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As we greet the first lurching fits and starts of a newly minted reset to the calendar, it is perhaps only fitting that we are joined by a number of old favorites – veteran acts marking either a welcome return to form or reunion, new works from familiar bands of the year or so prior.

Sure, there’s a few new kids throwing their hat in the arena in the hopes of grabbing a piece of your expendable dollar, but by and large 2014 seems to be dominated by the more assured stride of the seasoned player, storming into the lead right out of the gate.  Only time will tell how the rest of the year plays out…and we’re off!

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Crystal Viper – Possession  (AFM)

King Diamond with a bit more of an NWOBHM or thrash influence.  It’s more upbeat and major key in orientation, while still retaining some of the Euro-spookiness and light neoclassical influences.  Oddly, they’re being marketed on their frontwoman Marta Gabriel, whose gravelly midrange rasp is average at best – you’ve heard dozens of female singers like this already, trust me.

Without the soaring clear toned soprano of the gothic and symphonic metal crowd or the range and authority of a Doro Pesch, Leather Leone or even Hellion’s Ann Boleyn, there’s really nothing to recommend about her voice.  Much akin to Veronica from Benediction without the booming throatiness, Marta’s sound is quite generic in the end – not exactly grating or annoying like some ladies floating around the current metal scene, but nothing to get excited about either.

The band has an interesting sound as you can tell from the opening of this review, quite often hearkening back to the glory days of the San Francisco thrash scene but with a touch more exoticism than that would imply.  Did I mention it’s supposed to be a concept album?  There’s some ridiculous story about a possessed girl or something – the King and even Annihilator did it better (“Alison Hell”, anyone?).

Bottom line: lots of potential, pretty melodic and musicianship focused, but missing one essential piece somewhere that would make the puzzle complete.  It should flash a big red warning light that the one track that actually stood out on the album was a cover of a metal band that never really managed to break through in their day (Riot’s “thundersteel”).  Hopefully they’ll grasp that ephemeral je n’sais quoi in time for the next album.

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Silent Force – Rising From The Ashes (AFM)

Wow, these guys are really something!  “Caught in their wicked game” is the Yngwie track the Swedish fretboard shredder never actually got around to recording.  “There ain’t no justice” smacks of 80’s metal ala Dokken, XYZ and latter period Y&T in particular – all wide open chords and summer night cruising down the Sunset Strip with the top down.  Two tracks in, and already I find myself thinking could they possibly be any better?  And it keeps on going…

New vocalist Michael Bormann (formerly known for his work with Bloodbound on their Book of the Dead album) replaces former frontman DC Cooper, who’s moved back over to Royal Hunt.  While he comes to the picnic with a far more raspy delivery and approach, he’s also far less generic sounding – in place of Cooper’s sort of Michael Kiske without the soaring range, you get more of a John Schlitt (Head East/Petra) or early Rod Stewart thing going on (i.e. when he was still “Rod the Sod”, during and just after the Faces era).  There’s a lot of energy and fire in Bormann’s approach, which suits the uptempo yet moody sound of the band to a T.

Bormann’s not the only new member – the ubiquitous Mat Sinner (of guitarist Alex Beyrodt’s other projects Sinner, Primal Fear and Voodoo Circle) joins on bass alongside ex-Edens Curse keyboardist Allesandro del Vecchio.  The only other Silent Force vet here besides Beyrodt is drummer Andre Hilgers, and that’s a good thing for a change – much as with the recent changes in Eden’s Curse, the influx of new personnel appears to have breathed a refreshing vitality into the band, who have delivered their strongest album yet.  Highly recommended.

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Primal Fear – Delivering The Black  (Frontiers)

Primo guitar work from Silent Force, Sinner and Voodoo Circle fretmeister Alex Beyrodt and a strong Accept vibe drive what must be the veteran German act’s 10th full length and Beyrodt’s second with the band.

Seriously, cross classic Udo-era Accept with Obsession and Minoru Nihara era Loudness, tag in a heaping helping of vim and vinegar, and you’ll have something approximating the driving crunch of the latest Primal Fear effort.

There’s even more than a pinch of Judas Priest to the proceedings, as evinced most particularly by “Alive and on Fire”, and it wouldn’t be out of hand to compare Scheepers’ violently rasping midrange to that of Racer X vocalist (and Badlands drummer) Jeff Martin.

