Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Diamond Plate - Pulse

That's going to bleed when my heart beats

I'm not going into the history of the band this time, you all know it.  I loved Diamond Plate when they were furiously angry yet surprisingly sophisticated kids, and hated what they produced once they were signed to a major label and started homogenizing.  The point is that Pulse here is the logical continuation of what was found on Generation Why? two years prior.  It's still loaded down with that modern sheen, there are still a handful of moments that are surprisingly great, and it's more proggy and bloated with ideas that don't really work.  Pulse is, more than anything else, a very awkward and confused album from a band that's clearly in transition.

The main problem here is that this is clearly an album that's trying so hard to not be a thrash album, but at the same time trying so hard to retain the fans that fell in love with the band precisely because they were so good at thrash.  It's confused, pulling in several different directions at once, and as such there's pretty much no identity at all and everything comes off as forced and awkward.  The two tracks that approach and breach the six minute mark ("Still Dreaming" and "Rainmaker") are the only two places the band seems to sound confident in what they're doing, and they're both slower, more progressive-yet-stripped down affairs that call to mind the gloominess of Alice in Chains more than the high-octane "Megadeth meets Destruction" riffage they cranked out in alarming volume on the Relativity EP.  They both feature the new vocalist's clean vocals, which are lightyears better than his hilariously strained and forced snarl that permeate most of the songs.  They have a much more calm and alternative bent to them, and it just sounds so much more natural than his awful screeches.  I know they gave Jon Macak the boot for this guy and a lot of people seemed happy about it at the time for some reason, but I never bought it.  Jon didn't have a phenomenal voice or anything but he fit the wild-haired lunacy of the riffs wonderfully, and weak link though he may have been, he was still strong (which spoke to the staggeringly high quality of the band as a unit at the time).  Matt Ares on the other hand has a pretty good clean voice and a fucking awful harsh one, and the harsh vocals are still the most present on the album, not to mention his croak is going to be slathered all over the old songs live, so it was absolutely a downgrade for sure.  Unless the future of this band is to abandon thrash and anything approaching aggressive music ever again, he has to be one of the cruddiest choices imaginable.

And in all honesty, despite me loving their thrash work so much, their modern "we're for smart people now" approach seems to be the only way the band can truly evolve and come into their own.  Because most of the album still tries to carry some sort of metal attitude and swagger, and it just falls flat.  The opener, "Walking Backwards" stands as an exception, because it's the clear highlight of the album for me.  This is what they do best, hammer-wristed havoc and headbanging fervor with light tinges of melody and a modern twist on classic thrash.  The vocals are obviously sorta blech but the rest of the song does a pretty good job of reminding me why I liked the band in the first place, with a couple curveballs in the form of great grooves and an awesome guitar solo.  Everything else?  Not so much.  "Dance with Reality" is a complete nothing-song, and tracks like "Price You Pay" and "Running Dry" just flash past you with utterly zero consequence.  There aren't any riffs that just pummel you into submission like "At the Mountains of Madness" or "Criminal Justice" to be found here, instead replaced by simple chugs and rapid fire riggedyraka rhythms.  "All of It", for example, actually has a pretty cool Megadeth style chorus riff hidden behind an extremely bland early 90s Metallica style vocal line, but the rest of the song sounds like it's on autopilot.  Even the percussion, which used to do a pretty good job of standing out over the guitar's flashy theatrics, is relegated mostly to simple rhythm keeping beats and the occasional jazzy flair that doesn't fit at all.  I will give some credit to "Face to Face" though, as I love the structuring of it, starting off so calm and subdued and subtly building and building and building until the end of the song where it's just an all out frenzy.  The band sounds like they're coming apart at the seams there, and it sounds great.

Overall, despite a couple cool moments, Pulse is very much a "why bother?" album.  As it stands, it's clearly the band's low point, and on the off chance they keep on trucking for the next thirty years and craft a storied career, this is going to be remembered as the awkward transition album that didn't really work, like a hypothetical album that tried to blend Killers and Number of the Beast and just landed on the worst of both worlds.  "Rainmaker" stands out because it's the type of gloomy half-ballad dominated by clean vocals that I can see the band making work in the future, but even then it's kinda half-baked and doesn't sound fully developed.  They have a lot of growing to go, and I don't really like the direction they're going personally, but if they put out an album that sounds like a fully realized blend of modern Alice in Chains and Dead Heart in a Dead World era Nevermore, I could see them finding an audience and having a real identity.  And honestly, I'd rather a band suck at something I don't care for but at least sound like they're confident and happy with what they're doing than drop a half hearted slog of boring nothing-songs that can't figure out if they want to let loose or not.  Not recommended, especially to early fans of the band that saw them playing to thirty friends from school in a dingy club.  Because the people that latched on to them during that time are going to be sorely disappointed.  This isn't the same Diamond Plate from 2008, and it's time to accept that.

