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Well, it’s that time of year again.

We’re entering into the holiday season, when everything slows down and everyone shows their compassion and love for their fellow man by elbowing their way in front of each other, driving like a lunatic and causing a ridiculous spike in traffic accidents and generally being rude and nasty to everyone they meet.  Happy holidays to you too, motherf**ker!

Probably due to the impending seasonal festivities, it’s been a comparatively quiet month for releases.  So the end result is that numerically speaking, we have a lot less to chat about this time around…but a lot more to say about the efforts on display.

Hopefully the only real turkeys will be on the family table…

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Promiscuity – Basic Instinct EP  (indie/no label)

A band came to me directly out of Israel of all places, with a killer EP well worth looking into…and given how good it is, I’m quite glad they did.

Classic influenced blackened thrash in the “true necro” fashion – the fact that they cover Celtic Frost’s hoary “into crypts of rays” and it fits in quite unnoticeably among the rest of the songs both musically and lyrically says a lot.  It’s a bit Maax, with influences from early Bathory, Sodom and Venom, but more uptempo and driven than any of those acts ever dreamed of being, very likely due to the presence of a “celebrity” drummer.

Featuring Yoav “Steel” Weiberg from Sonne Adam on drums, the band is rounded out by Sergei “Werewolf” on bass and Alex “Butcher” (no last names listed when I poked around, so I won’t out them here) on guitars and vocals.  “Butcher” also played with Sonne Adam briefly a year or so back, so it’s almost a Sonne Adam side project in a sense, but trust me, this is a whole hell of a lot better.

No midtempo death metal sludginess to the proceedings here – it’s all biker bar band metal by way of blackened thrash, which instantly makes me think Maax.  You could even make an argument for a bit of Intoxicated or the more recent Darkthrone playing a part, but it’s very much a mid-80’s feel, particularly on the trilling riff of “beauty and the bitch”.

There’s also a bit of awkwardness to the playing, at least on the guitar front, that brings Brazilian acts like Vulcano or Sarcofago to mind, and at times the vocals bear hints of Left Hand Path era Lars-Goran Petrov as well.  It’s a pretty nice package for a veteran scenester like myself or younger fans totally enamored of the glory days of underground metal.

Only four songs, whose titles should speak for themselves in terms of where these guys heads are at – like Sarcofago, these guys are sex obsessed and more than a bit juvenile.  But honestly, this sort of silly “let’s offend our prude parents with goofy lyrics” thing was all over the place back in the day, and compared to some of the crudity we’re exposed to on a regular basis these days, it’s really nothing particularly new or special.  It’s almost charming in its outdated approach towards offense – “ready to fucky” indeed!

Still unsigned, so here’s hoping an appropriately likeminded label who appreciates this sort of approach such as Hell’s Headbangers takes a listen.  In the meantime, you can check it out for yourselves direct from the band via Bandcamp.

Did I mention I really, really liked this one?

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Rhapsody Of Fire- Dark Wings Of Steel (AFM)

Has there been a band with more drama than Rhapsody?

Forget the whole name change (I still call them Rhapsody, screw the lame-ass satellite radio service).  Forget the battles with Manowar’s Joey De Maio.  Forget the fact that founding member, guitarist and songwriter Luca Turilli apparently fell out with longtime vocalist Fabio Lione and fellow founding member Alex Staropoli and started his own band.

Just take note of the fact that, much like the duelling Gene Loves Jezebels (one for each brother, each claiming the other is a fake version of the band…), there are in fact TWO Rhapsodys running around simultaneously: “Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody” and “Rhapsody of Fire”.  When you split the baby, which half gets to lay claim to being the “one true version”?

The biggest change you’ll notice about Rhapsody post-Turilli is a more aggressive feel to the guitars.  Then you notice the sound is a tad less epic than you’d expect for symphonic power metal…and a whole lot less than we’ve come to expect from the operatic Italian overlords of bombast and cheese Rhapsody have long been noted for being.

Get this – no overriding story unifying the album…much less to spread over several albums.

No grandiose Christopher Lee (in lieu of Orson Welles…the Manowar influence was always unsubtle here) narration.  In fact, the man himself has taken inspiration of his amusing single version of “Magic of the Wizard’s Dream” to lend his booming overdramatic baritone to his own metal band going by the name of Charlemagne (who he claims some measure of ancestry from)!

There’s no long sequences of flutes and village sound effects, babbling brooks and the like…it’s no longer a D&D campaign come to audible life.  While Lione still has that same wide vibrato and soaring voice and has not lost his penchant for drama in true Mediterranean style, it’s just not the same – the over the top feel is gone, replaced by something far more tamed and falling far closer to proscribed lines of ‘acceptability’.

