me to say.

Enter Germany's Optimist, four short haired moshers who did me the favor of combining the crunch and brutality of old school death metal like Brutality, Deicide, and Malevolent Creation, with the unrelenting drop Z force and barbarism of beatdown hardcore like No Zodiac, Xibalba, and Drowning.  Basically what this means is that Entseelt is fast paced but bursting with low end, while being brutally punchy but morbid and twisted.  It's extremity without going over either line, never fully relying on d-beats and Discharge riffs nor thrashy brutality of the early death metal acts from Florida in the early 90s.  The guitar tone is overwhelmingly fuzzy and heavy, not unlike being smothered with a wool blanket.  Vocally this leans more towards those early death metal bands, though you can tell there's a new school hardcore edge to it with how throaty and un-guttural it is.

More often than not, this leans towards the death metal side of the fence, and I think that's what the band does best, in all honesty.  There is an abundance of double bass and high tempos, with relatively few moments clearly made for two stepping, instead focusing on moshing and crowdkilling.  The slower moments all end up like "Kinder der Kälte", which is more twisted and crushing than anything else, bringing to mind some of the most sickly endearing moments of Blessed are the Sick.  Bone snapping riffs are abound, from the punk styled "Weltenbrand", to the mosh friendly stomp of "Leb auf den Knein", to the pure death metal brutality of "Ungebrochen", to the vaguely thrashy OSDM lunacy of "Dämmerung".  Despite all of these subtle differences in riff writing, the album does tend to roll together cohesively to the point where it's almost too much so, and loops around to being kinda samey.  It's only borderline in that regard though, and acts more as a full experience than a faceless blur.

While this never fully goes all out like Cannibal Corpse, it keeps the brutality high by essentially speeding up Suffocation breakdowns and treating them as the meaty main riffs they base their songs around, spiced up with enough simplistic chug riffing to keep the hardcore kids happy.  I've namedropped a lot of bands throughout this review, but in all honesty this is summed up easiest by comparing them to Disgrace, a band that's basically Jungle Rot with more slams and less guttural vocals.  Optimist fits right in alongside them and Xibalba in the realm of metallic hardcore nowadays, or maybe Nasty if they were less catchy.  It's non-technical metallic hardcore with enough energy and flavor to keep a speed freak adrenaline junkie like me satisfied, and while it won't be winning any end of the year accolades for 2014 anywhere, it's still a highly enjoyable slab of savagery that fans of both genres can gobble up excitedly.

RATING - 83%

Friday, December 18, 2015

Starblind - Dying Son

Iron Maiden fanfiction of the lowest order

To dig into Starblind, I need to call back two of my previous reviews referencing flawed but enjoyable power metal bands, Lancer and Athena.  I railed against both for several things, including weak vocals, bad production, recycled ideas, and lack of any real identity (less so with Athena, admittedly).  Now, you may also remember that I like both of those albums, with Twilight of Days standing right next to Into the Enchanted Chamber as one of my all time favorite obscure power metal albums.  That's because both of those bands, despite being cliche, silly, and/or dumb, powered through their flaws on the backs of charisma, songwriting talent, and/or just a knack for writing fun, memorable, catchy songs.  "Purple Sky", "Touch My Heart", "Mr. Starlight", "Twilight of Days", "Falling Ghosts", both albums were jam packed with cool tunes that made them vary from listenable to outstanding despite their woes.

Starblind is neither of those bands.

Basically what I mean is that Dying Son exemplifies every negative thing I had to say about both of those albums and yet manages to carry none of the superfluous strengths that redeemed them.  What we have here is bog standard heavy metal with a terrible vocalist, banal songwriting, wretchedly thin production, and the staying power of that zebra stripe gum.  I can hardly elaborate further than that, Starblind is a sentient void of skill that managed to sneakily squeak out an album sometime in 2015.  Nothing is on it, it might as well be blank.

I think my biggest complaint is really the vocalist, who I'm convinced is merely a friend of the band who got a spot in the lineup simply because he was a nice guy with a high voice who let the bassist crash on his couch a few times.  He reminds me of Olof Wikstrand on Enforcer's first album.  Ya know, before he was any good.  He seems to tunelessly wail at the top of his lungs throughout the entire runtime with no regard to what the song seems to be trying to do.  He's completely inept, doing his best screechy Bruce Dickinson impression after listening to The Final Frontier one time.  It's incessant, and it's irritating.  Bad vocals can really ruin any album faster than any other instrument, mostly because it just seems like a weird phenomenon in metal where you'll rarely hear a completely inept guitarist or something, so it always stands out like a pulsating cold sore.  This dude couldn't sing his way out of a grade school talent show, and it taints an already lame album even further.

