Sunday, June 28, 2020

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - Lamb of God

VIII: Bag of Mold

lol it was so fuckin' predictable that they'd announce a new album only a few months after I finished my discography retrospective.

There are two huge elephants and one burning question in the room right now, so I'm gonna just tackle all three of them right off the bat, Lawrence Taylor style. 

ELEPHANT #1: Chris Adler has been replaced by Art Cruz.  This was actually the impetus of the previous seven reviews.  It felt like the end of an era so I figured it was high time to revisit that era.  Lamb of God was notable for having a rock solid lineup for over twenty years, something basically unheard of in metal, so Chris's departure was a huge shock to people who weren't paying attention.  I say this because if you've paid attention to any interviews or behind-the-scenes material over the years you could tell he was clearly miserable and really felt constrained.  I've been prophesying a breakup ever since Sacrament.  It's been common knowledge for eons that Chris was the most talented member of the band as it was (like I've said before it's pretty rare in metal to find a drummer with an instantly recognizable style) and his frustration with the band's ever-safening songwriting was thinly veiled at best.  So last year, he finally had enough and walked away before being replaced by Cruz (who I swore was previously the drummer in All Shall Perish until this very sentence when I double checked and realized it was actually my perennial punching bag Winds of Plague).  So with all the background aside, the big question here is whether or not he holds up to Adler's dominant kit mastery.  The answer is... yeah, actually.  He was either playing way the fuck below his level in Winds of Plague or he's the Bruno Mars of metal and has a superhuman knack for replicating other peoples' signatures.  If I hadn't known beforehand that Chris had left, I never would've known he wasn't on this album.  His laser precision and ineffable groove is replicated with 100% authenticity here and I'm much more impressed than I expected to be.

ELEPHANT #2: They're on their eighth album and just now decided to roll with a self titled album.  A lot of people feel the need to point this out it seems, simply because it's odd for a band to do this at any point after their debut, but to me this was actually a fucking huge red flag.  Again reaching back to behind-the-scenes footage that I used to gobble up in high school, I distinctly remember that there was a disagreement between band members about what to name their upcoming album, and they were down to two choices: Sacrament or self titled.  I could be misremembering because this is like a fifteen year old memory at this point but I recall Chris being the most vocally against a self titled album because he felt like it was a cop out and a sign that a band had run out of ideas.  Considering the fact that I heard this exact same story for basically every following album, it's really not a surprise that they finally went and did it once he was unable to veto it.  They've been rewriting Ashes of the Wake for ages now, even when the external circumstance of Randy's stint in prison gave them the perfect inspiration to branch out, so yeah I absolutely feel Chris's apprehension that the band feels like they've run out of ideas at this point.  I know most bands who do this do it to either signal a reinvention of their sound or to declare that this is their definitive statement, but this simply isn't the band to be doing either of those things since pattern recognition tells me this next album might as well be Ashes of the Wake 4: Ash Free or Wake Hard

THE BURNING QUESTION: Is Lamb of God any good?  Do those two elephants stink up the joint as much as I and many fans expect them to?

...No?  I think?  I'm still kinda reeling because everything signaled yet another mediocre snorefest and then somehow they spat out their best album since Wrath.

The weird thing is that this absolutely feels like yet another rehash of Ashes, but the majority of the songs just fuckin' bang this time around.  I mentioned Cruz wound up being the perfect replacement for Adler, and honestly that makes me wonder if his mere presence reignited the rest of the guys' imagination.  It's not like this drum performance would be any different with Adler.  I've seen a lot of fans and reviews mention how Cruz is much more loose with his playing, but honestly I'm gonna make a sweeping claim and say that nearly everybody who says that is just taking Mark Morton at his word and aren't analyzing for themselves too closely.  Yeah Mark told the media that he's a refreshing change because Chris played to a click track while Art doesn't so they feel more free on stage, but this has somehow morphed into "Art is creative while Chris was a metronome", which is both flatly untrue and totally irrelevant since he replicates his predecessor's style so perfectly.  This is exactly as dialed-in and fully torqued as it always has been. 