In short, it both is and isn’t Rhapsody, at least the one we’ve come to know and love for so many years.  It’s lost the cheesiness, that sort of embarrassed admission we had to give that yeah, sure, it’s really goofy…but dammit, I LOVE this stuff! that Rhapsody fans find all too familiar.

Wizards, trolls, elves, dragons, wizards, and multi album quests…was anyone tackier than this?  Was anyone as wonderfully, unapologetically and willfully ignorant of the realms of “taste”?   If you dug Rhapsody, you didn’t have a choice to go in half hearted.  If you liked them, you loved them.  If you enjoyed one album, you had to get them all.  It was that kind of an immersive experience.

While I think the mere presence of Lione says “Rhapsody” far more than anything Turulli could offer without him as frontman, something essential has been lost here, and while it’s certainly far better than 9/10 of the power or symphonic metal albums you can name on the market right now…in terms of what’s gone before, Dark Wings of Steel comes up somehow lacking, a touch lesser than it either could or should have been.

Perhaps if they scaled it down to a single album storyline, it might have felt more right.  As it is, we get a rather decent band who sounds a whole hell of a lot like Rhapsody, and was very likely heavily influenced by them.  But it’s not Rhapsody, not quite…not really.

Very good, but falls far short of what you’d expect.

Check out my interview with the man behind the band himself, Alex Starapoli here.

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Iron Mask- Fifth Son Of Winterdoom (AFM)

There’s this fella, see, and he’s sung for any number of veteran guitarists.   You may have heard of him – name of Mark Boals.

He was there singing “you don’t remember, I’ll never forget” and “queen in love” back in the glory days of metal, for Yngwie (and even made a return engagement at the dawn of the millenium for Alchemy and War to End All Wars).

He briefly sang with Ulrich (nee Uli Jon) Roth of the most instrumentally accomplished Scorpions era (go pull out Fly to the Rainbow and In Trance, compare with the more popular Mathias Jabs stuff, then get back to me with your grousing, I dare you).

He fronts Shrapnel Records shred favorite Tony MacAlpine’s current act Ring of Fire.

Hell, he even had some time working with Savoy Brown and a presumably pre-lunacy Ted Nugent, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

The bottom line is, the guy’s got a killer voice (think Michael Sweet of Stryper for tonality, but give him more of a Mike Vescera range) and has worked with some of the best.  I rest my case.

Well, this time around, he’s with a guy named Dushan Petrossi and a fellow Malmsteen alumni, keyboardist Mats Olausson (who worked with the man throughout the Vescera and latter Boals eras).

Sounds like a winner, right?

(pregnant pause)

Well, look, Boals is great, and Olausson is totally on point when called into service (the keyboards don’t exactly suffuse the album, they come and go as needed and are always a welcome and integral part when they’re there).

The issue is Petrossi himself.

Now, look, I’m the last guy to knock anybody for trying to shred, much less when their general approach is to jump headfirst into the classic, “traditional” melodic metal milieu – there’s a lot of Stryper, a spoonful of Racer X and a dash of Journey to the sound here, and that’s a very good thing.

It’s reasonably uplifting, alternating with some straight ahead, driven tempo old school L.A. metal workouts.  The lyrics are pretty goofy on the whole – after all, they do self identify as power metal, so what did you expect?  But they’re not exactly any of the bands they’re tapping into, nor are they quite as original and essential a pick as Eden’s Curse (who bears a bit of a likeminded modernist retro vibe).

But the issue is…Petrossi’s no Jackie Slaughter.  He doesn’t impress in that sort of subtle “hey, I didn’t even notice this guy was pretty good” style of Thorsten Kohne.  He’s certainly accomplished enough…but something essential is missing, and it’s very much felt in its absence.

The soul is missing, and that master class level of technique isn’t there to cover for it.  Think of him as a decent, melodic lead line oriented rhythm guitarist…but not a proper lead by a long shot, at least not in the shred sense he’s obviously aiming towards.

“Like a lion in a cage” starts off with a cheesy Yngwie lift (I believe it’s from “far behind the sun”, but who knows anymore) but it’s not quite right – there’s a bit of a slowness about it that just sounds unsure and awkward.  Unfortunately, there are several of these nods to Sweden’s favorite son sprinkled throughout the song, and they really don’t fit with the more Racer X feel they’re going for with the track otherwise.

Most of the tracks blur into one another, and wear their influences very much on their sleeve.   “Back into mystery” and “angel eyes demon soul” are very Stryper, “one commandment”, “rock religion” and “reconquista 1492” are sort of Sonata Arctica by way of Stratovarius, “eagle of fire” and “picture of dorian gray” are a touch Helloween, “lion in a cage” and parts of “run to me” are more Racer X.  Both “dorian” and the title cut run a tad too long for their own good, which shows a bit of worship at the now standard altar of post-DiAnno Iron Maiden as well.