With processed yet crackling guitars that speak as much to Akira Takasaki and his Rocktron rig or the Art Maco/Bruce Vitale compressed crybaby-through-Marshall tone as to any band out there nowadays, you could stop right at the guitars and be happy.  Tag in some patented Mat Sinner melodicism and soaring backing vocals, and Ralf Scheepers’ otherwise overly agressive snarled take on Mike Vescera becomes not only quite palatable, but downright impressive.  With a lesser band behind him, who knows, but with the Beyrodt/Sinner team giving him the right platform, it’s pure gold.

With the last Sinner, Silent Force and Voodoo Circle albums being equally showstopping efforts, it seems that the Alex Beyrodt/Mat Sinner team can do no wrong of late.  All I can do is be impressed.  Keep ’em coming, guys.
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Red Dragon Cartel (Frontiers)

Speaking of Jeff Martin and Badlands, we have the debut from a project from Ozzy/Badlands axe slinger Jake E. Lee.

After early (and apparently unrecorded) stints with such major players as Ratt, Rough Cutt and Dio, Jake was tapped for the unenviable spot of filling the shoes of the recently deceased Randy Rhoads (perhaps the best and most beloved of all rock and metal shredders and one of the first to properly join the more blues and rockabilly oriented approach of rock n’roll to the more accomplished if dry classical guitar style).

While no replacement or consolation for grieving fans, Jake was a different animal entirely, bringing a more propulsive if glammy L.A. metal feel to the more staid 70’s heavy rock leanings Osbourne carried with him prior to Lee’s arrival.  While Bark at the Moon was spotty at best, primarily famed for its driving title cut and bearing little else to hang itself on, the subsequent Ultimate Sin was a strong album through and through, bringing Osbourne’s aging hippie stoner schtick kicking and screaming into the modern age.

After laying low for a few years, Jake emerged with an entirely different bag of tricks in the newly minted Badlands.  Alongside Lita Ford, Black Sabbath and eventual Kiss drummer Eric Singer (later replaced by the aforementioned Martin), Surgical Steel and Steeler bassist Greg Chaisson (who bizarrely also stinted with Christian rockers Die Happy – essentially Vengeance minus wacky vocalist/preacher Roger Martinez, who infamously turned satanist thereafter(!)) and late vocalist Ray Gillen (formerly of Black Sabbath’s Eternal Idol period), Jake proceeded to make waves among starving metallers flooded with a plethora of subpar faux-Southern rockers, fake punks and pseudo-Stones types the industry saw fit to shove down the throats of the listening public at the time.

With a bluesy feel that allowed them to sit comfortably amidst the tattooed junkie “sleaze metal” of the very late 80’s and pre-grunge 90’s initiated by acts like Guns N Roses, L.A. Guns and Hanoi Rocks, Badlands (like the equally accomplished Vain) proved something of a trojan horse amidst that scene of Aerosmith worshipping semi-talents by resting on the formidable skillset of Lee.

While playing things a bit more fast and loose than he was noted for during his earlier, more obviously Hollywood metal oriented stints, Jake’s fretboard skills and driving riffs pushed Badlands well beyond peers such as Spread Eagle, Law & Order or Cats N’ Boots to remain among the very few eminently listenable and praiseworthy albums loosely allied with that scene.

While vocalist Darren James Smith fails to impress on the level of the late Ray Gillen, his gratingly raw throated screams are certainly not outside the ballpark for Jake’s Badlands-era sound, which he more or less picks up from where he left off in the mid-90’s…but read on.

Drummer Jonas Fairley and bassist Ronnie Mancuso provide sufficient backup for Jake’s guitars, which merge Badlands stylings with some odd, somewhat inappropriate nu-metal/industrial touches.  While opener “decieved” and later track “redeem me” should prove quite familiar to longtime fans, and the Sabbath-esque “war machine” does have some semi-Badlands bits surrounding the solo, “shout it out” seems to owe equal debt to EZO’s “destroyer” and one of those detestable loser bands like Slipknot, Korn or Limp Bizkit who proved a far lesser substitute for metal than either the “sleaze” or grunge scenes turned out to be.

Thankfully, Jake’s leads are as good as ever, but there’s far too much modernism creeping into the mix for my taste – the all mids, front and center bass on “feeder”, the chunka-chunka aggro Southern groove of “wasted”, and similar minded bits like “big mouth” add up to somewhat of a mixed blessing.

While it’s certainly great to hear a player on the level of Jake back in the public eye again with his chops seemingly undiminished, it’d be far more welcome with a touch more Badlands and a whole lot less 90’s/millenial aggro to the sound.  With such a spotty-at-best setting for the diamond in the rough of Jake’s leads, it all depends on how desperate you are to hear the man’s solos, really – bar “decieved” and “redeem me”, I’m just not hearing the rest of what he’s got to offer here.

