Thursday, February 28, 2019

Marianas Rest - Ruins

I JUST realized the band name means "deep sleep"

If anybody has been following me for the 11+ years I've been reviewing metal, y'all have probably noticed I almost never touch on death/doom in any real capacity.  It's not because I hate the style, there's nothing inherently wrong with it really, it's just not my usual wheelhouse since I generally favor the angry over the weepy, and what is death/doom if not weepy?  Marianas Rest here knows how to weep the weepy weep way, but really they stand out a bit for carrying their moodiness in a way that tends to be overwhelming, feeling like you're drowning more than you're sitting in your room moping, and for that they definitely stand above the pack a bit.

I'm being facetious here, because despite the "melodic death/doom" tag they seem to carry with them, Ruins has way more in common with the style of melodeath that Insomnium got famous for pioneering.  This keeps the downtrodden gloominess of Swallow the Sun and My Dying Bride at the forefront, no doubt, but it shares equal real estate with the cavernous double bass and deep growls that Finns seem to be so good championing.  That also isn't really my preferred style but I can at least jam something like Stone's Reach or Above the Weeping World (hey there's that word again) an any given day instead of necessarily needing to be in an existential pit of despair for them to connect.  Marianas Rest is similar in that regard, because while being in the right depressive mood can certainly enhance the experience, it isn't a necessity.

It's unsurprising that I find the more kinetic tracks like "Unsinkable" to be more listenable on the whole, since that one most exemplifies that rolling double bass and oceanic riffwork beneath submerged melodies that I enjoy so much, but these guys do switch it up on occasion with more overtly slow and gloomy tracks like "The Defiant".  The vocals tend to stay in that deep Niilo Sevanen-esque roar that further adds to the doomy inundation of swelling melodies, but they also swap between a higher rasp akin to a Harakiri for the Sky-ish shout.  They're quite standard for the style, but it works to tie the whole package together, which is really all I can ask of them. 

The album's biggest asset is also it's biggest downfall, being that it's super consistent in its mood and delivery, despite the occasional tempo shifts, but while that creates a cohesive experience, it leaves little room for actual standouts.  Ruins sits at a plateau for its entire runtime and never really gets better or worse than the opening minutes of "Kairos".  I'm starting to run out of nautical adjectives, but invoking the deepest point of the earth known to man in their name is quite appropriate, because this is deep, heavy, and suffocating.  It'd be nice if there was some more overt creativity involved, because as of right now Marianas Rest doesn't do a whole lot to distinguish themselves from their influences, but they're good at what they do.  Ruins is definitely a worthwhile experience, but I won't begrudge you for getting halfway through and just switching to The Morning Never Came or Winter's Gate instead.  Because that's exactly what I did.


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Frenzy - Blind Justice

Still don't care about the MCU thank you don't @ me

Wanna know the real reason I don't have any friends?  It's not because I'm an alcoholic or because I'm not entirely sure what a toothbrush is or because my King Diamond impression is terrible.  No, it's because I just flat out don't fuckin' care about superheroes.  I liked 'em as a kid, sure, but the last comic book/superhero movie I've seen in theaters was... I dunno, Spiderman 2 back in 2004?  The current glut of superhero mania has left me completely cold and apparently locked me out of all social functions for the past 15 years simply because I just can't bring myself to give a single shit about the latest colorful explosion of glittery Marvel puke all over every screen in the universe. 

So with that in mind, it was a no brainer for me to zero in on the debut Frenzy album, Blind Justice, when I got my latest batch of promos.  An obvious reference to Daredevil, presented with an album cover clearly designed to evoke memories of classic comic books, with song titles that are all obvious allusions to other comics?  Fuck yeah, I get to be smug and dunk on nerds for a few hundred words again.  Score!

Imagine my disappointment when Blind Justice actually wound up being... good.

Yeah I'm actually kinda mad that I like this, because all signs point to this being a low-effort snoozefest attempting to capitalize on a trend that apparently won't die, but dammit Frenzy is actually really damn solid.  On the surface this is just regular-ass heavy metal with no adventurous songwriting, but beneath that this is just... well, regular-ass heavy metal, but the safety in cliche manifests more as simple confidence in what they're doing with no frills or unnecessary window dressing.  I wish there was more to say about it, but there really isn't.  Frenzy just plays what has been nominally played out for decades but they do it with a lot of style and bravado that makes it akin to comfort food.

This is 80s to the bone, with songs spending about half the time in a double bass frenzy of the fastest that Judas Priest and Dokken had to offer, with the other half being more traditional mid paced stuff akin to Accept or Iron Maiden.  So their influences are all the most obvious bands you could imagine, but they play with a lot of style and sheer black-toothed attitude so it really doesn't matter.  The vocalist is clearly the highlight here, and it's for something that I haven't actually seen anybody else mention.  Namely, his higher register sounds just like Klaus Meine in his prime.  I may not be the biggest Scorpions fan in the world, but there's no denying that Klaus has got some fuckin' pipes on him, and Anthony Stephen here channels him brilliantly.  Check out "Save Me", it's absolutely undeniable.  The rest of the band is solid as well, with the guitarists keeping things entertaining enough, though only really stealing the show on the closer, "Shred or Die", which is about six and a half minutes long and I swear nine minutes of it are taken up by nutso soloing. 

So that's really all there is to this.  This is a short one because fuck dude, what do you want me to say?  It's solid heavy metal that we've all heard a million times before but it's energetic and raucous enough to be a fun listen on occasion.  I'd really love it if I went the rest of my life without encountering one more piece of media that shouts how awesome Batman is at me, but the confetti explosions of "Waiting on Your Call" and "Killing with a Smile" are cool enough for me to stomach it this time.  The more anthemic singalong like "Save Me", "We are the Future", and "Mad Ball" are fun and catchy, while the speedier assaults like "Blind Justice", "Velocity", and "Shred or Die" are a whirlwind of exciting cheese.  Blind Justice is nothing truly special, but it's certainly better than it has any right to be.


Monday, February 25, 2019

Cil City - Jump Off the Cliff

1! 2! 3! FLOP!

Stumbling across this one was a fun one because I can immediately recognize that I would've hated this with extreme prejudice ten or so years ago.  On principle, simply being a hard rock band instead of a metal one was an inconceivable sin to the dumbass teenage version of myself.  Why play rock when you could just be faster and heavier instead?  Do you not like adventure??  Inject some god damned danger into your veins you cowards!  Fuck outta here with this weak ass 80s wannabe shit and play some fuckin' Slayer.

Hearing this now, inching ever closer to my thirties, I can appreciate something like Cil City for the fun throwback that it is.  Jump Off the Cliff is still sorta foreign to me, but thanks to my wife being a gigantic fan of The Pretty Reckless, I've sorta grown to jive well enough with this more modern brand of female-fronted hard rock.  I only know like, I dunno, two or three Halestorm songs?  But Cil City reminds me of them anyway, they both have a similar Harley-revving, hotel-crashing, whiskey-chugging, switchblade-spinning, devil-may-care attitude to their craft that's just damn fun.

Jump Off the Cliff isn't a perfect album of course.  It falls victim to many of the tropes of hard rock where the more upbeat party-friendly songs are much more entertaining than the more restrained singalong moments.  "Shout It Out", for example, feels like pure filler, which is a huge problem on an album with only eight tracks, while the title track and "She's Rock n' Roll" are much more energetic anthems that get your blood pumping and stick in your head better.  Cil City is, frankly, just not very good at ballads.  "This Road Won't Take Me Home" and "#8" are completely inconsequential and do absolutely nothing for me, while "Freedom" or "Jump Off the Cliff" make me want to kick open the door to a dive bar and fistfight the nearest guy with a beard thicker than my thigh.

This ends up being an album of two halves as a result, with four hard rocking anthems and four waify dullards, and it certainly doesn't help that it almost perfectly flip flops between the two.  It starts with two raucous rock songs, two sedated ballads, and then the B side flip flops perfectly between the two for each track.  So it's no surprise that the title track, "She's Rock n' Roll", "Freedom", and "Changes" are a hundred times better than "Shout It Out", "This Road Won't Take Me Home", "Fears in My Head", and "#8".  It almost feels like a different band with how drastically the level in songwriting dips, really.  Maybe this makes me the dullard who can't appreciate subtlety, but I know what interests me, and it's not acoustic ballads with no hooks.

Maybe the fuckin' Slayer part of me never died, or maybe Cil City is just better at one style over another.  Occam's Razor says the answer is both.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Candlemass - The Door to Doom

Stop putting "doom" in your album titles you cowards

I might be a rarity here, but when I heard that Candlemass was (again) abandoning their plans to become a live-only band and that they were reuniting with the vocalist who graced their legendary debut, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, I was... pretty much not at all hyped about it.  Let's be real here, Johan Langquist was incredible in 1986, but fuck guys it's been 32 years and he's done essentially fuck all since then.  He pops up every now and again to join Candlemass onstage but he's only ever sang Epicus songs with them when he does, he auditioned to join the band full time in the early 90s (it's easy to forget he was just a session guy they hired on the debut, though the band loved him back then and wanted him to join for real) and lost the gig to Thomas Vickstrom (and rightly, I should add, I've heard his demo of "At the Gallows End" from that era and he butchers it), and apart from his occasional appearances onstage to remind everybody that he sang "Solitude", I haven't seen much evidence that he's done a whole lot of singing at all in the decades since then.  Forgive me for being cynical, but we are currently neck deep in the era of nostalgia where every metal band that existed from 81-94 is getting the band back together for fests to play shit they wrote in their early twenties, and Leif is a savvy businessman who knows that he can maximize hype for himself by bringing back a nostalgic favorite and attaching it to the only band of his that anybody gives a shit about instead of fully moving on with one of his other projects or finally giving Mats Leven the chance he deserves.

