Saturday, 30 January 2016

#390 Ketzer - Starless

It's cold outside and cold inside. I'm drinking lukewarm coffee out of a stolen Starbucks mug. The mug, I can only presume, is disappointed by its decline from being a vessel of fine high-street coffee somewhere in the mid-2000s to being full of a grim, gravy-coloured instant-coffee with neither milk nor sugar, several years later. How the mighty have fallen, it might ruminate. Meanwhile, through the speakers comes "Starless" - Ketzer's third album and major-label debut, on Metal Blade Records. It is currently four tracks into its run, and has yet to feature a drum-beat which would be out of place in a fucking pop-punk album. Several re-listens later, it turns out that the entire album is that way, and I'm left identifying strongly with my coffee-mug. 

The boundaries of subjectivity and objectivity in aesthetics are less clear cut than would be convenient. The question of exactly which factors contribute to a works aesthetic merit - and whether such a merit itself is a metaphysically real phenomenon are, to put it bluntly, a real pain in the arse. The vectors of evaluation, are, then, fuzzy and indeterminate at best... and that makes my job a lot harder, because as much as I want to wax lyrical about how disappointed I am by "Starless", I'm having to take a comically enormous run-up to the actual act of specifying why, during which I'll be devoured alive by qualms about which of my evaluations and instincts are justified and unjustified, fair and unfair... Fortunately, my reviews aren't required to be too philosophically rigorous - but I digress. We've all had records in our lives which were like this - that felt doomed from the first teasers and singles. The contrived, catchy, tambourine-augmented jingle of the first released track - the title track - already rang out like an ill omen, swapping the bands furious tempo and flesh-slicing black-thrash musicianship for a hipster-friendly sound; moody, brooding and decidedly sluggish. The rest of the album carries on in much the same fashion, if not slower; never reaching a thrashy-tempo, never breaking a sweat; ploughing a furrow of at times saccharine, sensual darkness through its runtime. It's ambitious and complex, but I can't for the life of me manage to be pleased about its musical direction.

Now, it's worth emphasising, of course, that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with being hipster-friendly. Be as friendly to them as you please, they're people too, after all. Likewise, there's nothing intrinsically bad about the music on the record. Ketzer always had what it took to be an interesting band, whichever style they opted to play. Indeed, "Starless" has plenty of interesting bits - it's catchy, dark, and indulgent-sounding. As determined as I may have been not to enjoy the record for reasons I shall explain soon, it nonetheless has its fair share of cool moments, especially the eleven-minute "Shaman's Dance". I think I would have outright enjoyed a reasonable amount of it, if it wasn't Ketzer... but that's exactly the problem - it is Ketzer. It's made by the band who released "Satan's Boundaries Unchained" - one of the best black-thrash albums of its decade. It's made by a band with members who have stage names like "Infernal Destroyer" and "Necroculto". "Starless" does not sound like the product of such a band. And in many ways, for me, that's the definitive problem with the album. It casts so much of the band's sincerity into doubt, for them to so willingly spin on a dime and utterly abandon their previous style with little in the way of foreshadowing. I don't usually put much weight on the notion of "selling-out" in the pejorative sense, but at the same time, perhaps in this instance, that really is the source of my displeasure. For a band that I've followed since their debut album to so readily switch style, and presumably audience too, leaves me - and no doubt others - with the sad feeling of being left out in the cold while Ketzer hang-out with their new friends at the cool-kids table.

We live in a paradoxical world, especially when it comes to aesthetics. Bands can be criticised for crafting music for themselves, and they can be criticised every bit as much for crafting music for others. "Starless" is going to be a divisive record... and of course, we return to the many questions of aesthetics. Perhaps Ketzer deliberately made "Starless" inoffensive and accessible - is that a grounds for criticism? It that a sign of a lack of integrity? Is that even relevant to its quality, as a collection of music? Perhaps alternatively, Ketzer simply played a style that they enjoyed on this record, having grown bored of black-thrash... does that mean I'm not entitled to be disappointed in their change of direction? I don't think I could answer any of these questions confidently even after a much longer window of thought. Ultimately, it's a fools errant to attempt objectivity in a paradigm like this. All that it seems can be said is that the music I love Ketzer for is no longer the music that they're interested in making.

This is a 5.5/10.

Ketzer Official Site
Ketzer on Bandcamp
Ketzer on Facebook
Ketzer on Metal Archives

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

#389 Celtic Frost - Vanity Nemesis

For all that you might have heard about "Cold Lake", Celtic Frost's infamous voyage into glam, the fact remains that for better or worse, you probably have heard about it... suffice to say that Tom G Warrior would prefer that you hadn't. Often, however, having heard of it - or indeed heard it - is more than can be said of one of the band's almost universally neglected follow-up and sometimes-proclaimed return to form, "Vanity/Nemesis". A fair bit of that, perhaps, owes to the record's position; sandwiched awkwardly between what most people consider to be the very nadir of Celtic Frost's career on one flank, and by the band splitting up - for the first time - on the other. Relatively obscure and overlooked, then, "Vanity/Nemesis" is already dangerously close to being exactly the sort of thing I turn my attention towards when looking for things to review...

