Sunday, 27 October 2013

#311 Thrall - Aokigahara Jukai

In their past two records, Australia's Thrall have proven themselves to be among the most grim and scathing black-metal acts in the southern hemisphere. I have fond memories of bringing their first CD - Away from the Haunts of Men - with me when I left home to go to university, as a reminder of the music collection I had to temporarily leave behind. Suffice to say, that may illustrate that I'm rather a fan of the band's work, and have been looking forward to this, the band's third album, since it was being vaguely hinted at some months ago - hopefully, the spirit of desolate misanthropy continues to run strong through the music.

All bands - or all good bands - have features, properties if you will, inherent in their music which you always hope will be carried forwards as new material is conjured. For Thrall, there were several properties of this sort; the bands scathing but earthy darkness, and their propensity to make diverse black-metal, exploring many influences on the music's journey. As I sit and listen to Aokigahara Jukai - a record named after the "Suicide Forest" in Japan - a smile creeps over my face, for as dark as the music is, I'm glad that the band have managed to retain the things which I hoped they would. Indeed, there is every chance that these things have been expanded upon. The tone is thicker, more suffocating; at their heaviest, the guitars sound hungry; the sound of the earth desiring to slowly devour one's corpse, the synaesthetic sound the emptiness around you. The jarring guitar work in a higher pitch is present too, like dark vines or creepers, strangling and trapping in a claustrophobic grave. Aokigahara Jukai is every bit as dark as Thralls previous work, and, to boot, every bit as dark and morbid as its subject matter. The bands artwork, as ever, stands as a mission statement; once again the record sounds the way it looks. Thrall's magic has never been to create images of violent destruction, or of occult darkness - no - as ever, the band weave an image of extinction and slow-creeping decay, making use of both conventional black-metal sections, and a wide variety of others, each effectively deployed.

The cold desolation is especially well exuded by the doom-influenced sections, which deliver a crushing, but slow demise. Each Thrall record, including this one, certainly knew how to use the lower tempos and vicious feedback well, to trap the listener in an agonising web, from which they must hang, wide eyed and nervous. that's not to say, however, that the record is predominantly a slow one. It is, instead, loaded with dynamic changes and eclectic sections; on top of the doom influence, you've got to contend with some sections which can almost be considered black n' roll - all the more impressive for the fact that, despite that style's frequently "fun" nature, Thrall succeed in making it bleak. Tough, primal rhythms, often with quite simplistic drum patterns forge the record onwards with a frantic, almost panic stricken feel, complimented by crushing riffs or the accustomed blood-curdling tremolos, with enough lower-end to kill you in your sleep. It's sometimes difficult to explain what Thrall's atmosphere most suggests to the ears, but I can best describe it as a darkness, perhaps a melancholy at times - but one too great for mere human concern. Once again, Thrall have created the music not of Man's suffering per se, but of his conspicuous, dead, absence. The monstrous, suffocating weight which Thrall press down with is captured particularly well on this record, both the subtle tangled vines, and the thick, engulfing sections, which capture the essence of a scream which echoes far, but finds no ears to hear it. If a tree falls in the woods... no. If a man falls in the woods, and there's nobody to hear him... does it sound like Thrall?

It's always nice to have an album live up to expectations, and I think I can say with some confidence that this album has. What Thrall create is distinct, unique, and thoroughly enjoyable. Perhaps not the music for a happy psychedelic experience in the woods, but nonetheless, powerful and vicious black-metal, and perhaps something beyond that too. For the third album in a row, they have created it well.

This is an 8.5/10.

Thrall Official Site
Thrall on Bandcamp
Thrall on Facebook
Thrall on Metal Archives

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

#310 Toxic Holocaust - Chemistry of Conciousness

I've been aware of Toxic Holocaust for slightly longer than I've been able to consider myself a fan, but like most bands who slowly creep into your listening, it was, in the end, a very rewarding process. One of the first things I'm always ready to assert about the band is that Toxic Holocaust are not quite the same branch of the tree as the thrash-revival which has coincided the band's life-span so far. Toxic Holocaust have always been something a bit different - and now it's time to investigate whether the bands new record "Chemistry of Conciousness" continues this pattern.

