Monday, December 30, 2019

Possessed - Revelations of Oblivion

Bitch, siddown, be humble

I'm going to be disgustingly frank with y'all here.  I'm writing this for two reasons alone.  One is because I'm ageist as fuck when it comes to metal and I really wish the legacy bands would just go the hell away and make room for the young bands with fresh ideas to actually take a fucking foothold in the scene before all of the old fogeys die and metal as a genre goes the way of doo-wop because metalloids are terrified of change.  And the second reason is because I just really want to get 100 posts on the year.

So Possessed was kind of an easy choice for me when I wanted to make this argument.  It's been 33 years since their last LP, and in the interim they've either been broken up or busy releasing meaningless singles.  And exactly as I suspected, it was hailed as pretty uniformly great by critics and fans in the corners of the internet I hang out in.  I've seen this movie before, it happens every fucking time Overkill or Judas Priest releases something.  Classic band releases a mediocre album and gets showered in accolades because they were great thirty years ago and didn't release Illud Divinum Insanus, and apparently that's all that's necessary to wind up sweeping Album of the Year lists across the net.  Fuck this shit, move over and let Xoth shine or something.

And that's why this is such a humbling experience for me, because against all prejudice, Revelations of Oblivion is actually pretty fucking excellent in many ways.  I think between this and the new Nocturnus album this year, I'm starting to question my long-held stance outlined above.  Maybe the issue isn't that old bands need to go away and stop hogging all the limelight, maybe they just need to write albums as great as Revelations of Oblivion in order to justify the instant praise they get.

For a band that's been more or less dormant for longer than I've been alive, this is pretty much the best album I could've expected out of them.  Despite most of the band being a few heartbeats away from being able to order off the senior menu at Denny's (barring guitarist Daniel Gonzalez, who is only in his late thirties) there is a hell of a lot of youth in the sound here.  The adrenaline is off the charts, and the pace stays consistently high.  The overall feeling of this album is just fuckin' ferocious, with razor sharp riffs tearing through at nearly all times and drumming that feels like a tommy gun.  There's definitely a feeling of aged professionalism in how tight the riffs and songs are, but that youthful energy that keeps things sounding wild and dangerous actually never left the band.  This is no replacement for Seven Churches, mind you, but it is worthy of the legacy, which is something I never thought I'd say.  Tracks like "Ritual", "The Word" and "No More Room in Hell" rip like motherfuckers.  This is that perfect nexus point between thrash and death metal that Possessed pretty much nailed all by themselves way back in 1985, and for once being timelocked in such an era is a huge boon to the album since they're clearly really fucking good at it.  Also worth noting that the solos are fucking incredible.  Every time these two guys let loose they melt face, and they're the clear highlight of the album to me.

This isn't perfect, however.  There are a few flaws that keep this album from being truly exceptional.  The biggest problem is easily the length.  Death metal almost never needs to be nearly an hour long, and twelve tracks of such a non stop assault just feels like overkill.  Yeah I know two of them are instrumental intro/outro tracks, but it certainly doesn't make the album feel any less daunting.  The songs themselves tend to feel longer than they actually are and I feel like that's merely the fault of the songwriting getting kinda repetitive at times (I swear the chorus of "Demon" loops like fifty times throughout the song).  The mix is pretty overwhelming as well, with Jeff's surprisingly clean thrash-like vocals absolutely dominating the space, with the rest of the band taking a distant-yet-still-crazy-loud second place.  So it's not particularly dynamic, but in fairness this is death metal so that'd be a crazy thing to expect this to be super varied or something.  Really the complaint is just that the vocals are stupid loud.

So overall I gotta eat my foot a little bit.  Legacy bands definitely still have a place in the current zeitgeist of metal music, and I wouldn't complain one bit if they were all as good as Revelations of Oblivion.  This doesn't bring anything new to the table and Jeff Becerra certainly hasn't spent the past few decades evolving much as an artist or vocalist, but when "Abandoned" is on, I just find myself looking in the mirror and saying "Ya know what, BH?  Who fucking cares?"  This is what Possessed is good at, and if they can keep this momentum while trimming some of the needless fat and repetition, they really and honestly could reclaim the death metal crown that they invented all those years ago.


Sunday, December 22, 2019

Creeping Death - Wretched Illusions

Who is this for?

I checked this out for one reason and one reason alone, and that's that The Absolute Boy Arthur Rizk handled the mixing and mastering.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, the man is the Scott Burns of this generation and everything he gets his hands on sounds perfect.  Creeping Death is no exception, because Wretched Illusions sounds absolutely gargantuan and every single riff carries the weight of mountains on their backs.  Rizk knocked it out of the park yet again, to the surprise of nobody.

The issue that arises here is that the band themselves... well, they kinda suck.  Or maybe they don't suck, but they are wholly unnecessary.  This is very similar to Genocide Pact's Order of Torment last year, and I have basically all of the same criticisms.  Despite the tempo shifts and pummeling drums, all ten tracks here are remarkably static.  There are occasional bursts of speed and occasional slow parts, but they do little to change the actual momentum of whichever track they appear on.  Wretched Illusions is just plain ol' death metal in the most generic and uninteresting sense.  We're in the middle of an apparently decade-long groundswell of bands aping the styled of death metal classics from the 90s, and due to the oversaturation of young artists deliberately treading well-covered ground we're bound to get bands like Creeping Death; bands that do nothing to push the style forward or stand out with exceptional songwriting and/or markedly high levels of adrenaline (Skeletal Remains is an example of a band that does absolutely nothing new but stands out as great anyway).  I'll give them a little credit for at least not doing the caverncore thing of ripping off Incantation as shamelessly as possible like was popular for a while there, but they fall into a pretty dangerous trap of trying to focus more on mid paced death metal than anything else.  Slow/midpaced extreme metal is incredibly hard to write because you really have no idea if the final product is going to be crushing/groovy/punishing or if it's going to be boring as hell until it's past the point of no return.  You really don't know if you're going to hit the level of Bolt Thrower or Autopsy until it's too late, I reckon.  Creeping Death can't even sniff the britches of Autopsy.  And the blistering fast parts are agonizingly short and spaced out, so you go crazy lengths of time toiling around in meandering chugs waiting for the actually intense parts to start.

Who does this appeal to?  Who has such poor quality control that they can hear such nakedly mediocre death metal and think "yo this fuckin SLAPS"?  Everything about this is bland.  Even the cool parts are stuff I've heard a thousand times before.  They rock when they pick up the pace but man why not just listen to Dismember, ya know?  The title track and "Corroded from Within" are pretty great but the rest of it is just lame.  I can't imagine writing a song as unimaginative as "Consumed" and feeling confident sending it to press.  Maybe I'm just being overly harsh, it is a bit more dynamic than some of their peers, but the classics are classics for a reason and if you're going to take most of your influence from them then please at least do something exciting with them.


Friday, December 20, 2019

Sabaton - The Great War

Gentlemen... welcome to Dubai

I've started and restarted this review like four times now, struggling to find the most apt comparison I can to truly illustrate why I hate Sabaton so much.  And, stupidly enough, I think the best comparison I can manage is fucking videogames, so bear with me for a detour right at the start.

Call of Duty has been a total fucking juggernaut in the videogame industry for well over a decade now, maintaining a yearly release schedule that always rakes in enough cash to fill a tugboat, and one thing I find equally fascinating and frustrating about them is the claim made by both the writers/developers and the fans is that they are allegedly completely apolitical.  The short version of my critique is that that position is laughable.  The games are loaded with uncritical worship of soldiers in bloody warfare, rife with glorification of torture and mass destruction (the newest game in the series literally takes the Highway of Death incident from the Gulf War, where American soldiers opened fire and led a miles-long path of destruction on a fleeing army and civilians and attributes it to Russia instead), disdain for rules of engagement and safety for non-combatants, and a proclivity for supremely edgy shock value like a mission that sees you gunning down hundreds of civilians in an airport or vaporizing a little girl with a car bomb.  Whether they mean to or not, they act as pure propaganda, showing how fucking cool the military is and how fun it is to destroy everything you see, because negative consequences never materialize thanks to the omnipotent writers always ensuring that every terrible thing you do results in the only deaths being the Bad Guys anyway.  Pilot that drone and rain fiery death upon the faceless white splotches on the screen, soldier!

Whether Sabaton means to or not, their similarly detached odes to warfare, regaling listeners with stories of heroes who overcame the odds and distinguished themselves in battle show how fun and super cool war is.  Even when explicitly terrible consequences are spelled out in the text, just like the car bomb turning an innocent child into pulpy mist in Modern Warfare 3, they're presented with pumping aerobics-metal anthems that sound like a god damned party.  Swedish rockstars singing Happy Metal epics with catchy choruses and bouncy synths is a totally innocent thing on its own, and hell that basically describes Battle Beast and Powerwolf if you change the country of origin, two bands that have some incredibly good albums in their discographies, but the difference is that these bands aren't writing tunes about recent conflicts that led directly to the deaths of members of their fans (and my) families.  Maybe I'm a sensitive little snowflake, but this just comes off wrong and it always has.  Is there a tasteful way to write about the Nazi occupation of France in WWII?  Sure, but it sure as hell isn't the way Sabaton did it, which was by rewriting the Scarface soundtrack to include lyrics about how badass Erwin Rommel was.

