Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Twilight Force - Heroes of Mighty Magic

Guys light farts

So somehow, for some utterly bizarre reason, Sweden's Twilight Force has become something of an internetical battleground.  Power metal's answer to Enmity, if you will.  While Heroes of Mighty Magic and Illuminations of Vile Engorgement have precisely dick in common apart from some of the cringiest album titles this side of Japan, they both seem to have become reviewing warzones, with hyperbolic scores from either side of the spectrum taking a stand for or against the very foundations of the bands they dissect.  I once heard Enmity described as "what death metal must sound like to people who don't listen to death metal", and considering the endless conga line of cliches that Twilight Force provides here, I can only assume that's the same perception given here, only for that super melodic and overly bombastic subniche of flower metal. 

The reason I find it so strange that Twilight Force has become the hill to die on is because it's not really spectacular one way or the other.  Yeah it's sugary, yeah it's basically riffless and just loaded with melodies and orchestration, yeah it's just a bunch of dumb cliches strung together with even more cliches, but as a seasoned vet for this kind of music I can say with confidence that it isn't really done in any way that's either fantastic or horrendous.  It's very middling in every sense of the word.  There are huge stretches where seemingly nothing happens, there are great ideas that are executed poorly and bad ones that are done with flair and charisma, and there are high points and low points.  Every god damned thing about this album averages out.  Logically, this means it should be totally skippable and just fade into the white noise of the metal world, but in all honesty, I don't exactly agree with my own assessment.  Every time I listen to this, I like it a little bit more in spite of myself.

You see, this is the kind of thing that doesn't try to be anything new, and it doesn't really have to be.  This is the kind of cheesy flower metal for fans of Rhapsody, Freedom Call, and Wisdom.  It's bloated down with hundreds of orchestrations and choirs, but that's sort of what it wants to do anyway and it's not like they totally suck at it so who am I to judge?  It's not like the new Sabaton album where it's clearly meant to be fluffy pop metal but can't write a good hook or memorable song to save its life, this is more like one of the lesser Rhapsody albums like Triumph or Agony where it has a vision that it adheres to wonderfully but whiffs on half of the ideas and ends up presenting listeners with a mixed bag of sorts.  Tracks like "Powerwind", "Battle of Arcane Might", and "To the Stars" have awesome choruses that carry the songs with soaring majesty, then we have tracks like "Guardian of the Seas" and "Riders of the Dawn" which have excellent moments marred by easily avoidable issues, tracks like "Keepers of Fate" and "There and Back Again" that just drag on forever and never do anything interesting, and on and on and on.  It's sort of bizarre because every song is so similar to each song preceding it but each one manages to succeed or fail in a completely different way.

What this tells me is that the songwriting in general is just really shaky.  They can beat Rhapsody at their own game on occasion, and other times I just scratch my head and wonder why they bothered putting such obvious filler songs on an album that could have been much more focused.  "Riders of the Dawn" has the potential to be the best song on the album since the chorus is so magnificent (and this is the type of album where the songs live and die on the strength of the choruses), but with the production being so wonky and focused entirely on vocals, keys, and drums, it just ends up sounding like a flat demo recording with just drums and vocals.  That damn vocal line of "Run! We will run! With the power of the sun!" is so immediately ear catching but there is next to nothing happening around it so it just winds up being like an extremely impressive high bar routine where the gymnast misses the landing completely and winds up face first on the mat with their feet sticking up in the air like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.  Tracks like "Keepers of Fate" and "Rise of a Hero" just flitter by with no consequence whatsoever, which is a damn shame because they come between "Riders of the Dawn", a song with a ton of potential that ends up botched, and "To the Stars", one of the few tracks that I think is legitimately great the whole way through.  This is a problem throughout the album, as the highlights are spread around so haphazardly that there wind up being nearly twenty minute stretches of lame, go-nowhere flower metal orchestrations blamping at you while you patiently wait for the next song with any sort of cohesion and goal to come back in and remind you why you bother listening to this dorky shit in the first place. 

The aforementioned production is another sticking point with me.  Normally I don't mind the rhythm guitars being completely buried in a style like this since they're the least important aspect and are really only there to play some rudimentary palm mutes to accentuate the drums, but they really push it to the extreme, to the point where they're basically nonexistent.  What this does is leave us with an album that sounds like a collection of JRPG battle themes with power metal drums added on top of them.  Now, considering just how many hours I've spent shunning the idea of making friends in favor of playing Suikoden alone in my bedroom, this sounds like something right up my alley, but in all honesty these aren't even great battle themes.  Most of them are just cliche progressions and melodies that any mildly educated power metal fan has heard a million times before.  I realize that's a little unfair since innovation isn't a requirement to be great, but it really does add to the boredom of listening to the whole album in one sitting.  Listening to the assorted worthwhile tracks in bursts can be highly enjoyable, as the album certainly delivers on the promise of just being stupid cheeseball fun, but it's too long and overwhelming to really stand on its own as a full unit.

I didn't really have a place to mention it, but Joakim Broden from the ever persistent and ever shitty Sabaton makes a brief appearance on the title track, and his gruff baritone is actually a welcome change of pace from the Michael Kiske impressions that take up the rest of the album, but he's still a dude who hinges all of his charisma on the fact that he's different and forgets to actually be any good as a result.  The album also ends on a nearly eight and a half minute epilogue, six and a half minutes of which are taken up by that same fucking terrible narration bullshit that plagued Rhapsody throughout even their best albums.  Good holy christ that is the most annoying and unnecessary shit in the universe.  Write a fucking book.

