Thursday, August 30, 2018

Powerolf - The Sacrament of Sin

The most evil propulsion system ever conceived!

Powerwolf is getting to be real fuckin' frustrating, let me tell ya what.  I can explain precisely what their biggest problem is right now, and it's obvious to everybody who has ever heard more than one song of theirs at this point.  Clearly, their problem is that they sound too much like Running Wild and ergo you're always going to be thinking of a better band while listening to Powerwolf.  Simple!

Alright it's actually a little bit more obvious than that (though I'm not wrong).  The obvious problem is that they're milking their signature formula so hard that there are pretty much guaranteed to be no challenges or surprises on each subsequent album.  Have you heard Lupus Dei?  Well if so, you've heard The Sacrament of Sin.  It starts with a maddeningly epic barnburner and album highlight ("Fire and Forgive"), there's a speedy Europower cliche-fest either in the back half or as the second track (it's the former this time, with the title track), it closes on a track with a parenthetical title and switches tempos between verse and chorus and stands as one of the most overtly singalong songs in an album full of singalong songs ("Fist by Fist (Sacrilize or Strike)"), there's a track sung in some non-English language ("Stossgebet"), there's a giant arena-rousing mid paced anthem guaranteed to be a hit single ("Demons are a Girl's Best Friend"), and every song interjects superfluous Latin and is guaranteed to say "Hallelujah" more often than Manowar says "metal".  It's almost insulting how so many tiny details are completely identical for like the sixth album in a row now.

However, most readers should be shouting at their screen that I'm a dumbass hypocrite because most of my favorite metal bands do this exact same thing all the time.  Gargoyle, Motorhead, and Running Wild (obviously one of the main influences on Powerwolf here) are notorious for reusing song/album/riff structures over and over again, and they're some of my favorite bands of all time.  And well... yeah, you got me there.  Bands that do this tend to wind up in a pretty familiar place with each album, with fans generally being devoted and not caring because their formula scratches a particular itch.  Frankly, Powerwolf is no different.  I like this niche they fill, and if I seem disappointed with The Sacrament of Sin, it's entirely because most of this album's sister songs on other albums are simply better, so what we're getting here are mostly reheated leftovers of previous ideas.  Some of them work amazingly, "Fire and Forgive" continues their tradition of having incredibly bombastic and rousing openers, with this one being every bit as good as the openers on every previous album.  "Fist by Fist" is by far the best closing track they've managed in a decade, specifically because it's the first one in forever to just get to the fucking point.  "Venom of Venus" isn't quite as good as its counterpart on the previous album ("Army of the Night") but it's still a highlight here, and I'd say the title track is better than "Dead Boys Don't Cry" but doesn't hold a candle to "Secrets of the Sacristy" or "Dead Until Dark".  I'd describe them further but they can all really just be summed up in one sentence.  "This is the Gamma Ray soundalike" or "This is the stompy one" or whatever, they're all very shallow but they usually have enough style and flair to not matter.

The problem is simply that most of the songs here have been done better, which I know isn't fair but it's true.  You can hear an improved version of "Demons are a Girl's Best Friend" by just listening to "We Drink Your Blood" or "Sacred and Wild" instead.  You could rock out to "Killers with the Cross" or you could check out "Catholic in the Morning... Satanist at Night" or "When the Moon Shines Red" instead.  About the only truly different songs here are "Incense and Iron" and "Where the Wild Wolves have Gone", the former for being a very oddly folky song with tons of bounce and great hooks, while the latter is just a full on ballad at every turn and it just pulls the fucking dragchute on the album's momentum when it shows up (it doesn't help that it's followed by "Stossgebet" which also succeeds in going absolutely fucking nowhere).  Nobody listens to Powerwolf because they don't want to hear booming choirs and adrenaline pumping excitement.

The thematic elements integral to Powerwolf's image are still intact and still fine I suppose, but I find myself wishing they'd go more full out with it.  It's starting to sound a bit like a half-hearted parody at this point with how often they invoke the random Latin choirs.  I mean, they've always done that but it sounds so obligatory nowadays.  Contrast even the best moments of The Sacrament of Sin with what they sounded like on Bible of the Beast and it's night and day with how much more inspired and energetic they were almost ten years ago.  It feels like the curtain has been pulled back a bit and we can see that instead of the image of a decaying corpse-preacher standing behind a marble pulpit, belching sulfur while delivering fiery sermons amidst a backdrop of a black-cloaked choir of revenants perverting the outwardly Catholic themes, it's just five dorky dudes in costumes playing Disney metal with a dark theme.  It's basically Sabaton with generally better songwriting, but it's stagnating to a point of noxiousness.  Which is silly because I said this same thing about Preachers of the Night and then they turned around and followed it up with Blessed and Possessed, which was basically the exact same album but 10000x more entertaining.  So who knows what the future holds at this point?