Taken as a whole, Fifth Son of Winterdoom is essentially melodic if aggressive trad bordering on midtempo speed by way of power metal.  As a band, Iron Mask works reasonably well, though the parts never quite gel and shifts in mood or tempo feel arbitrary.  And was it me, or did more than one track kick off with some really fake laughs from somebody’s girlfriend?  I don’t get it…

Apparently Boals shares vocals with a guy named Roma Siadletski as well – not sure what that’s all about, as it just sounds like your standard double tracked harmony vocals to me.  May be a convenience for touring, since Boals is based here in the States and works with several bands…just my guess.

This is the band’s fifth outing, but only their second with the Yngwie all stars lineup, which is likely what attracted the attention of AFM records (who this is similarly the act’s second album for).

Bottom line is, it’s got something worth paying attention to, or I wouldn’t have spent so much time talking about it here.  Boals and Olausson are fantastic, the songs are imperfect but have interesting influences and parts amidst the usual paste and glue filler, and a lot of the elements are present and accounted for to make this a truly killer album.

All they needed was a really good lead guitarist.

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Human Fortress- Raided Land (AFM)

Far more typical power metal in many respects.  It’s big and bombastic, walls of keyboard and guitars, a bit melodic, a bit dramatic…but with a caveat or two.

But what kills these sort of affairs every time is those growly vocals, which is a style I never cared for that managed to catch on all across Europe.  Human Fortress utilizes an approach more reminiscent of Oni Logan from Lynch Mob, which isn’t half as bad as about a dozen other power metal acts I could name, but it’s still pretty raspy and too nasty for my personal tastes.

So let’s step back for a second and think about why this trend is so ubiquitous.  My best guess, confirmed by more than a few folks I’ve spoken to in the industry over the years, is that it’s a lot easier to growl (or grunt, puke or shriek, if we’re adding nu/groove/aggro, death or black metal to the failure equation) than to properly sing – that would take effort and actual talent.

Even guys who start off singing right seem to feel the need to inject some nasty rasp to the proceedings, and that’s the saddest part of all.  Hell, look at what happened to the golden tones of Don Dokken after he started adding growls and screams to the mix…

Anyway, these guys try to keep things more grounded than usual for a European power metal act – “child of war” is very Lynch Mob (appropriately enough) and tracks like “restless souls”, “guard the blind” and “under siege” follow in similar footsteps.

It’s hard to describe, but a lot more intimate and personal than we’ve become accustomed to hearing from these sort of acts.  It’s more street level club metal than outdoor festival pagan metal – I can’t picture a viking warship set behind these guys, nor do I see them coming out in furs, chainmail and warpaint.  There’s more than a touch of L.A. to the proceedings, which may reside in that George Lynchness wending its way through at least half the album.

Bottom line?  Not bad – still too generic to wholeheartedly endorse, but I did like the bits that made it stand out from the pack a bit.  I’m curious to see where they go next.

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Monstermagnet – Last Patrol (Napalm)

Despite debuting in the middle of one of the darker points in American music at the tail end of metal and the dawn of grunge, Dave Wyndorf and Monstermagnet were the shit.

With eyes firmly focused backward to the hard edged psychedelic hard rock of the early 1970s, they ignored and transcended the effective collapse of musical taste in this nation that we’re still feeling the fallout from to this very day, delivering a much needed breath of fresh air amid the gloom of the era – dark enough to fit right in, but on their own cloud entirely.

Coming from and offering a unique insider focus on recreational substance use and a truly throwback sound, they were both behind and ahead of their time, as the first true retro band.  Despite going through a number of stylistic changes over the years that brought them international attention, gold records and a certain measure of fame, it’s always been their earlier material that resonated most with longtime fans of the band.

Now, after nearly 25 years, he’s finally taken things back full circle, with the trippiest album this band’s put out since the early 90’s.

Eschewing the more commercial feel that reared its head with Dopes to Infinity or the stripped down, chunky triple guitar punch of Powertrip (and to a lesser extent Monolithic Baby), this is Monstermagnet like they were at the start with Spine of God, which for those who never heard it was one of my favorite albums ever, forget genre – and its rather different in tone but equally excellent successor Superjudge.

Like those first two (three, if you count the Tab EP) records, Last Patrol takes things right back where they should have remained all along: psychedelic space rock ala Hawkwind with more than a touch of Sabbath and even Grand Funk Railroad, all retro-70’s fuzz tone, studio wide sweep phase and generous use of sitar.

There’s comic book references galore and the sort of intimate confessional baritone that Wyndorf shares with the likes of Glenn Danzig and Nick Cave…this is the real deal, kids.