So all in all, I don't really know what to make of Heroes of Mighty Magic (lord I hate that title more than you will ever understand).  There are enough tracks and moments to make a solid mini-LP but as a 70+ minute experience it's just exhausting.  That earlier comment about this being what power metal probably sounds like to people who don't listen to power metal is 100% true.  Every possible cliche you can imagine is shoved to the forefront and waggled in front of your face obnoxiously, so this is really one of those albums that had its fans the instant it was announced and nothing was ever going to sway them one way or the other.  Overall it ends with a positive score because there are enough well done moments (mostly the choruses and a few assorted melodies and soloing sections) to ensure I'll come back for a quick bite every now and again, but it's just so pointless in the grand scheme of metal that I can't imagine this being viewed as anything other than "just another album" even one year from now.  It's basically any given Rhapsody album only without the occasional "Holy Thunderforce" or "Reign of Terror" to help it blow by the competition. 

This shouldn't be a battleground, it should just be yet another album with a few bright spots here and there that should be thrown on the pile and left there for the most part.

RATING - 57%

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Unfathomable Ruination - Finitude

My head hurts

I didn't really think of it until now, but Unfathomable Ruination have actually been basically a sister band to Abnormality in my eyes.  They both stormed out of the gate in 2012, with fantastic debut albums on a notoriously lame record label (Sevared Records), both of which were blisteringly fast, chaotic, and somehow also groovy and hooky brutal tech death albums that both blew me off my chair.  Afterwards, they both went relatively quiet, only for them both to roar back in 2016 with their sophomore efforts, both of which utilizing artwork prominently featuring a fractured face in washed out color against a black background.  That's... oddly specific, but interesting nonetheless.  The big difference between the two at this stage in their careers is that Abnormality has since jumped ship to Metal Blade and have found themselves backed by the closest thing to a major label you can find in extreme metal, whereas Unfathomable Ruination finds themselves still nestled snugly within the roster of that shitty BDM label I will probably always have a grudge against (blame my brief time writing for Metal Crypt, when Sevared would swarm us with terrible, faceless promos by the dozen).

Abnormality had the upper hand four years ago, but at this point, the Brits have easily usurped their crown.  Finitude here has one immediately recognizable strength above Mechanisms of Omniscience, that being the production.  The Americans found themselves recording with an extremely sterile sound, with squeaky clean snares, muffled guitars, and vocals shoved in the foreground, whereas the UKers instead find themselves continuing with what worked before.  The sound here is absolutely fucking savage, with guitars that carry a massively punishing crunch, drums that pound the living daylights out of you (including that signature pingy snare that 70% of all brutal death metal bands seem to utilize), and vocals relegated slightly into the background to act more as a secondary percussive force as opposed to a driving mechanism of the music.  It's amazing how much of a difference these small tweaks make, as the former album sounds like a clinical exercise running in the background and the latter is more akin to a furious hellbeast dripping lava from every orifice.  The little moments stand out so much more here, like the Cryptopsy-esque squeals that punctuate the blasting insanity of "Thy Venomous Coils", the ethereal introduction that leads to the crushing groove that drives "Neutralizer", to the neck twisting bass runs in "Nihilistic Theorem".  It's amazing how a small difference like giving some added rawness to the production and restructuring the balance of the individual performances can sound like night and day on albums that are functionally identical.

And on that "identical" comment comes the album's lone flaw; despite the occasional standout licks like the ones posted above, the album is essentially just a plateau of insanity.  Which is fine by me, personally, but when they have standout sections like that that show they can write a punishing groove or a killer hook or a memorable lead line it tells me that they can simply multiply whatever the hell they did during those moments to load the album down even further with great moments.  As it stands, they're pretty few and far between and the band repeats a few of the same tricks here and there, but they're all done quite well so it's not really a problem when all is said and done.  At the end of the day this is still a highly enjoyable romp through twisted depths of unending depravity.

I think the main thing that makes Unfathomable Ruination stand out in the crowd of samey tech death comes from something as simple as the songwriting.  The band always sounds like they're coming apart at the seams and juuuuust holding together enough to throw in those knee buckling curveballs every now and again to keep things fresh.  As soon as it seems like the drummer's arms are going to fall off and the vocalist is going to tear his own throat out, the pace will dip for a few bars and hammer you over the head with a Suffocation styled slamming groove.  They even take a page out of Origin's playbook and close the album with an 8 minute scorcher that slows itself down for a good portion of the time.  It's all kinda secretly brilliant.  The thing with most tech death is that it never really sounds aggressive, so to speak.  It's impressive, sure, and it's definitely heavy and fast, but it rarely carries a whole lot of fury outside of bands like Neuraxis and whatnot.  Unfathomable Ruination, on the other hand, sounds fucking savage.  Doug Anderson takes a more Alex Hernandez "flip the fuck out and play your whole drumkit at once" approach than a John Longstreth "focus really hard on not fucking up these lightning fast intricacies" one.  The riffs are frantic and spastic but also grounded and simple enough at times to headbang yourself into a coma whilst playing.  It's a perfect blend.

Long story short, this rocks like the stone age.  Listen to it.

RATING - 87%