Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Skeletonwitch - The Apothic Gloom

Apparently "Apothic" isn't a real word

Okay so apparently while I wasn't looking, the vocalist of Skeletonwitch left?  What the hell, yo?  He was one of the most instantly recognizable traits of the band if you ask me.  His high pitched rasp wasn't really so much of a rasp as it was like... a dry gargle?  I can't even explain it, he was neither dry nor wet with his approach, but it was something special.  More people should try to sound like Chance Garnette.  So what now?  They got some new guy to totally fuck up one of the coolest parts of the band right?

Well... nah, he's rad too.

I feel like that's the main purpose of The Apothic Gloom, it's just a short, four track EP intended to acclimate long time fans like myself to the new guy, and it's a wonderful way to do such a thing.  His style is a little deeper and more crusty, a little more "normal" so to speak than the instantly recognizable GRRAH of Chance, but it works just as well with Skeletonwitch's signature style of thrash metal with little bits of basically everything else thrown in.  The Apothic Gloom takes some more influence from Forever Abomination (the only album besides the future classic Beyond the Permafrost that actually qualifies as essential listening) in that there's a lot more black metal influence here than usual.  This is black/thrash but not in the sense of what most bands with that label imply.  A lot of bands like Witchaven and such, while good, sound more like really lo-fi thrash like early Sodom or Kreator instead of an actual fusing of the relentless pummeling of thrash metal with the melancholic atmosphere of black metal.  That's what Skeletonwitch does here, most notably on the title track and "Red Death, White Light".  The seven minute closer in particular elicits a lot of ethereal tremolo melodies and, well, gloomy atmsophere layered over the blistering thrash underneath.  It works really well and I really hope the next album has more in line with that style.

The other two tracks, "Well of Despair" and "Black Waters" are more in line with Beyond the Permafrost in the sense that they're clearly based in high speed thrash with huge swaths of melody.  "Black Waters" admittedly draws a bit more from Immortal than any given thrash band but the base is still there.  Skeletonwitch is a band that's never content with where they are and are always willing to mix it up, and this EP is no exception.  Like I said, "Red Death, White Light" is a good example since it starts with with such an ethereal delaydelaydelay melody.  They're dipping their toes into post-black like ten years after it became trendy but are still nailing it.  So just like always, they're not exactly blazing new trails as much as they're just taking pre-established ideas and arranging them in an inventive way and standing out in a crowded sea of metal today. 

tl;dr - This is a short review for a short EP so basically the important thing to note is that this is an excellent (and quite literal) marriage of black and thrash metal with great mid range vocals and tons of excellent melodies.  The riffs aren't as quite as strong as they were a decade ago but the essence of the band is still there and probably the best it's been in five years.  Hopefully this signals a rejuvenation and the new album will completely smoke.

RATING - 83%

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sabaton - The Last Stand

 Grape Flavor Aid

Fun fact: Today is my birthday.

Not so fun fact: I'm spending it reviewing this shitty Sabaton album.

Around eight years ago, I reviewed these Swedes' debut album, Primo Victoria.  It had some potential to be a fun melodic power metal album but was too in love with its own theme to focus on songwriting in any capacity and just transformed the horrors of war into a bouncy Disney rendition of wanton slaughter.  Sabaton is to armed conflict what Alestorm is to the brutal and filthy life of a pirate.  Sugary, toothless nonsense with a slightly left-of-center theme and an instantly recognizable vocalist that helped them stand out a bit.  Well apparently, since then the band promptly blew the fuck up and became one of the hottest things in mainstream metal.  They're headlining 70000 Tons of Metal, co-headlining tours with Nightwish, going platinum in their home country (a completely ludicrous achievement in the era of downloading), they even have their own fucking open air fest if I'm remembering correctly.  Just, somehow, completely out of nowhere, people the world over decided they loved the everloving fuck out of whatever it was Sabaton was producing.  So with that in mind, I decided to finally take the plunge and listen to their newest album, The Last Stand, my first since their debut.

Holy Christ this is bad.

