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, 19 April 2015

#375 Cruachan - Blood For the Blood God

Unless I have some sort of monumental epiphany in the future, I can safely say that the vast majority of folk-metal is strictly none of my business. For the most part, it's too nice, to saccharine, and too damn cheesy. With every rule, however, comes exceptions. Of late, Ireland's Cruachan haven't been nice, they haven't been saccharine, and in an interesting turn of events, they've ceased to be especially cheesy, having returned to their black-metal roots on "Blood on the Black Robe" from 2011. Consequently, I was thoroughly excited at the prospect of a new record, and, discovering that just such a record existed, have now predictably spend about four months slowly but surely getting around to listening to it. Finally, it's time.

First impressions are serious business. Blood For the Blood God make initial impressions with the drum sound, and not in a good way. I had no idea that typewriters were a traditional Irish folk instrument, but apparently are, going by how damn clicky the drum sound is on a lot of the record. It's really a push in the wrong direction, and it takes concious effort not to let it leave me poised against the rest of the content of the record. It's a shame, because the drumming itself works well, it fits the songs well and has plenty of energy... but dear god is it produced all kinds of wrong for the context it's in. It's something I wouldn't have picked up on half a decade ago, but now I can't turn a blind eye easily. Granted, the drums have to filter through thickly layered instruments; there's a lot going on in any Cruachan album... but there's really no need for the bass-drum sound that we get left with. Regardless, I don't want to dedicate an entire paragraph to one shortcoming. I did my best to separate it in my mind as a fault, from the rest of the record - and for what it's worth, just about everything else about Blood For the Blood God is actually very, very good. It's raw, angry and sincere, sure there are a few jaunty tracks and sections, but that's par for the course with Cruachan, and for the most part, the record is a scathing continuation of Blood on the Black Road. It continues to carve the dark and bloody road that the band had before them in their early years, you know... before all the fun. 

I'm willing to go further, in fact. Blood For the Blood God may well be the bands most aggressive record to date; the vocals rage and rampage their way through the songs, like roaring calls coming down from the mountains, and the engulfing guitar tone adds to the impact - likewise, the record flows well - not too much filler, and certainly not too excessive a running time; it's about as much Cruachan as you want in one serving, and it borders, shortcomings aside, on being one of the best servings of Cruachan - it all depends on how you feel about drum-sound. The folk-elements are, thankfully, quite wholesome and sincere - no sugar in this dark mug of coffee. For a lot of the record, in fact, the "folk" element of the bands identity is compositional, as opposed to relying on specifically "folk" instruments, which feels the most earnest way to conduct things. When they are deployed, however, they're a power for good, as they were on the previous record - demonstrating as ever, that the vast and angry landscape of bands like Cruachan and Primordial will always trump the mischievous beer-in-hand bollocks of the other half of the genre. It's powerful stuff, and avoids so many of the usual traps that folk-influenced bands can fall into.

All in all, Blood For the Blood God is a satisfying listen - tall enough in stature to overcome it's shortcomings - or rather, one specific short-coming... and hell, for most people it won't even be a problem; I'm just the resident drum-sound pedant. Regardless, the record is a powerful and enjoyable trip through the visceral and bloody side of what Cruachan do, and for my money, it's what the band do best of all.

This is an 8/10.

Cruachan Official Site
Cruachan on Facebook
Cruachan on Metal Archives

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

#374 Enslaved - In Times

I started listening to Enslaved around the time that "Axioma Ethica Odini" was released, or perhaps a bit before. I don't entirely recall - I started off on "Below The Lights" and didn't pay attention to new material for a while. The crucial point is that that I did notice was that Axioma was not only eagerly anticipated, but was likewise very well received. How Enslaved albums were anticipated and received before that, I don't know, but since that record, the bands subsequent efforts have been some of the most hype-attracting announcements in metal as a whole, earning the band a reputation for quality which may well pre-date my experience. It wouldn't surprise me if it was always this way; the band have never been guilty of a legitimately bad album, and stylistically, the whole of their post-2000 output has been a thoughtful evolution of progressive black-metal. From personal experience, at least, "Riitiir" seemed to be lauded and adored. The build-up to "In Times" has been no different, albeit with even more to live up to. The game escalates with every round, and the question is, does the new record step up?

"In Times" does not take long to get into; it's unabashedly an Enslaved album from the get-go, and carries with it the momentum that the two records before it created, while, like those records, being sufficiently different to be fresh, whilst still hoisting the Enslaved banner high. It feels extremely accessible, but without compromising a recipe decades in the making. It's a rich and luxuriant album, well produced, well written, and revelling in its progressive-influence whilst weaving the dream-like sound which has been blossoming for years with every bit as much vivacity and inspiration as ever before. In Times feels a little humbler than Riitiir; lean and refined. Riitiir was a sprawling and enormous creature with a thousand tentacles, a million eyes - well crafted, yes; absolutely among my favourite Enslaved records... but also quite a handful. In Times flows clear and crisp, like a mountain stream; a little faster, a little shorter, and a little more contained within itself. The record doesn't threaten to spill out of itself, overflowing. Instead, it is a discreet and decidedly enjoyable capsule of inspiration, offering not too little, but neither does it offer too much. As far as run-time and so forth goes, it hits the nail on the head, accommodating long, ambitious tracks, but never outstaying their welcome.

A huge strength of In Times seems to be how memorable it is; Enslaved have honed and refined their chorus game to a very fine point on this one, and it shows. Almost every song is graced by well-executed and distinct clean-vocals reinforcing the cosmic and transcendental sounds the band have steadily embraced more and more. The riffs on the record are also razor-sharp, rendering proceedings more electric, more alive than some of the more "dry" Enslaved albums. Further honey-coated by the beautiful solos, particularly in the closing track, the album swaggers and writhes with a triumphant and sublime prowess which has seldom been so pronounced in the band. The record utterly stands on its own, and rightly so, as one of Enslaved's best. Contrastingly, In Times also feels nostalgic and reflexive, too - there are subtle call-backs to earlier days, all of which feel in place and appropriate, gifting the listener with wondrous moments of half-recognition. One of the riffs in "Daylight" reminisces to "Ethica Odini", while the opener, "Thurisaz Dreaming" offers up glimpses of the style the band opted for throughout the early-2000s records, particularly "Below the Lights". All in all, the old and the new collide to create something great in its own right.

Again and again, experience teaches that Enslaved are a band who can deliver, and In Times is another constellation in their great and wide musical sky. It is the first new record that I have been enthusiastic enough about to listen to multiple times in a day without tiring of it, and certainly one of very few records I currently feel enthusiastic enough about to listen to twice in a row without a pause. Predictably, and happily, In Times is magnificent stuff.

This is somewhere around the 9/10 mark.

Enslaved Official Site
Enslaved on Facebook
Enslaved on Metal Archives

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