Sunday, 1 November 2015

#387 Windhand - Grief's Infernal Flower

Stoner doom - and its more-or-less psychedelically inclined henchmen - amount to a sub-genre which, without overstating, there's a fucking lot of at the moment. Especially in the last half-a-decade or so, the swarm of artists playing it, or similar styles, has reached saturation point - not necessarily a bad thing - a genre flourishing, many would say... But likewise, the generic, the unadventurous and the derivative within doom are at something of a high-tide of late. Indeed, at times it reaches an extent enough to slightly turn me off the genre - or at least take a break and listen to something else. Not through any sort of elitism, you understand, but more an intermittent reluctance to believe anything especially exciting was being done - particularly in the more conventional realms. In a world where so many bands make something reasonable out of the established tropes of a sub-genre, it takes something that bit more special to make something great from those very same ingredients. That's where Windhand come in.

Windhand's new record "Grief's Infernal Flower" is as good a launchpad back into enthusiasm as anything else I've crossed paths with recently. How much the band re-invent any kind of wheel is debatable - their work is distinct in several ways, particularly the powerful, haunting and instantly recognisable vocals of Dorthia Cottrell - but likewise, the guitar-work borrows very overtly from the bible as written by the greats of the genre; particularly Electric Wizard. Many of the hooks, riff-styles and approaches to solo-playing are clearly following that line of influence - embodying stoner-doom tropes with great comfort indeed. However, as picked-clean that doom-bible might appear to be -  however many of its pages have been used for roach-cardboard over the years, there's still some good stuff left in there, and while, as hinted above, there's no wheel-reinvention going on, the band nonetheless comfortably carve their own sonic empire. "Grief's Infernal Flower" keeps a tight hold on the reeling, mournful banner of it's predecessor "Soma", whilst refining it into a record which is arguably a step up from it. Immediately memorable and potent vocal lines and patterns differentiate the character of separate songs with ease, casting the bands vast, ethereal and mournful atmosphere with greater clarity and focus; while still a sprawling and intoxicating soundscape, this one meanders less, and achieves more.

Tonally, Windhand have always had something special - and as the record demonstrates keenly, something which continues to ripen and blossom; the bruising and engulfing guitar-tone at once succeeds in being heavy to the point of being noteworthy, but likewise has a pleasant texture, and is something which can be enjoyed on that basis - some doom bands have a tone so filthy or distorted that enjoyment comes not from how pleasant it is, but how extreme. This is not the case here; the surreal and magical world of "Grief's Infernal Flower" - cold, awe-inspiring, melancholic - is absolutely complimented by the tone used - and indeed, more broadly complimented by the coming together of all the elements used. Nothing seems out of place - and while for the most part the record is quite a conventional one, it is in some way optimised - in some way honed and put together in such a way as to best capitalise, bringing together, fruitfully, elements not just of stoner doom, but a more sombre and sober side reminiscent of more traditional doom metal (the artwork itself is, by accident or by design, reminiscent of "Die Healing"), conjuring forth the intoxicating atmosphere not just - or chiefly - a narcotic haze, but the colder intoxication of the bare and captivating night-sky, all the while drawing the listener out of their body with a sincerity which other bands are often wont to squander.

The fact I can't think, off-hand, of any other 2015 stoner doom albums at this moment does not mean that's the sole reason I'm willing to consider "Grief's Internal Flower" one of the best of the year. The album is, beyond that, genuinely very good indeed. Time will tell, of course, but my satisfaction with the record over the last month or so of listening has been consistent, and I'm more than happy to label this record Windhand's best output yet.

This is an 8.5/10.

Windhand on Bandcamp
Windhand on Facebook
Windhand on Metal Archives

Sunday, 18 October 2015

#386 - Black Breath - Slaves Beyond Death

I got into Black Breath just as "Sentenced to Life" came out, back in early 2012. Among other things, it was the first time I'd ever heard a HM-2 guitar tone used, which definitely played a part in how incredibly blown-away I was by how monstrous it sounded. Of course, several years later, I've heard plenty more bands utilising that classic Swedish sound  - many of them actually from Sweden - but my appreciation of Black Breath's work has not been diminished by a grown understanding of the musical context within which they exist. In fact, it has been quite the opposite; both of the band's full-length albums are still among the records I listen to the most. Another, perhaps more relevant side-effect of discovering the band just after the release of "Sentenced..." is that it's the longest time I could possibly have waited for a new album - and consequently, the prospect of "Slaves Beyond Death" was an exciting one indeed...

Before tackling the meat of the album - in short, what it sounds like - some words about artwork are needed. Paolo Girardi is an extremely talented artist - much in the way that Christophe Szpajdel is a great logo designer. Both suffer from the same problem; a lot of their output looks more or less the same. While all of Girardi's artwork is very accomplished, its often limited palette and thematic content leaves the artwork of "Slaves Beyond Death" just another beige cobblestone on a road paved by his work. It's also unclear how well it suits the bands ethos and sound; lacking in the appropriate sharpness and power to evoke the band's music. The idea itself is a powerful one, but could have been executed better. Of course, the sway of the aesthetic element of a record is generally outweighed by the musical one - and so it would be wise to swiftly move along to that. "Slaves..." is a solid, if slightly confusing, listen. The record is much less compact than its predecessors - more sprawling, arguably more ambitious, and, consequently, sometimes less intense. The songs are substantially longer - at times granting the music more room in which to make its impact, but often leaving them feeling diluted, and at its worst, haphazardly arranged; several tracks reek slightly of the gratuitous; their intros feel like they have intros - we're 01:35 into the song now, are we quite done? The bursts of energy are slathered and tarred in mid-tempo riffs - sometimes to the point of weariness. The production feels more blunt; the vocals quieter - in striving to be more evil and more - for want of a better word "proper" as opposed to the unrefined roaring in previous records, they lose quite a bit of impact, both in the mix, and overall in their delivery. Likewise, the guitar work can come across as a little bit neutered of the extreme heaviness found previously, even if, and I'm more than happy to admit, the riffs still truly ooze with skull-splitting heaviness, which, for all the criticism I just delivered, is still true.

