Welcome to Heavy Metal Spotlight! On here you can find reviews and features about metal bands both known to many, and known to few. Sharing my discoveries, or adding to the discussion about well known metal music is something I deeply enjoy, and I'm delighted that it reaches people who are interested from time to time. Don't forget to like the facebook page to keep up to date more easily with what I'm reviewing, to make suggestions about reviews, and the blog in general, and to annoy me as much as you please.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

#373 Saint Vitus - Die Healing

I've seen Saint Vitus twice. The first time, I only knew one track. That track was, predictably enough, Born too Late. The second time, I only knew one record. That record was, predictably enough, Born Too Late. But attending only to that album is, as I have since discovered, merely scratching the surface with regards to the bands fantastically twisted doom legacy. The day I learned that lesson was the day I walked into a record-store with some spare cash, and, adamant to get some new vinyl, instead of leaving having purchased nothing, I blindly bought Die Healing. In the time since, it has become among my favourite records at all, let alone one of my favourite Saint Vitus records.

Die Healing holds a place as one of the best produced Saint Vitus records; luxuriantly echo-laden, vibrant and cavernous. The production does untold amounts of justice to Dave Chandler's signature sandy guitar-tone, course, but soaked in reverb and crunch, coupled with a huge drum-sound which should be the envy of thousands of other doom-records. The album is downright enveloping, descending like a haze - across the room you watch the speed of the clock-hands fluctuate, the air shimmers... so forth. These factors, together with the mournful and slightly deranged vocals of Scott Reagers - delivered in the manner that many would insist that doom vocals should be - results in a truly winning combination. It is, in fact, just as the artwork would suggest. The cover, in many ways reminiscent of Black Sabbath's d├ębut - a grim and evocative photograph; the natural and the built-environment intertwined, tells a heavy story. Die Healing has that self same eerie, truly doomed charm of a record like the above; both are truly otherworldly and perhaps a little scary. It's sinister, devilish and bizarre, and while an extreme-metal record might be the most stereotypical album that your parents might warn you about, an album like this, surrounded with mystique, atmosphere, and scruffy denim-clad people smoking funny-smelling cigarettes doesn't come far behind. I've always loved metal for that mystique, it's music for strange people - heck, it's strange music, and Die Healing is the best kind of strange.

Die Healing is an extremely consistent record from front to back; a deeply coherent work, but also a multi-dimensional one; twisted and unhinged in places, deeply sorrowful in others, and stopping at a number of stations in-betwixt. Each track stands on its own with ease, and each has its moment - its flavour on the record. "Dark World" opens the album in sleek, memorable and haunting fashion, a long and contemplative walk through the rotting leaves of the album's artwork. The journey continues throughout the record, closing with the gruff, gritted-teeth heroin-hymn of "Just Another Notch" with Dave Chandler handling the vocals to bring the record to a conclusion in rugged, punk-fuelled fashion. The album is a real journey, touching every tried-and-true Saint Vitus trademark, whilst breathing with a freshness and crispness which is more or less unmatched in the bands entire discography. It draws you in, dooms you, then kicks you out like a bizarre carnival ride, like those moments when you walk bleary-eyed out of a building astonished only to be that it's still light outside, and unsure what to do about it.

Perhaps Wino's contributions to Saint Vitus are usually the most fondly remembered, or at least, the best known - and I have a lot of love for the "classic" Saint Vitus lineup... Records like this, however, show beyond all reasonable doubt that vocalists like Scott Reagers have contributed to records which are every bit as quintessential, classic, and untouchable. Die Healing earned its place as my favourite Saint Vitus record, and seems set to remain that way. It's a sublimely dark closing statement for a band which would go on to be silent for over a decade afterwards. 

This is a 10/10 record.

Saint Vitus Official Site
Saint Vitus on Facebook
Saint Vitus on Metal Archives

Saturday, 7 March 2015

#372 Venom - From the Very Depths

Keeping up with Venom after their classic era is generally seen as something of an optional extra; a side-quest and bonus-feature of metal-listening. Like so many bands, the attention paid their records has been almost inversely proportional to the band's time-line. It is, however, something I would submit as being well worth spending a little while exploring. Albums like 1997's "Cast in Stone" and 2000's "Resurrection" are records which I consider to be among my favourites by the band - fun and energetic, even if they're not deeply reminiscent of the classics. Heck, the even more recent run of records has been likewise quite respectable, culminating in 2011's "Fallen Angels". Not ground-breaking, by any means, but very much symptomatic of a band doing what they know. There has been no nu metal record, no experimental album, and for that, we need to be thankful. 2015's "From the Very Depths", which arrived in the post yesterday, shows signs, perhaps reassuring, of being every bit "more of the same".

Predictably, the above "more of the same" is precisely what "From the Very Depths" is, with regards to how Venom have sounded for the last fifteen years or so. The previous five albums are a very clear sign that if Venom's sound is going to evolve at this point, it's going to do it slowly. Very slowly. Consequently, this record follows on from where the last one left-off, in more or less every conceivable way. The production is similar - raw, but crisp enough to avoid being akin to the muffled monstrosities of "Metal Black" and "Hell". It has, most welcome, a drum-sound which sounds like a drum-kit, and a thunderous and tasteful heaviness which captures the band's essence relatively well. As far as the "new" Venom sound goes, I tent to think of it as a separate entity. Whether or not the band are aiming at their classic sound, I am uncertain, but too many years seem to be between the band and those days to really make it happen. That isn't to say that From the Very Depths isn't enjoyable - but as with the other records clustered around it, it exists in a different world to "Welcome to Hell", and you can tell. Equally, however, it isn't trying to be anything Venom are not, either - and that gives it an earnest context. Even if you don't consider the sound to be especially inspired, it certainly isn't contrived; it's an album which, however you receive it musically, is clearly one which the band were comfortable to create.