The reason Lamb of God succeeds while the last handful of albums failed despite essentially being the exact same idea is simply because most of these tracks take have the fire and energy of "Laid to Rest" and "Desolation" instead of their usual shtick of constantly rewriting "11th Hour" at varying speeds with increasingly diminishing returns.  For the first time in a long while, they maintain whatever new ideas they have for the duration of the album instead of cramming them all into one song.  "Reality Bath" opens with the first prominent bass part in their career, "Routes" is basically pure thrash metal (something they've always flirted with for a riff or two each album but never really went whole hog with it), "Resurrection Man" is basically a misplaced Slipknot song featuring Randy's best Architects impression with the opening BLEGH, throughout the entire runtime there are more solos and overt melody than they've ever really done, there are just tons of little touches of the creativity I thought they'd been fresh out of for a decade.  Not all of these ideas hit bullseye ("Resurrection Man" is actually one of the worst tracks of the bunch) but it's nice to hear them branching out for a change.

However, their previously crippling filler problem is still here to some extent.  Lamb of God has always been a "hit single" type of band with only a couple of albums featuring any real deep cuts beyond the ones they play live constantly, and the self titled is the first to really break from that mold by having the singles be some of the weakest.  "Checkmate" is exactly what I was afraid this album would be full of.  It's a very LoG-by-numbers track that elicits exactly zero excitement in somebody like me who has been following them for almost their entire career and has grown very tired of them rehashing the same ideas over and over again.  "Gears" suffers mostly the same problem, and it's hard to really describe because its biggest problem is simply that it's the type of song they've already written like fifty times.  The breakdown riff would've been awesome if they didn't already use it in "Contractor", ya know?  The lone outlier in this regard is the opener, "Memento Mori".  I actually kinda hate the clean/spoken intro, but once the song picks up into familiar territory it plays out like any generic Lamb of God song would play out, but they... I dunno man they feel it this time.  That's basically how I can describe any track here.  They're still rewriting Ashes of the Wake over and over again but for the first time they've managed to do it in a way where it sounds lethal instead of focus tested.  "Reality Bath" is basically "The Faded Line" by way of Slipknot but it sounds like they're really putting their hearts into it.  "On the Hook" is "Beating on Death's Door" again but "Beating on Death's Door" is probably their most underappreciated track so hearing that type of high octane brutality again is a massive breath of fresh air.  I mentioned that the previous album's guest vocalists felt like pointless gimmicks, and somehow the two this time are paradoxically more transparently gimmicky but also work a hell of a lot better.  Jamey Jasta and Chuck Billy show up on "Poison Dream" and "Routes" respectively, and the former song morphs into a Hatebreed track when Jasta shows up and the latter sounds like late-career Testament.  Come on that should be cynical to so blatantly cater to these guys' original bands, but it turns out Lamb of God is surprisingly really good at ripping them off.  It takes what should be lazy and turns it into everybody simply playing to their strengths.

This is hard to write about, honestly.  This series was fun at the start because their first five albums are all actually very different from each other but this current era of the band is generally much less creative.  Basically all I can say is "read my reviews for the last album but pretend they're good."  I know how cheap and unhelpful that is, but it's true.  If Resolution maintained the momentum of "Desolation" the entire time it'd probably sound fairly similar to Lamb of God.  It's got all the fire and energy of that track with some pronounced influence from nu metal in spots and a renewed love of breakdowns that have been absent since 2006, which I'm sure is a turnoff for most of you but I maintain that the breakdowns were never the problem and if you're going to spike the nu metal influence, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse than Slipknot when it comes to inspiration.  The biggest flaw of the album is simply the track ordering, because putting the three most generic songs right at the start is a big fuckin' thonk.  The album picks up a ton of steam after "Gears" and it's refreshing to hear this much propulsion out of these old bones.