Nonetheless, despite all that I've just said, I'm not as displeased as it might seem. I did enjoy Slaves Beyond Death, but it's certainly an enjoyment tinged with surprise - the record represents a pronounced change in direction, and, perhaps bravely, perhaps foolishly, a step away from the sheer intensity which, as far as I understood it, was Black Breath's thing. At times the record steps up to the familiar strobe-lit Armageddon that the band traditionally deliver - but chiefly, the shattering glass and wide-eyed abandon evoked previously now has as an accomplice a fair bit of experimentation with the grandiose, with the obtuse and the vast interlaced into it - and while it would be overly harsh to call it "experimentation gone wrong", it doesn't make it past "experimentation gone... okay" in my eyes, at least if I try to compare it strictly to the previous records. Maybe the story behind all of this is simply thus; maybe records like "Heavy Breathing" and "Sentenced to Life" are beyond replication? Maybe the band thought so, at least. Maybe the band thought that recipe had run its course - and I find this most plausible... but I dare say a lot of us didn't feel like it had run that course just yet. Whatever the reason, "Slaves..." is a very different record to what came before, and one which makes it challenging to listen to; the question of what to look for in the labyrinths of its sound is ambiguous; to understand it in the paradigm of the Black Breath of old is to be disappointed - but to understand it, or attempt to, with regards to its own, isolated merits reveals a competent and enjoyable record - not the record I expected, or, indeed, quite the record I wanted, but nonetheless one that bears at least most of the marks of being a good one. Wherever the bands sound is destined - and with an eye to where it came from, I think "Slaves..." is destined to be viewed as a transitional work, and perhaps, with time, one which might become viewed as underrated.

 "Slaves Beyond Death" is a worthwhile album - that's still absolutely true. Approached with an open mind, it's solid stuff, and maintains a degree of the captivating genre-ambiguity which the previous records had. A change in style, for sure, but not so drastic as to fall dead from the presses. It will disappoint some, be met with indifference by others, but, for the most part, meet with a reasonable level of approval, I expect. Different, and a bit of a shock to those expecting or hoping for "more of the same" - but not the sort of shock which ruins the album. I'm already looking forward to the next record - not least so I can say I "called it" if this one proves to be a transitional work.

This is a 7/10.

Black Breath Official Site 
Black Breath on Bandcamp
Black Breath on Facebook
Black Breath on Metal Archives

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

#385 Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls

You don't get a new Iron Maiden album every day. Not these days, anyway. The 80s were another story, of course - Iron Maiden, Saxon, Mötorhead... all releasing a new album every fifteen minutes or so. Now, things are different. A lot has happened since The Final Frontier - its been almost five years - which, to put that into perspective, is roughly the temporal distance between "Iron Maiden" and "Piece of Mind". Regardless, where the band have slowed down in terms of prolific output, they come to reimburse in terms of sheer ambition. We all knew that the band were moving towards extremely long records - you could project if from existing data... But this is the first of their records that has ascended into the form of the famous - or infamous - double-album; in the process, making it one of the longest records I've reviewed in some time. Fortunately, the music was good enough to make eternity feel nothing but a short while...

Not all Iron Maiden albums are created equal, but throughout their career the band always seem to make an effort. 'Maiden are, perhaps first and foremost in the world of giant metal bands, equipped with enough self-respect to steep even their most unremarkable works in a sincerity and attitude which other bands might be wise to take inspiration from. By this point, a vague bond of trust exists between Iron Maiden and every listener; you can probably expect a solid album. Nonetheless, the journey up to - and then past - a records release date is always an interesting one, particularly of a record of such magnitude as this. The rise in the intensity of expectations, the excitement, the enthusiastic first-listen to the single - which in this case an excellent old-fashioned romp of a track reminding you that the band are, first and foremost, of the heavy metal persuasion. Then, of course, time is taken to digest the entire record. Nowadays, I listen to a record like this quite a bit before casting forth any views about it. New records always have a mind-warping aura to them; they sit "highlighted" in the perspective of the bands catalogue - to review a record the day it comes out can often lead to saying things you yourself disagree with barely days after. Nonetheless, the positive first-impression of "The Book of Souls" has stood the test of a dozen listens. Fleeting hype gives way to sincere satisfaction - heck, outright enthusiasm and cheer. The record certainly deserves praise - it has the freshest production and quite possibly the greatest reserves of energy found anywhere in the bands recent back-catalogue; a vitality sometimes lost in the extensive and ambitious labyrinths of Iron Maiden's more progressive and hefty work - but not this time.

It's not that The Book of Souls is less ambitious however. A brief scan of the song-lengths reveals plenty of massive epics. No, the secret to this album lies in its seemingly inspired song-writing, as best I can tell. It's been a few years, and it sounds like they have been well spent crafting and honing the record. Even the extremely long tracks, - the monumental album closer being a prime example - have a memorable, sharp and lean feel; delivered with a clarity which was sometimes seen to meander out of focus on previous records. Extremely inflammatory and potentially hyperbolic proclamations sell very well, as far as review snippets are concerned. Mine, for this record, would be something along the lines of "this is the best-executed 'Maiden record since Seventh Son...". Brave words indeed... but the fact is, at some of the crescendos, peaks and most inspired parts of the record, I damn well believe it, too. Sure, the band don't push any sort of barrier with regards to tempo - the album tends to stick with the comfortable and spacious mid-tempo they have favoured of late. Sure, Bruce doesn't quite have the slick smoothness his falsetto used to, but I would never say it's knackered - it's just antique, and in that paradigm, it leads the charge with as much power and class as ever. It sounds older, but not, necessarily, worse - indeed, for what little wear and tear the band seem to have sustained over the decades, they don't show it one bit. Perhaps the thing which gives the record the appeal to me, personally, however, is the throwback-like feel to some of the material -  and more than just in the "Isn't that the melody from The Clansman...?" sense. The album has a balance of progressive and ambitious with downright fun that in retrospect might have been skewed far towards progressive for a long time - in fact, the great sonic victory of The Book of Souls is that it reconciles everything the band have stood for over the years; flamboyance and pomp, grit, and good old fashioned rock n' roll - exceeding expectations all the while.