As I said above, Toxic Holocaust always stood out - they were always the black sheep of modern thrash. A sheep blackened by black-metal, and saturated in the toxic sludge of crossover, hardcore and punk. Toxic Holocaust represent the ever-willingness of thrash to flirt with the darker, more acrid and bitter side of metal. Of course, the question is, does Chemistry of Conciousness, which is released later this month, carry the banner high? Perhaps some suspected that "The Yellowgoat Sessions" from earlier this year would in some way have drained Joel Grind - the ever at-the-helm mainstay of the band - of his old-school impulses by giving him the breathing room to spew some filthy, first-wave black-metal style material onto vinyl in a nice quiet room somewhere. As it turns out however, Chemistry of Conciousness is not the clean, straight-forward record which some suspected - indeed, it's probably a lot more filthy, tangled and generally deliciously toxic than its predecessor Conjure and Command, which while solid, memorable, and still decidedly old-school, definitely came the closest to a conventional thrash record in the bands back catalogue. While still a thrash record at heart, as all of Toxic Holocausts works are, Chemistry of Conciousness steps up the d-beats, the black-metal influenced riffs, and the rolling, tumbling guitar work and redoubles the savagery. In a word, the things which far too many thrash bands do far too little of.

If the essence of Chemistry of Conciousness can be distilled into a few phrases, one of them would certainly be intense. Another, without much doubt in my mind, would be savage. The album rushes at you like a wild dog, faster than you can quite deal with, and with more bite than you expected. The guitar tone alone is the sort of thing which makes the rafters of the building quake - it sounds like a glacier moshing its way through a valley at a thousand miles an hour. In fact, it's the sort of guitar tone which makes your speakers a little bit worried. It's mixed loud, but not in the plastic, modern way that so many modern thrash bands opt for - the tone doesn't sound phoned-in, it sounds like the sort of thing cultivated over years, making use of the right hardware. The whole album, whilst of course varied in tempo, really knows how to give the feeling of a band going flat out, with manic but tight playing on tracks like "Silence" really upping the energy, and placing it on the shelf beside the crushing tone. It's quite rare for thrash to manage to be crushing at all - intense, yes, but crushing? Crushing is a bit more of a feat. It can safely be said, however, that Toxic Holocaust have managed to conjure a crushing edge on this album that I've not seen replicated in many placed before. All in all, the whole record is a traditional Toxic Holocaust sonic beating, with a hefty dose of everything which made me enjoy the band to begin with, rejuvenated, and ready for war. Implicit in the return of the old logo, perhaps, is the return to greater extremity and underground ethos.

Once again, we are met with a new Toxic Holocaust record. Since discovering the band properly, I've always had faith in Joel Grind and company, and their ability to make consistently good records, but Chemistry of Conciousness is definitely one which goes above and beyond, shrugging off interference and circling the wagons to conjure a record which, above all else, is Toxic Holocaust to it's very core.

This is an 7.5/10.

and thus, I'm introducing decimal points into my reviewing - I'm incredibly tired with only having ten numbers to work with, and the time for .5s has come. 
Toxic Holocaust Official Site
Toxic Holocaust on Facebook
Toxic Holocaust on Bandcamp
Toxic Holocaust on Metal Archives

Friday, 18 October 2013

#309 Pest - The Crowning Horror

Everyone has that underground band which, somehow they stumbled upon while they were barely into metal properly at all yet, let along conciously exploring the avenues down which such bands hide. Everyone, I'll venture, also has no recollection of how they stumbled upon said band, either. For me, one such band has been Sweden's Pest, a black metal outfit who very much avoid flirting with the mainstream, but who, for the first times since I discovered them, have released a record. Ample reason, I suspect, to take a listen right now.

The first, and most noticeable change in Pest's sound between records is, by far the huge swerve towards the old-school which the band have taken. Of course, records like Rest in Morbid Darkness, the one before this, were very old-school black-metal, but in The Crowning Horror, Pest transport the concept of old-school to new heights. It's not so much a devolution to a first-wave black metal style, even - it's... beyond that. While black-metal elements are still present, with a traditional dark atmosphere and adept, unsettling lead guitar, there is a thick, to my ears perhaps unique, blend of rock and early metal. I heard somewhere that the album was being likened to a black-metal Judas Priest, and I can certainly see where that particular article was coming from - there is something very early eighties - perhaps even seventies, intertwined into what I'm tempted to describe as black n' roll. The record is stuffed with catchy riffs which, while retaining black-metal character, also have a lot of breathing room, and an extremely soft, dry tone in places, reminiscent of Ghost's work on Opus Eponymous, with a subtle, muted playing style which offers a less intense but undoubtedly enjoyable approach to the conventional darkness of black-metal, balancing the very muted sections with some slightly-more intense parts in the vein of old-school, full-on black metal Pest, striking an interesting balance of development as a band, whilst still retaining, the familiar, comfortable features too.