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MACABRE – Dahmer (HELLS HEADBANGERS)

Wow, isn’t this swell.   Akin to Carl Crew’s Secret Life of, some thrash act with strong punk influences and a dash of grindcore decided to dedicate an entire album to the notorious homosexual serial killer’s life and exploits.  While Crew’s film was alternately horrific and bizarre and seemed to be leaning towards a skewed sympathetic viewpoint to the man’s inner conflicts, this is both more accurate and even more ridiculous.

Literally going chapter by chapter through his life and crimes (there’s a song about his stint in the army and even one about the fellow loon who killed him in the course of his prison sentence), this is 26 tracks of musically and emotionally schizophrenic nonsense that paints the whole affair as a sort of comedy of errors.  With a delivery even more absurd and tongue in cheek than Genocide or Gang Green, it’s simply impossible to take any of this seriously, despite the true life biographical details being explored in relatively minute detail herein.

One track may be Chuck Schuldiner by way of Paul Baloff half-inhaled, half shrieked death metal vocals over a more traditional thrash backing, the next more grindcorish with the high/low dual vocals of Carcass, the next wholly over the edge into late 80’s punk.  They even pull in military marches, blues-rock or folk-based country at various points, for comedic effect.

Through all of it, the humor aspect predominates, which  simultaneously lowers the guard (can you really take this as “scary” or “evil” when the band is camping it up and screwing around quite this much?) and points to a more horrific societal trend towards not merely celebrating the criminally insane, but managing to turn nauseating and extreme murder into a sort of sick joke.

As such, I find myself torn on this one – it’s well played musically and gives off a surprisingly goofy ooky-spooky Nightmare Before Christmas style vibe (particularly in tracks like “Jeffrey and the Chocolate Factory”) and I certainly appreciate the fact based approach they take here – less the traditional death metal fantasizing than an unusual realist reporting of events.  In their own weird corner of the world, Macabre is to be saluted for their polished, interesting and listenable efforts here.

It’s just the implications that bother me.

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Heikki Hautala – Pyövelin Vaatteet (Ektro/Future Lunch)

So you get this album, and the cover is this sorta slasher film photo of some crazy eyed guy in a sewn together facemask.  You’re expecting…mellow Bruce Cockburn style acoustic roots folk?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.  But that’s what you get here.  Now hell, I think the Bruce Cockburn Christmas album is the greatest album ever recorded for the genre, with some amazing musical research into obscurities across the spectrum and full of fascinating reworkings of what were likely much simpler tunes from bygone days into dark, nigh-polytonal territory.  No song sounds the same as the last – if you haven’t heard it, take my word for it, it’s amazing.

But Cockburn plays with his Canadianness for that album’s cover, sitting in a lounge chair amidst a good foot or two of snow…he’s not dressed up like some reject from a Necrophagia video!

That aside, this album does remind me of the Cockburn album considerably, in its folky darkness and use of mellow acoustic to express foreboding and a palpable sense of sorrow if not doom.  Some may find it creepy, but this is right at home for me.  Put it on with a glass of wine in hand and be prepared to pass out on the couch.  Recommended.

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Circle – SSEENNSSEESS (Ektro)

Could it be the REAL Circle again?  Yes, this certainly appears to be the same guys who released Six Day Run around this time last year – all minimalist instrumentalia from the Glenn Branca by way of Sonic Youth school.

The album is pretty consistent and cohesive, with one minor exception: “radiant” is a bit overly aggro, particularly with the warbling, semi-yodeled vocals.  Even so, it’s all more or less of a piece, and nothing here will really break the trancelike mood that permeates throughout.

If you’re a New Yorker, particularly the kind who haunted East Village hangouts like Kim’s Video, Generation Records, Venus Records, Bleecker Bob’s et al throughout the 80’s and 90’s, you’re familiar with this sort of thing intimately – trancey, mellow with an undercurrent of anger.  Stereolab meets the early Velvet Underground with a dash of Television for spice.

As a native myself, need I add that I love this?

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Circle – Hollywood (reissue) (Ektro)

This one’s a bit of an earlier offering from 2008, and appears to hail from a period more in line with what the band is trying to do now with Falcon – quite vocal-centric, more simplistically riff heavy, less krautrock ambient and leaning towards an artsy fartsy out of control art-punk (making a track like “earthworm” all but unlistenable in that respect).

There’s a dash of tongue in cheek Motorheadish metal (“sacrifice”) and too many portions that devolve into Lumpy Gravy-era Frank Zappa (“coda”, for one), which makes this a decidedly mixed bag.  And what the hell’s up with that sketch of a hangdog Mexican guy on the cover?  It’s vaguely Charles Bronsonish, but not really…who knows with these guys.