Now, in 2019, they made a move that was simultaneously ambitious, savvy, and idiotic.  Ambitious because their ninth album, The Great War, is a concept album about... well, The Great War, World War I.  This is a huge event, and one of the holy grails for nerds interested in modern warfare (or as modern as a century-old conflict can be, I suppose).  It's not nearly as covered in popular media like WWII is, so there is a lot of relatively untouched ground to cover.  They're already one of the biggest bands in the world, but this is a move that would help them stand out even more, especially since a huge chunk of their fanbase doesn't even really care about metal as a scene or culture.  Sabaton are adored by history nerds and gamers, and they can be a great gateway to educating people on subjects they know little about.  They're quite aware of this fact as well, utilizing their social media presence to give rundowns about what their songs are actually about, giving profiles of soldiers highlighted in their songs, and even releasing alternate editions of their albums (like this one) to include added narration and historical explanation.  That is partially what makes this move so savvy, the other part being that by setting their stories exclusively from 1914 to 1918, they can't accidentally write any songs where they make Nazis the good guys purely because they didn't exist yet.

The reason this idea is also idiotic is because it's Sabaton writing a bunch of songs about The Great Fuckin' War.  You could see this trainwreck coming from a mile away.  Sabaton is way too tone-deaf to cover a period as brutally miserable as this.  There is an old, now deleted, review by occasional-genius droneriot for Alestorm's first album that points out that one of the greatest flaws that band suffers, apart from their songs not being any good, is that they portray pirates in such an upbeat way.  A pirate's life fucking sucked, it was full of months on open water, dodging privateers and army vessels, fighting off starvation and scurvy purely because they had nowhere else to go or because they were lunatics who got off on the high of such a dangerous life of crime.  Drone posits that this reality contrasted with Alestorm's fluffy, happy, Disney-fied "YO HO HO" shit mixed like oil and water, and it created an insurmountable dissonance that even great music couldn't have truly overcome.  Running Wild also utilized the major key and catchy choruses, but their pirates still struggled and fought for survival, they didn't throw fucking keggers every day.  This same principle applies to Sabaton.  The Great War was terrible.  This is the war of mustard gas, trench warfare, grinding battles of attrition that saw entire villages worth of young men killed in the line of combat.  This is the exact wrong place for smiley, jaunty tunes with fun, catchy vocal lines.  This is such a toothless, inoffensive rendition of cruelty and hopelessness and it feels like the exact thing that would happen when somebody with no ties to the conflict tries to write exciting rah-rah bullshit about it.

If you actually want to know about the music, it's lame.  Most of it is more boring and forgettable than outright awful, though some tracks still can't outrun the tide of shit that is the execution here.  Sabaton's formula was predictable already, but even with the addition of ReinXeed's Tommy Johansson (a brilliant guitarist with an impeccable knack for melody), they are clearly fresh the fuck out of ideas.  "Great War" has a main synth line almost indistinguishable from the one found on "The Last Stand", nearly every track uses the same drum beat, the verses always see the guitars drop out before crashing back in the pre chorus, most songs are the same length and follow the same pop song structure, you've basically heard the whole damn album after you've heard the first track or two.  Joakim Broden still has a distinctly gruff voice that I actually love, it's great to get that mixture of rattly grit with such an immaculate command of melody.  I'd say I wish he was in a better band, but Sabaton seems to be his band more than anybody else's so I doubt it would help much.  And hell, in a vacuum, "82nd All the Way" is a great tune, with a maddeningly infectious main hook that's been stuck in my head for days, and "The End of the War to End All Wars" is actually pretty solid as well, being the first and only time they drop their overly synth-heavy approach to songwriting and employ a more orchestral approach, making it truly feel like a desperate last stand before the fighting finally ends.  But apart from those two tracks, I don't remember a damn thing about this other than how teeth-gratingly terrible "The Attack of the Dead Men" is.  The only real difference between this and the previous eight albums is that Johansson brings a few more guitar solos than usual to the table, otherwise it's a dorky mess of lameness that we've heard plenty of times before.

The black cloud of how awful of an idea it is to present one of the most devastating and bloody conflicts in recent memory as a fun collection of smiling singalongs hangs over the album from the opening seconds and never dissipates.  Conceptually, at their very core, Sabaton is a broken band.  They trudge along, squeezing out another glossy turd every few years do the rapturous adoration of the Granfalloon of Wehraboos that they've unwittingly attracted, but they've upped their grand total of good songs to a piddly four or five.  Every single track tries to spell out how awful and unfortunately cruel the war was, but they're presented as fun three minute pop songs with lyrics about how important it is that we go to battle go to battle go to battle!  I know it's probably unfair to be expecting thoughtful nuance out of Sabaton, but that just proves my overall point.  They are dreadfully ill-equipped to be tackling the subject matter they so frequently do.  Imagine that famous footage of British soldiers trudging off the battlefield, dead-eyed thousand-yard-stares adorning a majority of their faces, hands shaking, emotions deadened, friends lost in pieces behind them, futures uncertain, unwanted.  Now imagine that footage overlaid with pumping major key metal about how fucking badass warfare is.

Spec Ops: The Line, is another game from the era of Call of Duty's unquestioned industry dominance.  It's another high-octane military shooter, but the difference is that it shows how senseless and awful everything that happens is in some of the most brutally gut-punching ways possible.  It gives you a drone and tells you to rain death on the white splotches, but afterwards you walk through the rubble and realize that those white splotches were refugees fleeing the fighting you caused.  You walk slowly, horrified at the scene before you, stepping over the charred corpses of mothers holding their children, while other characters point directly at the screen and call you, yes you, the player, a monster who was so high on the bravado of utilizing high tech equipment to liquefy "the enemy" that you just murdered hundreds of innocent people.  You wanted to be a hero, but you're not.  The best possible result you can achieve by completing the game is shooting yourself in the head after dooming an entire city of innocent people to death.  The only way to truly win is to turn off your console and not play in the first place.  This is what war is.  This is the power fantasy you wanted, now face the music.  Sabaton is the uncritical "apolitical" worship of whitewashed heroics and ticker tape parades of Call of Duty.  Bands like 1914 and Black Kirin are the dirty, bloody piles of corpses unspoken behind the broken soldier as he weeps over what he's witnessed of Spec Ops: The Line.

I know those bands sound absolutely nothing like Sabaton.

But that's precisely the point.


Sunday, December 8, 2019

Kryptos - Afterburner

Shredder on a hog

Trad metal had a pretty strong showing in 2019, with debuts from Idle Hands, Traveler, and Smoulder absolutely crushing, with others that I either haven't heard or didn't like much like Pulver, Riot City, and Iron Griffin generating a lot of buzz as well.  Bubbling under the surface of all these heavy hitters has been a quaint little outfit from Bangalore, Kryptos.  They've been plugging away for a long while now, existing in some form since 1998, and gaining some fame for being the first Indian band to play a full set at Wacken back in 2013, and they've been on my radar for a while thanks to my currently-shelved review series on countries overrepresented in population but underrepresented in metal.  21 years into their career, they've finally released their fifth album, Afterburner.

Yeah go ahead and place this firmly in the latter category up there.  Maybe it's because Balls to the Wall and British Steel are basically forty years old at this point, but man I really find myself struggling to get excited for strict orthodoxy in that camp nowadays.  Traveler is fast and mean, Smoulder is crushing and heavy, but Kryptos is just kinda... there.  This is really basic Judas Priest or Accept style heavy metal with raspy vocals and a few bursts of speed here and there on tracks like "Crimson Queen".  You'd think that having a vocalist that sounds so much like Mille Petrozza would up the thrash influence just by accident, but no, Afterburner is very mid paced and traditional, with riffs that would be all time classics if they weren't already perfected decades ago and rehashed by hundreds of similar bands in the meanwhile.  I hope you like the "Restless and Wild" riff, because you're about to hear it no less than six dozen times here.  At least Accept had the good sense to put "Fast as a Shark" on that album, ya know?  Kryptos does do something kinda similar by opening with the title track, easily the most adrenaline fueled track on the record, but after that point it just kinda fills up with seven songs that might as well be titled "Not Afterburner". 

If you like this sort of rigid rule-following, Afterburner isn't a bad album, and the bursts of speed on the title track and "Crimson Queen" are very welcome (even if the drummer can't seem to match the speed of the riffs if his life depended on it), but I can't in good faith recommend this since it's so bland and unexciting.  I do recognize that Iron Maiden would still rule if they released Powerslave in 2019, but Afterburner is a clear imitation of the classics that came before it and doesn't really do anything to justify its own existence alongside said classics.