"The Book of Souls" is strong. Almost surprisingly so. Iron Maiden aren't in the business of making bad albums - they never have been - but after forty years, you could be forgiven for thinking they might not be in the business of making albums which are quite this good, either. Once again, the band continue to carve a brave path, never once acting as if their legacy is over. The band always give the impression that their new album carries as much validity as anything they have ever done - and without that attitude, who's to say we'd be seeing such an excellent album by them in 2015.

This is an 8.5/10.

Iron Maiden Official Site 
Iron Maiden on Facebook
Iron Maiden on Metal Archives

Saturday, 19 September 2015

#384 Ahab - The Boats of the Glen Carrig

I can say with some confidence that Ahab are among my favourite bands. A band who have managed to capture my attention again and again, in different ways, but always ding so positively. First with the churning, engulfing atmosphere of their début - a doom record widely considered essential. Then with the blissful mournfulness of "The Divinity of Oceans", followed by the more experimental and unusual leanings of "The Giant". Each record has had its own distinct character, and yet the band have consistently managed to deliver works which not only please my ears, but have delivered me through hard times, and into calmer seas. "The Boats of the Glen Carrig", consequently, has been one of the albums this year that I have been most excited to listen to. I haven't listened to much else since it was released...

"The Boats of the Glen Carrig" is once again - as ever - a concept album. Based on the novel of the same name by William Hope Hodgson, which I happen to have read. In fact, I read it specifically because I discovered that Ahab were making an album about it... I read Poe's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" under the same circumstances; both are excellent, might I add. Regardless, reading the source material certainly increased my anticipation for the records release, gifting the soundscapes later to be experienced with a pre-existant grasp of the book's atmosphere and narrative. In true Ahab fashion, the material lends itself to the bands music - and vice-versa. Ahab tend to write music which suits their source-material. "The Giant" is a relatively ethereal and strange record by their standards, and it's definitely no coincidence that the book on which it is based is itself a very strange one, particularly towards the end. The record reflects its source material. So too in the case of this record; the ugly strangeness and threatening denizens of the lands through which the characters in "The Boats..." travel are extremely well brought to life by, for instance, the crawling, jarring elements of "The Thing that Made Search" or the despair of "To Mourn Job". In short, Ahab have always been in the evocation game, and they continue to excel in so doing.

More conventional than its predecessor, "The Boats..." is steeped in Ahab's familiar crushing and absorbing style, with somewhat less overt experimentation and glittering sublimity - perhaps to the approval of many, although I consider myself a huge fan of both works. Behind perhaps the début, with its unique, almost one-of-a-kind tone, "The Boats..." sits very high on the table of heaviness; at times more crushing than a considerable swathe of the bands back-catalogue - and effectively done, too - a return to the reconciliation of potent atmosphere with the crushing waves of doom; the softer parts do not feel at odds with the heaviness around them. Arguably, in fact, it is something of a refinement of the Ahab recipe; the twisting, oceanic leads and tumbling riffs remain strong, while the clean-vocal crescendos once again steal the show at times, creating moments of sublime and incredibly powerful beauty, particularly during "The Weed Men" - host to one of Ahab's finest moments, as far as I'm concerned, and perhaps the stand-out track on the record. The album as a whole could pleasingly be considered to deliver not just some but all of the elements which made past Ahab records great; the murky and claustrophobic atmosphere of the first; the almost operatic uplifting power of the second, and the spirit of experimentation from the third record. The colourful artwork may have worried some, but when the day came, Ahab brought forth a record as strong as any they've made before - every bit as well-written, constructed, and played. 

Often, the more you're invested in a band, the more paranoid you become about them slipping-up; to many of us, bad records feel like an inevitability, and we fear them as such. One can never say never, after all... but for everyone worried about Ahab releasing a sub-standard work, "The Boats of the Glen Carrig", from its most crushing riff, through to its most ecstatic and cathartic soft-section replies with a resounding "Not today". The fourth album is a strange place for any band to sail through, but Ahab have navigated those weird waters well.

This is a 9/10.

Ahab Official Site
Ahab on Facebook
Ahab on Metal Archives

Monday, 31 August 2015

#383 The Ruins of Beverast - Rain Upon the Impure

The Ruins of Beverast have been something of a stand-out band of the black metal scene over the last decade or so, offering a unique take on the darkness and atmospheric elements present in the genre - and if you're skimming through, I dare suppose that praise summarises this review as a whole. In the process, the band has created some of the most thick, substantial and successfully ambitious records the genre has ever seen, whilst at every hurdle succeeding in avoiding the trappings of gratuitousness, pretentiousness and insincerity. Whilst I could have reviewed any of the bands four full-length albums happily, my focus today falls on "Rain Upon the Impure", which, as my introduction to the band at the start of this year, cements it as one of their most significant works, in my mind. By coincidence as much as anything else, it also appears to be one of their most highly regarded works throughout the community at large.

"Rain Upon the Impure" is 79-minutes long. Not because that's about as much as you can fit on a CD, nor out of any pretentiousness; the album is not needlessly extended, but is such a sonic leviathan  because it needs to be. It works that way. The record is as a vast set of catacombs, in which the listener is engulfed and overwhelmed by its murkiness and vast, sprawling scale. Through the gloom, sublimely absorbing choral atmospherics ensnare and widen the eyes; a surreal descent through vast subterranean ritual halls. None of the run-time is wasted; all contributing to the individual beauty and atmosphere of its moments and tracks, while also forming a rich and cohesive whole; an album which, despite having a length which could easily be considered to be "hard work", nonetheless feels healthy and well utilised. The whole thing drips and oozes with atmosphere, cavernous but coherent, superbly composed and constructed as it churns and undulates. The crawling, pulsating soundscape lures the listener into a darkness which to the untrained ear may resemble that which many black-metal records can conjure, but which is nonetheless different. In a genre where albums often take the listener to unusual places, The Ruins of Beverast take the listener to somewhere before unexplored. While the occult atmosphere carries a striking familiarity - that's easy enough to grant - it also takes the black metal sound to Cyclopean subterranean depths to create something which no other band seems to.