Wyndorf may have cleaned up and dropped all the drug references (which were mind boggling in their sheer prevalence and volume in the early days), but he clearly hasn’t lost his touch or the ability to tap into that mindset.  Pull out your blacklight posters of Steve Ditko era Doctor Strange, pull up a futon and light up to killer cuts like “The Mindless Ones”, “End of Time” and the title track.

It took nearly a quarter century for the man to get his shit together again, but it was definitely worth the wait.

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LEAVES’ EYES – Symphonies of the Night (Napalm)

Let’s face it, the pinnacle of the gothic symphonic and viking metal genres resides in the hands of one band, and one band only.

We discovered them during a very good run of local shows back in 2006 or 2007, where the opening acts blew the respective headliners off the stage entirely: the short lived Melissa Ferlaak/Wolfgang Koch-led Visions of Atlantis did it to Epica, and Leaves Eyes most certainly did so to the Roy Khan-era Kamelot.

We became instant devoted fans to Liv and Alex from that day forward, and that really hasn’t abated over the intervening years…which is not something we can say for subsequent iterations of Visions, or indeed for dozens of fellow gothic/symphonic acts we were enamored of at the time.

While Njord found the band moving a bit off track from their Legend Land era peak, it was only with Meredead that things became called into question: Liv had brought in some other ladies to support her vocally, which was unnecessary and just didn’t work.  The music was mellower, or at least felt that way, and something was just off about the entire production.  It was far from the precipitous fall many of their ostensible peers had undergone during the same time period, but it’s certainly the most dispensable album in their catalogue and seldom gets a spin on the home turntable.

Thus it was, after a pair of rather killer releases from Liv Kristine’s solo career and Alex Krull’s Atrocity, we came with some admixture of trepidation and anticipation to the 5th full length album (6th if you count the essential career high point of Legend Land as a “true” album release rather than the effective single and throwaway B-sides EPs tend to be), Symphonies of the Night.

There are two decidedly different reactions between my wife and I on this one.  She felt it didn’t have the same magic of the first few albums that we fell in love with in the first place; moreover that the band, like far too many of their gothic/symphonic peers, had slid into a more radio friendly, AOR feel.  While catchy, it just wasn’t what she expected it should be.

On my part, I am amazed once again by the sheer quality of production (once again due to the mighty Alex Krull and his much feted Mastersound Studios) and the always excellent performances on the part of Liv, Alex, Thorsten and their ever rotating support staff (most notably Liv’s sister Carmen Elise Espenaes of Midnattsol on backing vox – another band worthy of note in their Christian Hector/Daniel Droste days, with those gentlemen having gone on to form Ahab since).

I find the same strong penchant towards melody and drama is present and accounted for.  Bombastic, powerful, aggressive and moody all at once, with Liv’s beautiful coloratura soprano vocals soaring above the crystal clear separation between instruments Alex ensures is in place – Leaves Eyes has always been something of an audio love letter from Alex to Liv, and it shows very clearly herein.

Particularly after the half excellent (“my destiny” being a particular standout), half bland Njord and the spotty Meredead, Symphonies of the Night presents a worthy return to form to the days of Lovelorn, Vinland Saga and yes, even Legend Land, one which both proves full well the worthy successor to Liv’s Libertine and Atrocity’s Okkult and one ups them both, as the conjoining of their respective forces should.

While I can see the point of the other huge Leaves Eyes’ fan in the house (it is certainly more commercial in feel than most of the material on the aforementioned trilogy of storied classics), this is one hell of an album any way you slice it, with each song positively enthralling to my ears and standing head and shoulders above even the worthiest of competition in the genre of late.

Quite recommended.

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שְׁאוֹל (Sheol – UK)
– Sepulchral Ruins Below The Temple 12″ MLP (Iron Bonehead)

Detuned Swedish style death metal not far removed from Grave or early Unleashed, though the drumming ruins things by falling back on those stupid blastbeats.

The guy seems to have some measure of competence on the kit otherwise, so I don’t get it – it’s annoying enough in black metal, forget about with the clean production of death metal, where you can hear just how often that stupid roll-the-stick-on-your-finger trick Hellhammer and company are infamous for popularizing throws things off meter.

It’s really distracting and takes away from the songs as a whole, which are really not bad and come with, as noted, some pretty good production to boot.  Ventor was a better drummer back in the days of Pleasure to Kill and Terrible Certainty, and if that doesn’t ring a warning bell, nothing will.

The singer ascribes to the same John McEntee by way of Ola Lindgren school as several bands we chatted about last month – it certainly works for what they’re doing here, but suffice to say it’s not incredibly impressive or laying any new ground.  Did I mention they cover Darkthrone’s “cromlech”?