On the other hand, "From the Very Depths" is fourteen tracks and fifty minutes long, give or take, and could probably afford to lose a track or two. Most of the tracks are relatively well-considered and self-contained, but become de-facto filler in contrast to the stand-out tracks, simply in virtue of not being as good. The record suffers from repetitive use of the same musical tropes - seemingly endless mid-tempo riffs being one, and jarringly "starty-stoppy" riffs another. It could certainly benefit from a few cans of Red Bull or a cheeky bit of something stronger with regards to  the tempo... although in thinking this, I do find myself needlessly trying to squash this record into the "old Venom" framework - is this album meant to be a fast one? Perhaps not, but I'd like it to be, even if it is worth noting that Venom are better at mid-tempo riffs than one might automatically assume. When it works, it really works, with crunching, swaggering riffs imbued with real power, some of them coming close to the legitimate mid-tempo crusher that was the "Resurrection" album. Here, however, such tempos are made use of to such an extent that fast songs are rendered rare and precious islands on the record, with the tracks in-between becoming very prone to blurring and smudging into a veritable ocean of mid-tempo of which only some manages to stand out on its own right. Sadly, the album drags.

My conclusion is simple - indeed predictable. If you're familiar with modern Venom, you'll be able to pre-empt precisely what this album sounds like. If you're not familiar, listen to this, and then you'll be able to pre-empt exactly what modern Venom sounds like - it's a two way process. The record's quality similarly easy to generalise. It's good fun, with a few tasty sections. Here and there you catch the inspiration which lead to the classic records out of the corner of your eye, amongst the less exciting material. "From the Very Depths" is completely interchangeable with any recent Venom record, in so far as it's not bad... but heck... that sounds like consistency to me.

This is a 6.5/10.

Venom on Metal Archives

Saturday, 14 February 2015

#371 Num Skull - Ritually Abused

I'm not trying to score metal-elitist points or anything... but I listened to a battered old LP of Num Skull's cult-classic "Ritually Abused" at a friends house one evening a long-while Relapse Records re-released it. Fortunately now, the album is widely available again, and widely promoted, and that is damn good news. "Ritually Abused" is one of the unsung heroes of the heavy, scathing rear-guard of thrash in the late 80's - it's an album which people should be investigating, an album which ought to be picked up by people who missed it the first time, and, frankly, that's almost everyone. I went ahead and bought the Relapse remaster... the tracks-names were all completely mismatched, but I suppose it's the thought that counts.

"Ritually Abused" is a classic which damn well looks like one. The artwork is a lush visual feast - it's the sort of record you would buy on a whim, and it would reward you for doing so. The colour scheme and layout are simply sumptuous. I've always cared a lot about good artwork, and albums like this are why; good artwork always adds to an already good record. Musically, the record is quite representative of the goings-on of its time - the entire album is probably best thought of as a thrash album, but as with many records from the time, while the music twists and turns, it screams "death metal is coming" at the top of its voice... much in the way that a record like Scream Bloody Gore was more a sign of things to come, than an instance of what such things were. Regardless, it's damn heavy - a cannonade of riffs with a filthy tone which bludgeons as much as it slices. It's not razor-sharp and it's not especially flashy - it's tough and gravelly with just enough lucidity to pronounce the excellent riffs. The dry tone puts plenty of emphasis on the heavy side of the album, and on it's power. At a glance, the most extreme music at the time divides vaguely between heaviness, intensity, and evil-atmosphere. Num Skull invest primarily in the first two - the album flails and flagellates, grinding your bones for its bread, but it doesn't quite drip with evil in the way something like Possessed's "Seven Churches" from three years previously does. When it comes down to it, the result is an album which represents a mature genre at its best, as opposed to something with a huge spirit of experimentation. The final stepping-stone on that genre's journey, it sits astride the barbed-wire fence where thrash ends and death-metal begins.

It probably isn't unfair to call Ritually Abused a "riff" album - and it's within this domain that the album shines most brightly. Every song has riffs of the sort of caliber which would make them stand-out riffs on lesser albums - but Ritually Abused is no "lesser" album. It took about thirty seconds to impress me, and then emphasized the point by staying that impressive for its entire duration. It's relentless in both pace and quality. The songs whirl and dive from one riff to the next with almost impulsive abandon, but simultaneously maintain a deeply coherent flow. It's jarring, but in the right way - constantly taking the listener by surprise, but not off-putting; it can take a while to get used to, as with bands of similar intensity - Sadus for instance, but once accustomed, the album constantly rewards your inner riff-lover - one of the most fundamental but at times easy to neglect indulgences of any metal fan. The songs are packed with variety - there are a few albums worth of riffs within about forty minutes, but there isn't a feeling of hurry. Indeed, the whole album reeks of well-measured craftsmanship and maturity, almost surprising for a debut. There are no throw-away songs... no throw away moments.    

It's genuinely good to see "Ritually Abused" peering out of the chasm of obscurity - hopefully to be noticed once again by friends of the underground. It's also an important lesson to remember. Hidden gems like this are abundant - more so than most of us, including myself, imagine; for every one which comes once again to light, like this, there are many more hidden still below the surface. Ritually Abused is a statement of excellence by Num Skull - heck, by thrash in general. It is also a hefty reminder never to neglect the obscure. Not all that is obscure should be.

This is a 9/10.

Num Skull on Bandcamp
Num Skull on Metal Archives