Musically there's really nothing much to say, it's Piece of Mind era Iron Maiden worship of the most blatant kind, I'm not even sure I can pinpoint another influence on the band.  It's packed to the gills with galloping riffs and dual lead melodies, but none of them stick for longer than it takes to actually play the note.  I've sat here with this document open for like an hour trying to describe the music further than that, but I can't.  It's seriously just Maiden riffs and melodies ripped from the mid 80s and reapplied thirty years later sans any semblance of actual soul, repeated over and over and over again until you're ready to just leave the damn room and do anything else.  You can't just take something great and redo it and expect it to be as good as the original.  This is literally heavy metal fanfiction, and it's exactly as banal as you'd expect it to be.  Even if there were more original ideas present than "none at all", I can't imagine it'd last beyond a cursory listen before being written off for the terribad vocals and wafer thin production.  Just listen to Powerslave instead, because listening to Dying Son is akin to hearing the dude in the apartment next to you listening to that album just loud enough for you to know it's Maiden, but not loud enough for you to pick out any of the actual musical genius hidden behind his terrible singing along and "bloo boodoo bloo boodoo" onomatopoeia of the riffs anyway.

RATING - 18%

Wisdom - Words of Wisdom

Whhees ahh da wah!

Hungarian born power metallers, Wisdom, are an extremely frustrating while at the same time supremely satisfying group of fellows.  On one hand, they're one of the most generic and cookie cutter power metal bands to ever grace the planet.  Basically each and every song they've ever written has followed every cliche laid down by genre progenitors like Helloween, Hammerfall, and Sonata Arctica.  You listen to any given album and you know exactly what you're going to get, almost down to which melodies will appear and which songs will be the more aggressive one based purely on song titles.  On the other hand, they are bubbling over with songwriting talent that renders their reliance on heavy handed cliches relatively moot.  Their 2013 opus, Marching for Liberty is one of the more finely crafted works of art in terms of catchy replayability in all of modern power metal, eschewing grandiloquent orchestrations in favor of a meat-and-potatoes style of muscle bound riffage underneath an immaculate sheen and pristine vocal performance.  The predecessor, Judas, is no slouch either, replete with some of the catchiest numbers they'd ever pen (and even the happiest song about Silent Hill ever recorded).

Unfortunately, this review is for neither of those two albums.  Their debut is nothing more than adequate in the grand scheme of things.  While on the surface it isn't much different from what they'd release in the past, it stands as something of a disappointment from two different angles.  In the moment, it's a solid and respectable effort by a hungry young band, but it relies so much on the crutches of the genre that very little stands out in any way.  Yet when looked at through the scope of the present day, it's a weak listen because their skill is showcased so superbly on later records.  As such, Words of Wisdom stands as a bland, faceless power metal album apart from the odd song or two.

"Holy Vagabond" is a phenomenal song, with a chorus that'll incessantly worm its way into your skull and refuse to leave until you listen to it several times in a row, which quickly reveals itself as the band's biggest strength. What they lack in great vocals or flashy guitar playing, they make up for with an ear for melody on par with greats like Blind Guardian and Running Wild.  Most songs on the album are a flash of white noise occasionally punctuated by a stunningly crafty chorus.  It may have something to do with the vocalist being exposed as fairly weak and faceless during verses when he's singing solo, but when he's layered over himself a bunch of times it stands out as being much more powerful and entertaining.  Thankfully, the benefit of hindsight shows the growing pains of his rookie season, as he will only improve from this point forwards.  I don't mean to imply that Words of Wisdom is softened simply because of how good Marching for Liberty is, it's more that it's just highlighting all of the band's potential as initial weaknesses.  There's clearly room to develop here, as the songwriting is strong, cliche as it may be.  So the silky smooth vocals end up distractingly lame on this album, and the unimaginative percussion and stock riffs do nothing to help this stand out on the merits of the playing itself.

The band's real strength lies in their songwriting skills, as mentioned.  "Holy Vagabond" would be a concert staple if it was penned by Helloween (and let's be real, it might as well be), "Wisdom" carries an ohrwurm of a chorus, "Wheels of the War" stands out as being the most aggressive song on display, with a blazing fast and startlingly heavy verse riff and some cool viking styled war chants in the chorus, et cetera et cetera.  The problem is that any power metal fan who's heard more than three of the classic bands has heard all of these songs before.  Most of them are good songs at the very least (barring "Unholy Ghost", being the obligatory awful ballad that basically every power metal band seems determined to shoehorn into every album), so it's a fun listen every once in a while, it's just not anything you'll ever be itching to hear beyond "Holy Vagabond".  They can do much better, Judas and Marching for Liberty show that in spades.  Basically Words of Wisdom is an unrefined and sketchy album that has strengths in places, but overall is pretty bland.  I like the band plenty, but this is solidly and indisputably their weakest album.

RATING - 66%