Tuesday, 27 December 2011

#115 Helloween - Walls of Jericho

I've not done a review in a while, but now Christmas is finished, I can hopefully find time to resume. Anyways, it's impossible to listen to much power-metal, or metal of any description, without at least having heard the name of Helloween. One of the colossal driving forces behind European power metal, the band's debut full-length "Walls of Jericho" is a true classic of the genre, and is a landmark in the evolution of speed-metal into the power-metal which today is heard by so many.

As power metal, or at least, it's flamboyant European strain, should be, Walls of Jericho is melodic, high-pitched, catchy as hell, and festooned with cheesiness, in the most amazingly enjoyable way, but unlike a lot of power metal, some of the songs don't go in for an epic theme, despite their epic sound; "Reptile" for instance, is a cheeky tale about some kind of reptile living in the sewers, and many of the songs on the album share this to an extent. Lyrically, speed metal seems to be dominant still, with attitude laced lyrics, as opposed to epic, flowery material which was, I must admit, what I expected. Speed metal also survives in the song structures, and the sound is certainly "proto" power-metal, not the fully founded genre. The guitar-work is more jumpy and has quite a lot of meat, and there are riffs which chug and rasp along in a very traditional fashion, and don't quite possess the floweriness of quintessential power metal, which suits me fine, as I like power-metal to have a lot of riff-power, which is why I typically prefer power-metal in the American style.

I have to say, before listening to this, I had no idea that metal like this existed in 1985. Europe, I assumed, would be filled with traditional and speed metal acts, but I was mistaken. I never really looked deeply into power-metal got started, but my ears definitely suggest that one of the likely candidates is around the time of this album, which is definitely more than just speed metal. The hybrid of styles sound really awesome, and definitely takes the things I like about both speed and power metal - It's not hit that overproduced, modern wall which so much power metal has, and it's not lost any momentum - it's got so much "power", and it's easy to see how power metal ended up earning it's name.

I don't listen to as much power-metal as I should, and that is certain, but albums like this make me want to listen to more of it. This album is as much of a piece of history as "Black Metal" "Number of the Beast" or "Kill 'Em All".

I give Walls of Jericho 8/10.

Helloween Official site
Helloween on Myspace
Helloween on Facebook
Helloween on Metal Archives

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

#114 Benediction - Transcend the Rubicon

Another piece of evidence on the table, alongside Bolt Thrower, that English death-metal is a damn fine brand of the subgenre, is Benediction. "Transcend the Rubicon" is a couple of albums into their ongoing career, and I can say, rather confidently, that it is a classic of the genre, for all the right reasons.

Benediction get compared to Bolt Thrower frequently, and there is good reason for this - The two bands have one heck-of-a-lot in common - The vocals follow the same path, and the riffs have the same crushing "death with a hint of groove" to them. Is this a bad thing? Most certainly not! To my ears, the two are as good as each other, and the deep bass-filled roar of the songs on "Transcend the Rubicon" exemplify this in a bone-crunching death-metal inferno. I'm definitely partial to death-metal which doesn't go overboard with blast beats, and Benediction definitely exhibit a refreshing restraint, with the drumming being tight, technical, and sounding nice in the final mix, as well as being catchy, and driving the music really well, such as in the beginning of "Violation Domain" but not crowding other aspects of the music out. In fact, the mixing as a whole is excellent - it's got that nice, organic feel of the old school, but everything is also captured nicely, with no aspects of the sound neglected.

Transcend is one of those albums which simply sounds good from start to finish, which is always something worthy of praise - It's quite a lengthy album, as well - eleven tracks (On my version, not including the two live bonus tracks) and almost fifty minutes is quite a lot of death-metal in one serving, but when the consistency and lack of filler is taken into account, it's damn impressive. Coupled with the lovely cover-artwork, the album oozes an aura of completeness and solid foundation, which, while not necessary to the song quality, really seems to boost it up in terms of appeal in the way that it practically demands to be enjoyed and treasured. One of the consequences of the way the riffs are done, is, pleasingly, that it demands the vocals to have good  twists, and the vocal hooks are more memorable than your average death-metal album, and in addition have very rhythmic character, which provides plenty of emphasis on them, and hammers them home pleasingly.