So to sum it up, basically it's a Powerwolf album.  It's not one of their better ones despite there being some absolutely rousing bangers here with "Fire and Forgive", "Venom of Venus", "Incense and Iron", and "Fist by Fist".  That's about it.  They're on top of the world right now but they aren't really living up to their own hype anymore.  There are good moments here and I'd say this is still worth listening to just to hear how great the good songs are, but they've done better, so it's hard to tell fans to rush out and grab it.

Two random points that I couldn't fit in the review proper but wanted to address anyway: 1) I love how fond Powerwolf is of cover songs.  I honestly get a kick out of hearing them reinterpret classics that inspired them and I love the twist they put on it this time, with the bonus disc being full of other bands covering their classic songs.  Most of them aren't that good (with the exceptions of Epica and Saltatio Mortis killing their tracks, and Kreator's blistering thrash interpretation of "Amen and Attack" is fucking nuts) but it's a nice gesture.  2) The main riff of "Nightside in Siberia" sounds exactly like Amon Amarth's "Pursuit of Vikings" and now you'll never un-notice it.  You're welcome.


Thursday, August 16, 2018

10 YEAR REUNION: Sinergy - Suicide by My Side

Power Bodom seeking fit top

It's well known that early Children of Bodom was more or less just insanely shreddy power metal with harsh vocals since Alexi Laiho's vocal talent in inversely proportional to his guitar skills, and so there was always a hypothetical "what if?" scenario floating around with regards to how they'd sound if he had just actually hired a real singer and embraced the flower power present on Hatebreeder.  The closest we're probably ever going to get is Sinergy, the band he had started in the late 90s with his then-girlfriend/wife Kimberly Goss.  And while Sinergy isn't a perfect representation of what that hypothetical Power Bodom would've sounded like (there are no keyboards and the tempo tends to be a bit more reasonably human), it's still an inescapable point of comparison.

I'm being a bit facetious here, because while Laiho is the obvious "superstar" here who has arguably gone on to have the most success (it's somewhat of a supergroup so Marco Heitala is here too), the true brains, heart, soul, and star of the band is Goss.  She was the chief lyricist and songwriter, front and center at all times, and commanded the absolute fuck out of these guys with her brazen, combustive voice.  Suicide by My Side is their best and most well known album, and while it has a lot of flaws, her voice in particular is not one of them.  She's the obvious highlight, with a very Doro-esque approach to her mad aggressive bellowing.  That's not to say she can't be sweet and emotive when the song calls for it, but her strength very clearly lies behind her explosive lungpower.  The album opens with "I Spit on Your Grave", which wastes precisely zero seconds before careening into a whirlwind of excitement with her forceful mania pushed to the forefront.  When Suicide by My Side is going full throttle like this song, it's at its best.  The title track is the other clear highlight, with Laiho's signature guitar theatrics leading a frantic rhythm section through an adrenaline fueled romp, all with Goss's sublime power carrying everything even further. 

The reason that this album has soured so much for me over the years is that, unfortunately, for how great the opener and closer are, the handful of problems the album has are all pretty unavoidable and all tie back to the same root cause: this album, frankly, does not sound like it was written by adults.

What I mean by that is that it's just super amateurish on all fronts.  As amazing of a vocalist that Goss is, lyrics are really not her forte.  The two main themes that constantly pop up are those of empowerment/revenge and despair/suicide.  It's bad enough that those two ideas are diametrically opposed to one another and give the album a serious case of tonal schizophrenia, but even beyond that they just sound like they were written by a 14 year old.  The theme of suicide is constantly presented through a filter less like a desperate soul who can't push on anymore and more like an insincere cry for attention.  There are references to "not being noticed" in a few places, which is just the most teenage reason to want to end it all that I can think of.  There's a short snippet that prefaces the music video for the title track where Goss sits around playfully talking about how suicide isn't a big deal and she would love to try it again, and it comes off as so damn phony that it really taints the whole experience.  As somebody who has been there and still struggles from time to time, it's not that it offends me per se, it just feels like she doesn't get it, and is instead toying with these ideas as some sort of ill-conceived marketing plan to appeal to early adolescents who bought Cradle of Filth shirts at Hot Topic en masse around this time in history.  I don't normally focus on lyrics, but they're really shit here.  The whole album is loaded with really shallow, basic lyrics about two ideas that don't coalesce in any way and feel like a first draft.