With a proper death metal drummer working the double bass and toms, Sheol would be a pretty decent retro-styled DM act and worthy of recommendation for those digging the sound they’re tapping into here.

But good lord, those drums…

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Protector – Reanimated Homunculus (High Roller Records)

A sort of blackened thrash act ala Desaster when anyone cared about them (i.e. when “Okkulto” was handling vox and they were putting out gems like Stormbringer and Tyrants of the Netherworld).

Even moreso than Desaster, Protector has been kicking around since the mid-80s…sorta.  Despite more or less folding in the early to mid 90’s, vocalist Martin Missy has pulled together a new band who very much ascribe to that retro feel, with thin distorted guitars, odd time changes and “totally necro” chord progressions dating from the earliest Destruction and Sodom records, if not to some extent Exodus, Slayer and the earlier US thrash scene.

It’s got a similar feel, in a way, to any number of South American acts, whether the pioneers like early Sepultura, Vulcano and Sarcofago or the more recent iterations like Bestial Holocaust and Witchtrap – extremely raw and nasty sounding, but totally on point, driving and very, very metal.

Fantastic stuff.  I can only hope Missy and company continue to put out quality material like this to keep the true spirit of the 80’s metal underground alive and kicking well through the new millenium.

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Borrowed Time (High Roller Records)

Holy crap, talk about retro…these guys remind me of some weird cross between relatively obscure New Renaissance acts like Cerebrus and Phantom, “sin sentence” purveyors Blacklist and Christian metallers Barren Cross (!)

Hailing from Detroit of all places, Borrowed Time has that same super underground, local band with a demo or indie record deal sound and feel of any number of mid 80’s acts.  Let’s tick ’em off the list as we go: they’ve got the dual harmony leads ala Maiden and Priest, the mournful, thin but soaring traditional metal vocals that call to mind early Mercyful Fate, and no-fi production to boot…

This is so totally 80’s you know it couldn’t possibly be from that era at all (either that, or it’s one of the greatest unearthed discoveries of 1984-5…).  The singer actually has the balls to go by “J. Priest”, so you know it’s either a fantastic put on or these guys are dead serious about recreating an era they were likely too young to experience.

Top marks, I seriously dug this one.  Certainly hope to hear more from High Roller records if these two acts are emblematic of their roster…

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Profanatica – Thy Kingdom Come  (Hell’s Headbangers)

Boy, Incantation has been coming up a lot this last month or so, what’s the deal?  Anyway, this is the rest of the band, minus McEntee, still doing the same little anti-religion nastygrams they’ve been doing on and off since the early to mid 90’s.

For those who’ve never indulged, suffice to say it’s particularly grotty sounding USBM – simplistic, often reliant on single note riff lead lines, choppy and odd without being as interesting as, say, Grotesque or Necrophobic, who come more from the Morbid Angel school of blackened death metal.

This is more in line with, just to give a ballpark idea, Goatlord crossed with Nunslaughter.  It’s sloppy, gnarly and not particularly appealing unless you’re looking to clear the room after a party or something.

In a way, I like the no-talent, deliberately off kilter amateur hour playing style, but it’s certainly nothing to write home about, nor do I imagine I’ll pull it out very often.  It’s especially blasphemous on a lyrical end, as that’s Paul Ledney’s thing – he even goes after sacred cows in the occult scene, forget accepted religion.

Unless you’re really looking to scare your local parish priest or cause a soon-to-be ex to open a police blotter on you, it’s probably not worth looking into.

For hardcore philosophical black metal aficionados with a major hate on for…well, just about everything, really, only.

Infamous, but doesn’t live up to the hype.

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Mortician – Hacked up for Barbecue (Hell’s Headbangers)

ah, the legendary Mortician.  Another longstanding New York area act, the generally two man show of Will Rahmer (vox/bass) and Roger Beaujard (guitars) and their little pal Doktor Avalanche…oh, wait, that was another drum machine.  I don’t think they ever bothered to name their ubiquitous silent partner here…

Anyway, this time around, they take the unusual step of adding a second guitarist.  That’s right, still no drummer, but two guitars (a Desmond Tolhurst does the honors).  If you ever heard a Mortician song, you know exactly what to expect: cavernous, bottom of the stomach belches and thick, chunky riffs that pretty much sound exactly the same from one song or album to the next.

Look, it’s grindcore, and you know what that means.  Bare bones, short bursts of aggression fronted by horror film quotes (and usually discussing said films in the lyrics as well).  Repulsion, Napalm Death, Impetigo, you’ve heard it a million times before, if seldom so well produced as Mortician tends to be (see, there’s a decided positive!)

Sure, grindcore is pretty simplistic by nature, but some acts (Carcass in particular) have branched out to make far more interesting and complex music over the years.  Mortician…was and is Mortician.