Thursday, June 18, 2020

10 YEAR REUNION: Blood Stain Child - Epsilon

It's a thing alright

Okay so it's less than ten years old, fight me.  I'm choosing to jump way ahead and redo something outside the purview of this series less because the original review was written poorly (though I definitely did that "lol japan so wacky" thing that I've grown to despise), but because while homophobia wasn't my intent when writing it, I definitely leaned on some insensitive tropes when trying to describe how sugary and poppy this album is.  I didn't really want to do the performative self flagellation thing, but I just know some smartass is going to bring it up so I'm getting ahead of it.  Eat my balls.

Epsilon is a weird album, though I suppose that was obvious from just a passing glance.  Take a look at that Waifu Fantasy XIII aesthetic and whatever music popped into your head probably wasn't too far from the truth.  This is the dumbest shit in the world, with effort-free pop melodies and exuberant dance beats taking up the lion's share of the runtime, usually slathered liberally over the top of punchy melodeath.  The dudes from Disarmonia Mundi contribute guest vocals on a few tracks, and man that just makes so much sense since what I remember of that shitty band was basically this exact kind of not-metalcore-but-the-exact-niche-of-melodeath-that-metalcore-always-rips-off.  That describes most of the heavy elements at play within Epsilon.  The drums are louder than the guitars by a pretty huge magnitude and it's produced to be weirdly trebly, and it does create a neat effect with the electronic elements by never being beefy enough to truly clash, it does tend to cause the cymbals to sound like a neverending fog of white noise in the background.  It winds up being more of a bap than a boom, punching through the sonic center with gusto whenever the percussion picks up.  People smarter than I am tell me that the non-metal elements at play here belong to a subgenre known as "trance", but that's way out of my wheelhouse as a guy who listened to an Infected Mushroom album once before going back to my Slayer records so I'll just take their word for it.

But despite the overwhelming amount of sugar and pop sensibility on top of aggressive melodeath, the actual weirdest part about this album is the fact that it actually wound up being solidly decent.  In fact I think it's enjoyable despite the gimmicky genre clashing, because the songs that are the clearest attempt at blending the two sides of the band's coin 50/50 wind up pretty awkward.  "Eternal" is a great example, with this cute animu girl cooing sweetly over blastbeats just sounding confused and odd for the sake of it.  There are four songs here I genuinely think are great that I've gone back to listen to plenty over the years, and they're split pretty cleanly between the light and heavy sides of the band.  "Sirius IV" and "LA+" focus much more on punchy and aggressive metal, while "Stargazer" and "Moon Light Wave" are basically pure electronic dance pop with guitars vaguely gesturing at distortion in the background.  That's not to say that they're only good when they're picking a side, "Dedicated to Violator" is a very un-metal track and it does absolutely nothing for me, but the hooks on the two aforementioned happy dance songs are phenomenal.  I've never really bothered listening to the rest of Blood Stain Child's catalog but a part of me really hopes they kinda just ditched metal altogether because "Stargazer" is far and away the best track on here and it's the one that flirts with metal the least awkwardly. 

Oddly enough there isn't much to say about this, really.  It's melodeath + trance and that's pretty much the beginning and end of it.  Some of it is surprisingly great and even the lame songs have some pretty infectious hooks, but there's no denying that the styles are pretty abrasive when it comes to actually comingling with one another.  It's a novel oddity that spits out a few surprisingly good tracks with "Stargazer" and "Moon Light Wave" but most of it is honestly just transparent filler.  The good songs are good enough to keep me coming back throughout the years but never for much longer than a quick sightseeing tour before going back to other bands that at least blended their disparate ideas more cohesively.


Saturday, June 13, 2020

10 YEAR REUNION: Gojira - From Mars to Sirius

Zakk Wylde in a tweed blazer

Gojira is one of the most random heavy bands to completely catch fire and take off in the mainstream metal press.  On one hand I kinda get it since they sound like a conglomeration of three other huge bands in that same sphere, sounding like a mix between a slow Meshuggah, prog-era Mastodon, and Devin Townsend's heavier solo works like Terria.  The problem for me is that they sound like a worse version of all three of those bands, since Meshuggah works best when they kick the tempo up, Mastodon was infinitely superior as a kinda-sludgy outfit with a fuckload of hooks, and Devin is at his best when he's leaning fully into chaotic metal or calming ambient/prog while his more blended work tends to be hit or miss.  Gojira is the perfect trifecta in that regard, created in a lab to appeal to bearded metal journalists in coffee shops while maintaining an undeniable weight to their riffs.