RATING - 34%

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Death Fortress - Deathless March of the Unyielding

Fortress of Maulitude

Longtime readers of mine have probably noticed that I don't cover a whole lot of black metal.  It's not because I don't like the style or anything, I'm just bad at writing about it.  I have the niches I love (from the blisteringly hateful like Infernal War's Redesekration and 1349's Hellfire, to the more traditionally hypnotic and atmospheric classics like Darkthrone's Under a Funeral Moon and Burzum's Hvis Lyset Tar Oss), but my thesaurus of musical bullshittery doesn't extent much further than death metal.  So forgive me for putting this bluntly, but Death Fortress's Deathless March of the Unyielding is fucking rad.

I've seen reviews scattered around the internet for these Jersey Boys' debut LP, Among the Ranks of the Unconquerable, and a lot of people seem to praise the band's atmospheric approach to black metal.  If that's the case, then Deathless March of the Unyielding here must be a pretty notable shift in style, because the atmosphere here remains present but takes a back seat to seething vitriol and pummeling riffage.  This borders on black/death at several points, most notably on the first side of the album, with tracks like "Enthroning the Oppresor" and "Scourge of Aeons" coming dangerously close to sounding like a much more black-leaning interpretation of modern Behemoth, and the nonstop intensity is the main reason why.  This shit doesn't let up for a second, right from the word "go" they proceed to just rend the entire universe asunder with twisted, malevolent riffs and manic percussion.  That's the main thing I take away from this album, it carries itself with such forward momentum that there is pretty much no room at all to breathe, and that's a plus for a guy who usually spends his time with punishing brutality in death metal.  The overwhelming oppression can get to be a bit much I admit, with there being relatively few standout moments instead acting as one overarching unit, but that really just means that the album nails what it's aiming for, so I can't fault it for being good at what it does.

The 10+ minute title track that closes out the album does stand out though, albeit for different reasons.  This is the one time the band takes their foot off the gas, but the bubbling hatred still overflows.  Lower vocals are utilized here, and the band takes on a much more doom-laden tone.  The riffs churn and crunch their way through a spiral walk down hellish landscapes, taking on an almost tribal, ritualistic atmosphere.  It's very epic, and it's nice to hear a band that spent the previous half hour mercilessly bludgeoning me into oblivion craft a much slower and more sinister brand of black metal to cap off the experience.  It shows that Death Fortress are extremely skilled at everything they try to do, and this wide variance of ideas that all work marvelously showcases a band of professionals spreading their wings and dominating everything they set their mind to.

I just want to point out that it's at this point in the review I actually looked up the personnel behind the band and realized the guitarist and bassist are the two guys from Dethroned Emperor and the drummer played in both Disma and Funebrarum, so all that death metal influence I picked up while listening to this makes complete sense and my ear for extreme metal is just as sharp as always, I deserve a fucking cookie.

Deathless March of the Unyielding is absolutely crushing, and the vehement, blistering anger and hatred permeates every note.  I'm not about to sit back and call it a modern masterpiece, but there isn't a whole lot I dislike about it.  Death Fortress delivers a half hour of oppressive, punishing atmosphere with a massive undercurrent of barbarianesque power that decimates everything in front of it, before ending on a ten minute blackened dirge of hellish, Junji Ito proportions.  People smarter than I have compared them to Swedish legends Sacramentum, but if I'm being totally honest I've never actually listened to Sacramentum so you'll just have to take my second-hand word for it.  The point is that this album absolutely rules, and I'm glad I heard it.  It's not going to be winning Album of the Year or anything but it will certainly contend on a lot of peoples' lists as long as they get enough exposure.  And with songwriting skills like theirs, that shouldn't be a problem.

RATING - 88%

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nucleus - Sentient

Come on, universe! You big, mostly empty wuss!