A week or two ago, I stumbled upon a hysterically pointless, broken-English review of Vanity/Nemesis which concerned itself mainly, if not almost exclusively, with how "homosexual" the record's artwork was. Aesthetic value-judgements differ, I guess... but the entirely unintentional point of that review remains; what can be said about Vanity/Nemesis? The thing is, it's quite an odd record. Not (just) in the artistic sense, that is, in the sense of it aiming at being avant-garde and grandiose in the way that Tom G Warrior has always striven towards, but also simply odd in terms of what it is. A return to form? The only answer that's really forthcoming is a non-committal well... sort of. The album has a return to intensity - starting fast, and picking up the tempo in numerous places throughout, giving a taste the speediness of the bands classic works, particularly during "A Kiss or a Whisper". It's also somewhat heavy, albeit lacking some of the filth and tonal richness of the bands earlier work; it certainly doesn't scream "first-wave black metal". The opening track, for instance, is an unexpectedly bouncy bay-area thrash style affair - creating an impression of the album as being quite a conventional one, which is, in some regards, true. It isn't until a bit later in the record that the signature weirdness inherent to a good Tom G Warrior riff begins to come back into the picture. That being said, the first vocal in the whole record is a reassuring "ugh", delivered like a relatively easy promise to be several degrees of magnitude better than "Cold Lake" - which, indeed, it is.

It's on tracks like "Wings of Solitude", with its quirky, bad-on-paper but awesome-in-practice backing vocals, that the character of the album really seems to show through. It's sturdy and, dare I say, unprecedentedly catchy in places. On the other hand, it's still a little infused by commercialism... nowhere near the extent that "Cold Lake" was, of course, but nonetheless notably accessible - a very similar approach, at least in my mind, to the early-nineties Megadeth records which would be coming around the bend in a few years time. In fact, one of my first instincts upon hearing the record was that it was "Celtic Frost meets Countdown to Extinction". Against my expectations, this dimension of the records sound somehow manages to work quite well. While Vanity/Nemesis isn't really "nasty" enough to be especially extreme, in the manner of the band's early work, it packs enough swaggering, misshapen punch to be a satisfying listen. While arguably one of the most conventional sounding Celtic Frost records, hearkening back to before "Cold Lake", as opposed to marching forward, it has easily enough of the bands usual idiosyncrasies and grandiose aspirations to be legitimately interesting to listen to nonetheless. A testament especially to Warrior's distinct playing style, being able to create and carry legitimately enjoyable music from a recipe which most bands could only derive something boring.

Imagine, for a moment, that Celtic Frost never reformed in 2001 (and in so doing, stuck around for long enough to create "Monotheist" - one of the best albums of their career, and, along with his later work with Triptykon, perhaps the closest Tom G Warrior has come thus far to realising his ambitious avant-garde vision). In such a world, Vanity/Nemesis would have been - and was for many years - considered the final statement by the band, creatively. And when it comes down to it, it wouldn't have been a bad last-word. A solid epitaph it would have been indeed - both as an apology for "Cold Lake", and as an album in its own right. I'm genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the record, and I recommend investigating it yourselves.

A 7.5/10, I think.

Celtic Frost Official Site
Celtic Frost on Metal Archives

Monday, 11 January 2016

Possessed by the Wasteland: Exploring Venom's 1985-1992 Output

As long as it takes to get around to - and that's usually quite a while - I tend to do my best to gradually explore even the ostensibly "non-vital" portions of a bands career, particularly when bands have sprawling discographies with dark corners. I've always been something of a completionist, or, at least, curious enough to occasionally bother to listen to the odds-and-ends; the albums less-trodden, so to speak. Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, mediocrity ensues - but on other occasions, hidden gems emerge - or most often of all, it's a story of both. There's only one way to find out. A month or two ago, I finally took the plunge into listening to Venom's little-spoken-of middle era.

In terms of having whole segments of back-catalogue dismissed as irrelevant or ignored, Venom tends to be unexplored territory even in comparison to other bands who experienced a comparable rough-run mid-career. For my purposes - although your mileage may vary - Venom's "obscure" era encompasses a time sandwiched between the bona fide explosive classics of the bands early years, and the various impermanent reunions, comeback-esque escapades and eventual consistent run of new material that occurred from around 1997's "Cast In Stone" onward. But what of those forgotten albums? As we'll see, it's... a motley assortment indeed.

Possessed (1985): Possessed is, arguably, part of the classic-run of Venom albums. Arguably. Returning to fast, short songs after the hugely ambitious "At War With Satan", Possessed should - or could - in theory have had the strength of the bands earlier work, or at least a comparable kick to the short and snappy b-side tracks of its predecessor. Indeed, throughout the record, a segment here and there certainly whispers of such potential. Sadly, whilst offering some undeniably fun moments, Possessed is very content to flirt with mediocrity, borderline self-parody and extremely poor-production. It's a bit of a sad farewell-record by the classic line-up. That said, the record has something of the youthful vitriol and tomfoolery to it, and exudes enough charm to be listenable. Songs like "Moonshine" do a good enough job of rattling the classic Venom tropes, even if, overall, the record it is wont to blend into a single mass, robbed of power by its incredibly understated production, and comparative lack of hooks when stood next to its monstrously prestigious predecessors.