And now that The Door to Doom is finally out, I feel somewhat vindicated, because this is exactly as uninspiring and average as I expected.

One thing I want to get out of the way right away is that Johan does sound very good.  I expected him to sound like what he is, a washed up fluke decades past his prime, but I'll eat a small bit of crow here and admit that he sounds excellent here.  Even if you totally ignore the surprise at the vigor in his voice for being a session guy who has been out of the scene for three decades, he sounds great on his own.  Instead of sounding worn out and lame like I expected, he sounds like any other good epic doom vocalist out there today.  He sounds weathered in a way that implies he's an old guard warrior who has put his time in and experienced everything he's singing about.  I wish his voice blended with the music a bit better, as he's mixed in such a way where he sounds like he's singing in a completely different studio and slapped on top of the band long after the fact, and his completely dry and reverb-less sheen is distracting in how much louder it is than the rest of the band, but he turns in a great performance nonetheless.  He may be lacking the range of previous vocalists, but if Candlemass is good at anything, it's landing iconic vocalists with loads of charisma, and I can safely say that Lanquist truly does deserve to be in the same conversation as Messiah and Lowe on that metric alone. 

But what truly drags the album down is just how workmanlike and uninspired the songs themselves are.  Leif has been on autopilot for a while now, basically cycling the same four or five songs on every single album since the reformation in 2004 between all of his projects.  He's basically doing what Rolf did with Running Wild, constantly releasing similar albums between several projects and only generating interest with the original band that made him famous in the first place.  The difference is that Toxic Taste and Giant X guided what Running Wild was doing, Candlemass has always been the one leading Krux and The Doomsday Kingdom.  What this really means is that Leif has gotten comfortable in his songwriting, and once again we've seen him release something only sort-of inspired and overall triumphantly average.  The Door to Doom is functionally identical to Psalms for the Dead or Death Magic Doom, further showcasing that the band really doesn't seem to be able to tap into whatever it was that made them so much larger than life in the classic era.  There's no splendor here, instead it's much more down to earth and rocking, which is fine on principle but can be disappointing when the riffs don't do much to excite you.  I can name the good parts, it's not hard.  The explosive riff on "Under the Ocean" absolutely demolishes, "House of Doom" has a very "Crystal Ball"-esque sense of demonic psychedelia, and "Astrolus - The Great Octopus" channels the best of Heaven and Hell's The Devil You Know with it's monolithic pace and heaviness (and no I'm not just making that connection because of Tony Iommi's guest appearance, though it certainly helps).  Everything else just kinda... happens.  "Death's Wheel" and "Black Trinity" are total non-songs that contribute absolutely nothing beyond pure banality, "The Omega Circle" feels longer than it is and the fadeout two thirds of the way through just feels excessive, "Bridge of the Blind" is a pointless quiet bridge that would've worked better if it was only a minute long and treated like an interlude, and "Splendor Demon Majesty" opens the album with a quicker pace but fails to grab you in the same way "If I Ever Die" or "Prophet" did on the previous albums.  And then that's it, five of the eight songs are just unnecessary.

The Devil You Know is a good point of comparison for me, because I was also totally underwhelmed with it on the whole and it's for mostly the same reason.  Heaven and Hell didn't utilize the members efficiently and didn't play to Dio's strengths because he's always worked best when there's a sense of magical wonder behind him.  The Door to Doom also plays against Candlemass's strengths by focusing less on the wide-eyed splendor and almost spiritual undercurrent of their classic era, instead focusing purely on heaviness and downtrodden Sabbathisms.  The dark psychedelia can work in certain contexts (see "House of Doom") but something like "Bridge of the Blind" or "The Omega Circle" just could've been approached in a different way that better encapsulated what made everybody fall in love with Candlemass in the first place.

Overall I don't necessarily dislike The Door to Doom, but it's a very average album.  Not quite mediocre, not quite enjoyable, just... there.  If this didn't have the legendary name attached to it, it would likely fly as a flavor of the month joy for doomheads before quickly fading away, and that's just disappointing.  Johan's surprisingly great vocals and "Under the Ocean" and "Astrolus" alone can't carry the album.  Maybe it's not fair, but this is just completely unexciting coming from a band that we all know is capable of writing some of the greatest metal albums of all time.  I think the hard pill we need to swallow is that the guys simply aren't capable of that anymore.  And that's just heartbreaking.


Saturday, February 23, 2019

Destroyers of All - The Vile Manifesto

Ruuuby ruuuuuby rubyruby soho

The riff at 2:45 in "False Idols" is the main riff from Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla"

I'll admit that I fell victim to "cover judging" here a bit, coming across a band tagged on MA as "Progressive Death/Groove Metal" with a logo by Christoph Spzizijaizjidel and cover art by Mark Riddick just screamed "riffless modern wank with all pomp and no substance", and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that that wasn't really true.  There's no doubt that this falls into the usual trappings of modern death/thrash by being consistently intense with less standout highlights than I would like, but the fact that I just referred to them as death/thrash instead of the visual eardrum-repellent of a genre tag previously stated should tell you that these Portuguese metalloids are about to make defying expectations something of the norm here.

Yeah, Destroyers of All adds a bit of everything to the pot, touching on death, black, thrash, prog, groove, and metalcore with a surprisingly deft touch.  I think the base of the music lands on the line between death and thrash metal most often, while the other bits are just window dressing that get center stage quite rarely, only taking hold in brief snippets here and there, but these dudes are pretty damn good at making it all sound natural so it never really comes off as jarring.  Take a track like "Destination: Unknown".  It opens on a thrash riff reminiscent of something like modern Testament, followed by  high speed blasts of Goatwhore-esque tremolo filled black/death intensity punctuated with staccato dissonance, broken up by a more overt whirlwind of a thrash riff that calls to mind one of the more technically frenetic legends like Destruction, which precedes a blazing solo that climaxes on a Metallica-cum-Lamb of God riff, before breaking into a vaguely Latin American inspired acoustic jaunt, and again pulling back around to the catchy death/thrash of a verse riff that I glossed over earlier.  It sounds like a total mess on paper, I'll admit, but it comes off so fucking naturally that I didn't even notice how wildly disparate each individual section truly is until the sixth or so listen. 

What this truly reminds me of is a more musically adventurous throwback to Deathchain's peak in the mid 2000s, or alternatively a more streamlined and catchy Satyrasis.  While there aren't too many songs I can immediately point to as obvious highlights, there are plenty of individual sections that completely rock my shit.  There's the gang vocal "HAIL TO THE EMPEROR" shout in "Tohu Wa-Bohu", the quiet middle eastern break that leads into a devastating chug riff on "The Elephant's Foot", the dexterous breakdown that opens "Sheol", the punk-infused venom of "Kill the Preacher", the immaculately infectious verses of "Destination: Unknown", there are a ton of moments to like.  The only real flaw of the album is that "Ashmedai" and "The Dead Valley" are just sorta inconsequential when compared to the whizbang pyrotechnics of the rest of the tracks.  Most of the best moments are found in the first few tracks, but I'd be doing the album a disservice if I implied that it got worse as it went on, because it really doesn't.  I think the anarchic lunacy just starts to wear on you a bit once you're approaching the 35th minute and being pummeled with your 600th riff, and hell if anything I see that as an endorsement of how fucking wild The Vile Manifesto is.

A fiery goulash of pretty much every extreme metal subgenre being thrown at you from twenty angles might be overwhelming to some, but as one of the writers behind The Outer RIM I think it'd be unsurprising to most people to find out that I don't care one iota about the frantic pulling of several genres, and even then it's rather palatable considering I've made more cohesive culinary references up to this point.  It's all very well blended into one continuously complementary flavor palette, as opposed to a trail mix effect where each bite could contain wholly different ingredients and taste wildly different depending on where you reach.  The base of death/thrash is strong enough to tie the room together.  Despite me mentioning the lack of true highlights when songs are taken as a whole, it's really kind of misleading because it's all presented as one continuous conga line of riffs and hooks, so the semi-arbitrary cutoffs regarding where each track begins and ends results in the whole album being a cyclone of entertainment.


Friday, February 22, 2019

Wolf Counsel - Destination Void

Doom mood

Wading through the forgettable, pointless drudgery of the modern metal promo scene, something like Wolf Counsel is a nice break.  There's nothing about this that screams "AWESOME!!" but it's rather welcome to find a band that at least doesn't outright suck.

That's being somewhat mean, because Switzerland's Wolf Counsel is much better than the incredibly low bar of "not terrible", they're just not particularly innovative.  That's not necessarily a bad thing though, because competent music in an established style can be a great listen in almost any circumstance.  This here is indeed competent doom metal and I've been enjoying it a good amount.  It's no secret that doom isn't my usual stomping ground so forgive me for not having too many points of reference here, but Destination Void is very Sabbathian with an added dose of downtempo majesty.  I'd definitely hesitate to call this "epic doom metal" because it doesn't have nearly the amount of hands-to-the-sky splendor blended with crushing riffs of genre heavyweights like Candlemass or Solitude Aeturnus, but there's a very Grand Magus-ish sense of wonder here regardless.  It's very organic and earthy, with bone crunching heaviness in the guitar tone and drums that pound like a timpani, and as a result the overall product works very well.