Musically the album sort of falls into the same pitfall of sounding like a first draft presented as a final product.  There are awesome moments here and there, "I Spit on Your Grave" and the title track sound like lost Follow the Reaper tracks with a massive boost vocally (worth noting that those are the only two tracks credited solely to Goss and Laiho), "Me, Myself, My Enemy" has a great chorus, and even though "Written in Stone" is probably the most egregious offender in terms of lyrical deficiency, the total simplicity of the riffs work on that one, since an "Unforgiven" style ballad doesn't need any real theatrics.  Everything else?  Nah, it sounds like the rest of the band wasn't even trying.  Goss kills it throughout but riffs as brain dead basic as "The Sin Trade", "Passage to the Fourth World" and "Nowhere for No One" sound like warmup exercises more than a finished product.  There is so much instrumental talent in the band, it stuns me that the best they could come up with to showcase their skill is shit like this.  It's baby's first heavy/power metal in a lot of instances, and the few truly phenomenal songs are so damn frustrating because obviously they can do better than that lame ass main riff on "The Sin Trade". 

Despite the startling amount of filler and the awkward lyrics, I'd actually still recommend giving this a spin if you get the chance.  I'm not 17 anymore so I may not identify with how shallow and basic the album is at its core anymore, but tracks like "Suicide by My Side" and "I Spit on Your Grave" are still certified bangers, and the more explosive and exciting tracks are more than worthwhile for fans of the style.  Suicide by My Side is a very hit or miss album, but the hits are so strong that I still listen to this even fifteen years after first hearing it.  It's concise and punchy, and while it doesn't always make its point effectively, when it is effective, it's just as strong as anything else to be found in the genre. 

Before writing this review, I did some googling to see what Kimberly Goss has been up to lately since she's been more or less absent from the metal scene ever since this album way back in 2002.  I found an interview she did with Noisecreep back in 2012 where she revealed that she's been happily living a quiet life as a mother, working at a music school.  Here's the thing though, that particular music school just so happens to be like a twenty minute drive from where I live.  This means I now have a plan for what to do in my spare time.

1) See if she still works there.
2) Throw pies at her until she agrees to reform Sinergy.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Children of Bodom - I Worship Chaos


I've had a tumultuous relationship with Bodom over the years.  They're another band I've wound up consistently covering throughout my reviewing career without really doing so intentionally, mostly because they were just simply one of my favorite bands in high school, and due to my listening habits at the time, I binged so much of their material from 03-07 that I could probably play every song on every instrument from memory at this point, and I have fat sausage fingers and have never even seen a drumset in real life.  We all know how magical they were back when they were basically just Nightwish on fast forward with a vocalist who had no idea how to sing/scream/breathe and the worst lyrics ever written, floating by almost entirely on insane shredding and unmatched charisma.  We all know how bad they were when they dropped the melodic power metalisms more and more and started just becoming bland ass melodeath with occasional keys and nutso soloing.  We all know everything about them at this point, they're one of the more popular metal bands in the mainstream and anybody with the slightest awareness of where metal is currently knows who they are and what they're about.  So how are they faring nowadays after the surprisingly decent Halo of Blood in 2013?


I Worship Chaos is basically just a slightly better counterpart to the totally irrelevant Relentless Reckless Forever, just with some much needed aggression that that release was sorely lacking.  Halo of Blood was a distinct and obvious throwback to their more melodic beginnings, acting as something of a hypothetical midpoint between Follow the Reaper (one of my all time favorite albums, if you recall) and Hate Crew DeathrollI Worship Chaos finds itself positioned one black key further down the piano of their release history, nestled neatly between Hate Crew and Are You Dead Yet?, being a more heavily melodeath influenced album than the former but still retaining some of the overt melodicism that the latter had excised in 2005. 

Now, I don't necessarily hate either of those two albums.  I think Hate Crew is great and AYDY at the very least starts strong with three fun songs before becoming a boring slog, and I think this one's thematic counterparts translate basically 1:1 in terms of quality.  It's got three great songs hidden among a bunch of inconsequential, effortless nonsense.  "I Hurt" is a fine opener, with some nice hooks and a damn catchy chorus riff (that "I AM DOMINANT" part is one of the most entertaining things they've done in ages), "Horns" is mad aggressive and sounds straight out of 2003, replete with some mindbending fret/keyboard acrobatics, and the title track is one of the best songs they've written in years, again sounding like something that would've been right at home on Hate Crew with how pummeling and insane it is.  The keys remain prominent and the hooks are strong as hell, even the chorus is awesome, sounding like it was tailor made for the live arena.  I can't stress enough that this is exactly what Bodom is so fucking good at.  Clearly their power metal based beginnings are long gone, but when they fully embrace the melodeath style and filter it through the songwriting lens of a rabid wolf who happens to have human fingers and be really good at guitar, they can craft some seriously excellent stuff.