The hazard which often befalls albums with extremely long songs - or simply long albums - is that of songs meandering purposelessly, or outliving their welcome. Through one factor or another, this simply does not appear to be true of "Rain Upon the Impure". Looking at a piece such as the album closing title-track reveals a 14-minute behemoth of a song in which every second is nonetheless utilised; lean and mean, but nonetheless enormous. Perhaps to reiterate the above, much about the album is so vast because it needs to be. It's a testament to strong song-writing ability to create a record of such magnitude with very few, if any, moments which leave the listener idle or bored of the soundscapes being offered up. As well as being compositionally impressive, "Rain Upon the Impure" demonstrates equally impressive musicianship; the drumming hits a level in terms of precision, technique and endurance which most black-metal drummers can only dream of, resulting in a deeply pleasing percussive integrity and intensity throughout. The choices with regards to guitar tone, sampling, and vocal-style all also collaborate excellently in the mission of rendering the album magnificent in its execution, whilst simultaneously avoiding many of the production-related follies which befall most one-man projects. Indeed, the testimony of my ears to my mind suggests that the record is one with very, very little wrong with it at all. 

 "Rain Upon the Impure" is truly a record of advantage without disadvantage. Vast without being bloated, unusual and bizarre without being comical or excessive. Crushing without sacrificing clear and potent production values... the list goes on. The record is an epic one in the earnest and meaningful sense of the word. For my money, it deserves to be held aloft aside almost any of the very best that the last ten years has to offer - within black metal, extreme metal in general, or even metal as a whole.

This is a 9.5/10.

The Ruins of Beverast on Bandcamp
The Ruins of Beverast on Facebook
The Ruins of Beverast on Metal Archives 

Saturday, 25 July 2015

#382 Obituary - Slowly We Rot

Death metal is - in the grand scheme of my journey through metal - one of the later sub-genres that I discovered. I mention this fairly often. Consequently, it still has among the largest selection of "essential-listening" bands that I have yet to explore fully and properly, or have only got around to listening to fairly recently. While in the last few years, I have gone from a very rudimentary understanding of the genre to a slightly broader appreciation of it, there remain plenty of gaps still to be filled in the path towards seeing the bigger-picture. One such gap was, until recently, one of the titans of the early Florida death metal scene; Obituary.

The interesting thing about listening to a band as influential as Obituary so late-on is that I've ran into a number of bands who were heavily influenced by the style before listening to the originators. In fact, in my understanding of death-metal, there was an exactly Obituary-shaped gap... which means that by the time I'd listened to a couple of records - namely the first three - I reached the conclusion that Obituary were more or less exactly the band I expected them to be, sound-wise. The consequence of this, among other things, is that by being so... expected... "Slowly We Rot" has left me in a state of indecision. Has discovering the band after listening to a fair bit of death metal already demystified their appeal and impact? The fact that Obituary embody not only most of the hallmarks of classic death metal, but almost all of the hallmarks which I genuinely enjoy seems to contrast with the fact that I'm discovering a band at a point in my listening where I'm almost jaded and desensitized by a number of the conventions of the genre. Of course, Obituary were more a convention setting band than a convention upholding band... but nonetheless, at times it feels like I've been unfortunate in listening to so many bands who follow a similar style first, as opposed to being blown away by discovering Obituary four or five years ago. That's an issue which has nothing to do with Obituary's music however, and everything to do with my taste, as a time-line. The fact I'm not blown-away by Obituary is entirely my fault for listening to them at - arguably - the wrong point in my exploration of the genre.

Music is, in many respects, a subjective experience, but I do think it will prove worth my while to try to skim the jaded feelings out of the way, and try to focus more on the musical substance of "Slowly We Rot" itself, for while I perhaps wasn't in the correct mood to be excited by it, there is certainly a swathe of elements in the record to be excited about. The rude, power-tool tone and well-cobbled riffs both ooze with a huge Celtic Frost influence - perhaps the most overt of any of the classic death metal acts, with the same rewarding effects; a lot of the tracks depart from their thrashy roots to deliver a crushing and dripping malignity, as the record romps through everything that old-school death metal does best. It succeeds in being intense, heavy, and above all, slightly-scary - probably even more so in 1989. It's the natural step-up from the early work of bands like Death, which was less of a progression stylistically from thrash. Indeed, you can very much appreciate the natural move towards extremity in the twilight-years of thrash-metal, as expressed sonically on a record like this. The merits of the record, in this light, are multitudinous; representing a step in the codification of death-metal into a genre, with its fantastically over-the-top heavy tone and crushing tracks. While to me, Obituary might prima facie feel like a chapter I accidentally missed, in a book that I managed to follow the plot of anyway, that does not mean that the chapter is without merits; quite the opposite. "Slowly We Rot" is splendid.

In my mind, Obituary is still a newcomer to the nexus of my musical taste. With time, however, I have confidence that the music will sink-in more fully, and open itself more readily for my appreciation for its own merits, as opposed to any extraneous baggage which the bands context in my musical journey brings. I look forward to being able to enjoy "Slowly We Rot" more fully with time, and for all of my discussion above, my appreciation for it is already growing. While my brief forays into their later work are considerably less promising, their early work is a growing dot on the map of my love of old-school death metal.

This is an 8/10.

Obituary Official Site
Obituary on Bandcamp
Obituary on Facebook
Obituary on Metal Archives  

Saturday, 11 July 2015

#381 Mortuary Drape - Secret Sudaria

As far as I know, the metal-scene in Italy never quite hit the heights of many of the others countries in Europe, at least in terms of producing well-known bands. Most people who have been into metal for a while could name half a dozen German bands... Sodom, Paradox, Running Wild, Kreator, Desaster, Blind Guardian... it's not too difficult. I'm not so sure I would succeed in doing the same with Italy... at least, not without a much longer pause to think about it. But what Italy seems, at least prima facie, to lack in terms of hard-hitters in the genre, it certainly seems to make up for in terms of quality. I don't need to list half-a-dozen Italian metal bands just now, and the reason why? Mortuary Drape count as at least seven, single-handedly.