The thing that keeps me from giving this a full-on endorsement is the fact that... well, there just simply aren't that many fantastic riffs to be found.  Doom is a genre that lives and dies on riffing prowess, and it's why Tony Iommi is rightfully recognized as the metal deity that he is.  A totally average album like Angush's Magna est vis Siugnah last year can still warrant repeat listens based entirely on how fucking rad the main riff of "Blessed Be the Beast" is, and Wolf Counsel never really reaches those heights.  They get close at times, for sure.  "Staring into Oblivion" has a few really good bangers in there, "Tomorrow Never Knows" is damn stunner, and the title track and "Nazarene" have some great moments in the guitar department as well, but Destination Void definitely rests on its laurels too much and leans way too heavily on simply banging out long, sustained chords without really constructing a meaty riff.  They tend to pick up the slack a bit with some excellent 70s style soloing and vocals that are functionally little more than a Phil Swanson impression but still complement the music really well, but the riffing deficiency is pretty notable until the last handful of tracks where they really pick up and start belting you across the back with Sabbathy goodness.

So while the album is definitely imperfect and can't truly be recommended for excellent soloing alone, it's still a nice, meaty slab of doom with enough of the genre's tropes to be a fun listen on occasion.  The consistently slow pace keeps the album cohesive but it tends to prevent any real peaks in energy, which would have been welcome without a doubt.  If nothing else, check out the last two tracks, that seems to be where the lion's share of great songwriting is hiding, the rest of it I could either take or leave, though admittedly most of the time I'd probably choose to take it despite the wanting riffery.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

Dying Embers - Where Shadeless Dwell Frozen

Fuckin' hell man

I've been saying for years that there's a difference between "melodic death metal" and "melodeath", even though I know it's a purely semantic distinction that doesn't really matter to anybody other than me and other likeminded nerds.  Just so we're on the same page, to me, "melodic death metal" is literally that, death metal with a lot of melody.  It retains the pummeling morbidity of its parent genre and blends the inherent intensity with a heaps of melodic sensibility (see: The Black Dahlia Murder, Arsis, Vehemence).  On the other hand, we have "melodeath", which is shorthand for that style that originated out of Sweden, sometimes called the "Gothenburg style" that basically amounts to "Iron Maiden with growls".  The actual death metal component of this subsect is relegated almost entirely to harsh vocals and occasionally high speed drumming, while the focus is much more honed in on overt guitar melodies and mid paced riffs, oftentimes featuring clean vocals (see In Flames, Scar Symmetry, Soilwork).

But throughout all of the years I've been doing this, I've always avoided the temptation to further split this dichotomy into a third category, mostly because up until now it always felt more pejorative than descriptive.  But here we are, with the debut Dying Embers album, and I just can't deny it any longer; "melodeath" has indeed fully given way to a third style - "mellowdeath".

To call this "mellowdeath" is a bit of a misnomer, but not for the inflammatory first half of the descriptor.  Where Shadeless Dwell Frozen is indeed a very mellow and easy listen, but implying that death metal exists anywhere near the galactic quadrant where this is written is horribly misleading.  I would honestly argue that this has more in common with radio friendly alternative rock than anything approaching metal, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing in a vacuum, but it certainly manifests as a bad thing when the songs are as fucking lame and unengaging as they are here.  Dying Embers is the cosmic endgame of the sound that In Flames really started pushing for over the last decade starting with A Sense of Purpose.  This is essentially a lost In Flames album where they just stopped pandering to their old fans for 45 seconds per song and Anders dropped the harsh vocals entirely.  Where Shadeless Dwell Frozen take the template they've been toying with for years now and just go full out with it, completely excising almost every trace of metal as a whole and replacing it with the toothless non-riffs under the choruses and spread them liberally throughout the entire runtime.

There was a point during "Beyond the Crimson Haze" where I actually thought to myself "This sounds like Alter Bridge", and I haven't even heard a single note of Alter Bridge's music since they had that one minor hit on rock radio back in like 2004 or whatever.  Even so, I was sure that this is what it sounded like.  Harmless rock riffs with a thin veneer of heaviness that completely dissipates when you examine it for more than a few seconds.  They're obviously not under any real delusions that they're any sort of metal band, but Dying Embers hasn't seemed to get the memo yet.  The whole experience here is very... well, mellow.  I can point out all of the moderately exciting parts, it's not hard.  You've got the opening 30 seconds to "Pursue the Light" and an even shorter section midway through "Dead to the World", and then that's it.  You've got like 40 total seconds of anything approaching adrenaline throughout the entire runtime, it's a fuckin' joke. I wish it was possible to go into more detail, but it isn't.  Dying Embers has produced an almost wholly encompassing non-album, presenting ten tracks that all sound more or less exactly the same, all sounding like they took as long to write as they do to finish reading this review.  It's pure plug-and-play workmanship with no real passion or excitement or even fucking effort.  It's just bad, safe, unengaging, weak, and so far beyond "not worth listening to" that I question if it even lands on "worth recording".

As if it couldn't get any more insultingly pointless, I've avoided talking about the man behind the band this entire time, but I can't really tiptoe around it much longer.  Dying Embers is the solo project of J├╝rgen Schurz. You don't know that name and neither do I, but he's the frontman of another presumably pointless melodeath band, Unhallowed. Before even learning that tidbit of info, I could have told you this was a solo project using my own two ears alone based on the sheer amateur incompetence. Dying Embers is very clearly orchestrated by one guy because the guitars are at the very least played with a level of competence that showcases some knowledge of the instrument, but every other aspect of the band falls so flat that it's obvious it's just one guy floundering through a bunch of elements he's no good at. The drums are completely flat and uninteresting, the bass doesn't play one note outside of the root note of whatever powerchord the guitar is playing at any given time, and the vocals are... wew lad the vocals are fucking terrible. It's bad enough that the instruments themselves are completely devoid of creativity, but the vocals manage to go a step further by completely lacking in talent and even then whiffing on execution. He only toys with harsh vocals for a total of like fifteen words, but that wouldn't be a problem if he was actually a decent singer, but boy is he not a good singer either. I say with zero hyperbole that he sounds like he's just kinda talking and shifting his pitch every once in a while. It's deep-voiced mumbling trying to masquerade as epic but failing to evoke any sort of emotion beyond all encompassing boredom. There's a section in "Praise the Signs" where he starts with a weak growl and halfway through just... stops. It genuinely doesn't sound intentional at all, it sounds like he intended to growl the whole section but his throat started hurting so he just kinda gave up halfway through and starting talking slowly again. It would be funny if it wasn't so fucking bland and dull that I didn't somehow completely miss that part on the first four spins simply because I had totally checked out and was more interested in fantasizing my own death than listening to this album.

So I'm finally giving up and acknowledging mellowdeath's existence as a codified genre, and the band that made me realize that yes indeed, people who weren't already moderately well known did indeed consciously choose to take influence from the awful waning years of In Flames's career was Dying Embers, a group consisting of one guy who I am positive wasn't even awake during all of the recording process. As soon as I understood that mellowdeath was real, I was forced to immediately divide it again into another subbier-than-subgenre into "bedroom mellowdeath", because this has all the hallmarks of awful bedroom black metal. Completely amateur, poorly written, unexciting, and vocals that sound like he's trying not to wake up his neighbors/parents. There is not one second of worthwhile music on Where Shadeless Dwell Frozen, and I recommend it to nobody. But that's okay, nobody is going to listen to this anyway.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Equipoise - Demiurgus

*boodledop loodle dooWOODLE DOODadoo doodle*

I'm going to try to be responsible and actually check out the hundreds of promos per month that get crammed in my inbox that I've been flagrantly ignoring for 6+ years at this point.  After my bit the other day about mostly only listening to established "good" bands and only checking out new things if they have some hype behind them, I had a moment of self reflection and realized that was stupid, because despite my bad luck with obscure promos the last few years, I really am robbing myself of finding potentially great new things.  So fuck it, I'm gonna throw myself back to my teenage years when I was writing for Metal Crypt and just drowning in promos.  It's time to be A Real Reviewer again.  And with that in mind, one of the first ones I opened after six years of saying "man I really oughta tell Clawhammer I'm not fucking interested" without actually doing anything about it was the subject today, Equipoise.

Equipoise is... well, pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, and frankly this doesn't sound like all that great of a tin.  The band is ostensibly Nick Padovani pulling a Nader Sadek, that is writing a complex album all by his lonesome and then recruiting a bunch of heavyweights into a supergroup to actually put it to tape.  The problem is that Equipoise here is ludicrous tech death, and it's packed to the gills with seven members from several "names" around the scene in North America.  Just skimming all of the other bands now associated with this, we have members from Beyond Creation, Inferi, Virulent Depravity, Eternity's End, Vale of Pnath, The Faceless, Hate Eternal, Burning the Masses, Fallujah, and be surprised to learn that of course Phil Tougas in involved, so he alone also adds Chthe'ilist, First Fragment, and Zealotry to the pedigree, among a dozen or more others.  The point is that for a tech death fan this band is fucking stacked.  Even if many of the bigger names associated with the band are from new members or short lived live members, obviously all seven members of the band are loaded with more chops than a hog. 