It's not suprising that I enjoyed this, Bolt Thrower fan that I am, the similarity can only be advantageous to my ear, but whatever you're into, It can only be a good idea to have a listen to some Benediction. I only wish that they'd blown me away sooner, but I overlooked them for some time.

I'm giving this a 9/10.

Benediction on Myspace
Benediction on Metal Archives

Sunday, 18 December 2011

#113 Hazzard's Cure - S/T

I stumbled upon this ensemble while trawling through bandcamp, and took the artwork to be a sign that the band were a thrash one. Not so. Hazzard's Cure play a sludgy, stoner metal style, which is described catchily on the bands profile as "epic blackened stoner thrash". Curious as to what this might sound like, I gave the album a listen.

The album certainly sounds interesting, and is certainly an interesting medley of styles - The deep lower end and general thunderous sound represents the stoner, sludgy side of things, but there definitely is a vein of thrash within the music, which comes into play in the form of the speed and anger of the music. The vocals in many places top it off, being quintessential extreme - loyal to no genre in particular, but harsh nonetheless. This creates something of a combination of atmosphere and general thrashiness, which is tasteful, as opposed to over the top. There are plenty of songs which don't go down such a riffy road, too, and these help hold up the sludge side of the deal, and some of the atmosphere encountered therein is impressive to say the least, boosted up by the tightness of the recording, and by the very amiable production, which is roughly optimum for the style of music being produced. As the album progresses, you find yourself exposed to a little bit of everything, influences from the four corners of the metal world, which is as rewarding when you anticipate it as it is when you don't.

The lead guitar is finely honed, and sounds damn pleasing when it rears it's head, with some smooth, creamy solos, in songs such as "Tossed and Dethroned", which adds a dash of serene emotion to the maelstrom of sections which the song is comprised of. There are soft, clean guitar parts, here and there, too, in an almost ballad-like sense, which is more than welcome, considering that it's well-done, and not tacky. The vocals are as diverse as the music, ranging from a harsh scream to a Baroness/Mastodon style gruff bellow, with just quite a lot of ground being covered in between. "Prayer of the Hunted" has some really good black-metal style shrieks and wails. The combination of elements is at it's most enjoyable in the epic nine-minute closer, which is sludgy as hell, but also brings a bit of everything else to the table, then, to elongate the metaphor, arranges it into a pleasing sculpture... plates... food... cutlery, the lot.

It is often said, that if you want to survive, you need to diversify. Hazzard's Cure have done just that, creating a pleasing, but not over-the-top mix of sludge, thrash, and well... just about everything else as well.

I give this album a 9/10. A few listens, and you'll be hooked.

Hazzard's Cure on Myspace
Hazzard's Cure on Facebook
Hazzard's Cure on Bandcamp
Hazzard's Cureon Metal Archives

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

#112 Koldbrann - Nekrotisk Inkvisition

In modern black-metal, one of the trends seems to be that most of the bands which have a very oldschool black-metal sound do not have the musicians to play live - instead being composed of a few multi-talented members. Koldbrann are not one of these bands, and through their career so far, they have had a full enough compliment of musicians to perform live shows, something which seems important to me. "Nekrotisk Inkvisition" is one of the most... Kvlt... album titles to come my way in a while, and the sound is equally true black metal.

In terms of sound, this album could have burst straight out of 1994. The guitars are evil, cold, and hissing, but also chunky, and there's a tough and prominent lower end in the music, which gives it a lot of strength which isn't apparent in some black-metal. The sound is very much recognisable, although it may be a bit far to refer to it is quintessential; It doesn't seem fitting, when there are certainly some unique characteristics in the band's sound - and enjoyable ones at that. I've not heard quite the same guitar tone anywhere else, and it's a damn good tone at that. The riffs really cruise along, sawing and rasping angrily, but also with a well carried atmosphere, a good balance between the intensity and freezing atmosphere; "Koldbrann" itself is the Norwegian for frostbite. All in all, the album sounds very well rounded in terms of production; natural, organic, and un-forced. The band stand against the use of drum-triggers, and their earthy production ethic is definitely reflected in the album, which is smoothly, but naturally mixed and produced.