We all know I have a somewhat biased view of any Chicago bands out of silly hometown pride, and we also know that I seem to have been following Dan Ozcanli for a while now (it's seriously just coincidence, but considering I've touched on Splatter Control, Clocktower, and Smash Potater (where he doesn't play with the band, but if you're an insider you know he has a very strong connection), it really does seem like I can't escape this guy), so it was only a matter of time before I truly gave Nucleus their time in the spotlight.  With this first LP debuting on Unspeakable Axe, the sister label of the utterly ubiquitous Dark Descent, and being adorned with art inked by the legendary Dan Seagrave, in addition to this being by far the most mature and sophisticated band he's played in, it's obviously primed to be the best of the bunch.

Suffice to say, it is.  But with that said, there are some issues here that I just can't shake.

First off, I'm being somewhat misleading with that opening paragraph.  I seem to keep bumping into Dan but none of those projects were necessarily his, and this is no exception.  Nucleus is more or less the brainchild of frontman and runner up in the 2016 Having the Same Name as a Legendary Metal Musician contest, Dave Muntean.  For as well written and brutal as Sentient is, the band's youth is readily apparent upon even the first listen.  What I mean is that Muntean (and the band as a whole, obviously) clearly worships at the altars of the lesser known death metal icons like Demilich, Nocturnus, and Timeghoul.  The influences here are so strong that they tend to come off as a band wishing to emulate those forgotten classics, and as such get somewhat lost in the glut of the sixteen squintillion bands doing the exact same thing nowadays.  Dark Descent is notorious for their tendency to release twisted, cavernous, and ethereal death metal, and all of those descriptors fit Nucleus just as well as any band on DDR or (to a lesser extent) Unspeakable Axe.  That's not to say this is a bad album or anything, it's more to say that if it wasn't for the immediately eye catching art (another personal bias, I love softer colors in my extreme art) and the fact that they have my hometown bias working in their favor, there's like a 20% chance I would have ever bothered checking them out in the first place.

Now, they're not unoriginal coattail riders, that much should be obvious, but it's a problem nonetheless, however small.  Despite that, there are a lot of standout sections to be found on Sentient.  "Cube" rides on a monolithic and maddeningly infectious main riff, and "Swarm" has one of the most massively punishing breaks on the entire album.  In fact, Nucleus seems to go against the grain of my normal taste, since the fast blasting parts tend to fade into the white noise from time to time, but the more pummeling slow sections bludgeon me into dust.  The aforementioned "Swarm" is easily the most effective, but the opening riff of "Ancient" and the whole of "Extirpate" hit the spot just as hard.  These times when they evoke the twisted morbidity of Morbid Angel and Timeghoul are the easy standouts of the album for me, as the guitar tone is bigger than Troy Aikman's hands and the vocals sound like the audial representation of Galactus, so these more atmospheric moments when these elements have room to breathe leave the listener no choice but to be squashed into submission.  It's little moments like those that show the amount of songwriting prowess the band truly commands when they set their minds to it.  Their riffs are obviously top notch, but those more simplistic chugs and pounds are where they really shine.

But like I said back up there, there are a lot of moments that call to mind their obvious influences.  There are a lot of moments that sound like Timeghoul and Demilich, but not a whole lot of moments that sound like Nucleus, if that makes sense.  A lot of reviews around the internet seem to be a bit confused as to what they actually play, with some placing them within the ranks of the early definition of tech death like Nocturnus, and others likening them to the demonically malformed Finnish bands like Demilich and Wombbath.  The truth is, like with most things, somewhere in the middle, which lends itself to sounding like both of those scenes (essentially a Scandinavian manifestation of Suffocation with a healthy dose of the Steve Tucker era of Morbid Angel), and this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  All of the bands I find myself comparing them to are indeed classic bands, so they're in good company.  In all honesty, I don't tend to look towards a band's future all that often, but I can see them being the type of band who really pulls it together on the sophomore effort.  I mean, Decrepit Birth's first album was essentially just a Suffocation clone, but Diminishing Between Worlds really established their own unique melodic take on tech death.  I can see the second Nucleus album really refining the things that work and carving out a more distinct name for themselves.  With the more midpaced and slower sections really standing out more than the fairly by-the-numbers fast parts and the massive voice behind the mic, I'd say they definitely have the ingredients to spice things up more in the future.  But as it stands, they're more of a Demented Ted than a Revenant.  Regardless of the minor identity crisis, Sentient is a beefy slab of old school death metal that should at least be given a chance by any fan of the genre.  I certainly like it a hell of a lot more than I anticipated.  The fact that I'm finding myself picking out all of these positive moments in a modern scene that normally reduces me to involuntary yawning should mean something.