The problem is that these riffs suck.  At least on From Mars to Sirius (admittedly I haven't bothered listening to their more recent albums simply because this one is such a turnoff) they tend to stick to simplistic chugs and squealy harmonics and not much else.  They tend to shy away from cliche power chords I suppose but they replace them almost exclusively with dissonant clangs and drawn out ringing chords that I think are supposed to sound ethereal but ultimately just sound confused.  This hyper specific "dumb guy gets a smart job" style of riff writing winds up turning every song into a midpaced slog that feels like it never ends, which is only exacerbated by the hour long runtime.  I don't want to harp on them too hard simply for their music not being particularly complex but holy shit really pay attention to "Ocean Planet".  It's like five and a half minutes long and features a whopping three riffs, two of which are more or less purely made up of unchanging quarter note chugs.  The closest thing to a hook they have is the verse riff, which repeats so many times that my eyes seriously glazed over when I tried giving it my full attention.  That pinch harmonic gets repeated thirty fucking times throughout the song, which doesn't sound like a big deal since who cares it's only one note, but trust me when I say it's the central feature of the song, the only thing that gives it some sort of identity, and it's just one fucking squealy bend that sits in the middle of the same riff in the same place with the same lead in palm mutes every fucking time.  It is absolutely agonizing.  Also keep your ears open for that pick scrape/rake thing they do in this song.  It shows up in like six other tracks and just sounds like when you mess up in Guitar Hero.  Maybe it feels unfair to rag on a band for reusing techniques throughout an album, especially since metal as a whole is so heavily dominated by bands that never graduated beyond palm mutes and power chords, but at least those cliche bands are playing different notes with those basic techniques.  This is more akin to putting the "Master of Puppets" riff in every single song.  Not as a leitmotif, but because the song needs a thrash riff at that particular point and it happens to be the only one you know.

The rest of the album really doesn't fare much better.  Their only saving grace is the absolutely undeniable heaviness they carry.  "From the Sky" switches things up by focusing on a tremolo riff instead of a chug, and it's ultimately just as boring as the rest of the album but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel like getting brained with a bag of hammers.  "Flying Whales" seems to be the most iconic song on the album, and honestly I think that's pretty well deserved since it's the only one that moves forward in any capacity and switches things up as it goes, deftly weaving between Leviathan era Mastodon and soaring Townsend splendor.  It's the only song that justifies its runtime and winds up being pretty good in spite of itself.  That smothering weight can't save the rest of the album though, and it winds up being a brief respite in the middle of the album that showcases the correct way to make all of these elements work.  Everything else is just neverending chugs and drums that somehow follow the guitars almost perfectly.  I don't think it's exactly fair to blame an album simply for not being something, but the fact that this is seen as an important album in modern prog metal is absolutely baffling to me because these riffs are as simple as fucking Pantera.  You can't fool me by making the actual chords jangly when the meat of what you're doing is just "5 Minutes Alone" but lamer.  The only other exception is the closer, "Global Warming", but I'm not even kidding when I say it has the exact same tapping melody playing over the top for a solid seven and a half minutes without breaking. Come on guys even when you do something different you do it for way too fucking long.

I don't even want to talk about this anymore.  From Mars to Sirius is just boring as fuck and that's about all there is to say about it.  It slogs on and on through the same handful of tricks for a torturous amount of time and genuinely gives me a headache to listen to.  I can dig simple shit, I think Amon Amarth used to be absolute titans when it came to making the most basic beginner level riffs sound like the coolest shit in the world, but Gojira absolutely misses the mark.