It's definitely a hidden gem of modern black-metal. Perhaps not a band who are looking to the past for inspiration too much, but definitely one who feel the need to unleash it with "proper" sounding traits. With black-metal, it could be said that they "don't make 'em like they used to", but Koldbrann certainly seem to be trying and succeeding. It may not adopt any wild new direction for the genre, but it certainly keeps the original spirit of black-metal as straight as an arrow, and what's not to like about that? It's cold, sinister, off-the-beaten track, and evil as hell, and that's how black metal was meant to be, and it's as good coming from 2003, as it would have been ten years before that, but most of all, it's honest - there isn't a twist, an aspect of the band which changes the perception of it - it's a straightforward black-metal outfit, playing straight forward black metal, and it sounds good.

This is definitely a riff filled, black-metal monster of an album, and each song has a great degree of integrity and raw, unrefined purity. Bands like Watain may be keeping the genre in the spotlight, but bands like Koldbrann are the ones who are keeping us well supplied with black metal like they made in the olden days.

I'm giving this an 8/10.

Koldbrann official site
Koldbrann on Myspace
Koldbrann on Metal Archives

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Feature: Album of the year

 To Vote, give your opinion in the poll at the edge of the blog.
All votes are greatly appreciated!

I've been thinking about the possibility of doing this for some time; presenting a few albums which I've found thoroughly impressive throughout the year, and then allowing readers of the blog (and unfortunate people I encounter on forums) to vote for which of these albums they consider the best, in a poll. Of course, I've not listened to all of the fine albums released this year, and so I've picked albums which I have listened to, be they big releases, or lesser known, which will probably narrow the scope slightly - I'm afraid that your personal, pet favourite album may not be on here. Nonetheless, to anyone who could take a little time to vote for one of these ten fine albums, I'd greatly appreciate your time. To get a good spread of results, I'll be taking votes until the 1st of January 2012. Anyways, here are the albums;

Burzum - Fallen:

The albums which Varg creates are seldom entirely disappointing. and "Fallen" met with great acclaim from many fans. Heralded as a step up from "Belus" by many, this album is high-quality, and distinct from Burzum's other material, with intensity, development of style, and solid songwriting, everything which you could desire to see in an album.

 Venom - Fallen Angels:

Venom are still going strong, and "Fallen Angels" is a solid addition to their discography, and hearkens back to the bands roots not only pleasingly, but also in a well-executed manner; the band aren't overdoing it, they're getting it just right. It's crunchy, mischievous, and is simply Venom doing what they do best.

Iced Earth - Dystopia:

Perhaps not everyone loves Iced Earth, but who doesn't love a comeback album after a less-than-intense period of a bands history. "Dystopia" possesses a ridiculously refreshing new found intensity in the band, rejuvenated by the vocals of Stu Block, the band have managed to turn around and unleash a thoroughly well made album.

  Thrall - Vermin to the Earth

An eerie, extinction crazed black metal journey, filled with sinister wailing guitar, and an atmosphere which practically makes spiders scurry forth from the cracks in your floorboards, Thralls second album is easily as good as their first. The album has a genuine originality about it, but still manages to bring the features of conventional black-metal into play effectively.

Root - Heritage of Satan

Root have always been underrated, and their new album is no exception. It's not been talked about much, but it's a genuinely solid effort, and shows that the band still have exactly what it takes to make good material, which is memorable, demonic, but also melodic, in a way which only Root have truly mastered.

Skeletonwitch - Forever Abomination

Innovative black-thrashers Skeletonwitch haven't made a bad album yet, and this one is no exception. It carries on in the band's eclectic, quirky style, just as surprising, unique and pleasing as the bands previous works, and with all of the odd charm and aesthetic which the band have always possessed.

Skull Fist - Head of the Pack

In true Canadian metal style, Skull fist created a virtuosic, unique and tight traditional-metal album; The vocals are fascinating, the guitars are smooth and virtuosic, the humour is tongue in cheek, and, well, the cover art is a bit odd, but don't let that get in the way of a thoroughly decent album.