The problem arises with the rest of the album, as it flip flops between those god awful slow songs they insist on shoehorning into every album ever since "Angels Don't Kill" somehow became a fan favorite (see: "Prayer for the Afflicted" and "All for Nothing") and near-totally irrelevant white noise that sounds like it was written in an afternoon ("Hold Your Tongue", "Morrigan", "Suicide Bomber", etc).  "All for Nothing" stands out in the worst way, potentially being the most teeth-grittingly terrible song the band ever released, attempting to be some sort of unholy power ballad that awkwardly transitions between quiet piano parts with Alexi just whispering like Jonathon Davis since he can't sing and bland plodding non-riffs that go nowhere at all.  Not even the wind-in-your-hair epic dueling solos that carry the song out can save this trainwreck, it's such an awful attempt at saccharine emotion that falls so flat that it's practically invisible when viewed from the side.  I hate this song and I hate anybody who likes it.  Even the otherwise solid "Widdershins" tends to be forgotten by me simply because it follows this disaster and I just want the fucking album to end already.

There aren't a whole lot of stylistic differences between the good songs and the lame ones, so it really just showcases the difference in level of songwriting.  "I Worship Chaos" is a total mess of unconnected ideas but they're all good ideas so it winds up being a somewhat anarchic whizbang avalanche of raditude, while "Suicide Bomber" is singularly focused in being keyboard heavy melodeath but manages to limp through the entire runtime without one single memorable riff or melody.  Bodom is showing themselves to be an odd enigma who routinely excels when they don't really know what they're doing.  The more they focus on crafting songs around a unified whole, the more they find themselves following the rules and releasing inconsequential boredom.  When they just sorta say "fuck it" and go balls to the wall with no restraint or clear direction, they wind up gutting out memorable confetti farts of glitter and shrapnel.  That's what made the first four albums so special, they were just terminal alcoholics who were really good at their instruments so they flailed around aimlessly and wound up wrecking everything in their path with flair and aplomb. 

The problem with Bodom nowadays isn't that they used to be great, because that would be unfair to hold I Worship Chaos in lower regard simply because Hatebreeder is so much better.  The problem is that an album like this showcases the difference between a good example of the style (specifically Hate Crew Deathroll since it adds so much heaviness to their original sound and has always sort of been the template for everything afterwards) and a mediocre example of the style (this album and most of the ones preceding it, with the exception of its immediate predecessor, which still holds up).  The elements are there, but the final product is just... wrong somehow.  I don't want to say it's undercooked, because they've definitely been around long enough to know what they're doing and have a solid idea of what they want to do, and I don't want to say it's overcooked because it's somehow still unrefined and it doesn't suffer from overproduction or too many ideas or anything.  It's a very "medium" album.  It's not rare and it's certainly not well done.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Ensiferum - Two Paths

Autopilot Engaged

Man this is a frustrating one.  I've covered every Ensiferum album up to this point, I'm obviously a huge fan, but it's just becoming clearer and clearer that they are just woefully inconsistent.  We all know how legendary the first two albums are (even though the debut is truly split in half between good and bad songs, but the good songs are so good that it barely matters), and ever since Jari Maenpaa left to "focus" on Wintersun full time and Petri Lindroos stepped in to fill the vocalist/guitarist spot, they've been sort of all over the place.  Victory Songs is phenomenal and still to this day my favorite album of theirs, From Afar and One Man Army are both kinda wonky and unfocused at times but overall have enough great moments to make them worthwhile, and Unsung Heroes is lame as shit.  There's really no clear trajectory to their career nowadays, and admittedly they do at least try something new with each album so I can't fault them too much for not always hitting bullseye. 