False - Portent

Thumbing my nose at the True Believers

If Bell Witch can be held responsible for anything at all, it's introducing the metal world to Mariusz Lewandowski, apparently the only human being in the galaxy capable of accurately emulating Zdzislaw Beksinski's iconic art style.  Since painting the stunning cover of the aforementioned Mirror Reaper, this nearly sixty year old painter has suddenly found himself one of the most in-demand artists in the entire metal sphere, and one of the bands that won the Lewandowski Lottery this year was Minnesota's False, a band finding itself scrutinized fairly hard by those in the know.  This midwestern sextet seems almost lab grown in how they hit every single nerve when it comes to soaking up alternative press adoration as the token "metal band we'll allow ourselves to like".  Gorgeous cover art, female vocalist, pristine production quality, easy to absorb and understand music, inspiration from modern styles of metal, signed to Gilead (home of Smart Person BM heavyweights like Yellow Eyes, Mizmor, Falls of Rauros, and Krallice (and previously Fantano mainstays like Imperial Triumphant and Thou)), they blacked out the Internet Metal Journalist bingo card before a note was even heard.  I can absolutely understand the skepticism from the underground when a band hits a meteoric rise like False did when every single element seems like the closest thing to an industry plant that metal can muster.

However, sometimes the Hipster Hype Train gets it right.  Maybe, just maybe, it was purely by accident/coincidence that False has all of those aesthetic bits that made them media darlings so quickly (though it may be worth noting that they've existed for nearly ten years without a lineup change before finally hitting it big with their sophomore release here), because none of that shit should even matter in the first place, and allowing it to cloud your judgment of the album obscures some fantastic songwriting.

I'd be lying if I said Portent was something radically new or unique, but I'd also be lying if I said this was a shamelessly derivative copypasta.  It's pretty close to impossible to listen to any random snippet of this album and not be reminded of Emperor's full lengths from the 90s, but their personal twist on it is that they're paradoxically hypermaximalist while taking heaps of influence from drawn out minimalist atmoblack of the Cascadian variety.  It's no secret that I love overly busy maximalism, I am one of the last dudes still loving obnoxious tech death after all, and I think putting such an idea into the context of extremely lengthy and atmospheric black metal creates a sound that should be a total disaster but somehow works marvelously.  For example, synths are featured on the album, but they're never "prominent" in the sense that they're carrying the melody.  They're settled back playing simple chords to accent the atmosphere, unlike the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk style of hammering you over the head with doodly melodies.  The guitar instead takes the lead when it comes to these things, and they restrain themselves only insofar as they aren't playing shredding Yngwie Malmsteen arpeggios, because they're doing everything else they can to be the star of the show here.  Occasional bursts of major key triumph pepper the landscape laid out on Portent, and they never let these moments go by without drawing attention to them.  Take a look at the 3:37 mark in "A Victual for Our Dead Selves".  That right there is an abrupt shift in mood from slow, agonizing death into a bombastic victory fanfare, and it's done without a reliance on tooting keys at all.  It's just pure, unadulterated, fist pumping metal slicing through the darkness.

Almost all of the buzz surrounding the album, positive and negative, has done well to describe the music accurately, with the only real difference being the qualitative assessment thereof.  If you don't like the idea of especially busy atmoblack, then False was never going to appeal to you to begin with, and that's fine.  For me though, this is superb.  Imagine Wolves in the Throne Room or Altar of Plagues except the drums almost never slowing down and the melodies less floating in the upper spaces and more being shot out of a bazooka.  Portent is forceful in its expressiveness, very much taking background elements and exploding them into the foreground.  My only real complaints are ultimately pretty nitpicky, those being that the vocals aren't nearly as impressive as the rest of the band and "The Serpent Sting, the Smell of Goat" is 100% just two separate songs smashed together, complete with fifteen seconds of silence between the two halves.  It's such an oddly pointless thing to do and I wonder if somebody insisted that every song needed to be over ten minutes or else the album wasn't getting released.  Pure speculation, but whoever had that idea is a doofus.

So the hype train took a stop in Minnesota and picked up False, but I'm happily hanging onto the caboose like a filthy transient, pumping my fist and hooting the whole way.  Portent just hammers you over the head with riff after riff after melody after riff and I adore it.  Maybe it's overbearing for those who can't stop huffing the fumes of burning ravens and slashing their wrists with their bullet belts, but for those of you who, like me, wished atmoblack as a scene would stop pumping out so much drawn out mediocrity and finally let something fucking happen for a change, Portent is a godsend.


Tuesday, December 3, 2019

White Ward - Love Exchange Failure

One must imagine Sisyphus dying

It's impossible to talk about post-black metal nowadays without referencing Deafheaven it seems.  Like it or not, Sunbather was an absolute game changer in modern metal history, bucking the established aesthetics of the genre in a way that was bold and definitive.  It opened the door for legions of hipsters and music snobs to appreciate metal music stripped of all the kitsch and laid itself emotionally bare in such a way that it made traditional metalheads violently uncomfortable.  A lot of old school types didn't like it, and that's fine, it wasn't for them.  I liked it a lot, but I feel like I respect it more than I actually like it.  It was a watershed moment that inverted so many metal tropes that to this day people question its black metal credentials despite the abundance of blast beats and hypnotic tremolo riffs underneath screeching vocals.  The musical elements were all there, but the added shoegaze and major key carefree nostalgia of the whole thing was just so different that I think a lot of people didn't really know what to do with it, myself included.

And without Sunbather, I wager there'd be no Love Exchange Failure, so for that I have to thank Deafheaven eternally.  White Ward's sophomore album is the exact kind of thing I'd always wanted to experience but never knew I wanted to.  I decided a while ago that metal culture fucking sucks and I would've abandoned all of you dorks years ago if I didn't love the music so much, so an album like Love Exchange Failure hits me in a cockle so deeply embedded in a shriveled black stalactite that was once my heart.  Classics be damned, tradition be buggered, if this is the future of the genre I love, I am all aboard.

All you really need to know is that I find a clear parallel between this and Deafheaven's breakout album, and the album cover paints a picture so vivid that I felt like I knew this album on a personal level before I had even heard it.  Metal isn't a very "urban" genre, and I mean that in the sense that it's usually thematically centered around nature, fantasy, the occult, escapism, war, violent death, just generally things you won't find underneath well lit skyscrapers, ya know?  Love Exchange Failure is black metal presented at its most romantic without losing sight of the negativity that the genre dwells in so deeply.  Cities are a confounding thing to me.  By definition you have more people than you could ever count all living and coexisting in one space, interconnected by the greatest feats of modern engineering and architecture that the brightest minds of their eras could conjure, they are very clearly connected.  And yet, they're the loneliest places in the world.  Being isolated in a cabin hundreds of miles from civilization lets you be at one with yourself or with nature, but the white noise of a metropolis completely blocks you from such a spiritual experience.  You are surrounded by people, hundreds of thousands of them, millions even, and yet not a single person knows or cares about one another.  There is something gorgeously ironic about such an open air prison, surrounded by life and yet completely lost within yourself.  The sights around you are beautiful, and yet it's a concrete labyrinth of lights hazily illuminating nothing but decay and misery all around you.  So full, so lonely.  It's breathtaking, it's serene, it's the worst place in the world.

The dark splendor of urban isolation is on full display here musically, with long stretches of unobtrusive piano and smooth saxophone creating backdrops for lonely walks in the small hours of the morning, punctuated by loud, violent cries of agony.  The lion's share of material here is unabashedly metal, but that bitterly ironic twinkling sweetness never truly dissipates.  Even during the blasting and screeching, the quiet melodies of the piano and sax never stop.  The saxophone can probably be argued to be nothing more than a gimmick to help the band stand out, the same criticism Rivers of Nihil got last year with Where Owls Know My Name, but hell even if it is a gimmick it stands out in a wonderful way.  I don't think I realized how much I loved the sound of a saxophone until I heard White Ward, but now that I've heard it in a metal context where it doesn't clash so sharply, I want it to be as standard as a guitar.  I don't think it adds a new dimension as much as it fills a space I didn't realize was empty.  Atmoblack is a melodic genre, no doubt, but the melodies are always subtle and more implied than outright stated, flittering in the background, but the addition of the sax here gives those drawn out melodies a more active counterpoint, cutting through the cliche'd bullshit and grabbing you by the ear, pulling your face towards a dead homeless woman and demanding you weep for the tragedy of somebody dying for and with nothing when surrounded by opulence.  It sings defiant songs of agony and despair in a space of cold, unfeeling misery. 