But that's exactly the problem.  If I had told you there was a supergroup out there comprised of seven showoff wankmasters combining their forces to make a wanky jazzy tech death album that's extra proud of shoehorning in elements of flamenco, you'd likely say "Well mate that sounds like it'd be a total fucking mess".  You'd be right.  This would've blown the socks off of kids eight years or so ago when tech death started eschewing gory brutality for more high minded progginess, but the style has been on the wane in recent years if I'm still somewhat in tune with the pulse of popular metal.  Demiurgus here sounds exactly like that showy trainwreck you're imagining if every member of Beyond Creation was as determined to take center stage as the bassist (which, unsurprisingly, the representative from that band here is of course the bassist, so be prepared for an hour of bloodly woobly fretless bass masturbation). 

So the technicality is obviously off the charts here, with three incredibly talented guitarists, one of the more iconic bass sounds in the modern scene, a drummer who has played with most of the big names up there, and a full time keyboardist in a band like this obviously has to have fingers like Crazy Hand.  The problem is that all the mindbending instrumental theatrics in the world can't save a song with no hook, and Demiurgus has about as many hooks as a single fishing rod.  Most of what happens here is pure flashiness, with little else of substance going on behind the pyrotechnics of rabid showmanship.  The end result is six dudes all trying to out-solo each other at the same time while occasionally a (good) vocalist elbows his way through the frenzy to attempt to tie everything together.  It might work as a fun and frenetic blast of energy, but these guys have to try to keep the adrenaline up for a solid 14 tracks that run for over an hour, and in the end it's just completely exhausting.  It's nice that the band goes for a more proggy and melodic approach because I think that can make something of this length a bit more palatable than aiming for oppressive brutality the entire time (there's a reason that Decrepit Birth and the first Fleshgod Apocalypse album work so well), but at the end of the day it's just cacophonous disaster.

I never watched the show in full, but according to MA, the lyrics are focused on the popular anime, Fullmetal Alchemist.  What I do know of the show does work as a decent analogy for what the band is.  The inciting conflict of the show is that brothers Edward and Alphonse try to use a form of alchemical sorcery to raise their mother from the dead, and in the course of the ritual, shit goes haywire and ends up more or less killing Alphonse, dooming his soul to live on in a huge suit of armor, while Edward loses half of his limbs and needs to graft steel appendages like Ash Williams to survive.  That's what Equipoise sounds like, kids who wanted to create the impossible but at the end of the day fell victim to their hubris and are forced to shamble on forever as heretical monsters of machinery.  The brothers are the heroes in their story, but the band here instead tragic victims, felled by their own ambition.  This is the sound of a soul trapped inside a monstrous figure of inorganic inhumanity.  The idea is there, but it's an idea that's well past its expiration date and offers nothing new that the other assorted bands attached to the project don't already provide in a much more coherent fashion. 


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Behemoth - I Loved You at Your Darkest

 I Was Apathetic at Your Darkest

Most people have probably pieced together that I spend a lot of time covering the more "popular" bands in metal, and that's simply because I listen to way more stuff with established reputation than unknown obscurities.  It's not necessarily because of some sort of internalized elitism, but mostly because after over a decade of actively reviewing I've come to find that undiscovered gems are like .1% of all undiscovered metal while the remaining 99.9% was forgotten for a reason.  It's more a matter of pragmatism than anything else.  I only have so much time to listen to music nowadays, I choose to listen to things that are proved to be good.  Because despite my notoriety for trashing bad albums, I don't actually like listening to them because I'm not a fucking masochist.

Anyway that small bit leads me to Behemoth, who is pretty much second only to Cannibal Corpse as the biggest extreme metal band of likely all time.  The band, particularly Nergal as a celebrity, are fucking huge.  Especially in their home country of Poland, the band has been put on trial for blasphemy charges, and Nergal himself is a bona fide celebrity, having high profile relationships with pop stars, acting as a judge on the Polish version of The Voice, and presumably sparking Beatlemania style riots when he announced his leukemia diagnosis.  They're a big deal, is my point.  So with those first two things in mind you'd figure I'd be all up on Behemoth's dick, but the weird thing is that throughout all my years as a metal fan, even getting into more extreme metal around the time Demigod came out, I've just never really been able to give too much of a shit about them.  This time, I think the intersection of underground respectability and mainstream awareness just kinda missed the mark.  Zos Kia Cultus has a handful of good songs and I remember liking both The Apostasy and The Satanist well enough, but everything else has always registered as not much more than a faceless blur of blastbeats.

So that brings us to I Loved You at Your Darkest, an album by a band that has captured the hearts of headbangers across the globe that I've just never cared too much for, but admittedly I was willing to give them another shot with this one based on the intriguing title and the fact that I remembered liking The Satanist from four years prior. That one was much darker and more brooding than their competent-but-unexciting barrages of non-riffs from the years previous, and I Loved You at Your Darkest here continues in a similar vein, but it feels more... I dunno, calculated, if that makes sense.  I'm not sure how to explain it without sounding too tinfoily, but I get the feeling that Nergal and co. saw how successful The Satanist was (and don't get me wrong, it was a rare bona fide hit for a band of this style) and decided that their own personal celebrity and the comeback story of Nergal recovering from leukemia had nothing to do with it and it was all purely because they added in darker, slower, gloomier elements.  Thus, they leaned into those once-tertiary elements super hard this time around

As a result, we're left with a black/death album that's pretty content to sit in a midpaced tempo and just fart about with spooky melodies and huck gothy arpeggios at you as often as possible.  That's not to say the idea is dead on arrival, but it's hard for me to argue that the execution was flawless here, because even after a dozen or so spins I still just totally check out for almost the entire runtime.  Batushka took the metal world by storm with chants and ecclesiastic bombast, but the only time similar idea here really works are in the huge preaching-to-the-undead-army breakdown in "Havohej Pantocrator" and the similar section utilizing a children's choir in "God = Dog".  I'd say the chanting chorus in "Bartzabel" is a highlight as well but honestly I think it stands out more for being the most unabashedly "churchy" part of the album than it does for actually being super well written.  "Wolves ov Siberia" kicks the album off on an old school Behemoth vibe with intense blasting and furious riffage (if not entirely memorable, which was always a problem for them), and then "God = Dog" more or less continues it with some more of the new elements integrated in, but after then the album pretty much drops it.  There are moments of blasting intensity here and there but they're so few and far between that I can never remember where exactly they show up. 

That's pretty much my main beef with I Loved You at Your Darkest, it's just kinda full of non-songs with a few standout moments here and there and that's pretty much it.  I actually think "God = Dog" is probably the best song here because it's the one that blends their old school furious blasting death with their new school ecclesiastic seriousness.  "Angelvs XIII" goes for the same thing with slightly less success (though the epic solo section near the end works really well) and "Havohej Pantocrator" just feels larger than life and kicks much more ass than it should, but that's about all I truly recommend.  I still don't know how the last few songs sound, most of the middle tracks blur by as well, it's honestly just a weird album that feels like it's caught between two worlds while simultaneously sounding very confident in its own confusion.  It's a very passive album and I feel like that really wasn't the intent, so I'm not sure how to feel about it.  Something did compel me to  return to this album fairly often, but even after all these months have passed I'm still not sure what that reason is, because there's nothing particularly grabbing here besides a few moments in particular.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Battle Beast - Battle Beast

I've got the Guts to fight the fight

I've been a pretty vocal defender of Battle Beast for years now, but I've never actually put it all into a real review until today.  I think the weird thing about my fandom of the band is that I really don't seem to like them all that much.  I have more complaints about the band in general than I do praises, but for some reason I find myself listening to them all the fucking time.  With their fifth album coming out later this year, and the fact that I've spent the last few days glued to my TV playing Berserk and the Band of the Hawk, I feel like this is as good a time as any to cover my favorite release, their self titled album from 2013.

To get the bad shit out of the way first, the band has, from day one, always been as shallow as an inflatable kiddie pool and about exactly as cheap.  There are no surprises on any album, and their strict adherence to pop structuring can make it tiring to sit through entire albums.  They are very Sabaton-esque in riffs being the secondary focus by a transdimensional mile to the melodies.  The guitars barely matter here, it's all about the keyboard melodies and the vocals, and both are focused around doofy arena pop and that can be a huge turnoff for a lot of people.  The vocals can get to be grating at times as well, though they usually take center stage for a reason.  Nitte Valo had a lot of excellent grit in her voice, and ever since her departure and replacement by Noora Louhimo they've taken a shift towards the more melodic side of things, which Noora excels at, but when she tries to do the more Valo-ish screams she just sounds like she's doing a growly parody of a bad metal singer.  This album has a great example with "Let It Roar", where the chorus sounds like a literal child screaming impotently about whatever the hell it is that kids scream about.

As for the good stuff, well... it's basically all the same stuff.  Sabaton may suck at formulaic pop metal but Battle Beast absolutely fucking kills it.  Guitarist Anton Kabanen is the sole songwriter an lyricist, so for all intents and purposes Battle Beast is a solo project with five extra cronies doing his bidding (at least up through Unholy Savior, at which point he was kicked out of his own band and went on to form Beast in Black, which is... just the same fucking band with different members).  If his body of work is anything to go by, he is a man of very limited interests.  Every single song he writes combines exactly two broad influences: 80s arena metal like Judas Priest or Accept and 80s popular music as a broad spectrum.  Every single lyric he's ever written is based on sci-fi novels, hopelessly vague 80s cliches like love and rebellion, and the ultraviolent anime from 1997, Berserk.  I say the anime and not the manga because throughout his career between his two bands, he's only ever touched on the Golden Age arc that the anime covers, when the manga it's based on has been running continuously for like 28 fucking years and has way more material to draw from.  Not really a problem per se, but it shows his hand a bit and would allow for more self-serious geeks to gatekeep the dude.  I've tried reading it myself and that shit is so dense that I don't blame the dude for struggling to get past the first ten trillion pages.