Evile - Five Serpent's Teeth

You can say what you want about Evile, their latest album is catchy, well written and talented. In my opinion, probably their best offering so far. Everything you could want to hear in quintessential thrash is there. Whether you like it, of course, remains up to you.

Vektor - Outer Isolation

Vektor's brand of super-technical progressive thrash has certainly gotten them well known around the metal community. Following in the style of "Black Future", "Outer Isolation" is a festival of technical, out-of-the-box playing, and dark, sci-fi lyrical themes, brought forth by some of the most distinct vocals of the year.

Yob - Atma

Magnificently heavy stoner/doom metal band Yob left quite an impression on me with their latest release; Atma. Heavy as hell, with hypnotically long songs, diverse and evocative vocals, and a heaviness which I have seldom heard topped, Atma is a solid release, earning it a place on this list.

That's the "nominations". I'm fairly certain that for a good  number of people, your personal favourite will be missing. Cheer up - I'm sure you'll enjoy atleast one of these. Remember to vote in the poll on the side of the blog's main page!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

#111 W.A.S.P - The Crimson Idol

W.A.S.P have always been a band which seem to go down well, despite being, at times, on the borderline of being a glam band, and, as such, the target of a great deal of stigma. Fortunately, it's always been relatively apparent that there's a lot more to the band than that, from their early days, right up to, and beyond, the album on which I shall focus; The Crimson Idol.

The band manage to bring a very earthbound tale, that of the rise and fall of a rockstar, the "Crimson Idol" from whom the album takes it's name, but in typical W.A.S.P style, the music sounds oddly epic, juxtaposed enticingly, and fantastically with the sleaze, glamour and despair of the character's journey. There's a good balance between good songs and narrative, in that you can follow the storyline well, but it doesn't entirely prevent excellent stand-alone songs from existing, and it can safely be said, W.A.S.P's record on stand-alone songs is nothing if not outstanding. Not being a rockstar, I wouldn't know, but to my lay-man ears, the album seems to perfectly encapsulate the highs and lows of rockstar life - Manic, energetic songs are punctuated by the occasional heart-touching ballad or soft section, such as "Hold on to my Heart" which is one of the most brimming-with-emotion songs in my entire music collection, and I don't hesitate to theorise that Blackie's own experiences of the highs and lows of his career has shaped the song, and the whole album, a great deal.

The recurrent lyrics are nicely done, and make the catchiness of the songs immense - you know many of the chorus-like lyrics reasonably well without having listened to the song before, as I found on my first listen to the album as a whole; the sadness subtly evoked by  "I just wanna be the Crimson Idol" melting away into "I don't wanna be the Crimson Idol" really gives something to the albums darkness and sadness. I can safely say that this is one of the most turbulent and emotional albums I've listened to, and I'm very much smitten with it. Perhaps, at this point, I should actually describe something other than the album's atmosphere; The playing is great, and although the album is darker and deeper than the bands earlier works, it's still the same W.A.S.P, albeit older and wiser - perhaps refreshed by the change in direction from raucous to expressive. The sadness element has always been present in the band's sound, taking them a cut above their peers, but on this album it's perfected.

I'm not an expert on concept albums, and I could certainly benefit from hearing a few more, but damn, I think I can recognise a good one when I hear it. It's well put together, filled with atmosphere, and truly feels like a journey, something which many albums promise, but few deliver. It's a sad story, and a fantastic album.

"The Crimson Idol" earns at least 9/10.

W.A.S.P Official site
W.A.S.P on Myspace
W.A.S.P on Facebook
W.A.S.P on Metal Archives

Monday, 5 December 2011

#110 Gorgoroth - Under the Sign of Hell 2011

Time for the second Norwegian black-metal re-recording album in a row, this time, Gorgoroth's re-recording of Under the Sign of Hell. In a run-up plagued with delays to the release date, fuelled by problems at the record label, the album is available on the band's tour, and is scheduled for proper release fairly soon. Whether the bands fans will be pleased about this, however, is up for debate.