Seriously, listen to "Swarm" and "Cube" at the very least, they absolutely decimate.

RATING - 81%

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Vektor - Terminal Redux

If anyone needs me, I'll be in the ANGRY DOME

Look, hype backlash is a real thing, and I fall victim to it just as much as anybody.  Oddly enough, Vektor has been somewhat immune to it for me, as Outer Isolation was met with universal praise when it dropped, and I agreed so hard that it wound up taking my Album of the Year in 2011.  Black Future is often praised as the one shining beacon of innovation, musicianship, and songwriting in the murky swamp of rethrash, and I love that album so much that I claim it has some of the greatest thrash riffs ever written and even ranked it at #9 in my massive list of the Best Albums of the Decade, above perennial heavyweights like Primordial, Vader, Slough Feg, and even my beloved pet favorite Gargoyle.  The point is that Vektor is the real fucking deal, and they're currently in their prime and expanding their sound, and Outer Isolation managed to one up that monumental debut by polishing up all of the tiny missteps like the jarring transitions when they'd write themselves into a corner, and just generally trimming the fat and spending more time thrashing like maniacs.  Terminal Redux here has been five years in the making, and we fans have been salivating like the Sand Worms of Bikanel, this is all we've wanted for years, and now it's finally here.

And with all that hype comes universal praise, and almost zero backlash, which is baffling to me.  Usually bands of this caliber draw more than their fair share of contrarian nincompoops who just can't help but rain on every parade they see, but not Vektor.  This album has had so much effusive praise thrown at it that it's hard to tell who's telling it to you straight and who is just so lost in the hype that they've forgotten to actually critique what's in front of them.  I hate to harp on this, it shouldn't matter, but it absolutely is a real problem with this album and needs to be addressed.  Ignore every review except mine.  Actually, do that all the time, not just with this album.  I'm awesome.  Go me.

So the actual, for real critical opinion of Terminal Redux?  It's great.  It's absolutely fucking awesome and deserves to be heard.  But it is flawed, and is unquestionably a step down from Outer Isolation.

The thing is, that's hard for me to say, because I do get what they were trying to do with this album.  I get the ideas behind it, I understand why they made the choices they made, and for the most part they work very well, but not all the time.  Part of the problem is that they got so caught up in this narrative they've woven that they've sort of lost track of their strengths.  This album is Nibbler-poop dense, and there is so much going on at any given time that it's really hard to keep track of it all.  DiSanto's Schmier-esque shriek is in top form like always, if a little bit less raspy than in the past, but still great and fitting to the music.  The riffs are still completely out of this world, the tempo remains high as a kite, and at no point do the guys ever rest on their laurels and just fart out something easy.  This is a challenging album, full of twists and turns and over the top somersaulting, only rarely do they ever slow down and truly let the atmosphere shine without the backdrop of frenetic prog-thrash madness.  And those moments are okay, but that white-eyed berserker riffs are exactly what the band excels at, so the nonstop riff onslaught is welcome and very indicative of the traits that made Vektor stand out in the first place.

The problem is, there are a lot more ideas here than there really is time to develop them.  Very few sections repeat more than a handful of times, and everything feels hurried.  That's a huge problem with what they play.  This highly progressive style of off-the-wall madness needs time to develop upon its own ideas, this isn't a Reign in Blood styled bludgeoning, it's a much more high minded concept with a lot of fantastic riffage built around it.  They at least do a good job of making the lengthy tracks feel like they're over before they've reached the point of tedium, but it's partially because they all start to run together like one huge song.  Maybe that was the point, but with so much going on in the upper third of the fretboard it just ends up disorienting and nonsensical.  It's all done to the benefit of the lyrical narrative, but the vocals are so ravenous and insane that it's hard to follow along without a lyric sheet, so it's all kind of moot point anyway.  I get that the album is supposed to be an all-at-once experience, but there's just too much happening, it's like trying to read the Lord of the Rings, while also marathoning the movies and listening to the soundtrack all at the same time.  It's complete sensory overload and it gets to be overwhelming.