I highlight the narrow focus because I can easily see how it could be a problem for some, but frankly I think this allows the band to attack with a laser-fine point and it works to their advantage here.  It starts with a bit of a stumble with "Let It Roar" but after that it just hits like a dozen tracks in a row of Billy-Idol-meets-Screaming-for-Vengeance goodness and it's a fuckin' riot.  Anton is the main man here, but he's not stupid, he knows Noora is the highlight.  She's a twelve foot tall Amazonian valkyrie with lungs of leather and unlimited attitude and you'd be an absolute fool to bury her beneath your synthy cheese instead of letting her stand on top of it and scream it at the listeners with a million times galeforce ten.  She commands the hell out of tracks like "Machine Revolution", "Raven", and "Black Ninja".  She gets comparisons to Doro a lot simply for the fact that she's a woman and sings with a lot of power instead of trying to sound "pretty", but that's really not quite accurate.  I mentioned Priest and Accept up there because she really does sound like if Udo had Halford's range when she's belting out at max power.  Just listen to the best track on display, "Fight, Kill, Die".  She not only opens it with the Wilhelm Scream of Metal (not coincidentally used by both of the main metal influences on "Fast as a Shark" and "Ram It Down") but she somehow maintains that manic intensity throughout the runtime, closing on one of the most bombastically triumphant out-choruses of the decade.  She really was the best possible replacement for Valo, without a doubt.

I wish I could describe the music beyond what I've already said, but it's hard considering how shallow it is.  Namedropping Billy Idol wasn't random.  I fucking love Billy Idol in his prime and Battle Beast, whether knowingly or not, kind of carries the legacy from the Rebel Yell era.  Idol was pure pop with a punk edge/attitude and Battle Beast does the same with with a metal attitude.  They mostly stick to a palatable mid pace but load each and every song with the biggest god damned choruses they can manage, and that's really where the pop influence shines the brightest.  Try to deny the sheer over the top ridiculousness of "Black Ninja".  That's really just all this is, 80s pop music with metal riffs, loads of solos, and mega dorky synths.  This is probably the reason that "Fight, Kill, Die" stands out so much.  It's by far the most overtly metal song on the album, cranking the tempo up to its peak and packing in more riffs-per-square-minute than anywhere else.  As much as I love the pure pop cheese of "Out on the Streets", it just doesn't hold a candle to the searing metal assaults of "Machine Revolution" and "Fight, Kill, Die". 

I think that's why Battle Beast stands out so much compared to their biggest contemporary, Sabaton.  Not only are the hooks just way better in general, but small things like having a vocalist who actually kicks ass and a few scattered undeniably metal tracks here and there really help add some true identity to the synth-laden bounciness that dominates both bands.  The actual depth it adds is almost negligible, but it does help it from wearing out its welcome (this has become the band's biggest problem in recent years).  This isn't a perfect album by any means.  Some songs are just completely inconsequential (who the hell even remembers "Over the Top" or "Into the Heart of Danger"?) and even the good songs repeat themselves within a few minutes of each other ("Raven" and "Rain Man" use literally the exact same chorus hook), but overall this damn stupid album is just a really fun romp and I can't get enough of it.  Fight me.


Saturday, February 2, 2019

LADDER MATCH: The Black Dahlia Murder vs. Slough Feg

Hello children!  Once again, it's time for another LADDER MATCH!  The feature where I take two completely unrelated bands and stack their discographies up against each other and mathematically decide who is better, usually to the chagrin of both myself and people who know what they're talking about more than I do. 

The rules are simple: I rank the albums of the two bands against each other and assign points down the line.  So for example, if there are 15 albums for each band, the best record of the bunch will get 30 points, the next will get 29, after that will get 28, and so on down to 1.  The winner will obviously be determined by whoever has more points, so in this arbitrary system it's better to have a more consistent career on the whole.  Say Band A has the five best albums and also the bottom ten, they'll end with 195 points, while the band that sweeps spots six thru twenty will end with 270.  And also, since I like to make shit contradictory and complicated, if the bands do not have an equal number of records, the band with more albums will have their middlemost album excluded from ranking, because if I do a list with Morbid Angel, you bet your ass I'll want Illud Divinum Insanus to count for the same reason I'd want Abigail to count if I was doing King Diamond.  You don't get to sweep your mistakes under the rug here on Ladder Match.  This is how I balance consistency with spikes in quality, deal with it, chumps.

Our matchup today (in patented "two minutes in Microsoft Paint" fashion) is:

Ooooh this will be a fun one for me.  A modern titan that proudly carries the flag woven by earlier institutions of death metal versus an individualist classic that released some of my all time favorites 10-20 years ago and fell off sharply afterwards in my eyes.  I'm genuinely excited to do this one, since I honestly don't tally the points up before I write this up so I have no idea which will come out on top, though I'm sure I'll wind up disappointing myself somehow regardless of who comes out on top.  Since Slough Feg has the album advantage by one, I'm going to exclude my middlemost favorite, which happens to be their 2010 rocker, The Animal Spirits.  It took a really long time for that album to grow on me, initially sounding like another watered down half-riff filled snoozer like most of the two worst albums in their career, but over time the layers really peeled back and I can't think of a whole lot of bad things to say about it nowadays.  It's a fun, primal, earthy, hard rocking good time with great hooks and tons of Thin Lizzy-isms.  Anyway, enough dilly dally, let's get down to it!

16: Slough Feg - Digital Resistance
Slough Feg's (currently) newest album really was an easy choice for me to take the bottom spot, as it's one of the only albums from either band that I flat out dislike.  It's a bummer, because I want to like Digital Resistance.  It's a very unique and interesting album, but Mike Scalzi, for all of his ineffable wisdom, really has just tanked as a songwriter in recent years.  There are tons of experimental and forward thinking songs that aren't afraid to break as many rules as they can think of, toying with many wacky ideas (like the spaghetti western overtones of "Habeas Corpsus", the massively funky main riff of "The Price is Nice", or the 70s prog rock carnival doinkiness of "Analogue Avenger - Bertrand Russel's Sex Dungeon"), but none of them really sound fully fleshed out.  It sounds like these songs wrote themselves, which isn't a complement.  Scalzi used to put so much love and effort into his craft in the glory years of the 90s and 00s, but ever since 2009 I swear he's just been lazily chucking ideas around in the practice space and recording every half-baked jam he has and released a collection of them every couple of years.  So all these neat ideas sound like unfinished jams that don't really go anywhere or have anything exciting happen within them.  So as a result, the only tracks that stand out in such a way that I want to listen to them again are the solid title track, the excellent "Laser Enforcer", and I guess like half of "Magic Hooligan"?  And wouldn't you know it?  The one thing all of those songs have in common is that they sound like they could've fit nicely on one of their better albums.  I've warmed up to the album a bit since my scathing review from a few years ago just for the sheer experimental boldness, but it still stands as their weakest album by a country mile.

15: Slough Feg - Ape Uprising!
Man, jumping from "The Luddite" from the previous album to "Simian Manifesto" while writing this is like night and day.  I fucking hated this album when it came out.  Slough Feg painfully ended a nearly fifteen year long streak of excellence with this one, and I couldn't help but resent every second of the album as a result.  In hindsight, it's not awful, though seriously flawed regardless.  There are some excellent moments to be found, like most of the much-longer-than-it-feels title track, the pure Diosabbath "Shakedown at the 6", and the entirety of the frankly incredible "Simian Manifesto", but it's still plagued with mostly unmemorable tracks like "White Cousin" and "Overborn".  The real knock against this album though is easily the opener, "The Hunchback of Notre Doom".  Despite having one of the greatest song titles ever conceived, it stands as the absolute worst thing Slough Feg has ever penned, without a doubt.  The idea of the band trying their hand at oppressive doom sounds super awesome, but the execution is so excruciating and bafflingly terrible that it really hangs over the rest of the album.  You see, they nailed the tempo of doom and pretty much nothing else.  It's like Scalzi, one of the most uniquely talented riff writers in metal at the time, somehow completely forgot that good doom bands couple the downtrodden tempo with excellent riffs, and instead just rang out lazy sustained chords at 80bpm for five minutes and called it a day.  I will never understand how this passed the smell test for the band, it's so confoundingly effortless and lame that I would have never guessed it was a Slough Feg song if the vocals weren't so easily recognizable.  I seriously put it in the same category as that awful half hour long Manowar track that sounds like the scene from Spinal Tap where Nigel plays a guitar with a violin in the category of "Opening tracks so awful that the rest of the album is rendered shittier because I can't stop thinking about how bad the first track was", it's that bad.  I probably shouldn't let it bug me as much as it does but it's really, really shitty and frankly inexcusable for a band of this caliber.