I do my best to adhere to the Death of the Author theory, and that is because the beauty of art is that it can be interpreted more than understood.  I've read the lyrics here, most of them seem to be about a person trying to find meaning in a miserable world via murder, with some allusions to existential thought and I think some vague idea of using the violent nature of mankind to sow something natural in a place where nothing is, and while that's also great, it's not what I get out of Love Exchange Failure.  Instead, I feel what I described earlier.  Isolation, loneliness, the bitter smirk on the face of a lonely man surrounded by thousands of equally lonely people who will never even think about one another.  This sounds like the last moments of a man coming to terms with the fact that he lives in a cruel irony.  You are going to die here, and that's okay.  Death can be beautiful.  The cycle of life never stops, and though you're surrounded by so many people in a lively place, nothing here is truly alive, and the ultimate defiance of The Combine is to live anyway, and you're going to be denied even that.  Nobody can shoulder the crushing weight of conscious existence forever, and your time has simply come.  Look around you.  You see everything.  You feel nothing. 

I've barely described the music here, but I don't think that's really the point White Ward was going for.  This is all about mood and atmosphere over riffs.  It's atmospheric black metal with a saxophone, what more do you really need to know?  I could paint a much better picture of what the album feels like by saying it sounds like nostalgia for a time that hasn't happened yet than I can by telling you that it's noir-y and sad black metal.  The real genius of Love Exchange Failure is in the intangibles, and I hope I've made that clear.


Sunday, December 1, 2019

Freak Kitchen - Dead Soul Men

We live in a society

If you've been following my work for... well, any amount of time at all, you've probably noted that my taste in music is fairly diverse for the most part.  Not trying to jerk myself off or anything, but it's pretty empirically true that I have a lot of appreciation for a lot of different styles, within and outside of the metal umbrella (though that is obviously my forte).  But one thing that holds true, and I can't stress this enough, I fuckin' hate two things in particular: prog metal and excessively wanky jazz.  I don't know if I can really explain why, exactly, I just can't stand it.  Noodly, overlong, cacophonous nonsense absolutely overwhelms both styles of music, and it's just an irritating chore to listen to.  The only Dream Theater album I like is the stupid heavy one with rapping on it that every Dream Theater fan hates, the worst Death album is unquestionably the one that throws all of their strengths out the window and buttfucks the very idea of coherence in pursuit of some idiotic idea that anything jazzy is automatically cool and good.  I hate them both.

So now let me explain to you why I adore this experimental jazzy prog metal band.

Freak Kitchen is... a weird band.  The Swedish freaks led by guitar wizard Mattias Eklundh play an unquestionably complicated and intricate form of prog metal with leads that are just straight up jazz guitar shredding.  This should be my nightmare.  But there's one special thing that Freak Kitchen does that nearly none of their contemporaries do that make them extra special.  You know how I reference God is an Astronaut all the time because they're really good at taking a style known for incredibly drawn out self indulgence and compressing it down to digestible 4 minute chunks with great hooks and melody?  Yeah what GIAA is to post rock, Freak Kitchen is to prog metal.  Everything on Dead Soul Men is within the 3-4 minute range, perfectly suited to radio play, loaded with catchy hooks, off kilter rhythms, and wild squealing guitar solos played with such mindboggling precision that they don't even sound human.

Their career is pretty split, with the first four albums having one continuous lineup, before two of the three guys were swapped out and that new lineup has held steady for the last 20 years.  The only major difference between the two eras is that the original lineup was extremely quirky and experimental, before Move came out in 2002 and suddenly they had an impossibly bass heavy production and started adding in double bass and more overtly aggressive riffs.  With Dead Soul Men being the last album from the original lineup, obviously this one isn't quite as heavy as their newer stuff and relies a lot more on the lighter influences they were knee deep into at the time.  The self titled album prior to this is almost entirely lame pop rock, and unsurprisingly it's pretty clearly their weakest album, while Dead Soul Men takes the same basic idea of pop-heavy rock and adds a few dozen more layers of dirt on top of it.  So, in essence, this is some awful bastardized version of late 90s alt rock like post grunge run through a filter of aggressive prog metal.  This sounds like my nightmare, but The Freaks struck an impossible middle ground between accessible rock hooks and dizzying prog metal to create a sound I've never heard before or since.

The term "post grunge" should scare most of you, because it's one of the few genres that almost exclusively produces terrible bands.  I'm not even joking when I say the best band under the label is probably Nickelback, so for Freak Kitchen to be exploring that style you'd expect some top tier trash, but as should be clear by now, they had an approach that basically nobody else had that helped them stand apart from most other bands in the style.  While they did indeed take the basic aesthetics of grunge and run them through a much less depressing and abrasive filter, they have more than enough metallic edge in tracks like "Silence" and "Gun God", some heavy punk influence on "I Refuse", some Prong-esque groove metal on "Black Spider Flag", and that's not even mentioning "Ugly Side of Me" which is basically a Racer X song with how fucking zippy that main riff is.  Despite all that, heavy rock is definitely the flavor of the day, with nearly every song I've mentioned carrying a chorus tailor made to be as catchy and inoffensive as possible in the aim of maximum radio airplay.  Luckily, Eklundh's ear for hooks is off the charts and nearly every song has a real chance of getting stuck in your head.

The album is pretty front loaded, with the first seven tracks more or less murdering the latter five, but nearly everything is at least worthwhile.  The lone stinker in the first half is "Everything Is Under Control", which is just a sluggish bore, but it's sandwiched between two of the most aggressively infectious numbers in "Ugly Side of Me" and "Get a Life", the latter of which has a frustratingly lame chorus but some of the best verses on the album.  I'm probably making this sound fairly uneven or weak, but it's mostly because I just want to get the bad stuff out of the way first, because I'd be lying if I said I felt anything other than excitement for Dead Soul Men.  "Silence!" is probably the best song here, and a very smart opener in the sense that it's easily the heaviest and meanest song here, and therefore the most likely to hook wayward headbangers like myself. On the whole, it's just like any other song on the album, but if it's a great first exposure in the sense that it opens with an off-kilter 7/8 riff that just swirls your brain into mush.  7/8 isn't a particularly mind melting time sig on its own, but in the context it's used here, it's definitely unique, and the band never shies away from these weird rhythms and polyrhythmic patterns where the drums seem to be in complete opposition to what the guitars are doing.  It transitions out of that into semi-acapella verses with Eklundh presenting his trandmarked "we live in a society" lyrics which probably sound deep when you're a teenager but really read like a shitty political cartoon to me nowadays but are still fun anyway, and then finally into an explosive chorus with some wildly impressive bass runs.  It should only take this opening minute to convince you of the band's technical prowess, and despite their rigid adherence to simple catchy hooks they never waver from this outside-the-box insanity when it comes to their actual riff construction.  And that's not even mentioning Eklundh's solos, which is where the jazz element really shines.  Every last one of them is a technical powerhouse of weird high pitched squealing and unbelievably clean arpeggio runs. They can sound atonal and bizarre at times but they are so quintessentially Freak Kitchen that I can't imagine any of their songs without them.

Special shoutout has to go to the couplet in the middle of "The Sinking Planet" and "Dead Soul Man".  The former is probably the most radio friendly song here, with the main riff having a strange cadence but at least still containing 16 notes by my count so it's not too proggy and weird for the cavemen like me.  It's main strength is honestly the same as all the rest of the great songs here, the hook in the chorus is just sublime.  That is peak 90s heavy radio rock and it absolutely fucking smashes the likes of Foo Fighters or whoever "properly" held the title to smithereens.  Eklundh's voice really shines here as well.  I haven't talked about it but it has that same kind of grungy strain to it that was popular at the time, and he can come off as nasally or whiny in some sections but a vast majority of the time he fits the sound like a glove, and there's no better example of where he fits best than the chorus of "The Sinking Planet".  Not even kidding when I say it's one of my favorite songs of 2000, it just hits every single note perfectly for me.  "Dead Soul Man" isn't too far behind, though it slots much nicer into a sort of crushing groove in the main riff.  It's very "Freak Kitchen Turned to 11", because the lyrics are as goofy as they'll ever be ("You think Treblinka is a new Playstation game" is simultaneously the best and worst lyric I've ever heard in all my years), the solo is wild, and they try some wild-out ideas like some heavy handed gospel influence in the chorus. 

I've read over this twice and realized I've probably undersold this album a bit, but I don't care, I love it.  It really boils down to that opening thesis: Dead Soul Men is the sound of a complicated prog metal album run through a filter of extreme accessibility, and thus, has made a normally dense and incoherent genre fun and easy to swallow.  If you'd like it to be heavier then go ahead and give Move or Land of the Freaks a try, but for my money, Dead Soul Men is the sweet spot.


Thursday, November 14, 2019

Idle Hands - Mana


I've been sitting on this one since May.  This was a big deal when it was released back then, and it felt like everybody needed to have a hot take on it, but honestly I just couldn't bring myself to do it in good faith.  The reason is simple: I had no idea how I felt about it.  On first listen, I fell in love within the first few minutes, but by the time the fourth track had rolled around I had done a complete 180 and didn't want to finish it, only for the cycle to repeat several times during the forty minute runtime.  I've listened to this a few times a month in the ensuing six months and I've gone through this same ordeal several times.  It's rare that I don't have my feelings more or less sorted out by the end of the first listen of something, and each subsequent listens are spent merely dissecting and analyzing it slightly further.  You'd figure that means the album in question must be rather thought provoking and engaging since I'm, ya know, thinking about and engaging with it so often, but that's not really the case here.  Each new listen felt like the first listen again, like Mana was constantly being memory holed and rediscovered.  It's only been recently that I've been able to truly speechify what it is that I feel about it and why. 