That's not to say the album is broken or anything, because all of the parts that make up this gluttonous monstrosity are still amazing.  Nobody writes riffs like Vektor, they very rarely focus on overt heaviness (though the pounding break in "LCD (Liquid Crystal Disease)" is absolutely punishing and easily a highlight of the album) and instead go for the throat at all times with lightning quick thrash riffs that are more razor sharp and piercing than savage and barbaric.  Again, this is approached very high-mindedly, it's what a nuclear physicist would write as opposed to the mad scientists of most thrash (good) thrash bands.  There's a very mathematical angle to the dizzying whirlwind of notes and atypical rhythms and inhuman drumming.  It's smart, and I love that about Vektor.  While there are no riffs that instantly hook like "Black Future", "Hunger for Violence", or "Oblivion", the overall songs keep the quality high enough to evoke memories of those slightly better albums anyway.  This is all most accurately represented in the middle stretch of the album, from "Liquid Crystal Disease" to "Pillars of Sand".  It's no surprise that these more succinct thrash goliaths are my preferred songs, as "Ultimate Artificer" and "Pteropticon" are among the most energized songs they've ever delivered, and I love every second of what happens within this stretch.  It's the same technical showcase with way too many things going on as the other four tracks, but during this timeframe, it's all reined in and strikes that balance between blistering vitriol and otherworldly progginess that made those first two albums so memorable.

My main issue with the album is with the first and last two tracks.  Terminal Redux is basically the nega-Powerslave in this regard.  "Charging the Void" and "Cygnus Terminal" are the main offenders when it comes to this album's tendency to shove way too much at the listener.  What happens in these tracks?  Everything happens.  They're still good tracks, and I like them well enough, but they're obviously bloated with so many ideas that pop up and immediately disappear that they come off as collections of riffs and solos as opposed to well crafted songs with a real purpose in mind.  I know, they are, like every song on the album by extension, merely vessels to move along the narrative.  But again, this story is impossible to follow anyway so it doesn't really matter, they're just colossal clusterfucks of twenty billion notes.  There are good sections, I really like the OOH AH OOH clean vocals in "Charging the Void", and there's a great lead section in the same song, but they don't build and release towards anything.  They're just stuff.  "Cosmic Cortex" and "Outer Isolation" managed to be songs that exploded towards exciting conclusions, whereas these two songs basically end mid-riff.  That riff being the sixtieth riff in the song, by the way.  Call me a simpleton, but this shit is flummoxing.

The last two tracks are flawed in a similar but different way.  How "Collapse" became known as one of the standout songs to so many people, I'll never understand.  It's not bad, it's a welcome change of pace to break up all the non-stop riffing and blasting that occupied the first 45 minutes of the album, but I feel like it's given inflated credit purely for it being a change of pace.  It doesn't need to be this long.  The clean vocals are surprisingly good, and the chorus stands out for being soothing and one of the few sections of the album to appear more than once, making it sound like a much more cohesive song than the first two confused megaliths, but fucking nobody wanted to hear a nine and a half minute recreation of "Fade to Black" from Vektor.  It does what I complained about the first two songs not doing, I'll give it that.  It's a unified song, it builds to an obvious climax and keeps the emotion constant, but their strength has always been in that ballistic riffery, and that's why the middle stretch of the album is so good, despite it being a non-stop frenzy of riff salad.  "Recharging the Void" is probably the best of the not-so-great songs, but it kinda forgets the lessons that Outer Isolation taught us.  It's bloated and meanders around a lot, with the clean sections coming out of nowhere and clobbering you unexpectedly.  Vektor is great when they're jarring because of their riffs being so left of center and frantic, not when they're jarring because they decided to emulate Pink Floyd seven minutes into a thrash song.  They build upon that part well enough, and it climaxes on a riff that's the closest to black metal they've ever gotten, and the ultimate climax works pretty well.  I can't stress that enough, most of these ideas manage to work okay, but not 100% of them, and they're conceptually flawed with how they're inserted into these songs.  The templates are whack and incohate, they fly through so quickly that you never get a chance to realize what the fuck is happening, and it comes off more like the band showing off and trying to prove how progressive they are instead of zeroing in on their strengths and building them up to their full potential.  I know they can do this.  I've heard Outer Isolation loads of times.  Tracks like "Recharging the Void", despite being a medium-well coda for the opener (the reappearance of those clean chants are the clear highlight of the song and act as the perfect climax for the album at large), are more in line with what we heard on Black Future.  Incredible songs with little direction and a vision far too grand to ever fully realize.