14: The Black Dahlia Murder - Miasma
Now, I can't say in good conscience that this is a bad album, because there's nothing really wrong with it from a performance or songwriting standpoint.  It's fine, but that's all it is.  TBDM is a great band with a lot of great albums, but Miasma has always gotten sort of lost in the white noise for me.  At this point, their identity was still just "At the Gates but really fast and in the new millennium" with nothing else going for them, and it shows.  Even the debut from two years prior had a lot more going for it, and that mostly consisted of redone songs from the demo era.  It's just not a very inspired album for them, which was thankfully rectified in the future when they started adding some outside elements and pushing themselves further and further with their craft.  But here?  It's... eh, just there.  Even after all these years of being a fan and gushing with each new release since 2007, I've still only managed to listen to Miasma in full a handful of times.  I maintain that Trevor Strnad is one of the most underrated lyricists in metal and is the true successor to Chris Barnes' accomplishments with Cannibal Corpse, and that's in effect here as well, but there's nothing as shocking and depraved as "The Window" or "Climactic Degradation" here, and this is the only time the band tried to put their famous goofiness on record with song titles like "Statutory Ape" and "Dave Goes to Hollywood".  It doesn't work, this band is at their best when they're playing it straight.  I guess the best way to sum up how I'm just so lukewarm about this album is to say that if Metal Blade approached me and asked me to compile a greatest hits album for the band, the only song from Miasma that would even be considered would be "A Vulgar Picture", and even then it would unquestionably be the first song cut after I inevitably choose fifty others and need to trim it down.

13: The Black Dahlia Murder - Unhallowed
The Black Dahlia Murder's debut album is a good album, and it has a phenomenal song in "Funeral Thirst".  The only problem with it is that "Funeral Thirst" is basically the only song on here.  "Elder Misanthropy" starts with nearly the same riff, as does "When the Last Grave has Emptied", as does "Apex", as does "The Blackest Incarnation", as does "Closed Casket Requiem", as does do you get it yet?  As mentioned in the previous entry, about half of this album consists of songs from their oft-forgotten demo era, and it shows.  At this point, the band was definitely young and hungry, but they really hadn't gotten the whole songwriting thing mastered yet.  Unhallowed is essentially Slaughter of the Soul for Dummies, which can be totally awesome, because Slaughter of the Soul is awesome and so is Unhallowed, but the latter is obviously weaker.  I'll admit that "Thy Horror Cosmic" is pretty excellent as well, as is "Contagion" (the only other Unhallowed track they played (other than the obvious "Funeral Thirst") when I saw them recently), but overall it's a pretty samey and forgettable album when looked at critically.  It's also worth mentioning that Trevor's vocals at this point in time were notably different than where they'd eventually end up.  Those screechy highs the band became known for were more scratchy and rugged at this point, and frankly they're just weird sounding.  They're very dry and cracked sounding and they're honestly pretty distracting.  It's not a huge knock against the album or anything, because his lows are probably at their best early on so it sort of balances out, but it's notable regardless.

12: The Black Dahlia Murder - Abysmal
Much like Miasma, there really isn't much wrong with Abysmal, it's just not as particularly memorable as their better albums.  Where the debut's biggest flaw was the lack of distinguishing riffs and melodies, Abysmal suffers the same fate as their sophomore album in that it's just a plateau of solid songs with few that actually stand out.  All but the final track are within the three minute range (with two being a few seconds over or under) and that's usually indicative of a band being on songwriting autopilot, and I feel like that's applicable here as well.  Don't get me wrong, there are a few absolute scorchers here, "Receipt" kicks things off with a bang, "Threat Level no. 3" is insane, and "Vlad, Son of Dragon" easily stands as the highlight with its high octane aggression and occasional gang vocals, but those are really the only tracks I ever go back to, and even then it's a rarity.  This is going to be a short entry because there just simply isn't a whole lot to say about it, it comes and goes and it's fine but it never stuck with me.  It ranks above Miasma because even though it suffers the same issue, it's a noticeably higher plateau.  Black Dahlia really kicked shit into overdrive after their first two and even the least great of their current streak is still pretty damn reckless.

11: Slough Feg - Atavism
This was Scalzi's first true stumbling block, the first time the band didn't improve upon a previous release.  I've mentioned before that Mike mentioned that he was constantly trying to one up himself in the band's Lord Weird days, and once he felt like he finally reached his pinnacle and proved he could be counted among the best, he sorta settled down and started reigning in the ambition in favor of some more simple, good time rocking fun.  This was a mistake in my eyes, because those lofty heights of the earlier days were often reached specifically because he was reaching so high and deftly navigating the waters he deliberately put himself in despite being way over his head.  Atavism is the first release that feels somewhat "safe".  It's got a couple great moments (an excellent main riff on "Starport Blues", a nice conclusion to the "High Season" series he'd been toying with since the band's inception, "I Will Kill You/You Will Die" is a fantastic blast of energy, "Atavism II" is one of their most underappreciated tracks, he showcases his excellent sense of theming by reusing a few motifs throughout the runtime, etc.) but on the whole it feels underdeveloped and unambitious.  There are a lot of really short songs that just kinda show up without consequence.  Overall though it's still a great album, because this was Slough Feg from 99-07 so of course it was, but it's definitely the weakest of their streak of excellence.

10: Slough Feg - The Lord Weird Slough Feg
Knowing my taste, it's probably not much of a surprise that I see every single "Lord Weird" album to be better than their era with the truncated name (barring The Animal Spirits of course, which I've already briefly touched on).  The version of this self titled bizarro-masterpiece that I've always been familiar with has been the 2002 re-release on Metal Supremacy and The Miskatonic Foundation, so I've always known this as basically two short full lengths smashed together, since that release has like seven bonus tracks from the demo era tacked on to the end, so that's the version I'm counting.  This is an odd little album, supremely sloppy and unpolished.  I love this about early Slough Feg though, there is so much inimitable charm on these drunken rehearsal tapes that I'm pretty sure were accidentally released as official full lengths.  The problem I mentioned with Atavism is actually present here on the surface (a lot of the songs are really short and zip by quickly), but it works to this album's benefit rather than its detriment.  Yes, they're short and simple, but they're honed to perfection, with riffs crafted with laser precision and performed by a band of inebriated cavemen.  The self titled is brimming with pure energy, with enough pomp and vigor to last them several more albums even if they never wrote another good riff (though thankfully, they did).  "Highway Corsair" and "High Season III" are two of the best songs they'd ever write, showcasing immediately how to make this whacked out style work marvelously.  It's just really god damned cool, and that's all there really is to say about it.

9: The Black Dahlia Murder - Deflorate
This one was a grower for me.  I initially had a knee jerk revulsion towards it thanks to the unbelievably stupid cover art, and on first listen it just kinda breezed past me like Abysmal up there.  Then after another listen I thought "I Will Return" was pretty good.  Then on the next it was "Well, 'Black Valor' and 'Necropolis' are pretty rad too", then it was "Jesus okay 'That Which Erodes the Most Tender of Things' kicks ass too, and holy shit 'I Will Return' is actually the best song they ever wrote", then it was "Death Panorama is so fucking good too", then eventually I had to just throw my hands up and admit that the entire album rocks.  Deflorate is probably their most to-the-point album at this point in time, and unlike the previous 2015 album up there, it's loaded with fantastic riffs and memorable songs that help it stand out above the pack.  There isn't one wasted minute here, it just puts the pedal to the metal from the word "go" and never lets up until that iconic closing track.  Deflorate in general seems to be fairly neglected in the live sphere nowadays, but "I Will Return" has found itself cemented as their go-to closing track.  It's their "Hallowed Be Thy Name", their "Mirror Mirror", it's endured nearly a decade as the guaranteed closer and there really aren't any signs of that changing.  It's by a long shot the most epic song they've ever recorded, with these huge sweeping riffs that just feel larger than life.  The whole album is good, no doubt about it, but I'd be lying if I said "I Will Return" alone didn't knock it up a few spots.

8: Slough Feg - Twilight of the Idols
Man, I'll probably never truly fall out of love with Slough Feg's "Lord Weird" era.  Twilight of the Idols takes the sloppy, unrefined salvos of the self titled debut and... well basically just does the same thing again.  You'd think they'd start refining their sound and tightening things up, but that really didn't happen until later.  Slough Feg reveled in this sort of drunken swagger that permeated nearly every song on this album.  "Sloppy" is really the word that makes the most sense here, because the vision and scope of the songs themselves clearly did open up (the most obvious example is "The Great Ice Wars"), but listen to how care free and spazzed out the riffs on songs like "The Pangs of Ulster", "Bi-Polar Disorder", and "Warpspasm" are.  Scalzi was young and pissed off at this point in time, and he just lashed out in the only way that weird fucker could muster.  The album is just all over the place, even lyrically flopping between Celtic myth, science fiction, and particularly on "Life in the Dark Age", Scalzi's personal frustration with the state of the music industry. It's hard to even describe this much further than "drunken", because seriously.  Imagine your dad was into Thin Lizzy and Rainbow in the 70s and got together with his friends from the local hole-in-the-wall pub where he goes to ignore you and decided to just pound brews and jam out in the garage.  Twilight of the Idols has a very antiquated, time capsule feel to it like a bunch of hoary old men trying to remember how "Jailbreak" goes in between shifts of working on the old 67' Camaro.  The sci-fi elements feel more seedy, like out of a 1960s Harry Harrison/Harlan Ellison story, as opposed to any slick sheen.  The album is grody and sticky and old, but that's kind of exactly why it's such a fun throwback.  If nothing else, check out "Brave Connor Mac" for perfectly exemplifying this bar band aura I'm talking about.  Also give their title song, "Slough Feg" a listen, if only because it's so electric that you could set a slice of bread next to the speaker and have toast in fifteen seconds.