This might be hard to believe, but I'm not being needlessly contrarian when I say that Idle Hands's debut, Mana, the album that has taken the metal world by storm and will surely find itself topping dozens of Best Of lists at the end of the year, actually fucking sucks, and the reason why is blindingly obvious now that I've finally put my finger on it.  It's a confused and thematically incoherent pop album with surface metal aesthetics (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you, keep in mind I think Ghost is essentially the same thing but at least Meliora is pretty good) that structures itself around its weakest element.

In order for the first point to make sense, the second point needs to be explained.  On the broadest possible level, Mana is all about hooks over other typical metal tropes like aggression or riffs, with a strong second-tier focus on dark atmosphere.  I think the album's atmosphere is actually pretty good and consistently gloomy and gothy, that's not my problem.  My problem is that the hooks themselves are delivered via the clear weak link in the band.  The entire musical section of the band is competent and tight, and they may not be particularly rhythmically creative, but they all do their job pretty well for what they are.  The bass tends to just follow the rhythm guitar and the drums play simple rock beats with tragically rare bursts of speedy double bass, and the lead guitar lines are almost exclusively presented as clean arpeggios that rarely stop playing even during the loud moments.  The problem is that... none of those deliver the hooks that the album revolves around.  The arpeggios are more or less just background flourishes, and the rhythm section is a total joke in that department.  The songwriting creativity itself seems to revolved entirely around the novelty of mixing goth rock with heavy metal, but even then it pales in comparison bands like In Solitude and Tribulation who have tread similar ground in recent years, and falling light years behind the pack when it comes to actually metal and goth rock bands.  So what we get is a lowest common denominator worst-of-both-worlds scenario where the actual riffs are brain dead simple. 

Take "Nightfall" for example.  Let's get something clear, I like "Nightfall", and in fact I can pretty easily call it my favorite song on the album, but let's be fuckin' real it sounds like the actual band was a total afterthought in the writing process.  The track starts with five echo-y clean notes, a quarter second slide down the fretboard, and then, count 'em with me, a hundred and twenty eight straight palm muted open notes.  Eight fucking bars of sixteenth notes comprising of a whopping one god damned note.  I'm sorry are you kidding me?  I don't have a problem with simplicity but this is day zero level guitar playing.  The actual musical instruments are a total non-entity when it comes to Mana, and keep in mind I'm talking about the best fucking song on the album.  The rest of the tracks show a little more dexterity but not much, they're clearly meant to be a backing band here.

And that leads me to my main point here, those hooks I've been alluding to are delivered entirely via the vocals, and as you should've put together by now, the vocals are no bueno.  Gabriel Franco is the star of the show here and he is excessively mediocre.  His vocal style lands somewhere between overprojected melodrama (think a deeper and gothier Warrel Dane, for a metal parallel) and just kinda talking really loudly.  He has like a seven note range that he rarely wanders out of and utilizes this incredibly silly inflection that sounds like me reading my niece a bedtime story.  This is the biggest problem with the album and I feel like I can barely talk about it because I already covered everything there is to cover.  Obviously goth rock is a much bigger influence than metal on both the music and the vocals but with .01% of Andrew Eldritch's charisma.  It comes off straddling the line between laughably weak and pathetically hokey.  This is the exact same problem that Phil Collins of all people constantly struggles with.  Both the King of Pop for Divorced Dads and Idle Hands tend to craft songs with extremely sparse instrumentals.  Artists that do this usually do so to leave room for an incredible vocalist to wow you with a stunning performance, but Collins has the charisma of a biscuit with two shits inside of it and Franco sounds a theater kid with an ego five times the size of his singing ability.  He sounds so weepy and confident at the same time but his confidence betrays his actual ability to convey the emotion he's so clearly trying to convey.  His voice subtly cracks every now and again but it sounds so fucking phony, I hate it.  Even the occasional grunts feel forced as fuck.  Look at "Nightfall" again, those random shouts of OOUGH and the superliminal DO IT are pretty cool and fit with the song very well, but nearly every other time they appear it just feels like a shitty ad lib and fits less and less with each successive song.  It's like they realized oh shit we've got some dead space here quick do the Celtic Frost thing!

That thematic incoherence I mentioned comes into play here.  Most longtime readers of mine will probably notice that I almost never touch on lyrics (not because I think they don't matter, but because they're not the part of metal that I tend to care about so I usually don't pay too much attention), but I feel like I'm forced to here since there's so little else of interest.  The vocals are obviously the focus of the album, so they must have something to say.  But like... they don't?  The themes are all over the fuckin' place despite the consistently gloomy atmosphere.  "Nightfall" seems to be about ritualistic sacrifice, "Cosmic Overdrive" is about... actually driving?  "Don't Waste Your Time" is about... I dunno, somebody on their deathbed while the narrator is really smug about their religion or something?  "Dragon, Why Do You Cry?" I guess could be about childhood innocence leaving as you grow up but it could also be about a literal dragon that lives in the forest for all I know.  "Mana" seems to be the only track where there's any real emotional weight, touching on a parent grieving after their child's fatal heroin overdose... I think.  The rest of it is just straight up sophomoric angst.  Seriously this shit is so on the nose and at the same time vague and meaningless that it sounds like poetry I wrote when I was fifteen.  "Double Negative" is the least subtle and least poetic take on suicide I've heard since Sinergy's "Written in Stone", with the lyrics almost point blank painting deep emotions like "would you suffer without me?" and "I'm tired of living" with deeply personal lines like "would you suffer without me?" and "I'm tired of living".  "Jackie" and "A Single Solemn Rose" sound like unironic love songs, and if one of the characters is supposed to be dead or a vampire or something then fuck I had no idea, they sure as hell didn't make it clear in the lyrics about how much they love the anonymous person the song is about and how sad they are that they don't love them back.  I think the reason I'm so confused is paradoxically because everything is so blunt and direct, and I just can't fathom that a grown ass man is really writing about a regular ass breakup from the perspective of a 17 year old.  This is straight up r/im14andthisisdeep shit.

And can we talk about "Jackie" for a second?  I see this singled out as one of the better tracks fairly often and... y'all know this song blows, right?  I feel like Mugatu here being the only one who sees how nakedly obvious the song's flaws are, but here we are.  It's this shitty, sappy goth rock love song with a weak hook and childish lyrics.  Even if the lyrics are supposed to be darkly ironic, which I genuinely don't think they are, it comes off so fucking limp and lifeless that I genuinely don't understand how this song is even supposed to work.  So much of this album sounds like it was written in an afternoon (even the handful of good songs like "Give Me to the Night" and "Mana") and "Jackie" just epitomizes the lazy autopilot the album runs on.  This chorus sounds like a first draft and even Franco sounds bored as hell delivering his own lines.  Even on my first listen, before the flaws of the album became obvious to me, I still hated it on first listen.

I don't want to listen to this shit anymore, and it's wild to me that this became such a clear frontrunner on the year for so many people.  It's a weak, cliche goth rock album loaded with lame ballads and lamer lyrics and even lamerer musical qualities.  I barely understand goth rock myself and even I can understand that this is babby's first goth rock cliche 101 incarnate.  Simply not being a driving metal album in itself isn't a flaw.  I don't care that this is light, I care that it's wimpy and lifeless and all but like three hooks completely whiff.  Even the good songs (the ever present "Nightfall", "Give Me to the Night", "Blade of the Will", and the title track) kinda suck thanks to the shitty vocals and nonexistent backing band.  If they could expand on the actual blend of metal and goth like those songs do, Idle Hands would probably be at least decent and listenable, but they spend the lion's share of Mana trying to do pure hooky goth rock and they frankly fuckin' suck at it.


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Everfrost - Winterider

This has no god damned right...

Say it with me now: Power metal is a genre of scattered great songs instead of great albums nowadays.  I've been banging on about this for years now, but it's true.  There are a handful of flukes here and there, usually a major standout or two per year (obvious examples being Thaurorod's Coast of Gold last year and Avantasia's Ghostlights a few years prior), but for every great one there are ten to twenty lame and boring ones I've forgotten about that randomly have one insanely good track buried in there somewhere (first one that comes to mind is Theocracy's Ghost Ship, which was largely boring as hell but somehow had the fucking song of the year buried on the B side with "A Call to Arms").  So as a big fan of the genre, I can't help but approach new releases with some measure of trepidation nowadays.  So Everfrost coming across my inbox certainly piqued my interest with its unique aesthetic, but I still prepared myself for drudgery.