I realize I sorta skimped over the parts of the album I really loved, and that's because fuck what can I really say about them?  They take the haphazard mania of the flawed tracks and turn them into focused behemoths that annihilate you in an oh so magnificent way.  Their strength lies in that blistering vortex of riffage when it's focused and efficient.  I miss the unhinged, breakneck fury of "Tetrastructural Minds" and "Dark Creations, Dead Creators", and I miss the instantly memorable hooks of "Black Future" and "Oblivion".  Terminal Redux shows an obvious growth in the band, but they grew too big for their shoes.  They dreamed a little bit too big and missed some of the things that made them so incredible.  There are only a handful of great hooks, the gargantuan crux of the album is missing the link that makes the great riffs work together.  In short, it's just too much, and even with that being said, it's still one of the best albums I've heard all year.  Yeah, I don't see this winning AOTY exactly, but I can see it contending.  I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up in the top 5 despite all of these flaws.  Vektor threw all the riffs they could at the listener on this release, and despite some glaring flaws in structuring and progression, a lot of them still stick.  Pick it up, but let it be known that it isn't an instant classic like the debut nor a slow burning majesty like the sophomore.  It's about on par with the debut, with the added disappointment that a lot of old problems resurfaced and hindered what should have been their magnum opus.  It's certainly their most ambitious album if nothing else, no doubt about that.

RATING - 89%

Friday, May 6, 2016

Arsis - Unwelcome


Yeah, it took a number of years, but it seems like James Malone stopped weeping long enough to realize that the elements that made his band so revered and special had been completely squandered over time.  Arsis's strength was always in turning the ludicrously technical into the infectiously catchy.  Malone is a goddamn savant when it comes to this, because his lyrics have always been hilariously wimpy and his song structuring has always been eclectic at best and downright wonky at worst.  For nearly a decade, A Celebration of Guilt stood as a glorious fluke, the one point in history where he managed to take his signature style of spider fingered riffing and flashy guitar solos and write a collection of great songs.  Nine years later, Unwelcome has finally come along to help stitch up the boo boos of the last few records.

I know I was nice to We Are the Nightmare when it was new, but time has really soured it.  It and Starve for the Devil suffered from some abysmal songwriting and completely unmemorable stretches of time within the album.  For my money, Unwelcome here really tries taking the band back to their glory days by, strangely, taking it further away from them.  What I mean is that Arsis had always been following the logical continuation of their sound.  The foundation was laid down early that they were a strong melodeath band with heightened aggression and a huge dose of technicality, particularly in the riffs themselves as opposed to just having impressive leads.  And from then on, things had always gotten more ambitious from this perspective.  The riffs had always gotten more technically impressive, the drumming had gotten more frantic and precise, and the solos had gotten more theatrical and over the top, and it seems like their most acclaimed days in terms of exposure and general adoration (instead of the grimy internet nerds like me) peaked around their third and fourth albums.  But somewhere down the line, the band lost their feeling.  The hooks had been relegated to maybe once per album and the singalong tendencies were thrown out the window.  The inherent simplicity of something so outwardly complicated was the big draw of the band for me, and they'd completely dropped the ball sometime after 2006.

But one listen to tracks like "Martyred or Mourning" or "Carve My Cross" or "Let Me Be the One" shows that they'd apparently finally realized what I'd been whining about for years, and managed to fix it by going the opposite direction.  Unwelcome is simpler than anything they'd done in the past, and it works to the album's advantage because it's easily the most memorable one in years.  The catchy, singsong choruses are back, the riffs and percussion complement each other brilliantly and stick in your mind like glue, everything just seems so much less disjointed and slapdash than it did in the past and the album is all the better for it.  "Choking on Sand" is pretty easily their best song since United in Regret, and I realize that's not exactly saying a lot, but I do mean that it competes with the first handful of releases.  That "Faster! Faster! Faster still!" vocal line just inspires so much frantic headbanging out of me, I can't help it.  It's fairly indicative of the entire album, there are a lot more of those ohrwurm sing-songy parts that A Celebration of Guilt was centered around.  In a way, this is actually something of a full length realization of A Diamond for Disease, which took the ideas of the debut and amped up the technicality while still striking a balance with the memorable hooks. 