7: The Black Dahlia Murder - Ritual
I'm going to be totally honest, it's been years since I've given Ritual a listen.  When I was first formulating this list, I put this one where it was based on the memory of it being consistently very good while also being "The Experimental One".  Upon relistening for this project, I realize that's not entirely true.   There are touches of outside influence here and there, there are orchestral sections, acoustic intros, drum and bass breaks, and even a misplaced Misery Index song with "Den of the Picquerist", but for the most part this is just more of what we already know they're great at, just tighter and more laser focused than before.  I've gone this far without really touching on their numerous lineup changes (mostly because it's kind of pointless since Brian Eschbach has written every song since the beginning of the band to my knowledge so really each album is gonna go according to his whims), but I think part of why this album stands out so much is because of Ryan Knight's influence.  It doesn't take an untrained ear to hear that Ritual widens the scope of the band's ambition in a way (in fact it's the most notable thing about the album apparently), and I can't help but think that the wild new ideas and heightened technicality has a lot to do with poaching somebody who could keep up with James Malone in Arsis.  You can definitely hear it on tracks like "Conspiring with the Damned" and "A Grave Robber's Work".  Those two wouldn't've been out of place on A Celebration of Guilt or A Diamond for Disease.  I know he actually joined one album earlier but his influence is felt much stronger here.  In some ways, Ritual is something of a best of both worlds, because their more "generic" throwbacks to the first three albums are fucking incredible ("Moonlight Equilibrium" is one of their best songs, period) while the new ideas that surface in "Blood in the Ink" are also total home runs.  Even the lyrical depravity has reached an all time high with "The Window", which is a reference to the period of time a child's head would remain alive after decapitation in which Gilles de Rais would use to try to ejaculate into its mouth.  Wholesome!

6: The Black Dahlia Murder - Nightbringers
For those keeping score at home, you'll probably realize that this album is barely a year old and yet there are only two other Black Dahlia albums ranked above it.  I stand by that assessment, and I originally formulated this matchup and sorted out the ranking over a year ago (Ladder Matches take fucking forever to write (more importantly I'm lazy and slow)).  Nightbringers is an absolutely stunning entry into their discography, despite a surface glance implying that it would suffer from the same issues as Abysmal since all of the song lengths are pretty much identical.  It doesn't matter this time, there are a lot of ideas in here and they're all executed as well as pretty much anything else they've ever put out.  What makes this one stand out is simply how fucking ferocious it is.  I'd argue that this is their most intense and aggressive album amongst their oeuvre, and that's no small feat.  Everything here is presented as the most cartoonish version of Black Dahlia that could possibly exist.  The tempo is higher, the hooks are hookier, the riffs are riffer, the melodies are melodier, everything is cranked up to 22 and shreds face from the opening seconds to the almost merciful end.  I mentioned in the last entry that they had welcomed Arsis's Ryan Knight into their ranks prior to this, and here we learned that they've turned the act of poaching Arsis guitarists into an artform by replacing him with Brandon Ellis.  He may not have caused as much of a shift in Brian's writing as Ryan did, but his guitar skills are absolutely out of this world so it really doesn't matter at all.  His fresh blood lends some youthful vigor to songs that could've easily turned out ho-hum without the shot in the arm that the new youngblood provides.  Pretty much every single song is a knockout, but special mention has to go to the entire B-side, starting with the stellar "Kings of the Nightworld" until the climactic end of "The Lonely Deceased".  That's not to say that "Widowmaker" and "Matriarch" are no good or anything, but the heightened thrashiness and pure fucking venom that the home stretch provides is incredible.  There's pretty much nothing I don't like about this album.  It's their shortest, fastest, and meanest album and I wouldn't have it any other way.

5: The Black Dahlia Murder - Everblack
This is often considered to be their best album, and honestly I won't fight against that too hard.  Everblack is probably their most immediately distinctive album, facetiously known to my friends and I as "The Black Metal One".  Of course, that's not true, this is still furious melodic death metal to the bone, but that frostbitten meloblack influence is certainly shoved to the forefront in parts.  It's sort of paradoxical at times, because while this album sacrifices some of their signature melodies and technicality, it makes up for it with heaps more brutality and atmosphere.  Everblack is by far their darkest album, emanating an aura of sheer demonic malice.  "Goat of Departure" is bone crunching in its heaviness and "Phantom Limb Masturbation" sees the band at arguably their most brutal.  And because Black Dahlia are kings of all spades, they also deliver one of their catchiest songs yet ("Raped in Hatred by Vines of Thorn"), a stunning blend of hooks and black metal wretchedness ("Every Rope a Noose"), another opening barburner on par with "Black Valor" and "Everything Went Black" ("In Hell Is Where She Waits for Me"), and the closest thing to a successor to the monumental "I Will Return" with their best epic closer outside of it ("Map of Scars").  Every single song excels at something different and the variety within Everblack is so distinct that it almost defies comprehension for a band that so frequently catches the criticism of writing the same song over and over again.  Sometimes that's certainly true (like on Unhallowed and Abysmal), but oftentimes it's not, and this is a prime example of such a phenomenon.  Black Dahlia cast a wide net here and managed to ensnare every passing songwriting trick and dominate it with almost effortless alacrity.

4: Slough Feg - Down Among the Deadmen
Black Dahlia may have just caught their second vaunted three-in-a-row, but the reason for that is because the best Slough Feg albums are nearly unmatched and very deservedly belong at the top of any list like this.  Down Among the Deadmen is an album that I tend to forget about at times, at least where quality is concerned.  I know that roughly a decade ago it was one of my most favorite albums ever, but nowadays I almost never reach for it when on a Slough Feg kick.  Blame it on 18 year old BH burning it out so hard.  But when formulating this list, just like when I did my Top 50 of the Decade a few years ago, I once again found myself revisiting it and finding myself astounded at how brilliant it is at every turn.  It is everything I loved about Twilight of the Idols but cleaner and tighter.  The drunken swagger is still here, but now they sound like true professionals instead of sloppy amateurs getting by on charisma and raw talent alone.  A majority of this album sits in a comfortable mid-paced gallop, done in a way that feels both tight and professional and loose and easygoing, and it's one hell of a romp as a result.  There are a few high tempo cookers here, but the speed usually comes in bursts, like "Marauder", "Traders and Gunboats", "Death Machine", and quite possibly their most well known song (thanks, Brutal Legend), "Warrior's Dawn".  That last one is truly one of the greatest songs they ever penned, as it encapsulates every aspect of their sound that makes them so entertaining.  From the driving gallops to the pumping staccato mid paced pounds to the epic atmosphere to the finger-dissolving solo battle, everything about it is incredible.  I could pick out something great in every song if left unchecked.

3: Slough Feg - Traveller
I've written a lot about this album over the years, to the point where I stalled this feature for months just because I couldn't bring myself to talk about it again.  The weird part is that I'm not fatigued because it's a frustrating album to talk about or anything, it's obviously one of the best albums Slough Feg ever released, the climax and swansong of their "Lord Weird" era, arguably their heaviest album ever, and overall just one of the most enjoyable concept albums in all of metal.  Traveller is a very overwhelming album despite how spacious and adventurous it is, it just throws so much at you and since all of it works it just leaves you drained at the end, laying on the bed, legs weak, blankly staring at the ceiling as you try to make sense of the complete and utter domination of your various orifices just happened.  I like to contrast this to Blind Guardian's Nightfall in Middle-Earth, and I know that's weird so let me explain.  Nightfall contains like six of Blind Guardian's best songs, but it's a total chore to listen to since it pretty much acts as the blueprint for how exactly NOT to pace a concept album.  Traveller instead showcases the exact opposite way to present a full narrative in the context of a metal album, and as a result it's fucking perfect.  The story of Space Errol Flynn's manipulation and disfiguration at the hands Werewolf Dr. Wily is an incredible romp through high speed Brocas Helmisms and signature Slough Feg exuberance.  It reminds me of The Crimson Idol in the sense of how perfectly paced it is and how listening to the album in one sitting isn't necessarily integral to your enjoyment.  You can pick pretty much any song to listen to in a vacuum and it'll still floor you, though listening in one sitting will reveal all of the repeating motifs that tie the whole experience together..  From the somber reflection of "Baltech's Lament", the terror of "Vargr Moon", the blood-pumping excitement of "Asteroid Belts", the climactic showdowns of "Vargr Theme" and "The Final Gambit", everything just reaches the apex of enthrallment.  The Celtic mythology that carried Twilight of the Idols and Down Among the Deadmen is entirely excised here, instead expanding on the sci-fi elements that both albums carried beneath the surface, and it shows how well Scalzi's flagrant disregard for rules works in so many different theaters.  I still think that after all these years, the nearly 30 years I've spent listening to heavy metal, the 12 or so of which I spent enraptured with Slough Feg, that "Vargr Theme" is still probably one of my top ten favorite metal songs ever written.  I mentioned in the entry for Atavism that Scalzi said he was always trying to one-up himself and prove that he was as good as anybody else in the scene, and once he felt he reached that apex, he pulled back a bit and started having more fun with his music.  Traveller is the apex he was referring to. 