Imagine my shock upon discovering that this dorky ubermelodic flower fluff out of Finland is actually the most consistently excellent power metal release I've heard all year, and possibly even the best one I've heard since Ghostlights

Winterider reminds me of many other things, but all of those other things are great for the most part.  The bulk of the music is speedy melodic power metal with tons of keys and bombast with a striking similarity to when Sonata Arctica was good.  This sounds like some hypothetical fifth album that was supposed to follow up Reckoning Night.  At the same time, there are plenty of moments where the music kicks into an even higher tempo and the guitars start shredding in a way reminiscent of Luca Turilli's glory years with Rhapsody.  Seriously, "Brandy and Antifreeze" and "Cold Night Remedy" both sound like something straight out of Dawn of Victory.  And even then there's another obvious comparison in Dynazty, which is actually excellent because this sounds like the exact kind of thing I was hoping Firesign would be.  The heavy pop hooks are actually complimented with beefy riffs and huge booming synths instead of just kinda hopping back and forth with no direction.  So you've got the overall feel of Sonata Arctica, the speed and wild soloing of Rhapsody, and the huge hooks of Dynazty, and if that doesn't sound like the exact kind of thing that was created specifically for me, then you haven't been paying attention to a word I've said over the last thirteen or so years I've been doing this.

What makes this stand out so much is the consistency of the songs themselves.  Anybody could shit out a track as good as "Winterider" or "Chainlace Angel" on accident nowadays, but to have the entire album reach that level of quality is a huge breath of fresh air for me.  There are a lot of different ideas here, from the overdramatic bombast of "Above the Treeline", to the ludicrously aggressive "Juhannus in January", to the unabashed pop hooks of "Die Young", which in fairnes is a cover of a pop song, but it fits so fucking well you'd never notice if you weren't already familiar with the Kesha original.  The tie-in to the opener on "Darkwoods Drain Backwaters" is an incredibly nice touch as well, and shows that this isn't being treated as a joke in any way, despite what many metalloids might assume based on the cover art.  This is supposed to be some sort of hybrid between a fully coherent manga and a more general concept album, featuring characters from Everfrost's first album.  I don't know if this mysterious manga actually exists anywhere but either way this is obviously something very near to the songwriters' hearts and it shows.

The only real flaws with Winterider are problems that even great albums in the genre share, those being that the ballad ("Above the Treeline") is a bit of a flop, and the closing epic ("A Whisper in a Frozen Tale") doesn't really justify its length.  Any metal band that isn't named Blind Guardian has always struggled with ballads, but it seems to be an unbreakable tradition that most melodic bands seem unwilling to move away from.  And I know it's also tradition to end albums on massive multi-part epics, but "A Whisper in a Frozen Tale" isn't one of the better ones.  Fifteen minutes is just excruciating, even when the parts themselves are all very good.  It doesn't have the narrative flow of Timeless Miracle's "The Voyage" or Rhapsody's "Heroes of the Waterfalls' Kingdom" that makes it worthwhile as a singular entity.  It's a real shame because almost everything up until that point is incredible, but if I'm being honest with you, ignoring the ballads and super long songs are how I enjoy most of the early 2000s power metal classics anyway so it's easy to overlook.

So basically what I'm saying is that this is a glorious throwback to power metal's golden age, warts and all, and I can't get enough of it.  I have no real ending to this review, so that's it.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Xoth - Interdimensional Invocations

Jez Xoth

This was a hard one to pin down aesthetically, while at the same time being super obvious.  On one hand, between the band name and the weird tentacled eyeball on the cover, it was pretty obvious there'd be some Lovecraft influence involved here, but with the mechanical looking portion of the logo and the song titles I also figured this would be very sci-fi influenced (not that Lovecraft never dabbled in that himself but it's not necessarily what he's known for), and the general look and feel of everything pointed to some kind of Rings of Saturn styleded "aliencore" stuff where it's just absurdly techy and wild.  But if you don't overthink it like I did, Xoth is very much what it says on the tin.  Their logo is a blend of those two things because musically they're a blend of those two things, and the colorful album art is indicative of the almost comic book style over-the-topness of the whole thing.  And frankly?  They absolutely fucking rule.

I'm just gonna spoil the ending a bit right at the start and say that Interdimensional Invocations is actually one of my favorite releases I've heard all year, which is extra impressive considering it's death metal.  Obviously death metal is generally my favorite subgenre but it's been lagging behind trad and black metal in 2019, so for this relatively unknown group out of Seattle to come out and absolutely fucking trounce most of the heavyweights this year is definitely notable.  I think a big reason this stands out so much is because it takes a lot of influence from bands that aren't ripped off nearly enough, namely Mithras and Sarpanitum.  Interdimensional Invocations is bursting at the seams with screaming leads and hooky melodies all over the place, constantly flying over the blast heavy necromancy underneath.  This is very flashy, and they do it in such a way where they don't sound like guitar nerds jerking off over how fast they can sweep.  Instead each and every song is just incredibly solid hyperspeed death metal that just so happens to have ear catching fretboard abuse on the top. 

While they don't neglect the meaty riffs here, they're obviously secondary to the spiraling melodies.  I hear a lot of The Sound of Perseverance era Death in here, but they're not quite technical and wanky enough to be compared to Decrepit Birth (another great band that takes influence from there).  Those almost power metally leads of late era Death are filtered through a Mithras mindset.  It's kind of hard to explain if you aren't familiar with them or their sister project Sarpanitum, but basically what that means is that the leads take center stage over the rhythmic element of the band and they tend to be a bit more simple than the tech death wank you'd usually associate with such a description.  Check out "Mountain Machines".  That main lick is very simple, it's just a walk up and down the fretboard with some bends/slides and that's it, but it's so epic.  It sounds huge, like just sitting in my chair and listening to this in my living room makes me feel like I'm about to fight the final boss and the future of humanity is on the line.  "Melted Face of the Soul" and "Plague Revival 20XX" are exactly the same, and the solo in "Haruspex" is pure late 90s Schuldiner.  So even when it's more complex, the leads are all gigantic and exciting.

That's not to say the rest of the band is lesser than the guitarists of course.  Ben Bennett's (best known for briefly playing in Warbringer during their best era) bass is pangy and would be distracting in most contexts, but here the whole thing is so high-flying and wild that it just adds to the absurdity of the whole thing and I'm in love with it.  I know "bass just following the guitars" is par for the course in metal today, but even then it'd be really impressive if he just did that, but he doesn't.  He floodles and bloodles around all over the place but it manages to not be distracting with the hundred other things going on at once.  Everything comes together extremely well in the end and honestly there isn't one moment of Interdimensional Invocations that I don't love wholeheartedly.  This is one of those bands that was seemingly created specifically for me.  Hopefully you love it as much as I do.


Monday, September 9, 2019

Golgotha - Erasing the Past

The Fart Collector

Back in February, I reviewed the terrible debut album from Dying Embers, and the main takeaway from that, to me at least, was that I thought I was super clever coining "mellowdeath" as more of a codified genre than a snide pejorative, describing their brand of synth-smothering quasi-doomy mid paced melodeath with shitty clean vocals.  The thing is, since I published that, it's actually been brought to my attention that really all I did was accidentally describe Sentenced.  After a quick skim of a handful of songs, I'll concede that yeah, Dying Embers had way more in common with Sentenced than In Flames.  My bad y'all.

Anyway here's the exact same style of album that I hated last time.  Spoiler alert: I still don't like it.

Admittedly that's kind of unfair, because Golgotha's fourth album (and first after a 14 year silence), Erasing the Past, isn't terrible, but it certainly suffers from a few gigantic flaws.  Musically, if we're going to put this up against Dying Embers (since they're fresh on my mind and I know their one album a hell of a lot better than the few Sentenced tracks I checked out in passing), it's significantly better.  The songs have a real sense of direction here, weaving stories of anguish that at the very least seem to have a destination in mind instead of aimlessly faffing about with a few ideas before moving on. The riffs themselves don't tend to be all that engaging but there are a few nice moments of pounding heaviness that rear their heads occasionally (namely on "Burning the Disease" and "Rewrite Your Destiny") and the drumming is particularly heavy on the toms, which keeps things appropriately pounding when they go for it.

The issue is that everything else is just... boring.  I said the riffs aren't all that engaging but that's honestly kind of overselling them.  They're mainly just slow chugs that sometimes pick up to a glib trot and that's about the extent of their creativity.  They don't weave evocative textures of any sort, though I feel like that was the intent.  The title track sounds like a slow version of Nevermore's "The Heart Collector".  I think that's a great song, but here it seems that slowing it down and stretching it to over eight minutes just makes it overwrought and tedious.  And man, the vocals are bad on that one.  They're never great, but they're serviceable throughout most of the album, with competent deep growls and deep baritone cleans (which frankly kinda sound hokey when they're not layered with anything else), but on the title track for whatever reason it sounds like the dude is trying to be some epic narrator and it winds up sounding so hilariously overblown.  That "I FEEEEL! YWOR HOOOORT!" literally sounds like That 1 Guy, it's hysterical.  The growls are usually fine too but for whatever reason, on "Enveloped in Fog" and only "Enveloped in Fog", they sound super strained and terrible.  I don't know what it is, but this album just has random tracks where the vocalist suddenly just completely sucks at what he's otherwise fine at, it's baffling.