When people trash Battle Beast for being a metal band with a pop heart that tries desperately to break through and renders their songs unlistenable trash, I imagine they're accidentally listening to Sabaton and not realizing it.  Because THIS is a pure pop album with distorted guitars and a gruff vocalist being the only things to make it identifiable as metal.  In terms of structuring (every song is within the 3 minute range, barring the opener, "Sparta", which only breaches four minutes because of a pointless intro), the focus of catchiness over everything else, the sugary keyboards, the bouncy melodies and vocal inflections, everything about this might as well be fucking ABBA.  Now, I am a Battle Beast fan, so I don't have a problem with keyboard heavy pop metal on principle, but at least those Finns occasionally rip out a song like "Fight, Kill, Die" or just make the hooks so infectious that nothing else matters (like "Out of Control", "Black Ninja", "Out on the Streets", etc).  Sabaton manages none of that, as there is a grand total of one song where the hook is good enough to stand out in anyway (that song being "Shiroyama"), and one other song where the metal roots break through for a startlingly brief period of time (the admittedly awesome bridge in "Hill 3234"), the rest is pure 80s cheese with zero charisma.  Just very plastic, lifeless sounds pumped out on a production line. 

I think the most insulting thing about the album is that it's not even offensive in how shit it is.  The album blurs by in what feels like a matter of minutes.  Every song is utterly inconsequential and has no chance of sticking with you in any way.  They're meaningless fluff pieces meant to crank out an album and go back on tour and just leave it at that.  I'm having trouble even pointing out individual songs to explain what's wrong with them because they all blur past so quickly with so little thought put into them.  I suppose "Sparta" is a little different thanks to the slower, more martial backbone and the HOO! HAH! shouts, but that's about it, and that very well could be purely a result of it being the first track on the album, so my interest hasn't completely drifted off towards some other such nonsense quite yet.  Everything else just... happens.  It's all so phony and effortless, it's a shameless nothing-album.

The keys themselves deserve special mention, because I can't remember the last time I heard a keyboard tone so offensively crappy.  They're very plasticky and shiny, not unlike a Fisher-Price toy from a Wal Mart shelf.  It's bad enough that the songs are nothing but lazily written conveyor-belt pop songs, but shoving this weak ass tone to the forefront to carry every melody and compliment every vocal line in every chorus is just blisteringly stupid.  It's especially bad on songs like "Winged Hussars" and "The Battle of Bannockburn", where they're just so fucking in-your-face and almost arrogant in how prominent they are.

It's worth noting that I was about to compare the songs to Reinxeed's sugary pointlessness in that last paragraph, and just realized that, while he doesn't play on this album, Tommy Johanssen is actually the newest member of the band, so I rule.

I really can't even bring myself to write anymore, I've already put more effort into this review than they did writing half of the songs.  The Last Stand is a safe and effortless pop metal album with absolutely nothing helping it stand out other than the war theme and gruff vocalist.  Everything else is weak.  Hell, I'm even open to the idea that the hook for "Shiroyama" isn't even that great the only reason I like it is because my interest in Japanese history caused me to hear the line "It's the last stand of the samurai" and wonder aloud "Huh, is this a song about Shiroyama?" before I realized the name of the track.  Apparently I haven't been missing much by ignoring Sabaton for the better part of the last decade, I can only hope the rest of the world catches on and abandons them as well.

Happy fucking birthday to me.

RATING - 20%

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Running Wild - Rapid Foray

Holy crap WHAT?

I planned on not even touching this, I had no reason to ever do such a thing at this point.  We know how much Running Wild has sucked for almost twenty years, right?  Yeah I'm just gonna skip the preamble and say this is as close to a return to form we're probably ever going to get, but it's still a huge breath of fresh air for the long suffering fans of the band's glory years.

Some of the quibbles that have been plaguing the band ever since the "reformation" (because you and I both know damn well this is just a Rolf Kasparek solo project accompanied by a yes-man and a long deceased anonymous drummer that every single human in the universe knows is a damned drum machine) are still here.  Rolf's ancient voice is still floundering in a dry environment in dire need of reverb to cover up his weird snarl (though the more prominent layering and generally stronger choruses certainly help here), the guitar tone is still mechanical and "steely", for lack of a better term, the drums are still an uninspired program milking three beats into oblivion, and all the best parts are still lifted almost note for note from previous classics.  But despite all of these problems, Rolf is spending more time ripping off classic albums like Pile of Skulls and Black Hand Inn instead of The Brotherhood.  The abundance of lame cock rock songs have been shaved down dramatically, with only a few here to really stink up the joint, and even then a good chunk of them are actually some pretty entertaining tunes.  For example, "Stick to Your Guns" should be the exact kind of song I loathe from a surface perspective, but it's more well written than something like "Me and the Boys" or "Down to the Wire".  It sounds like a lost AC/DC tune from their stadium filling days, instead of a weak filler track on a 70s KISS album like every other rock song he's penned since the turn of the century.  "By the Blood in Your Heart" calls to mind something like "Uaschitschun" or "March On", or even one of Judas Priest's lesser anthems like "United" or "Take On the World". But, like "Stick to Your Guns", it just works somehow.  The utterly incessant ohrwurm of the chorus is a pretty large reason for that.