It's a difficult task to think of one word or phrase to describe Mortuary Drape, such is the extent to which the band's sound is a vast and chimerical one. "Secret Sudaria" is no exception, and seems to do its utmost to bring a huge and diverse range of elements to the table. Indeed, it's almost confusing as a listener when one tries to decide which paradigm to listen to the music in. Fun, or grim? The only answer seems to be found in trying to take stock of everything at once. Rapid-picking and thrashy sections appeal to the old-school 80's thrash sensibilities in their sharp and athletic sound. Frequent d-beats and prominent bass then varnish the album in an almost Motorhead-esque sheen of filth and cruising nastiness, elevated further by the evil but extravagant solos. The rumbling and jagged riffs are among the best I've heard in any sub-genre of metal, reconciling the dynamic riff work with a cavernous and morbid atmosphere, particularly in the world-devouring vocal delivery. Infectious though much of the album may be, it still looms over the listener with infernal and malign intent, vomiting-forth from the grave with malice, for all of its bounce and swagger. It isn't doused in "necrosound", but it carries a distinct and flavoursome evil in its veins - it doesn't need to be scathingly raw.

The dominant elements of death metal and black metal likewise interact in interesting ways throughout the running time of the record, with the album maintaining an ability to writhe with the energy of old-school death metal, but also descend into a crushing and devilish darkness. It's a coming together of flavours, somehow both morbid and, for want of a better word, rocking, following-on from bands like their fellow countrymen Bulldozer in doing so. Indeed, while perhaps not the culmination - if any album could ever claim to be such - "Secret Sudaria" very much represents a buffet of some of the very best ideas and recurring tropes that metal had accumulated from its inception right through to 1997, when the record was released. It's not that the album itself is diffuse in identity, or gratuitously eclectic, either; the songs have a fixed and consistent style throughout, giving it great cohesion through its runtime. Instead, what seems to have happened is that Mortuary Drape are a band who sit so thoroughly betwixt the archetypal products of the various subgenres from which they take influence, it's impossible not to sit-up and notice the resultant amalgam. It's the sort of record which will challenge you if you try to be too meta. The most enjoyment it can offer, as writing this review has taught me, is when one listens to it without thinking too deeply into what it is, but savouring simply how it is.

Mortuary Drape have outright rocketed into being among my favourite extreme-metal acts, and with albums like Secret Sudaria appealing to more or less my every preference with regards to metal, it's in many ways unsurprising. While the band seem to be a treasure of the underground, reserved only for those who go looking, I nonetheless thoroughly recommend anyone with a vague interest in extreme metal to seek their material out.

This is a 9.5/10.

Mortuary Drape Official Site
Mortuary Drape on Facebook
Mortuary Drape on Metal Archives

Monday, 29 June 2015

#380 Trouble - Psalm 9

Whatever your thoughts on Christianity as a lyrical theme, there's really no denying Trouble's place in the pantheon of seminal doom works. I'm slightly surprised that it has taken me quite so long to get around to listening to an album so tall in stature as this, and  one so thoroughly fitting with the sort of thing I enjoy. Throughout the years, I've often heard "Psalm 9" heralded as one of the most significant records in the doom genre, and over the last couple of months, I have finally set the time aside to hear it for myself. Better late than never, as they say...

A great number of bands can trace stylistic lineage back through records like "Psalm 9" . Listening to the record is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise in why this is the case; if your familiar with the contours of doom as a genre, you can pick up hints of a few of them. Throughout the album, there is a coming together of variety and cohesion which makes the record a fantastic stand-alone collection of music, but also a potent foreshadowing device of a huge swathe of doom to come. In a classic case of the early endeavours of a genre being the most interesting, the albums influences span a huge range of the metal spectrum, incorporating a swift intensity which is missing from many of the lumbering, unhurried doom records of today. Indeed, a good proportion of the record has almost got more in-common with Metal Church than with Electric Wizard. Tracks like "Assassin" call upon delicious and archetypal early-80s heavy metal elements, smoothly blended into the more familiar low-tempo sections, which bring an atmosphere with the capacity to entrance, but for the most part stripped of the noticeable narcotic edge associated with records like "Master of Reality", or Pentagram's début. Given the rather sober nature of Trouble's lyrics and, I gather, ideology overall, this is in many respects hardly surprising. Rather than a harm, this very much serves to hone the record into a more powerful creation.

Throughout, the rough and scathing vocals imbue the record with a potent and brooding intensity, granting "Psalm 9" a harsher and less forgiving edge than the serene murmurings and gasping of many later bands. Whilst atmospheric in an earnest and wholesome way, at times easily verging on epic-doom of the style later adopted by acts like Solitude Aeturnus, Trouble reconcile this well with being gritty. The songs stomp along, using their serrated edges in tandem with the listener-absorbing qualities of the thick and, in the true sense of the word, heavy churning of the riffs below. The riffs themselves are comfortable to have some room to manoeuvre, not feeling the need to fill their entire domain with noise, and consequently setting free many of the hooks and memorable twists in the guitar-work to breathe freely and show their splendour, a factor which is similarly noticible in the vocals, which have a clarity and force merely baptised by reverb and echo, as opposed to outright drenched in it. "Psalm 9" is astonishingly successful in uniting its seemingly eclectic aims; striding swiftness collides with the mixture of epic, uplifting and spooky doom-metal, and mixes into it with the utmost of success.

I suppose in some ways the Christian themes at the forefront of Trouble's music must have dissuaded me at some point in the past. I've certainly been aware of their existence for longer than I've been listening to their work. Whatever my issue was, it's very much overcome now. I've heard some refer to Psalm 9 as preachy, finding the religious themes too overt... after a dozen or so listens, however, not once has their been a moment of the record which made me call its quality into question. I join the ranks of those, arguably wise, fans who aren't making a big deal out of whether or not the lyrics are something with which they identify personally. And in doing so, I can fully appreciate a true classic.

This is a 9/10.

