Monday, December 30, 2019

Possessed - Revelations of Oblivion

Bitch, siddown, be humble

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, December 22, 2019

Creeping Death - Wretched Illusions

Who is this for?

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

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

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


Friday, December 20, 2019

Sabaton - The Great War

Gentlemen... welcome to Dubai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know those bands sound absolutely nothing like Sabaton.

But that's precisely the point.


Sunday, December 8, 2019

Kryptos - Afterburner

Shredder on a hog

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

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

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


False - Portent

Thumbing my nose at the True Believers

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 3, 2019

White Ward - Love Exchange Failure

One must imagine Sisyphus dying

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, December 1, 2019

Freak Kitchen - Dead Soul Men

We live in a society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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