The Crowning Horror is the sort of record which it takes a few listens - perhaps more - to work out what way is best to listen to it. It's certain that trying to listen to it fully as a black-metal record will be a difficult task; how would you digest the softer sections? But at the same time, if you tried to listen to it as just a rock n roll album, you'd probably have trouble dealing with all of the blood. Ultimately, the record must be listened to, challenging as it may be, as a synthesis of styles, and a very different synthesis from the way in which other black-metal bands such as Darkthrone, who were quite clearly a big influence on Pest's black-metal work, adopted more old-school edges. Instead of heavily punk orientated influences, Pest seem to have opted for plain old heavy metal, and the album is definitely all the more absorbing to listen to while one marvels at the interesting consequences of combining these two ingredients. Perhaps most notable is how thoroughly the atmosphere of the album is delivered by tremolo and eerie, screeching lead-guitar and solos, as opposed to  simply having distorted guitars assault the listener as a wall of noise, which the band have opted out of. Instead, Pest have opted for subtlety, trading blast-beats for Mercyful Fate style occult shenanigans, encapsulated by a coming-together of genuinely dark, but equally quite fun material. Adventurous perhaps, for a band who have played conventional black-metal for so long, but nonetheless, extremely successfully done.

I'd been wondering for some time not only if Pest were going to create a follow up to Rest In Morbid Darkness, but what sort of form the record was going to take. Suffice to say, as I sit and listen to The Crowning Horror, I'm impressed to quite an extent, not only by the music itself, but by who made it. I'd expected a new Pest album of the quintessential black-metal variety, and this divergence from that expectation is not only welcome, but refreshingly exciting.

This is an 8/10.

Pest Official Site
Pest on Metal Archives

Friday, 11 October 2013

#308 Death Angel - The Dream Calls for Blood

I've been a follower of Death Angel for quite some time now, albeit, in my career as a thrash-enthusiast, it took me a bit longer then it perhaps should have to become acquainted with their San Francisco thrash goodness. Indeed, I've reviewed the band before - a year or so a go I took a look at their first record, the classic "The Ultraviolence" in the run-up to seeing the band live. This month, however, marks the first time since I became a fan that the band have released a new record, and as such, it feels only natural to give it a listen.

With any thrash band from the eighties still in the business of making material, I'm never quite sure what to anticipate, no matter how confident I am in the band's ability to not fuck it up. For every Overkill and Testament proudly flying the flag high, there will be a Metallica or a Megadeth making a musical offering so decidedly tasteless that you really have to take a minute to wonder who... who did they make that record for? Where do Death Angel fit into this uncertain picture, you ask? I think, with confidence, I can say that the band are flying the flag high; as soon as the first track on the record - Left For Dead - rushes at you jaws agape and full-steam ahead, you know fair well that the band aren't going to distance themselves from the thrash they were born to create. The Dream Calls for Blood is a record which flies along like a locomotive, uncompromising, sharp clawed and excitingly energetic. It does what thrash is, by god, supposed to do - it hurtles ferociously, without losing sight of melody and order - it is intense, but in traditional Death Angel fashion, it isn't afraid to show off a little. Death Angel were never a generic thrash band, and every riff, every solo in this record really reassures you that the band know that - hack, it feels stronger than ever. The tempo is perhaps most striking, and it doesn't take much listening to conclude that this might be, by a good margin, one of the most consistently fast albums the band have created, perhaps since The Ultraviolence. The scything, shredding riffs really are just something else - more youthful, destructive and old-school than, I dare say, most of the band's peers.