But really, those aren't the main draws of any Running Wild album.  "Fight the Fire of Hate" will always pale in comparison to "The Phantom of Black Hand Hill", and that's no different here, since the more metallic and speedy numbers that hearken back to their halcyon years are the best songs here by a galactic mile.  "Black Bart" was chosen as an advance single, and that was possibly the smartest thing anybody could have done to promote the album, since it sounds straight out of Pile of Skulls.  Granted, part of that is because it's so similar to "Jennings' Revenge", but that doesn't bother me since that's one of their unsung classics of the era.  The song is filled to the gills with those glorious nautical melodies that were the band's bread and butter from 87-02.  Quick tremolo melodies and sharp triplets make up the lion's share of the music on the track, and every little quirk present is just so indicative of what used to make them so great that it stands head and shoulders above literally everything Rolf has released since Victory (with the obvious exception of "Libertalia", which was basically a lost Blazon Stone song burrowed away as a bonus track on their worst album).  The major scale melody immediately following the solo, the catchiest chorus he's written since "Pirate Song", everything here is great, and any Running Wild fan worth their salt will find themselves enthralled with the track from the opening seconds.

While "Black Bart" stands as the obvious highlight, several other songs are littered with golden moments as well.  "Warmongers" uses the main riff from "Black Hand Inn", and it works just as well 22 years later.  Songs like "Black Skies, Red Flag" and "Hellectrified" are much more in line with traditional heavy metal than the speed metal monsters of "Black Bart" and "Blood Moon Rising" (which, like all the other good songs here, reminds me of a previous classic, this one being "Lions of the Sea"), but they're very strong regardless. The signature closing epic, "Last of the Mohicans" works extremely well too.  It, like "Bloody Island" before it, just rips off "Treasure Island" with a startling lack of restraint, but god dammit it works.  I don't know if it's just the fanboy in me hearing familiar sounds and instantly latching on after years and years of every new release being worse than the one previous, but to me it just shows that Rolf is still good at what he used to do and he's simply choosing to do it again.  He's always bordered on self-plagiarism but it's always been well written and endearing enough to not really matter, and that's exactly what's happening here. 

It seems like Rolf somehow remembered how to write excellent choruses again, because the only song that fails in that respect, and unsurprisingly ends up as the only song on the album that I can confidently say is just flat out bad, is "Into the West".  The shitness of that song actually almost sours the entire album because it encompasses everything wrong with the drum machine era of RW.  The weak chorus, the uninspired riffs and melodies, the fact that it just inoffensively passes through one ear and flops out of the other, it's almost insulting since it's clearly trying to emulate "Little Big Horn" and it's just completely ineffectual anyway.  It's weird, it doesn't do anything that any other tracks do, but it just doesn't work for me, so take that with a grain of salt.

I'm probably making this sound like it's much better than it actually is, and I'll fully admit that.  Rapid Foray is a solid album but nothing more than that.  There are tons of little moments of brilliance (like the chorus of "Black Bart" or the "whoa-oh oh" parts in the title track) but none of the songs really live up to their predecessors.  It aims for the sound of the early 90s and lands somewhere in the early 00s instead, stuck somewhere between the "solid but not great" The Rivalry and "half great and half fucking terrible" The Brotherhood.  I'm cognizant enough to know that the rose tinted glasses are on with me right now, and tracks like "Blood Moon Rising" and "Hellectrified" will very likely fade from memory in favor of the obvious highlights like "Black Skies, Red Flag", "Black Bart", and "Last of the Mohicans", but for a long time fan, this is exactly the kind of album we were hoping Shadowmaker would have been.  Remember how I said Resilient, despite a more mediocre slog on the whole, was stronger than Shadowmaker purely because it sounded like Rolf was having fun again?  Rapid Foray takes that to the next level, as this is the most energetic and fun-loving collection of songs Running Wild has managed to put together in almost twenty years.  It's not going to be on any year end best-of lists unless you're a dad, oldnoob, or German metal magazine, but it's extraordinarily refreshing to get an even "solid at best" album out of Rolf these days so it's worth a listen regardless.

RATING - 70%

PS: Yes, he does the thing he always does in like eight of the eleven songs.  Rejoice.