Trouble Official Site
Trouble on Facebook
Trouble on Metal Archives

Friday, 19 June 2015

#379 Deceased - As the Wierd Travel On

What is an album review for, exactly? Nothing, all those years ago when I could barely make a good paragraph, prepared me for the sheer amount of thought which that problem needs. As a reviewer, your job - or hobby - consists of a strange and at times unwieldy paradox of activities. One one hand, you might be discussing a record which the listener has heard before... in which case, the most tasty cuts of the review, to them, will almost always be those which help the listener capture what they felt in the first place; positive or negative. On the other hand, you might be trying to explain an album which the listener has not heard the record before, which leaves you as nothing but a glorified cheerleader. A great album will do a much more compelling job of selling itself than you ever will, leaning out from behind it whispering "it is actually very good, you know". Reviewing is a two-handed job; I need to cater to both of the above. Likewise, who am I to think I could sway a readers established opinion about something? It's all very confusing, and I'm still not very good at it. I suppose a well-rounded review must consist of a descriptive element to entice people who haven't heard the album... an evaluative element; is what I've just described a good thing? - and a persuasive element; "I'd say they did the good thing even better than on the last record". The real problem is that, however much or little you ruminate over all of this, the biggest problem remains... "how the fuck do I explain Deceased to someone?" 

The first few Deceased records can more or less be called death metal. After that, things can get tricky. It's thrashy, it's still death metal, and in many respects, it has the melodic properties of traditional metal... ultimately, it's hard to label, and that very much attests to its quality. It's deliciously distinct. In even the bands earliest work, however, there's more than a subtle hint of very interesting things going-on beyond the surface, expressions of a band who were very comfortable to do their own thing. Listen to 1995's "The Blueprints of Madness" and you have a fairly sturdy specimen of death metal with some interesting symptoms brewing. Jump forward ten years to 2005's "As The Weird Travel On" and you discover a band whose evolution has been of downright mammoth proportions... and I say this without intentionally knocking their early work either. The record bursts straight out of the burial-plot without pomp or ceremony. No eerie intro track, instrumental or otherwise, just an immediate and blistering outburst of memorable lead-guitar melody followed by King Fowley's gruff roaring vocals, and in this fashion, the record is content to continue as it begins; relentless in this respect, and all the better for it, forty-eight minutes of swift, ghoulish uniqueness.

Some death metal bands borrow their lyrics from a medical textbook. Some borrow their lyrics straight from a Satanic tome... Deceased instead drank some beers, watched a stack of horror-movies, and picked up a well thumbed copy of "Weird Tales". Just as the latter may often prove a more colourful and vibrant source of inspiration, Deceased take up this vibrancy in their music. "As the Weird..." is a strikingly catchy record. The chassis, provide an undulating, swaggering strength with a thrashy death-metal intensity; rumbling, rampaging riff-work and energetic drums. Mounted upon this is the charmingly spooky narrative style of Mercyful Fate and King Diamond, bringing a more whimsical and playful side of the record to light; the kind of death metal which still wears sunglasses indoors sometimes, too. Most of the tracks embrace the story-telling side of things, and deliver with quintessentially old-school rhyming vocal-patterns, giving all of the tracks memorable lines, both in content and structure. This is crowned with the excellent guitar-work, with lip-licking hooks, melodies and solos straight from the ancient scriptures of the early-eighties, creating a soaring and fantastically filthy amalgam, a sandwich of well-balanced elements. A little less brutal and guttural than its forebears perhaps, but nonetheless undiluted in its punch; succeeding utterly in delivering spine-tingling thrills. Likewise, the charm of the spooky, pulp-magazine-horror lyrics does not rob the music of a credibility and power, rounding it out beautifully; it's fun, it's damn fun, but you can still thrive on its energy when you're walking down the road, pissed-off, or in need of motivation.

As usual, I finish this review with a sense of uncertainty that I've achieved anything I especially set out to do - but nonetheless, I still find enjoyment in picking an album and sitting for a few hours really having a think about it. So I suppose writing reviews, in answer to the question I opened with, as far as I'm concerned, is for fun. Whether it serves any other purpose very much depends on who stumbles upon it, and I hope, if you're reading this, that these several hundred words have been some use to you. As ever, the most informative part of this review, for those interested in Deceased, is probably the YouTube link. A song is worth 869 words, after all.

This is a definite 9/10.

Deceased on Metal Archives

Sunday, 7 June 2015

#378 Master's Hammer - Ritual

When it comes to early Czech black metal, the two names which tend to do the rounds most are those of Root, and of Master's Hammer - the two heavyweights of the scene. I've been a Root fan for some years - I discovered them by looking up their name in Metal Archives because I thought it was cool, which proved to be a very rewarding evening. As it turned out, the band was exquisite, both for their early and vicious material, and the sublimely beautiful later work. Frankly, you can take it as a given that Root has my seal of approval. Master's Hammer, on the other hand, are a band I didn't actually get around to listening to until much more recently, despite a couple of years spent feeling like I should be. There are, alas, so many bands and so little time - it wasn't until this year that I truly managed to listen to their work properly. As with Root, the journey of discovering their material has been pleasantly rewarding.

 "Ritual" may well be the best know record Master's Hammer created. Its distinct and quirky artwork - which informed several of the bands subsequent works - can be spotted a mile away, and the sound on the record is similarly bespoke and unique, utterly befitting of the band's place among the heroic outliers of the early black-metal scene. Like Root, like Rotting Christ, and so many other bands who rose to prominence in those days, Master's Hammer proudly and successfully concoct their own recipe of black-metal. "Ritual" bursts forth with a majestic and intimidating core of resplendent riff-work and an intensity which should not be underestimated. A spirit of experimentation bubbling beneath the surface, making its presence known, unapologetically and at times with stirring beauty and power. The tone may be a relatively warm, and the production leaves some breathing room compared to the more conventional black-metal sound, but it is not consequently robbed of any writhing occult majesty. A warm tone does not necessarily preclude revelling, devilish music, and this record firmly demonstrates why - weaving with powerful and memorable guitar-work, and brought to crescendo with sublimely applied atmospherics. Ritual is not a chaotic album; it is, instead tight, well-ordered and cohesive; properties which may have been anathema to some bands at the time, but which, in the right hands - and believe me, these are the right hands - can weave a thing of the utmost musical splendour. 