Overall this is just boring, and I'm bored of it.  It's decently okay doom flavored gothic metal but it's neither entertaining nor evocative.  It's not even interesting.  It's just pure background music and I'm done talking about it.


Sunday, August 25, 2019

Burn Down Eden - Liberticidal

[note: insert title before posting]

I went through a brief phase back in 2013 or so where I was the biggest Battlecross fan on the planet for like six and a half minutes.  Around that time there was a minor groundswell of bands just like them that blended thrash with melodeath in a way that hadn't really been commercially successful since the heyday of The Haunted a decade prior, and they all suffered the exact same problem: They had a ton of energy and threw tons of riffs at you but precisely none of them would ever stick.  It's pure "in one ear and out the other" metal, and it got so bad that Battlecross is literally the only band like this that I can remember six years later (after typing that I checked the Similar Artists tab on MA and saw that I voted them as similar to Revocation, a band I made this exact point about last year and now I can't stop laughing at how correct I was).

Obviously I bring that up because Burn Down Eden is similar to the Battlecross type of metal in many respects, but it's not a 1:1 comparison.  The Americans tend to lean harder into the thrash side of the equation, while the Germans here have one foot and three toes planted on the melodeath side, and as such they tend to focus a bit more on hooks and lead lines than riffs themselves.  That may rob them of some meaty intensity, but it gives them a clear advantage in terms of memorability.

Liberticidal's bread and butter is a sort of The Black Dahlia Murder-esque high speed melodeath with technically impressive solos that don't do much to excite people who aren't automatically wowed by sweeping arpeggios.  I also hear a lot of hints of Wintersun in here in the lead guitar department (from the self titled era of course, his is quite free from the excessive bombast that cripples Jari with such alarming frequency), and I've always tended to like bands that take a lot of influence from Wintersun a hell of a lot more than Wintersun themselves (like Brymir and Aephanemer) so you'd think that'd be a good sign..  Just like with the Battlecross type bands, when this is on, it's breathtaking and exciting, but as soon as it's over it feels like you barely listened to anything at all.  The parts that stick out are usually thanks to sheer repetition.  That lead lick in "Grotesque Satisfaction" just goes on and on and on and I swear the song felt twice as long just because I heard that fucking "widdlywiddlyWEE" part a hundred times.

Honestly, their real crime is simply not doing much to keep the album exciting.  Nearly every track on Liberticidal runs for a similar length of time, and that's almost always a clue that the songs themselves are going to be workmanlike and samey.  This is no exception, though they're a lot busier than most songs on albums of this nature.  The sheer number of solos and flashy leads should turn this into a colorful dynamo but instead it all fades into this kind of Dime Store Children of Bodom mush and winds up being totally inconsequential.  Hell, I'm not even kidding when I say that the main riff of "Eternal Youth" is so similar to the one in "Dystopic Endzeit Panorama" that I genuinely thought it was just a bridge riff at first and had no idea the tracks changed.  With the heavy focus on melodies and lead guitar, you'd think that would naturally be Burn Down Eden's strength, but it's really not.  All of that stuff is surface flash, a quick woosh of fire that dazzles for a few seconds and fades just as quickly.  No, their real strength is in the sections where they just buckle down and riff out something really god damned mean while the drums start blasting away.  "Eternal Youth" and "Dammerung" are best for this and are easily the best tracks on the record.

I started writing this with a much higher opinion of the album than when I finished, which is pretty emblematic of the entire problem with this particular subset of metal in the first place.  On the surface, this is an impressive and ear catching, but after a few minutes fades you realize that your ear wasn't caught as much as it was swatted lightly.


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Desecresy - Towards Nebulae


I'm not sure if I've ever really made it clear or not, but when it comes to regional death metal scenes, I actually find Finland to be one of the worst.  Weird right?  I don't deny that it's certainly one of the most instantly recognizable, with the frequent influence from doom metal lending to some crushing slow sections and the ever-looming spectre of Demilich over the entire scene pushing everybody to sound like their instruments were formed out of an alien swamp, but I'm going to pick America or Sweden every fucking time if given the choice.  The thundering megalith that is Nespithe is one of the only things out of that entire scene that's really stood the test of time to me (alongside Adramelech's debut and that one Rippikoulu demo) while everything else runs the gamut from "alright I guess" to boring to bad.  I don't really plan on justifying myself further, but hopefully this should elucidate why I'm so fucking lukewarm about the "Timelich" style that's gotten so popular in recent years.

Anyway, enter Towards Nebulae, which isn't an exact representation of the particular strain of death metal I'm talking about, but is pretty close and shares the aforementioned ancestral homeland.  While this is slightly more grounded and less abjectly fuckin' weird than Demilich, it does share some of the same distant, alien qualities that ties Finndeath together.  Seriously, these leads sound like they're being broadcast from GN-z11.  And hey man I like the idea of something sounding completely foreign, but the problem is that any extraterrestrial creativity Desecresy showcases is drowned out by some frustratingly unengaging riffs and some straight up fucking terrible vocals.

The main guy here, Tommi (formerly of Slugathor, probably the closest sonic comparison) has been "the guy" behind Desecresy since the beginning, but it was actually a two-man band for the first four albums.  While I haven't heard any of those albums, I can only assume he's world's better, he has to be.  Tommi here sounds like a cross between Rami Jamsa from Convulse and your dad making fun of the music you like.  He sounds like he was born without a tongue and has a massive underbite and then just whispers really angrily.  There is no power in that voice, and frankly the music doesn't fare much better.  This is about as muscular as a plate of Jell-O, and these grinding, mid-paced riffs that take up a huge chunk of the runtime sound like they're aiming for a doomy overtone like Asphyx or Krypts but instead just land on weak and amateurish.  There's also a bizarre disconnect between the several instruments at play, each one sounding like it was recorded in a different spelunking expedition.  I know "cavernous" is a really overused term in the modern death metal scene but it's pretty much right on the money here.  I know I compared it to sounding like it's billions of light years away, but at the same time it sounds so barren and earthy that it could simultaneously be coming from a dripping cave right underneath your feet.  It's very "watery" sounding, but instead of violent thrashing as you try not to drown, it sounds like you didn't realize you were underwater until you were a few miles down, the music manifesting as a few gurgling blubs that reach the surface long after you try to scream.

Now, that should be cool, but I think I opened this with a brief screed against Finndeath because Desecresy is so emblematic of my basic problem with it.  There's no doubt that it, as a general rule, takes an approach that aims to overwhelm the listener with incomprehensible atmosphere, but in doing so it sacrifices exactly what I love so much about death metal in the first place.  In aiming for such a goal, they completely eschew the raw, pugilistic spirit of the genre itself.  Death metal may be at its best and most interesting when it's completely divorced from thrash metal (Altars of Madness is a classic for a reason), but there's a particular saying about reinventing the wheel that I just can't help but think of here.  Tommi tried to out-clever himself here and removed the very fangs that are supposed to hook you in the first place.  This holistic bleakness pads the gloves of the fist that by all means should be punching me to death, essentially tying big pillows with a cartoon skull on them over Mike Tyson's hands.  These riffs have no fucking punch, is what I'm saying.  Towards Nebulae is nothing but soft edges in a washed out haze.  There was a time in history when the Extremely Online metal snobs pegged Finndeath as some sort of higher form of death metal that transcended itself into something entirely new, and yeah that's true to an extent, but they achieved this by working against their own strengths.  This obviously isn't a hard and fast rule, but Desecresy is just another band I can point to when I find myself needing to explain why this legendary scene leaves me so cold.  If distant watery solos, muddy riffs, and cacophonous percussion is your thing, then hey you might love this.  But for me, I'll give some props to "The Damned Expedition" for being pretty good, but it's with the caveat that it's because it's one of the most straightforward and simple tracks on the album.  Everything else is a weird, incomprehensible mess and it's just not for me.


Tuesday, August 20, 2019

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - VII: Sturm und Drang

VII: Turd damning virus

As of now, this is the most current chapter in Lamb of God's ongoing story, and for once we actually have a fairly interesting story behind it.  The short version is that back in 2010, while in the Czech Republic, a 19 year old fan had jumped onstage, apparently something Randy Blythe was decidedly not cool with, and subsequently pushed him off the stage.  This fan unfortunately landed on his head and shortly thereafter found himself in a coma before eventually passing away.  Two years later, when the band returned to Prague on another tour, Randy was arrested for manslaughter.  After spending five weeks in prison, he was released on bail and allowed to return to the states.  Blythe is an international touring artist and needed to keep his name clear so he complied with everything he needed to, returning for his trial and eventually being found morally responsible since he's the one who tossed the guy off the stage, but ultimately not criminally liable since the promoter and venue didn't have adequate security.