Friday, June 12, 2020

Ulcerate - Stare Into Death and Be Still

Double Doink!

My relationship with Ulcerate is somewhat similar to the relationship Charlie Brown has with Lucy's football.  Every few years, they release another album to widespread acclaim, so I take the snap and then whiff the kick as they pull my football-shaped enjoyment away at the last second.  I want to like Ulcerate.  They're one of the most important metal bands in recent memory, their discography is very consistent, they've influenced a multiplicity of young death metal bands, they're chaotic and unrelenting, on paper they are just everything I want in a metal band nowadays.  And for whatever reason they've just never vibed with me.

Stare into Death and Be Still is different while being exactly the same.  This time I actually made contact with the ball and even managed to avoid a ridiculous Scott Norwood shank.  It's not pretty, and I hit the post, but dammit I put three points on the board!

What makes this different from other seminal works of theirs that I never managed to care about like Everything is Fire or Shrines of Paralysis is pretty difficult to pinpoint, because this really isn't all that different.  It's still an unrelenting deluge of cataclysmic percussion and dissonant guitars that don't really riff as much as they whir and clang.  Maybe the guitar tone is a bit beefier and less scratchy?  Maybe the songs themselves are simply more well constructed?  Their approach to songwriting is just as non-euclidian as ever but the flow feels a bit more natural to me this time around.  Ulcerate always had a strange Uncanny Valley feel to them, where their songs always yawned and swayed like organic creations but felt lifeless and stiff at the same time, like saltwater frying a fish's nerves and causing it to flop and spasm long after it dies.  Stare into Death and Be Still simply managed to catch a live one, I think.  Like always, this is much more about overarching atmosphere than riffs or hooks, and as a result the whole experience tends to feel like one long song instead of a collection of them.

And if you'll allow me to mix my sports metaphors, I think the reason this isn't quite a home run despite some solid contact is exactly this.  There are tons of twists and surprises within the riffs themselves, but rarely within the wider context of a song or the album.  58 solid minutes of this suffocating atmosphere is just that, suffocating.  That absolutely works at times but around the second act of this behemoth it goes from exhilarating to tedious.  It's like the coaster I built in Rollercoaster Tycoon when I was 9 that had like fifty inversions and took twelve minutes to finish.  Sure there are subtle variations in tempo and approach on Stare into Death and Be Still, but ultimately you're just doing the same loop-de-loops over and over again on the same track for an uncomfortably long time.  Each successive Ulcerate album has been a few minutes longer than the one preceding it, and that trend continues here, and I really think it's to the album's detriment.  Despite all eight tracks basically feeling like the same long song, it's still quite noticeable that only two of them run for less than seven minutes.  This wouldn't be a problem if it felt like the songs were actually leading somewhere, but after repeated listens the only time I can truly pick out a song with a climax is "Drawn into the Next Void".  The rest of it sounds like sonic flash rust, standing still and deteriorating before my eyes despite the immaculate craftsmanship put into the initial product.  Every Ulcerate album tends to spin its wheels to some degree, and admittedly Stare into Death and Be Still manages to get a good amount of traction and actually move forward, but a lesser degree of the same problem is still the same problem.

When Everything is Fire dropped in 2009, I recall the buzz around it at the time being something akin to "It's Deathspell Omega but death metal", and I see where that statement is coming from.  But the key difference to me is that for as anarchic and chaotic as DsO can be, they always have a point to make and more often than not they do it very well.  Some of this boils down to my own personal preference, since I notably tend to prefer my death metal to be a bit more pugilistic than textural, but the fact that I like Portal well enough tells me that Ulcerate simply struggles to reach their destination at times.  I would definitely say I have a positive impression of Stare into Death and Be Still overall, but the problems that have always plagued the band haven't really been ironed out here.  They made it work more than usual, but at the end of the day I can't help but think this heavily atmospheric style of dissonance simply fits more naturally in a black metal context and a shorter package, and that's why Serpent Column absolutely wrecks my shit while Ulcerate merely manages a brisk foot tapping.