All that being said, if you’re going to go for one Mortician album over any of the others, 1999’s Chainsaw Dismemberment is a good place to start, with a thicker sound than you’d ever expect (probably a result of the dual rhythm guitars – there isn’t even the hint of a lead in the claustrophobic world of Mortician) and a whopping 28 tracks, each tapping into a fairly easily recognizable gorehound, slasher or horror classic.  At least half of the album features an actual quote from the films or their trailers to start off with, just in case you didn’t get which one they saw last night…

Bottom line, it’s Mortician.  Some folks hear that and turn away laughing disimissively; others come a’running (generally the same teenybopper crowd that fetishized the demented lyrics of Chris Barnes and made the forgettable Cannibal Corpse some sort of death metal sine qua non in certain circles).

The only question is, where do you stand?

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OCTOBER 31 – Gone to the Devil (7″ EP) (Hell’s Headbangers)

Awful mono production on a pair of pretty straightforward, uptempo metal tracks.

The music itself is a sort of Trouble gone thrash, with what sounds like some fat guy on vocals (seriously, it sounds like the Big Show did the honors here – picture Peter Steele with 400 pounds on him, and you’ll get the general tone of the growl/shouted vox).

I liked the general sound and approach of the band well enough, but the production was painful and the Zodiac Mindwarpesque vocals, which as you can see from the description above were pretty bad, were mixed way up front.  They could at least have had the courtesy of burying them in the mix and forefronting the rest of the band…is there even a bass and drums?  It’s that thin and hollow sounding…

Definitely get the impression there’s a good band in there, but they desperately need a proper studio and producer…your take on whether the vocals can be salvaged or not.

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Kimi Kärki – The Bone Of My Bones (Svart)

Depressive, mellow folk along the lines of Duncan Evans, but with a more affected, lisping voice.  You can hear he’s older and either missing or singing through his teeth (there’s a lot of that telltale whistle to the wordTHWEET…uh, words with “S”).

There’s some Al Kooperesque Farifsa organ holding pedal tones underneath it all and occasional female backing vocals, but it’s more or less a one man show.  Karki comes off nigh on a formal diagnosis of clinical depression, which says Nick Drake just a tad, but he’s working a different, more modernized neofolk thing here that’s a bit harder to peg.

If it weren’t so sad and/or angry, it’d be a hippie folk revival all over again – as it is, it’s pretty relaxing and meditative.  I do appreciate how he never pulls you out of the mood he sets with an inappropriately happy major key song, but you have to wonder whether this guy is going to off himself or something, particularly with some of the lyrics he drops.

And, oh – if it didn’t come across from the above, I really liked it.

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EPHEL DUATH – Hemmed by Light, Shaped by Darkness  (Agonia)

Instrumentally, you could be forgiven for mistaking this for a typical progressive metal album – the harmonies are odd, the meter deliberately off kilter, it’s all a bit Fates Warning by way of Cynic in that respect.

But then you get sort of growly-puke female vocals on top, and you have to sit back and scratch your head at what the hell they were actually going for here…

Weird, sort of melancholy, never resting or allowing a proper progression, cadence or much more than a tonal center…this makes Believer at their most “out” look positively traditional by comparison.

Look, Third Eye regulars probably know already that this sort of thing isn’t really my cup of tea.  But it’s not something I’m going to slag either – it kept me listening throughout without wanting to throw the headphones across the room, and that’s not something I can say for most bands taking an approach anywhere near the ballpark they seem to be playing within the general borders of.

Oddly intriguing, not as offputting as a lot of modern prog (much less “math metal”, “technical death metal” or “djent”) tends to be…but not the sort of thing I’ll be pulling out often.  If you wanted a sort of Non Fictionlike grunge-depressive take on prog with nigh-black metal vox, you’ll probably love these guys.

I certainly give them credit for being interesting, unique and remaining essentially listenable despite all of the things I find wrong about the sound as a whole.

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CODE – Augur Nox  (Agonia)

umm…

The first track comes off like a cross between Echoes of Eternity and Mors Principium Est, all droning rhythmic machine gun guitars with no progression or point, and a pretty bad black metallish vocal…then it morphs into British Oi style football chant gang vocals…

The second track turns all gothic rock on us, vocally, with a sort of Virgin Prunes meets Gene Loves Jezebel over-dramatic and quavering, pleading whine…then it snaps back to the BM snarls again.

They’ve got a decent lead guitarist who can actually pull off passable melodic solos (nothing particularly exciting, but certainly unexpected in this setting).

So what the hell were they shooting for here?  Is it some odd variant of melodeath?  A missed the goal by a mile postpunk/goth revival thing?  Vaguely dark hipster bullshit?