So for once, there was some very real drama going on in the public light.  The entire future of the band was in limbo and their public face and founding member was facing a future behind bars for the death of a fan.  Once the dust had settled, the band had obviously undergone some serious trials in the public eye on a scale they had never experienced before.  This aggressive music has always (somewhat paradoxically to the outside observer, admittedly) been something of a safe haven and a place where people can be themselves without judgment, a place to release this pent up frustration in a healthy way, and now the performance of this cathartic release of negative directly resulted in the death of a fan.  That's actually a very morally and philosophically difficult thing to face, and one that should've led to some serious introspection and an interesting examination of what metal even is in the first place.  There should've been some tough questions to face.  Am I just a naturally dangerous person if I could (however accidentally) kill somebody who looked up to me?  Is what I do as harmless as I had always thought?  Am I blameless and this dead teenager really just a recipient of a stupid prize?  Can I really absolve myself of the blame for what happened?  What does this mean for the scene, the band, the fans, and myself?

What we got was Ashes of the Wake for a third time with one super boring Alice in Chains knockoff added in.

Don't get me wrong, there is indeed some introspection and remorse to be found in the lyrics of Sturm und Drang, because Randy is a human being with emotions and not a meatheaded dumbass like he may seem when in performance mode, but musically almost nothing at all has changed since the lazy trash of Resolution.  Almost all ten tracks here (with the notable exception of "Overlord") are just paint-by-numbers Lamb of God that might as well just be D-sides from their most popular album.  I'm sure I would've found this album to be boring as hell even without the manslaughter trial, but it's extra disappointing to see that the band just returned to business as usual when they finally had an external reason to break from their chains a bit.  If nothing else, if the band was going to continue after this, you think they'd be inspired.  But no, instead we once again get another lazy cash-in with startlingly few real ideas.

I'll just get the interesting parts out of the way first.  "Overlord" is a huge departure for the band, ostensibly being an Alice in Chains style grungy ballad rife with hitherto unseen clean vocals and massive heaps of melody.  The problem is that "Overlord" is much more of an interesting track than a good one.  This is really the only risk they bothered taking on Sturm und Drang, and every other slightly left of center idea like the brief talkbox guitar on "Erase This" and the vocal cameos of Chino Moreno (from Deftones) and Greg Puciato (from Dillinger Escape Plan) on "Embers" and "Torches" respectively come off as meaningless gimmicks.  Otherwise this is just the same as the previous album: Ashes of the Wake without the breakdowns.  I need to make it abundantly clear that Ashes was the worst album of the classic era and the breakdowns weren't the fucking problem, it was the intensely boring songs themselves.  If this was an album full of "Laid to Rest" level songs I wouldn't care at all, because that was the one song that truly worked on that album and laid the groundwork for how good the following two albums would be, but instead this is just "One Gun" and "Omerta" nine times but slightly faster and with "Rooster" randomly shoehorned in the middle.  If anything it's even more disappointing because some tracks start off really well, with "Delusion Pandemic" kicking the thrash up to the highest levels they've been in years before falling into the rut of mediocrity that plagues the album, and "Still Echoes" does the same except with some honest to god death metal influence instead.

There isn't really a good place to put this since the lyrics are just kind of not worth mentioning in the first place, but I'll do my due diligence and point out that "512" is the one track explicitly about his experience in prison, and lyrically it does finally touch on those questions of introspective guilt I asked in the preamble, and while the song itself is boring as shit and the vocal performance doesn't really relay any of the emotions in the words apart from the "My hands are painted red" in the outro, I do commend them for at least addressing the elephant in the room.  However, man am I the only one that finds "Footprints" to be in super bad taste?  Maybe I'm just reading too much into it, but it really does feel tone deaf to have a generic song about kicking ass including lines about screaming "get the fuck out" to an unknown figure and defiantly asking "how did you think this would end?!" on an album directly following a high profile instance of you accidentally killing a guy for being in the wrong place while half of your knuckle dragging fans pinned all of the blame on the victim in the first place.  Randy is a very well spoken and intelligent person, but man he's got to be the dumbest smart guy on the planet.

(Also, another random aside, but has anybody else noticed that they frequently seem to reference feet in their song titles ("Footprints", "Foot to the Throat", "Boot Scraper") and every last one of those Footsongs ends up being meaningless filler?  I dunno, just something funny I noticed.)

Maybe I just want this to be something that it's not, and I mean duh, I want every bad album to be good instead, but Sturm und Drang is just a gargantuan disappointment.  Even with the context of the imprisonment and trial being stripped away, this is a clear filler album just put out as an excuse to hit the road again.  I feel like the band was constantly on the cusp of something truly exceptional here, because the good moments are genuinely promising, but they've really brought back their old problem of every song starting much better than it ends, except now the good parts only last for twenty seconds at the beginning of each song instead of at least managing a full two thirds of the runtime before getting dull.  Maybe their formula just doesn't work anymore, but I think the entire point of this series was to show how creative and willing to take risks they used to be (there's a reason I named the series after the debut, that title wound up being pretty prophetic with how influential they became) before just kicking their feet up and coasting on their established popularity.  They put the legwork in early and then just quit giving a shit, and albums like Sturm und Drang are the end result of that.  The new ideas used to form the entire identity of the albums themselves, now they're just superficial coats of paint slapped on to old ideas they seemingly have no intention of updating.

Maybe the new album that will inevitably be announced on the day this review is posted because I have awful timing will prove me wrong, but as of now, the band has been on autopilot for nearly a decade, and I'm just done caring.


Monday, August 19, 2019

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - Resolution

VI: Urine Tools

Hey hey hey, remember way back in the review for As the Palaces Burn when I told y'all to put a pin in a particular line from "Ruin"?  Well here's the payoff to that particularly insufferable brick joke.

"This is the resolution / The end of all progress"

Nine years before Resolution dropped, Lamb of God accidentally prophecized their own downfall, because it should be pretty clear that each album up to this point has been incredibly distinct.  Wrath was the fast one, As the Palaces Burn was the one that laid the foundation for their iconic riffing style, Sacrament was the one with the atmospheric songs, etc.  Resolution here is the first one without a single new idea and instead is just a wholesale rehash of Ashes of the Wake, which was already their worst album anyway.  All of that lazy midpaced trash that sounded like it was written in an afternoon is back here with a vengeance, and even the three good tracks can't save this album from the trash bin.

I don't even have much to say about this album simply because I've already gone over how phoned-in Ashes of the Wake was and this album is pretty much that exact same album a second time.  There are a few good moments here and there, but it's not enough to save it.  "Desolation" sounds like the second coming of "Beating on Death's Door" and as such is a total fucking banger with memorable riffs galore (seriously that chorus riff is one of the more simplistic ones they've ever written but holy shit is it lethal), "Guilty" takes their Pantera-esque groove and injects it with some honest to god death metal influence (parts of it sound like Anata (specifically the main riff sounds like "Shackled to Guilt") and now that I've pointed it out you won't be able to unhear it, you're welcome), and "The Undertow" isn't quite as inspired as the other two but at least sounds like a good version of one of the weak songs on Ashes of the Wake combined with some of Adler's most inventive drumming.  But that's it, those three songs start the album off on one hell of a high note and then we're treated to nine fucking straight up filler tracks.  The previous two albums really made me think they had managed to keep the songwriting consistent enough to avoid their previously crippling filler problem, but no, they were flukes.

I don't even want to keep writing about this, and that's a shame because I chose to highlight this band in a series partially because each album is so different and has such a different mood.  I was dreading this album simply because it's not different at all, and the fact that it's four-fucking-teen tracks long and features a stretch of nine in a row to close the album on total uninspired mediocrity is just icing on the cake.  The sad thing is I'm not even entirely sure that I believe myself when I say it's just a rehash of Ashes, because it starts off with a two and a half minute dirge that's so deep and brutal that it just sounds like straight up doom metal with "Straight for the Sun" (which is actually pretty ballsy considering how fast and aggressive the previous album was), and it's not like "King Me" doesn't at least try to be super epic, "Insurrection" isn't their first and only track to truly flirt with nu metal, and "Barbarosa" isn't a full on acoustic interlude, but all of these new ideas are just so completely drowned by the total groove metal mediocrity of "Visitation", "Invictus", "To the End", "Ghost Walking", "Terminally Unique", etc.  You'd think this would be a total banger since it's front loaded with all the best songs in the first handful of tracks but then it just flops around like a fish out of water with no real identity for the next hour and a half.  The only song that's even half alright in that stretch of lameness is "Cheated" and even then it's only because it's the fastest one.

This is going to be the shortest one in the series because holy shit I just don't care about it.  "Desolation" is a classic track worthy of any setlist but the rest of it (even the other good songs) are just totally skippable and not worth your time.  I'm gonna get lazy and just stop now.  Fuck this nothing-album.