So along comes 2017 and with it comes their seventh album, Two Paths, and the new idea this time is "let's let members who can't sing handle the vocals this time."  We all know that ever since Jari left, the harsh vocals have been covered by Petri and the cleans are mostly Markus Toivonen, with Sami Hinkka allegedly contributing as well but admittedly it's always just sounded like the same deep voiced dude layering over himself so I never noticed.  But here?  Nah man apparently everybody gets a turn!  Sometimes it works out fine, Netta Skog handles lead vocals on "Feast with Valkyries" and she does a good job, and a couple tracks keep the old dichotomy up and running without any changes.  But then there are songs like "God is Dead", "Don't You Say", and the title track, which for some godforsaken reason I'll never understand allow... I dunno somebody who isn't Markus to do clean vocals, and man these other dudes suuuuuuuck.  There's really no way to describe these vocals other than "somebody who can't sing", because that's all it really is.  I wish there was a better way to describe it but there really isn't.  It's just somebody who isn't a good singer, who struggles to carry a tune, can't really emote, and clearly doesn't have much experience doing this sort of thing. 

I should harp on the bad vocals more, but that's really all there is to say about them.  They're just "bad" and that's the only way that I, somebody well versed in trashing bad music, can say about them.  I've always been more of a music guy than a vocals guy anyway, so I suppose the most important part of the album is simply whether or not the songs are any good, and that answer is a bit more complicated.  In a way, kinda.  Tracks like "For Those About to Fight for Metal", "Way of the Warrior", and especially "King of Storms" are absolute scorchers.  Those three tracks exemplify everything that makes Ensiferum so great, and they showcase an absolute mastery of this battle metal subsect of folk metal.  Folk melodies interspersed with gigantically bombastic power metal is such a fucking cool thing and Ensiferum are basically the Grand Poobah of the style, and on these tracks they solidify their stranglehold on the dying scene.  "King of Storms" in particular stands out for being a sort of hybrid between "Slayer of Light" and "Axe of Judgment" with how intense and thrashy it is.  I've always loved it when the band would churn out mega aggressive songs like that.

The rest of the songs range from "really dull" to "really stupid".  "Feast with Valkyries", "Hail to the Victor" and "I Will Never Kneel" just sullenly plod on by with nothing exciting happening, keeping up the age old problem of Ensiferum's fast songs being awesome and their slow songs being tame.  Then there are the ones with the bad clean vocals, and even beyond the baffling choice to fill them with terrible voices, they also stand out for being musical departures from their usual fare.  More specifically, they sound like different bands entirely.  "Don't You Say" is a really simple, almost vaguely punky rock song with brain-dead simple chord progressions and lazy melodies, and "God is Dead" sounds like there was a mixup in the studio and Alestorm or Korpiklaani accidentally stepped in to record a song.  Really, "God is Dead" is the exact kind of folk metal that Ensiferum always managed to avoid; the sort of doinky accordion jig that feels like a joke more than anything else.  It's almost offensive in how fucking stupid it is.  And yet I... kinda love it?  I wish I didn't, because it is dumb as shit.  It sounds like they were aiming for recreating "One More Magic Potion" and instead landed somewhere near "Wooden Pints", but the chorus is so brazenly rousing and the solo is surprising shreddy, the buildup in the intro sounds like the world's most radical party is about to let loose, it all just somehow comes together masterfully, despite how dorky it is.

Despite mostly having good things to say about the album so far (awful vocals aside), this still lands as a disappointment, and it's simply because even the best songs here pale in comparison to the best songs they've done before.  I'm not intending to hold Two Paths in the shadow of Iron or something, because I know that's unfair, I just mean that despite "Way of the Warrior" being a good song, it's still on the whole pretty average for the style.  Ensiferum likes to throw new ideas around all the time, and somehow they're still on autopilot.  There is very little fundamental difference between the more traditional songs here and the stuff they used to do in the early 2000s when they were on top of the world, but what was once invigorating and exhilarating is now rote and played out.  These songs sound like they wrote themselves, and that's not a compliment.

I find myself at something of a loss for words when it comes to this album, because most of my criticisms can just be accurately summed up by gesturing towards the speakers and saying "you see what I mean?"  Two Paths isn't necessarily a bad album, but it is an unnecessary one on the whole.  There are three classic sounding Ensiferum tracks and one surprisingly good Alestorm track and the rest is just totally forgettable.  The band is so frustrating at this juncture because I don't really know what I want them to do in order to make them as good as they were on the first three albums again.  Just... I dunno, be great again.  The reason "King of Storms" sounds so great is because it sounds hungry and driven, whereas "I Will Never Kneel" sounds obligatory.  If they can get back to writing full albums' worth of "King of Storms"-level excellent tracks, they'll find themselves back at their rightful place at the top, but as of right now, they're has-beens.  And it's a real damn shame because almost nobody could touch them in their prime.