It’s not awful, thanks mainly to the lead guitarist and the odd nod to gothic rock vocal sections, but it’s too weird and unfocused for its own good, an accusation that can be leveled at all too many acts out there of late.

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INFERNO – Omniabsence Filled By His Greatness  (Agonia)

Not bad Tribulationish (i.e. Watainish) death metal with an eye towards modern black metal.  There’s a lot of echo on the growled vocals, plenty of reverb on the guitars (which vary between and meld clean arpeggiated bits with aggressive distorted rhythms) and a rather good drummer who (when not wasting his time on that played out blastbeat bullshit) spends a lot of time working the hi hat and tom rolls throughout.

While muddied a bit by the rest of the mix, the drum production sports a surprising clarity that reminds of Rick Rubin’s work with Dave Lombardo back when Slayer mattered – it’s got that wonderfully antiseptic crispness to it.

I will certainly be leaving this one on the player.  Nice stuff for the type.

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TEMPLE OF BAAL –  Verses Of Fire  (Agonia)

Vocals straight off of Desultory’s Into Eternity, but the music’s rather noisy, mainly due to what appears to be dogshit production – all mids and treble, it’s very hollow with a lot of white noise.  Could be cheap guitars or a bad rig setup, but I’m going to finger the production on this one.

If you can get past that, the band’s not that bad – slow and grinding or Marduk style fast, which marks it as yet another black metal inspired “death metal” act.  So time for a quick public service message.

Guys, death metal was traditional and/or thrash metal done nastier – i.e. deeply growled vocals, sped up (or slowed down),distorted and marked by an icy cold production.  There were solos and proper harmonic progression.

If you’ve got a static but speedy feel like you’re running in place and getting nowhere and more or less eschew the solos, it’s black metal, period – stop bullshitting yourselves and everyone else.

That being said, Verses of Fire really isn’t bad, certainly quite listenable for the type.  But is anyone going to record a proper death metal album anymore, or is it all going to be the black in death metal’s clothing variety from here on out?  And you wonder why I consider the style pretty much over and done with…

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GLORIOR BELLI – Gators Rumble, Chaos Unfurls  (Agonia)

What the…???  After all that pseudo-death metal and such, I wasn’t expecting THIS to come from the same label…oh, wait, there it is.

Talk about screwed up! These guys are tapping into the southern groove metal/grunge thing, somewhere between Pantera, Alice in Chains and Zakk Wylde – that whole 90’s sound.  But then (if you’re lucky) halfway through the song they break into that whole blackened death metal thing we were discussing earlier that everyone claiming to be “death metal” does nowadays.

Look, it’s weird enough to make me pay attention, and the band clearly has enough skill and self-possession to switch between two such awkwardly glued together variant styles with surprisingly seamless ease.

Kudos to the guitarist and drummer in particular, I was suitably impressed as a fellow musician by how well they were able to slide back and forth between the two.  Furthermore, the playing itself is pretty decent – some good solos and bits of business on the kit spruce up the mix throughout.

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Stryper – No More Hell to Pay (Frontiers)

From the first dual harmony guitar lines that kick off “revelation”, you know they’re back and mean business.

That’s right, the much beloved and oft reviled “yellow and black attack” is back, and laying down the message that you’d damn well better be ready for ’em this time around.

While a lot of folks would have you believe there was some huge line in the sand separating Stryper (and likeminded bands that followed in their wake, everything from the Dennis Cameron Angelica, Iron Maidenesque Barren Cross and Queensryche-like Sacred Warrior to AC/DC style Rez Band, Judas Priest-ish Saint and Dio-like Bloodgood) from their more acceptably “mainstream” counterparts, the fact is that was a big line of bullshit.

I remember they came around with Japanese metallers Loudness and melodic speed metallers TNT as openers, but they also toured with the likes of Hurricane and numerous midlevel traditional and L.A. metal acts of the era, from their club days as Roxx Regime to the point where they were headlining Eindhoven.

They played cuts off the original, harder edged 6 track 1984 mix of Yellow & Black Attack and Soldiers Under Command on metal radio with regularity, and bangers of all stripe and allegiance paid some measure of homage to the talents of Sweet and Fox on the guitar (some liked the prog inspired syncopated drumming of the showy Robert Sweet as well, though I was far less impressed with his efforts myself).  And those first two albums (and certainly the title track and Oz Fox’s awesome “the way” off the otherwise jump-the-shark album To Hell With the Devil) stand up alongside, if not better than, most metal records of the day – them’s the facts, kid, like it or lump it.

While I strongly doubt any of them will be touring around in bumblebee striped spandex or throwing bibles at unsuspecting audience members’ heads in this day and age, it’s honestly welcome to see these guys making such a strong comeback.