Of course, the record has modern production, but that's very much the given with thrash records these days, regardless of who makes them. Fortunately, the cleanliness of the production-work doesn't spoil the music at all, and it would definitely be exaggerating to consider the record plastic at all. The drums, usually the area which modern production most notoriously meddles with, sound fine, with their ferocity and energy well captured indeed. From a musical standpoint, too, the percussion feels like it's reached an exceptional peak on this album; the drums alone have a lot going on to make them enjoyable to listen to, before even considering the amount of other instrumentation which join it in the recipe. In typical Death Angel fashion, the music is as intricate as it is explosive; I don't truly know the ins-and-outs of song-writing, but you can absolutely tell that the songs on the record weren't simply glued together, but were made with considerable care - engineered and distilled with precision to pack one hell of a punch. As you can no doubt tell, I'm very impressed by the album, and from start to finish, the whole work managed to reassure me that it was as solid as they come. I've derived a good dose of enjoyment from most of Death Angel's post-reformation work, but this time around, touring for the anniversary of The Ultraviolence last year seems to have re-awoken something within the band, because there is no doubt in my mind that this is the most thrash record Death Angel have made in a long while.

It's always a cheering, reassuring state of affairs when a veteran band create something with real substance years, decades even, after it all began. The Dream Calls for Blood is certainly an example of this, and has every chance of going down the same path of recognition as records like Overkill's Ironbound, or Judas Priest's Painkiller, where people listened, paused for a second, and then said "Yup, they have still got it".

This is a solid 8/10.

Death Angel Official Site
Death Angel on Facebook
Death Angel on Metal Archives

Monday, 7 October 2013

#307 Atlantean Kodex - The White Goddess

It's amazing how quickly time passes. I listened to the first Atlantean Kodex album "The Golden Bough" before I was at university. I can hardly remember what my head was like back then, but one thing which has run through it like an iron rod, ever-present, has been metal. It is with great pleasure that I now return to Atlantean Kodex, to listen to their second full length offering, three years on. When I first discovered doom-metal, it was epic-doom which drew me the most, and among the first bands I discovered in that niche was Atlantean Kodex. Consider me excited.

It's very natural, I suppose, to compare this record to the previous one. The Golden Bough was without a doubt a very enjoyable record - one which definitely had a great spark about it, but at the same time, it did drag a little bit. Not by much, granted, but it was certainly a little bit challenging to listen to at times. The White Goddess, by comparison, feels, in a word, mature. Compositionally, there are no sudden stops, no riffs crammed into place slightly haphazardly; instead, the music glides along smoothly. Taking three years to compose this record has certainly made a record which feels like three years of work, which is extensively pleasing to the ear. The music feels more dynamic, too, with a stroll through more varied tempos, and more exciting bouquets of style and atmosphere, with the song-writing feeling extremely solid throughout. The record is a little shorter than it's predecessor, but not less substantial; it is lean, as opposed to starved, and certainly manages to pack a lot of punch into it's relatively modest hour of run time. While only five of the tracks are full-blown songs, the intros and vignettes in between manage to be reasonable atmosphere-boosters, as opposed to needless luggage in sonic form, which was certainly a fear which I have swiftly been alleviated of. Three main observations from listening to the musicianship on this record are thus; the riffs are compositionally very interesting, the vocals are much more lucid and present - really making themselves felt, and thirdly, the lead guitar really carries a lot with it now; shimmering solos, right through to subtle but vital lead-work during the body of the song.

There is no doubt in my mind that The White Goddess is an epic doom record which really knows how epic doom should be crafted; the thunderous music is vast in scale, ambitious, and truly glorious with regards to atmosphere; the riffs leave shock-waves like cavalry charges and waves hitting the shore, while the softer sections build excitement, and absorb you into the music's world of wonderment. The thick, almost ever-present ambience in the background; choral vocals, keys, and the like, stir the album up into thick, Bathory-like crescendos and brooding, beautiful lows, whilst the vocals soar, over the top of the mix, and really propel the music in a way they perhaps didn't quite manage to on the first record. In other words, as good as The Golden Bough was, this record feels like Atlantean Kodex reaching their true potential to tell a story - to make a journey. Clich├ęd as it might sound, this record is one which takes the listener on a hefty journey, from the burst of brass in the intro track, right through to the slow, fading piano at the end of the album, it draws the listener in, and good lord, it's a superb album to be drawn into. There is a certain aura which accompanies a record which is extremely solid - crafted with care, dedication and countless weeks of effort, and The White Goddess exudes that aura without the shadow of a doubt - every second of the record promises that there is plenty of wondrous music still to come, and until the very last second, it's testimony stands up.