That said, I'm probably making this sound like the triumphant return to the highs of the debut and followup EP, but that's a bit facetious.  There are still some signs of artistic bankruptcy that pop up and remind the listener that this is still post-2006 Arsis, so a handful of the same problems still plague Unwelcome.  The biggest one is that the lyrics are still the whiny teenage diary bullshit of Sheldon's unrequited White Knighting of Annabelle.  Granted the lyrics are pretty easy to ignore for me, particularly when the vocals are harsh like these, but the resurgence of hooks and singalong parts can make them hard to ignore.  I don't necessarily care about their incongruity with the ferocity of the music, it's more just the fact that Arsis sucks at writing these kind of lyrics and it's been the same general theme of longing over a woman who won't love you back no matter how nice you are to her forever now and I just wish James would load up PornHub and get the fuck over it already.  It's been like ten god damned years, move on.

The other major issue is that... ugh, there are two tracks that are just glaring nuisances that have no place at all on the album.  One is the cover of "Sunglasses at Night" and the other is the rerecording of their seminal classic, "The Face of My Innocence".  The Corey Hart cover is just, dammit stop.  Silly metal reimaginings of goofy 80s pop songs are invariably awful, and serve no purpose other than to sate some juvenile tendency to think anything not-metal is shitty, and therefore all of your guilty pleasures should be made metal in order for you to like them publicly, or just for cheap yuks that amuse nobody except the band playing them.  I'll admit that the track does at least sonically match the rest of the album, so if you aren't paying attention to the lyrics at all you might not even realize it's a cover of a well known pop song, but once you do realize it you can't help but feel insulted at the utter pointlessness of it.  As for "The Face of My Innocence", this inclusion feels like a mixture of throwing old fans a bone and showing them that the band never forgot about them, an attempt to introduce new fans who somehow never caught on that literally everybody prefers their first album to everything after it to the song, and most egregiously, as some sort of attempt to update or "improve" the classic material.  This doesn't improve anything, it's inferior in every conceivable way.  The debut had flawless production, with a unique trebly flavor and a furious punch through just enough clarity to let the surgically precise music shine, whereas with here it's so much more cleaned up that it ends up losing a lot of the fire to be found on the original.  It doesn't even sound tighter, as the band has been wound up like a high E for their entire career so there's pretty much no way to get any cleaner in their playing.  It seems like a desperate, last-ditch effort to regain some credibility on a doomed album, which is so weird because this is the best album they've released since 2006, what the fuck was the point?

So while it doesn't carry quite as many standout tracks as some of the other early albums, but it does at least recapture the spirit and a generous amount of the quality.  Unwelcome isn't a future classic or anything, but it's a surprisingly rock solid effort by a band that seemed doomed to slide into freakshow irrelevance.  The riffs are a spellbinding exercise in songwriting, with pummeling vitriol blended with exquisite melody.  The technical showcase is magnificent as always, and the occasional stop-start grooves throw just enough of a curveball to be intriguing without being distracting.  I really don't know many bands that sound like Arsis, nobody writes melodeath the way Malone does, and it's nice to hear him finally quit screwing around with mindless noodling and take a few steps back to focus on his sublime intertwining of technicality and melody that he's such a savant with.  It's promising for the future of the band, if nothing else.  So warts and all, it's still recommended for fans of their earliest material.

RATING - 73%

PS: The album also comes bundled with the entire Lepers Caress EP as bonus tracks, but I'm not gonna bother talking about it since, despite how it's basically the exact same thing as the full length (if a little more techy), it's ostensibly its own standalone release.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Abnormality - Mechanisms of Omniscience

Major label perils

Once upon a time, Abnormality was notable for being the only good band to ever release anything on Sevared Records, that murky swamp of lo-fi slam with precisely zero quality control.  So yeah, imagine my surprise the first time I heard Abnormality, the American quintet of death metallers who nail that perfect blend of brutality and technicality without falling into the frequent trappings of either niche.  On Contaminating the Hive Mind, there were neither endless stretches of noodly technicality, entirely lacking in adrenaline and instead sounding like the most impressively boring thing in the universe like the legions of Rings of Saturns of the world, nor were there 30 minute slogs of slam after slam after slam with no hooks or upticks in tempo or anything of the sort like basically all of their labelmates.  It was a masterful blend of the two, similar to how Suffocation so brilliantly pulled it off in the early 90s, with the key difference being that Abnormality generally kept the pace a little higher and had less out-of-nowhere time changes.  Basically it was easily one of the best albums of 2012 and I have been dying to hear more from them ever since.