They’ve certainly gone through their desert years – In God We Trust just sucked and the more “street level” thing they tried to pull with Against the Law was a dismal failure and resulted in a 15 year breakup.  They’ve put out a few things over the last couple of years, The Covering being literally a cover album of various metal and rock favorites and Murder by Pride turning out to be a surprisingly good comeback effort, but forget about all that – this is the one you want to check out.

Hearkening very much back to their glory days – i.e. before the glammed out reissue of the ’84 EP, when they were still touring Soldiers…No More Hell to Pay is thick, heavy, and jam packed with melodic metal goodness.

The solos are there (and yes, kids, both Sweet and Fox were reasonably equally skilled at leads – think of them more as a melodic take on Megadeth than the more simplistic rhythm-harmony leads of Maiden or Priest in that respect), the soaring vocal harmonies are present and accounted for, Sweet sounds as good as he ever did and the music will take you right back to the glory days of metal.

To pull this album apart track by track would be less of a case of which tracks were good as which ones weren’t absolutely outstanding…and that don’t amount to much, percentage wise.

The proceedings only slow down a bit for one middling ballad (“the one”) and a mediocre Doobie Brothers cover (“Jesus is just alright”) – even the track you’d think would be a mellow throwaway turns out to be a killer uptempo, hard hitting track (“te amo”).  There’s even a very Barren Cross-like track (“marching into battle”) thrown into the mix…this is just a tremendous album, no bones about it.

If you can suspend your gag reflex enough to listen to grindcore and death metal or tune out the hate for all humanity in your average black metal record, you can certainly tune out the religious bits here and just appreciate this for what it is – one of the best, if not THE best metal album(s) released in 2013.

Cannot recommend this one enough.

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Benedictum – Obey (Frontiers)

A hint of riffing lifted from Black Sabbath circa Sabbath Bloody Sabbath punctuates some more annoying Suffocation-like machine gun stuff, a dash of John “Christ” era Danzig simplistic riffing and a spot of southern groove.

By the time you get to “crossing over”, “cry” and especially “thornz” (which is the best track on the album by a mile), there’s even a dash of more traditional metal thrown into the mix, but it’s far too late in the proceedings and only lasts for those three tracks.  The overall feel of the album is very grungy, very 90’s, very bleh.

There’s a female vocalist who sounds more or less male, which is something I’ve always found weird – Doro Pesch and Leather Leone are as masculine a feminine voice as I’ll abide, thank you very much.  With a girl this gruff, that “hey, are you listening” followed by a whip crack at the end of “obey” aren’t exactly erotic… unless you’re really into that Chyna porn I heard horror stories about, in which case, enjoy…

Look, there were a lot of lower level acts trying to work this general dynamic back in the day – Meenstreak come immediately to mind.  But combining the testosterone fueled female vocals with the other (very 90’s) stuff they’re throwing into the mix…sorry, this just doesn’t work for me.

Objectively speaking, they can certainly play well enough.  Both guitars and drums are more than passable and bear a notable measure of professionalism.  But honestly?  Unless they move more in the direction of “thornz”, I can’t see them breaking out of the bar and club circuit any time soon.

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Angelica – Thrive (Frontiers)

Not only is she gorgeous, but the lady sure can carry a tune!

Making a name for herself fronting film noir-inspired Swedish gothic metal act the Murder of My Sweet, lovely Angelica Rylin steps out to show off what amounts to one hell of a voice.

Tapping more into the radio friendly 80’s metal by way of AOR vibe than in her other more standard gothic-symphonically inclined outfit, Rylin takes center stage to demonstrate some fairly impressive range and control – singing in the proper sense, as opposed to the scream from the back of your throat air raid siren “diva” bullshit everyone’s been hoodwinked into believing is “good singing” nowadays.

Well worth a spin, and do check out a few songs from the album alongside my interview with the woman herself here.

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Place Vendome – Thunder in the Distance (Frontiers)

Legendary Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske has certainly kept himself busy since the days of Keeper of the Seven Keys.  Four solo albums, 2 EPs, the Kiske/Sommerville project, Unisonic with old bandmate Kai Hansen, and sitting in on any number of European power metal projects along the way, including but not limited to Avantsia, Gamma Ray, Masterplan and Edguy.

With music written by Timo Tolkki (ex-Stratovarius) and Magnus Karlsson of Primal Fear and the participation of Dennis Ward of Pink Cream 69 among others, Kiske lends his amazingly still-soaring pipes to some totally retro minded AOR inflected melodic metal.  Guitar based and featuring big melodic choruses, backing vocals and dramatic build, Place Vendome provides a perfect setting for those patented Kiske tones to soar…

Check out my interview with the man himself, where we discuss everything from Helloween to his current projects here.

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