Calm Before The Storm (1987): After some substantial line-up changes, Venom moved on to release Calm Before the Storm, a record which saw the departure of Mantas. Guitar duties were taken up by a duel guitar line-up consisting of Mike Hickey and Jimmy Clare, both of whom would later go on to work with Cronos on his immanent solo-albums, which followed a similar style. "Calm..." is an album which, for my money, is genuinely quite underrated. Filler? certainly, there are several songs not worth your time, but, perhaps more surprisingly, a lot of the record is very solid indeed. Much more melodic than a lot of what the band had done before, "Calm..." is something of an anomaly, as least as far as Cronos-fronted Venom is concerned. Tracks like "Fire" bring the intensity, certainly, and this time backed up with enjoyable production, far better than "Possessed". Other tracks delve into a much more catchy, sing-along nature which I, for one, found surprisingly enjoyable. Jarring, perhaps, for someone hoping for a "Welcome to Hell" or a "Black Metal", the album nonetheless has a vigour and feeling of intent that lacked in the "let's make more of the same" offering that was Possessed. Diverging from what fans expected, and perhaps wanted, sure, but a solid - if really rather silly - record nonetheless. Even opening with a fucking Christmas Song can be overlooked in the right mood.

Prime Evil (1989): Following more line-up changes, seeing the departure of Cronos and both guitarists, Prime Evil saw Mantas return to the band, alongside War Machine, who had played guitar on Mantas' solo-album of the previous year. Vocal duties were taken up by Tony "Demolition Man" Dolan of fellow Newcastle act Atomkraft. Musically, Prime Evil marks one of the most refined and crisp Venom records to date, forsaking the bands accustomed evil and raucous delivery and instead being content to create a sharp-edged, cutting and precise dark-tinted speed metal record, belting along like a blackened Metal Church, both caustic and accomplished. "Prime Evil" showcases both Mantas and Abaddon at the height of their musical prowess. Gone completely is the amateurish charm, replaced by an equally rewarding-to-listen-to meticulousness, resulting in a well produced work that is, like the record before it, underrated, but in every other respect, is utterly different from it. Prime Evil would have gone-down as a thrash classic had it been released earlier - as it is, it remains the fare only of those curious enough to come looking for it... and that's something well worth doing. As far as I'm concerned, this might well be the best "non-classic" Venom album. 

Temples of Ice (1991): The first Venom record in a quite a while not to be prefaced by some kind of line-up change, "Temples of Ice" was the bands first offering of the notoriously metal-unfriendly 90s. Perhaps ironically, considering the title, the record is much warmer in style and production in comparison to "Prime Evil", and tones down the thrash and indeed the darkness. In its stead, the band bring in bucket-loads of NWOBHM, speed-metal, and rock sensibilities whilst retaining a good degree of swagger and at times swiftness, especially when the record really picks-up-the-pace and grows teeth during the second half. It doesn't quite stand as tall as its predecessor, sure, but it still makes for a fun listen, even if it at times feels questionable whether it has anything intrinsically "Venom" about it, so far removed is it from the bands original sound. Regardless, it's a fun album, and perhaps all the braver for not consciously trying to sound like the records which came before. Had I not known, I doubt I would have realised it was Venom, had I heard it in the wild... but on the other hand, I would have enjoyed it anyway, and I suppose that's really the point.

The Waste Lands (1992): The final Venom record to feature War Machine and Demolition Man, "The Waste Lands" once again carries on in the style of it's predecessor, with an amalgam of mid-tempo striding and thrashy-sections, once again not quite hitting the heights of "Prime Evil", but nonetheless delivering a solid, if somewhat non-essential work. "The Waste Lands" carries something of an experimental spirit, by Venom's standards, with attempts - many successful - at being quirky, diverse and atmospheric showing through throughout the album, including the ambitious opening track, "Cursed". On the more conventional end of the spectrum, many of the songs feature the now accustomed rigid, rhyming vocal-patterns and somewhat predictable riffs - possessing enough merit, certainly, but not on first impressions overly mind-blowing, which is in many ways entirely expected. 

In many ways, "The Waste Lands" marks the final Venom album to attempt to consciously do something new with the bands sound. Soon after, the band would split, bringing to an end a more-or-less continuous thread of activity, under various line-ups, from 1979 to 1993. A few years later, the original line-up would come together with their sights firmly set on doing what they knew best on "Cast in Stone", before that line-up once again imploded, ushering in our current paradigm; that of Cronos weaving a string of consistently reasonable records from 2000's "Resurrection" onwards. Perhaps it's a story which could, ultimately, have been told without delving very deeply into Venom's more obscure years at all - but for the number of solid songs - and whole albums - encountered, some very solid indeed, it feels like a worthwhile journey to have undertaken.

Venom Official Site
Venom on Metal Archives