The soaring and elevating atmosphere of the record must have, at the time, been something between pleasingly novel and outright ground-breaking, what's more, the record has aged very well, maintaining a vitality and spirit which is not diminished in quality some almost twenty-five years later. The lofty melodies and wholesome atmosphere allows the music to rush along and truly be absorbing; a work of beauty, not merely of fun. A number of the riffs certainly have a measure of lip-licking devilry, in an almost pre-second-wave black metal style, when required - and there is great enjoyment to be had of that. Likewise, however, and perhaps of the most merit, when the band seek, as on "Černá svatozář" to create an atmospheric torrent of music, they likewise succeed. By my ears, it is to an extent easily excellent enough to give any black-metal band before or since a run for their money. Factors like these are enough to set apart "Ritual" as one of the most well-developed and inspired débuts in the whole sub-genre, showing off a clarity-of-vision and coherent musical direction far in excess of some of the charmingly chaotic and inconsistent works which early first and second wave black-metal is known for. 


I like to think I'm well versed in black metal. I'm not... but everyone has to think they're good at something, I suppose. Regardless, a record as good as this coming out of left field and meeting me, twenty five years after its birth is always unusual - there are so many records that I do not know, of course, but a record as wonderfully written as this one feels like one which I should have been much more likely to learn of by musical osmosis at some point. Nonetheless, its discovery to me is a cause for plenty of celebration - Master's Hammer are certainly a band I have now discovered, and I plan to make up for lost time. What little power I have, I will happily put behind trying to extol the virtues of this album, and the band which created it.

This is a 9.5/10.


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

#377 Beherit - Drawing Down the Moon

If proof were needed that Finland packs one hell of a punch when it comes to metal, 1993 is a good year to look at. Indeed, it was a hell of a year for black-metal regardless of nationality... but not least for two of the most crushing black-metal records to emerge from any of the newly-kindled scenes at the time; Archgoat's "Angelcunt" and Beherit's "Drawing Down the Moon", the latter of which is our focus, but both of which have had a lasting impact on the genre. Both are testament to the nebulous and unrestrained spirit of black-metal at the time; there was much less of a normative nexus of expectation into which bands were drawn. For that reason, records like "Drawing down the Moon" stand the test of time; offering piecemeal and necessarily innovative interpretations of the whispers of an evil genre, which was substantially less established than it would go on to become. In many ways, with any genre, the albums which are spawned before the development of an orthodoxy can often turn out to be the best.

"Drawing Down the Moon" - and Beherit in general - are often lumped in with the bestial black metal category, and you can certainly grant that with an album like this, bedecked with fuzz-laden buzzsaw tone and at times a primitive approach to riffs and percussion, it's an easy assertion to make. It's not necessarily incorrect, either. Crucially however, wherever you tried to pin Beherit on a map, it would always be an outlier, and perhaps that's one of the great things about it; "Drawing down the Moon" is a unique piece of work. The heaviness might be among the first striking features of the records; well-defined and memorable riff-work creates a dark and occult sounding onslaught which rises with ease above being a mere wall of noise. It's this earth-rending but malign heaviness which captures a part of black metal which I love, and one often neglected by the more typical artists in, for instance, the Norwegian scene. Tremolos may be the default currency of black-metal these days, but records like this have gnashing, crushing elements in their riffs, akin to the shrieking, rusty jaws of hell themselves opening to devour - something which is less seen in the genre than one might hope, which, of course, renders it all the more welcome.

Beyond the heaviness, however, the record is also profoundly atmospheric. The second and third full-length Beherit records are entirely ambient, and you can very much feel it foreshadowed here in the keyboard use. Sparing but effective and prominent synthesiser use garnishes the record with all the more power to be evil-sounding - almost cosmically malevolent. The record draws you more and more into the desolate soundscapes conjured therein, to catch your death from the cold, airless vacuum. The keyboards are well executed, offering strong crescendos and passages in tracks with a primitive - but not comically primitive - approach; neither so minimalist as to be contrived, or so complex as to make the music sugar-coated. As I've mentioned countless times, this very much the Goldilocks-zone of synthesised use in black metal - and "Drawing Down the Moon" succeeds at being slap-bang in the middle of that. Indeed, it's more than just the synth which is just right. It's a very heavy record, but without sacrificing ease-of-listening. Despite my expectations while I was first discovering black-metal, records like this are not especially difficult to listen to, and even more-so now that my taste has become somewhat more rounded. Ultimately, the albums only real vice - and one which is easy enough to overlook - is the "whispered" vocal sound, suggestive of vocals which were recorded at a much lower volume, in places, than the rest of the instrumentation. Fortunately, this seems to only be an issue on a couple of tracks, and, as far as I know, has been far more prevalent on other records which I nonetheless succeeded in enjoying.

Here, I suppose, I should make some sort of whimsical statement to the tune of "why didn't I get into this band sooner". It's a habit I have, that's for certain. However, this time I'm content to be happy that I've discovered Beherit now. It doesn't matter so much about the order - and it's very reassuring that however hungry I am to discover more bands, and explore the music I love - it's never going to run out. On my journey, I've unearthed another classic, for myself at least - I'm sure most of you already knew it... but now I do, too.

This is a 8.5/10.

Beherit on Facebook
Beherit on Metal Archives

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

#376 Goatlord - Reflections of The Solstice

Goatlord are one of those anomalies... and like all anomalies, should be treated with distinct interest. I don't immediately recall how I discovered Goatlord, but their work was recently brought back to my attention in a way which I'd usually be too cynical to indulge; through watching "best underrated whatever" type videos on YouTube. Usually, those sort of videos are top-ten lists composed by someone who only knows eleven bands - but this one seemed to actually have some good stuff in it; Goatlord, Kat, Torr - various bands I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of. Regardless, with Goatlord recalled into my short term memory, I dredged the depths of the internet to find their 1991 record "Reflections of the Solstice".