Gorgoroth definitely remain energised and strong in the release, and it's obvious that they are capable of keeping up the onslaught which the original Sign of Hell gave. The problem with the re-recording, aside from how unnecessary it feels, is that the black metal "spirit" of the band is definitely not audible in the album - It's sterile, and lacks the crushing, candle-lit and frosty production which makes black-metal good - while the technicality of the album remains - they are after all, the same songs - the atmosphere is very much lacking. The drums are too crisp, and the production in general lacks the echoey, reverb filled and utterly black-metal production which made the original, and the albums around  it, which, frankly, got me into black metal, great.
The album sounds good in some places, with songs like "Profetens Apenbaring" sounding reasonably well done, although this, in part, is down to the fact that it was more of a punchy song than the others, and the production suits it marginally better.

The intensity is still there, which is a good thing to see, although that adds more to my hope that the band could unleash a genuine comeback if only they get their current trend in abominable production out of the way, than to my enjoyment of this album in particular. Perhaps if this had been original material, it would have gotten a lot more praise, but when compared to the original, it just doesn't stand up as it should. It's reasonable of it's own merit, but in this case, own merit doesn't really cut it. It's clearer, and the technical elements of the music are laid bare to see, much more so than before, but that's done at the expense of the atmosphere to a great extent, and the fact that albums which combine both effectively do exist really detracts a bit from what's been achieved in terms of clarity. I'm not going to outright condemn the album, as always, it was enjoyable to hear songs in a different light, and I cant deny that I enjoyed the occasional section here and there, but I'm definitely going to admit that it could have been better, and as a massive Gorgoroth fan, I'm somewhat disappointed.

Some re-recording albums work. Some don't, and while this isn't an outright dog's dinner, it's not what it could have been, by any stretch. The overclean production wears off after a while, and it's tolerable, but it's certainly no substitute for the original.

I'm going to say 6/10.

Gorgoroth Official site
Gorgoroth on Myspace
Gorgoroth on Facebook
Gorgoroth on Metal Archives

Friday, 2 December 2011

#109 Burzum - From the Depths of Darkness

Varg Vickerness is a man with quite an impressive output of work, in recent years, at least, since he got out of prison. "From the Depths of Darkness" is his second work of the year, although one which is completely different in nature from the studio album released earlier in the year. This is a re-recordings album, taking material from the bands self-titled album, and from "Det som Engang Var", and re-recording them "as they were originally intended", which is, in the hands of most musicians, a scary phrase.

The album is definitely one which will make people evaluate it, whether they set out to or not - Re-recordings are always thus. If all of the attributes of the originals and the re-recordings were averaged out, they would perhaps not be as far apart as people are proclaiming, but one thing is definite - Each has distinctly different merits, and because of this, I'm hazarding to say that it's quite difficult to say which is superior in my eyes, because there is definitely more than one dimension to the difference. On one hand, the vocals have changed into Vargs more modern style, as opposed to his rabid howl from those days, which seems to be greeted in fairly equal measure with disdain and approval. Personally, I'm quite unconcerned by the vocal change, finding both fairly enjoyable. The changes in production catch my attention more; It's clearer, and definitely a bit more crunchy, which leaves open a nice window to hear the intricacies not apparent in the original recordings, but at the same time, there isn't the same unique reverb which cements the originals in my mind. Nonetheless, I can certainly come to enjoy the new production, which does make it sound a lot more "black-metal" than before, in terms of the sounds thickness.

The album in general certainly revitalises the songs to an extent - and it's interesting to listen to the differences, and to have the songs with a slightly different angle cast upon them this time, which has always been a highlight of re-recording albums to me. The differences are pretty much all that can be focused upon when it comes to albums like this, considering that all of the songs were well written the first time around, not much can be said about that, and the same is true of any changes in direction; there aren't any, unless making re-recordings counts as a change in direction. Nonetheless, it's good to hear Varg playing material of the style of the first few albums, but with modern production, and it certainly makes me hope that it's a direction that he heads on with whatever original material he produces next. An album like this would certainly be more than satisfactory.

Re-recording albums are definitely a bit hit-and-miss, generally speaking. Burzum seems to have done quite reasonably on this one though - Perhaps it's not a critical blow, but it definitely not a miss, and it seems so far to be a lot better than a re-recording album by a certain other Norwegian black-metal outfit which I will be reviewing in the near future.

I'm giving this 7/10. 

Burzum Official site
Burzum on Metal Archives