It's always nice, whilst writing a review, to contemplate that metal might have a future classic, or, at the very least, a renowned record, on its hands. The impressions I've been getting whilst listening to The White Goddess suggest to me that it's very likely to be one or the other of the two - and either way, it's a damn solid record. And so I conclude with this short paragraph, for a long record. One which is well worth listening to. 

This is a 9/10.

Atlantean Kodex Official Site
Atlantean Kodex on Facebook
Atlantean Kodex on Metal Archives

Thursday, 3 October 2013

That's not Metal! #004 Steve Von Till - A Grave is a Grim Horse

I was reminded a few days ago, and quite rightly, that I haven't done a "That's not Metal!" feature in quite a while. The obvious thing to do, of course, is to take steps to fix this great omission of late, and so here we are. "That's not Metal!" can, of course, in many metal-circles, be somewhat pejorative, but as much as this feature sometimes give me the opportunity to review something of poor quality, it likewise gives me the chance to review something exceptionally enjoyable which doesn't quite fit under the metal banner. As an acoustic record, A Grave is a Grim Horse, by Steve Von Till, is one of those albums.

Steve Von Till is perhaps most widely known for his work in Neurosis, but I initially found out about his work on the side, and moved on to Neurosis after that. A Grave is a Grim Horse, one of his solo-efforts, is a record which I've been listening to a lot of late; perhaps more than any single metal record in my collection, and there's good reason for this; sometimes, you just need something different, and an album such as this is a fantastic messenger of such difference. From start to finish, the album is a dark, brooding and beautiful acoustic journey, both mellow and surprisingly intense for what it is. With music which is a little bit less dynamic - music which takes a step back from the edge, you always get the feeling that the mood oozes from every not that little bit more sweetly, and here, just about every track, though diverse in mood and tone, are utterly steeped in atmosphere; tracks like "The Spider Song" and "Willow Tree" stand out to me especially for their poignant delivery of emotion and beauty - albeit the best of a damn good selection - I don't think there's a single track which could be taken out of the mix. The rich, echoing guitar tone and abundance of soft, weeping slide-guitar perfectly enriches its instrument's slow, steady story-telling, where notes are dropped gently into the music, cradled tenderly and then let go. The subtle additions of synth definitely contribute also to raising the record to the level of an atmospheric journey. A journey, might I add, through various moods; sorrowful, wistful and at times a little more upbeat, but at the same time bitter-sweet and subdued - not music of celebration, but of contemplation.

The album stands, perhaps, as a rejection of gratuitous musicianship, and instead truly showcases what can be done with a few elements mixed, tastefully and with what must be an excellent ear for the atmosphere and subtlety - the songs have the feel of songs which could be played on nothing but a guitar, perhaps whilst sat in the shade, and not lose much of their shine. It is this subtlety perhaps, which truly describes the atmosphere on the record - earth-bound, but extremely deep,  profound, and moving. The simple guitar and vocals approach certainly doesn't weave songs which are energetic per se, but the slow, winding music is perhaps the most relaxing music I've listened to in a long time, albeit without simultaneously being too much. The crooning vocals may lull and relax the listener, but at the same time, they don't go so far as to ruin everything by giving you a mug of hot-chocolate and telling you everything is going to be fine; in fact, a lot of the record is dark - even unsettling. All of it, however, is laced with a sort of fatalistic feel; the final track, "Gravity" is almost dirge like, and has the lyric "What's done is done" - in those four words, Steve Von Till himself explains the wistful atmosphere of the record far better than I have attempted to in several paragraphs. It is a record of songs to sooth you after misfortune has happened, not songs to wallow in during the misfortune, and in that recipe, the album encapsulates both darkness, and light. It is, perhaps, hopeful, it its own way. It's the sort of album which walks up the hill, and down the other side, and as far as I'm concerned, they're among the best kind of albums.

For a long time, I went through a phase of my favourite albums for the most part only being metal ones - it is indescribably refreshing when something like this comes along and shakes things up a little. Spawned from the metal scene though it is, I can certainly listen to it and remark "That's not metal!"... and it sounds damn good.

This is a 9/10.

Steve Von Till Official Site
Steve Von Till on Metal Archives