Rising straight from the nebulous realm of those early-nineties extreme metal records with red-logos and white artwork, Goatlord, like many of their aesthetically similar peers, tend to be press-ganged into the proto-black metal realm, and for the most part not wrongly so. Whilst having evil spewings on record from as early as 1987, the band's first and technically only record, "Reflections of The Solstice" came out just as the smell of change lurked like fresh blood in the air of extreme metal. It's only natural that proto-black metal springs to mind as the first association. The albums murky, blasphemous sound, combined with a grim and minimalist aesthetic certainly conjures reminiscence of the devilish revelries that were beginning to poke their heads above ground at the time. Goatlord's sound on "Reflections..." is quite a unique one, however - a little too warm with the guitars to have the eeriness of some first-wave and most second-wave black metal, but sufficiently eclectic in its influences to sound fairly unique; an interesting coming together of doom, miasmal death metal, and a more eighties orientated residue, replacing outright bombastic extremity with occasional flashy solos and hooks. Despite its warmth, "Reflections..." is simply too evil to fit the mould of a lot of the extreme which was being created around the time. Even within a genre which at the time was decidedly devilish, it is a black-sheep, and presumably one with a sacrificial purpose ahead of it.

The elements involved are united under both a primitive and filthy mantle of production - aside from a slightly odd drum-sound, in places - and relatively primitive musicianship and composition; powerful and lumbering, emphasising simplicity, but without robbing the record of flow to any tangible extent. It's very much the best case scenario in any record such as this; that unification of a primitive approach with sustained musical adequacy, and a lot of primitive extreme metal records lose something by only having one of the two - sometimes neither. Nothing stands in the way of this record, however. While neither scathing nor frigid not technical, the record is still one which drools with malice and evil in a way reflected by neither the archetypal black-metal that was on the rise, or the death metal which was beginning to level-out. The closest comparison I can bring to mind with any immediacy is the lurching maleficence of bands like Nunslaughter, particularly for the doomy, cackling and brooding sections delivered with great impact by both of the bands mentioned. Goatlord are amongst the most memorable of the USA's contributions to the most evil side of metal during the early nineties, with one of the more wholesome and well-rounded records of its type.

There are relatively few records out there which do quite what this one does - and even fewer which are contemporary to it. The record has a sound which manages to cohesively bring together an impressively diverse range of extreme-metal elements, while subscribing fully to none of them - it's a curiosity piece which transcends that role and provides a legitimately enjoyable and refreshing listen.

This is an 8/10.

Goatlord on Metal Archives

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 début - 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

Monday, 9 February 2015

#370 Sigh - Scorn Defeat

Sigh are a band who have undergone a long latency-period for me; the time between sampling their work with interest, and later fully delving into it has been quite a lengthy process. Indeed, I've been meaning to listen to their work for the last couple of years, but never quite found the appropriate moment. Some time in January I finally took the plunge, starting, as I often like to, at the beginning. For Sigh, this beginning is a stylistically interesting and innovative one - only to be expected from a band who later matured into one of the best avant-garde acts in all of metal. Regardless, Scorn Defeat is the record which I have elected to focus on, not just for its musical merits, but for its unique place in the maze of second-wave black metal.

(Artwork from the 2014 Remaster, Hammerheart Records)
Listening to Scorn Defeat is a deeply interesting exercise in similarity and difference in equal measure. The deeply Norwegian-influenced elements stand as a testament to how well ideas and sounds were being transmitted in the tape-trading pre-internet days of the underground, while the massive divergences in style which exist on the record is a testament to quite the opposite; how lavishly, fantastically different the record is from anything else which was being made at the time. Almost conventional one minute, the record has no qualms about suddenly, almost unexpectedly, leaping into something which bucks the black-metal trends which themselves had barely had time to settle and fall into place. Scorn Defeat delivers traditional black-metal evil, yes - particularly well, in fact, with an abundance of crushing and legitimately devilish sounds. Simultaneously, however, the record deploys atmospheric sections and approaches to musicianship which for the most part hadn't been tried before within the genre - at least not quite in this way. While plenty of the components within the work will feel familiar, there is no question that Scorn Defeat is simultaneously a unique work; bringing original flavors to the genre in a way that seminal works like Deathcrush had, before. Interestingly, however, Scorn Defeat does not sound "embryonic" - it is without question a very fully-formed album. While the band sound extremely different today, this retrospect does not leave Scorn Defeat feeling retroactively incomplete in the way in which a record like the aforementioned Deathcrush does; at times like a stepping stone in the shadow of Mayhem's mature sound.

It's position in the grand scheme of things aside for the moment, an equally interesting topic are Scorn Defeat's musical merits in their own right. The record is compositionally fascinating - more inaccessible than some black-metal records, but likewise at times more rewarding to listen to - both confirming and violating expectations subtly, emphasizing the works uniqueness. It's an album which doesn't rely on intensity, speed or being a wall-of-sound to be powerful, instead striding forward with a quirky mid-tempo gate. Swaggering and slithering riffs bolstered by the extensive but non-sugar-coated synth give the album a reeling, supernatural and funereal feel, a tangibly eastern sense of evil meeting with black-metal sensibilities, executed with better musicianship than a lot of their peers. At its best, the atmosphere is engulfing and impressively executed with the accustomed "minimalist extravagance" of black-metal, giving the record an at times crude but constantly vast and impression-making atmosphere of tangled dread, fear and evil, entwined with beauty. Constantly, the spirit of innovation and avant-garde musicianship shines through in the record, setting it apart immediately, and to this day. It is a record which has to be heard to be understood, for it is, once again, a tough record to explain in words - so often the way with records which are islands; who can it be compared to?

Some of the most fondly remembered classics are records which unapologetically blazed their own trail, and Scorn Defeat is certainly such. Combining the emerging black-metal traditions with innovative and unique sounds, the record is one which stands as an outsider among outsiders - it's all the more a fascinating album for it, and one which I would urge everyone with an interest in classic black-metal to explore.

This is a 9/10.

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