2: The Black Dahlia Murder - Nocturnal
Every time I bring this album up I wind up liking it more and more, to the point where it's now #2 overall on this Ladder Match and ranking as the top TBDM album.  I can't help it, Nocturnal has been steadily growing on me for over a decade now, constantly burrowing deeper and deeper into my consciousness, eroding away whatever sense of optimism I still retain and replacing it with bleak nihilism and extravagant tales of gory murder.  Nocturnal stands above the rest not for any sort of outside-the-box creativity or far reaching whackjob ideas like Everblack, but instead it just sticks to one thing and executes it so incredibly well and at such an astoundingly high plateau that I just can't fucking kill it.  I've said before that Black Dahlia's main influence has always just been At the Gates with extra melody and twice the speed, and this album showcases that the best. This was their zenith, the perfect nexus between their primitive beginnings and ambitious exploration of their later works.  Everything solidified here, everything they were going for on the debut finally crystalized into something truly special in 2007.  One of the problems of doing features like this is that I just flat out run out of ways to describe what's going on by the time I'm on the eighth album of a band, and by the very nature of the countdown format I'm going to sell the best album short simply by not having anything new to say about it simply because it's the best example of a style the band has been excelling at for seven albums previous.  The two "hit singles" this album spawned ("Everything Went Black" and "What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse") are two of the best songs the band ever wrote, and even the deeper cuts like "Climactic Degradation", "Deathmask Divine", and "I Worship Only What You Bleed" are exactly as good.  It's just ten tracks of endless dark savagery and I don't even know what else I can say about it.  This is when their songwriting peaked, and the scary part is that it never really diminished all that much afterwards.

1: Slough Feg - Hardworlder
I lied a little bit like ten entries ago when I said that every single album from the band's "Lord Weird" era (from the formation of the band up until 2005) was better than what came afterwards, because their 2007 opus, Hardworlder decimates the rest of their albums pretty handily, which is terrifying because I'd rank Down Among the Deadmen and Traveller in the 95th percentile of all metal albums ever written.  Scalzi may have chilled out and stopped pushing himself so hard by this point in history, but he still managed to put out one of the most exciting and satisfying albums of all time.  Slough Feg is a very strange band, to the point where I can ever really think to compare them to two bands, those being Brocas Helm and Thin Lizzy.  This album leans much heavier on the influence from the latter, which less barnburning metal monsters and more laid back bluesy flourishes.  This is a very groovy and funky yet riff-driven and propulsive album, likely best exemplified in the three track mini-suite of "Hardworlder", "The Spoils", and "Frankfurt-Hann Airport Blues".  Each track showcases a different songwriting talent, with the conclusion being a very hard hitting metal track with smathering of Lizzy-esque groove, while "The Spoils" is a very bluesy and emotional cry to the heavens.  "Poisoned Treasures" is an exciting high octane metal song while "The Sea Wolf" is very sober folky acoustic track.  I could do that for the whole album really, just list how one song is a fun metal song and another song is a down-to-earth murder ballad, but the important thing to note is that each and every track on display takes me to another world.  What I really want you to do is listen to "Tiger! Tiger!", which is another one of my favorite songs of all time.  It's actually not the sublime riffs or the instantly memorable chorus that makes this so iconic to me, it's the dueling solos that make up the second half of the song.  It's just... so beautiful.  That whole segment is pure art, pure emotion, pure, unadulterated scenery.  It's the musical manifestation of a starry sky, masking the empty void of deep space with gorgeous lights in every direction, each note a new sign of life, another affirmation of soul.  I can't get enough of this section, this track, this album, this band.  It might seem strange considering my love of their more aggressive, molten metal, but Hardworlder is easily the softest and least threatening Slough Feg album, but it's also the most musical, most enrapturing, and without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite album of theirs, and one of my favorite albums ever.

AND SO! With another tight score of 68-66, we have the winners of the second Ladder Match.  And they are...

The Black Dahlia Murder!  I love Slough Feg to pieces, I really do.  This feature was a good excuse for me to run through their discography a few (dozen) times and just remind myself why I fell so in love with them 10+ years ago, but at the end of the day their astounding peaks just weren't enough to topple Black Dahlia's stunning consistency.  The quirky, folky Maiden/Lizzy mastery just couldn't match up to endless death metal savagery in the long run.  I maintain that Black Dahlia gets too much crap from older folks, because if there's anybody who is waving the flag of death metal with as much fervor as the classics in the 90s nowadays, it's them.  I had a hunch that they would ultimately take this match, but the matchup was still close enough for me to not really know who was going to win until the last few entries made it easier to calculate on the fly.  Congrats to The Black Dahlia Murder for their completely meaningless victory!

So now that's over.  Maybe the next one will take me far less time to actually get around to doing.  Who should it be?  You decide!  If you want!  It doesn't matter!  Your favorite band will lose anyway!


It's been brought to my attention that I'm a gigantic fucking idiot, because I did the math wrong.  Turns out, I shorted Slough Feg two points on Hardworlder because I don't know how to count.  So the final score is actually A TIE!  68-68.  Well now what the fuck do I do?  I guess I have to have a tiebreaker, and the reason that's going to be difficult is because the two bands have an uneven amount of albums.  Slough Feg has a full one more full length than Black Dahlia, and I don't want to wait until later this year when they surely release another album (since they haven't missed an odd-numbered year since 2003 I'm sure the pattern will hold).  So what will I do?  Well, I guess the only thing I can do is pit the Slough Feg album I omitted (The Animal Spirits) up against Black Dahlia's early demos that got them noticed and signed before releasing Unhallowed, since they haven't even released so much as a canon EP since their LP run started apart from one that contains naught but a whopping three covers.  So what I'm going to do is bundle What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse with A Cold Blooded Epitaph and treat them as one release.  Lesser album gets a half point.  Greater album gets a full point.  Understood?  Okay LET'S TRY AGAIN!

The Black Dahlia Murder Tiebreaker: What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse / A Cold Blooded Epitaph 
I've only sort of mentioned this in this article, but I've been saying for years that TBDM always got a bad rap from genre purists.  For years after they broke onto the scene, they've been pegged as "metalcore" and dismissed.  One listen to any of their albums would immediately dispel that notion, but aesthetically they were just all wrong.  Everybody in the band had short hair, some of them had gauged earlobes and thick rimmed glasses, their name was a sentence fragment, their merch was always brightly colored and busy, they just set themselves up for immediate dismissal by long haired and bearded hobos who refuse to listen to anything newer than Dismember despite playing the exact kind of music that would appeal to fans of old school death metal and melodeath back when it was actually death metal with melody instead of "Iron Maiden with growls" like In Flames.  Honestly though, I began to quickly suspect that all of those aesthetic missteps were mere holdovers from their demo era, because once I finally got my hands on What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse, it all started making sense.  Yeah, that first demo is metalcore to the bone, cut from exactly the same cloth that As I Lay Dying was championing at the time.  Even the song titles just scream early 2000s ("To You, Contortionist", "This Ain't No Fuckin' Love Song", "All My Best Friends are Bullets", etc) this was just a very different Black Dahlia at this time.  Most songs carried a big breakdown and one of them even features (godawful) clean vocals, staples in metalcore that they always avoided once 2003 rolled along.  They rose to prominence by playing "metalcore without the -core parts", which, to the uninitiated, is called metal.  But on this first demo?  Nope, they were as metalcore as they come.  Granted, they were still better than most of their contemporaries, with cliche riddled songs like "The Middle Comes Down" absolutely smoking 90% of metalcore that had come before and after, and "The Hive" was pure At the Gates worship that would've fit on any of their full lengths.  A Cold Blooded Epitaph is a bit different, being more in line with what they'd later become.  This much should've been obvious when you realize the first two songs ("Closed Casket Requiem" and "The Blackest Incarnation") appear on Unhallowed completely unchanged, the third track, "Burning the Hive", being a rerecording of "The Hive" (the least metalcore song on display) from the previous demo, and a cover of "Paint it Black".  So really everything I said about Unhallowed applies here.  The one real takeaway here is that I wish "Burning the Hive" would've showed up on one of their albums, because that's a great song.

Slough Feg Tiebreaker - The Animal Spirits 
I left this one out specifically because it was my middlemost favorite album from Slough Feg, and considering that even their kinda lesser ones like the self titled are fucking great, that should tell you which of these two tiebreakers I'm going to favor.  This is probably their purest mixture of rollicking hard rock and full steam heavy metal.  The Thin Lizzy-isms are at an all time high and there's a huge dose of Manilla Road's more down to earth stuff here as well.  That's a good description of this album actually, it's very "earthy", in every possible way that could imply.  It's a force of nature, from pounding rockslides to rolling meadows, The Animal Spirits is very organic and just plain fuckin' fun to listen to.  I feel like this is what they were going for on Ape Uprising! but just missed the mark on.  I'd continue to talk about this but I'm already exhausted with this feature and need to take another break from both of these bands before I completely overdose and start to resent them.  Take my word for it, The Animal Spirits is great and easily the better album when compared against TBDM's demos.  Maybe it's unfair, but once this matchup wound up in a tie there was really no way to do this fairly.  Blame me for sucking at math, or blame Slough Feg for simply being better when it came down to the wire.

SO NOW with the score actually correct, I'm forced to take the crown away and award it to our new champions!

Slough Feg!  So whoda thunkit?  Turns out having the highest peaks actually did matter more than Black Dahlia's consistency.  Oh well, at least I'm done with this one now.  Big thanks to the anonymous poster who pointed out that I'm a fucking dolt who can't count.  I feel like such a moron.  Doesn't matter, all fixed, Slough Feg wins!