Well that day has come, and they've since jumped ship from that self collapsing vortex of inanity that is Sevared and landed on the high profile home of Cannibal Corpse and Hail of Bullets, Metal Blade.  With a new major label backing and a juggernaut of hype, they have finally unleashed Mechanisms of Omniscience.  And how's it sound?  Well... kinda disappointing.

I'll admit right away that I'm being a little bit unfair, because the major problem with the record is that it simply isn't as good as Contaminating the Hive Mind.  I know that's unfair, but there is a lingchi of tiny annoyances that all sort of coalesce into one bummer.  The most obvious of which is that the production is just too damn sterile.  This is a weird complaint coming from me, because I like plenty of salad shooter styled tech death bands that are as spotless as a hospital floor, but Abnormality had already shown us a perfect production job on their previous album.  We already know that some added rawness adds a ton to the pummeling grooves the band has in store for listeners, so the opening notes of "Swarm" immediately made me switch back over to the previous album and see if I was remembering its sound wrong.  I wasn't.  The guitars are pushed back, the snare drum is piercing, and the vocals are louder than everything else by a sizable margin.  I hate complaining about modern production jobs, because I feel like most people who do that are oldnoobs who refuse to adjust with the times, but here it really does work to the record's detriment.  It lacks an explosive punch, and a little bit more harshness in the tone would have worked wonders for Mechanisms of Omniscience.

Another flaw is that, well, none of the songs particularly stand out.  For a tech death album that really isn't uncommon, but there are flashes of brilliance scattered around that show they have the ability to craft a standout song.  The harmonized solo in "Hopeless Masses", the rare example of an instrumental interlude in this style of "Assimilation", that part around two minutes into "Vigilant Ignorance" where the fermata hits and the band holds for a second before exploding into the strongest and most insane segment of the entire album, accompanied by potentially the best riff they ever wrote, those parts all dominate.  They have an ear for subtle and twisted melody that permeates every once in a while, but instead mostly stick to their trademark hyperblasting ridiculousness.  Granted, this is obviously just a band playing to their strengths, as they do wreck shit when they just go all out and unfurl the most high minded brutality they can, but the little touches of great songwriting hooks are few and far between, and most of the album ends up as a faceless blur as a result.

Generally that last paragraph alone is enough for a high fifties score, most likely in the negatives, but in all honesty, this is a really good faceless blur.  It's not the most memorable album out there, but for this style, it's up there.  "Vigilant Ignorance" alone is worth the price of admission, with that aforementioned insane middle section and some Cerebral Bore styled slams, it's varied enough to remain at full speed throughout the entire six minute runtime.  What the band doesn't feature deserves a mention too, because thanks to bands like Fallujah and Beyond Creation, the scene has been flooded with progressive, spacey concepts and longwinded noodly sections that impress guitar nerds and nobody else.  Abnormality doesn't fuck around with that shit.  When they do slow down, like on "Consuming Infinity", they take the harrowing Morbid Angel approach instead, and there are basically zero forced lead lines flittering around in the foreground at any point.  The only atmosphere they want to create is one of overwhelming desperation, a furious prisoner thrashing against his chains.  The twisted, angular, disjointed riffage and nigh endless blasting create a furious hellstorm of debris that keep listeners on their toes, never quite sure how the next section is going to pulverize you.  They also seem to be one of the few tech death bands that excel when the songs are given time to develop, since "Vigilant Ignorance" and "Consuming Infinity" are pretty easily the best songs here, and they're two of the three that run over four minutes in length (they're both nearly six minutes long).  They're a strange paradox in that their at their best when they're just blasting forward at full speed, but the moments when they add pummeling groove and slower/more mid paced sections seem to be the moments when their songs create their strongest moments.

So it's flawed, and it's an obvious step down from their debut, but Mechanisms of Omniscience isn't bad.  There are enough moments to help it stand out from the crowd, but not enough to launch it into the upper pantheon with Fleshgod Apocalypse's first album and the Vile Conception thru Sedition streak from Hour of Penance.  Yeah, the production is a bit sterile and the vocals are a little bland (there wasn't really a place to mention it before, but on the debut they were extremely savage (think Effigy of the Forgotten era Frank Mullen), whereas here they're pretty standard sounding apart from the few segments when they go deep and take on a more Cerebral Bore/Defeated Sanity vibe), but it's overall pretty good.  Fans of the style should love it for sure, it's just lacking that extra punch of the scattered hooks of Contaminating the Hive Mind.  We really need more sections like the chorus of "A Chaos Reserved"!

RATING - 73%