Unless you’re a hardcore Circle fan and need to get everything they release, stick with more dependable albums like Six Day Run or SSEENNSSEESS and give this bit of audio lunacy a pass.

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Jesters of Destiny – Fun at the Funeral (reissue) (Ektro)

Weird obscurity from the fringes of the 80’s metal scene.  Somehow they got a track on one of those somewhat spotty Metal Massacre comps back in the day, which eventually led to this sole release (and an EP of 60’s rock covers) on Little Eva’s record label (!)  Yeah, they were strange, and it showed all over the place.

Musically, they’re more than competent, with a preference for wide open chords and a highly compressed guitar tone (think Boston without the multi track layering – this is definitely squeezed through a Rockman or something).  He also displays some Fast Eddie Clarke influence (check out “I hate Bruce” if you don’t believe me), which reinforces the otherwise disputable ‘metal’ designation just a tad.  The drum sound is great, very much of an in your face dead or flat tone, 70’s style.  You’d think the great Ken Scott worked on the drum recording, all things considered…

The vocalist is a bit whiny ala Robin Zander, which suits the overall sound they’re shooting for here – late 70’s/early 80’s heavy rock with a tad more distortion to the guitars.  Some keyboard bits and minor touches throughout have a tendency to pull the album into some strange corners, but it’s never less than interesting.  Speaking in general terms, if you dig bands like Cheap Trick, you’ll probably love this.

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Apostolum – Winds of Disillusion (Moribund)

An atmospherically gothic piano intro slowly pulls you into a lush dreamscape of an intro.  It’s too bad the rest of the album doesn’t keep things in this modality, because instrumentally speaking, they’d have produced one hell of a record if it all came out like “light into the void”.

As it is, Apostolum certainly keeps things in a contemplative vein, with a slower, less tremolo fixated variant of black metal covered in dual harmony melody lines that feel vaguely melodeath in orientation.  There’s plenty of arpeggiated acoustic work overlayed on the expected distorted stuff as well, which seems to point to a Germanic black metal genesis (Empyrium anyone?), but the band actually hails from Italy (otherwise only known for the often unlistenably nasty snarl and speed approach of bands like Death SS, Theatre des Vampires or the slightly more interesting Mortuary Drape, and of course the operatic bombast of Rhapsody (of Fire)).

Vocals stick to a sort of sinister Grover modality, which makes them acceptable enough.  Whether you take them seriously or not is up to you, but it certainly works with the slow, somewhat sparse and doomy sound they’re offering here.  At times the vocals even evoke Mirai Kawashima of Sigh.

Other than the aforementioned harmony lead overlays, there are really no solos here to speak of, and the only conceivable link to “death metal” here is a vague comparison to Gorement (of Ending Quest and Darkness of the Dead fame).  Even beyond the vocals, Winds of Disillusion is too introspective, lead-absent and metaphysically sinister to classify as anything but black metal in the end.

Apostolum’s sound is consistently midtempo and dark enough to suggest some influence of Les Legiones Noires as well, particularly earlier Mutiilation, which means yeah, I dug this one.  Definitely worth checking out, particularly if you like the bands mentioned herein.

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Vardan – The Woods Is My Coffin (Moribund)

I love these quaint linguistic malapropisms and misconjugations of the English language.  Others may laugh or sneer, but I find them somewhat endearing, indicative of a certain naivete that is too easily lost with the bitter pill of experience.  So here I is to going tell to you record album this about am to being. (Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the garbledygook from here on out…you get the point.)

Beneath a great photo of a snowy Alpine wilderness path comes a new release from Vardan, whose …Dreaming…Living my Funeral we reviewed last month.  This time around, we get the improved production I was grousing the band desperately needed, and as such we get a far superior effort all around.

When listening to that earlier offering, I knew there was a good (one man) band buried under all that high end noise, and here it is.  Whether the music itself is any better or no is up to the listener’s personal interpretation, but suffice to say the guy took the time to fix the problem, and I for one am appreciative of that.

Another band out of Italy, you can add Vardan to Apostolum, arguably Mortuary Drape and the wholly unrelated Rhapsody (of Fire) to the positive end of what has traditionally been an unfocused and often unlistenable metal scene hailing from its sunny Mediterranean shores.

Too confusing for you?  Let’s simplify that sentiment for the sake of clarity.  Ready?  Here goes, and feel free to say it in your best Frank Zappa/Mark Mothersbaugh game show host voice:

If you’re going to check out an Italian metal band (see, it even sounds funny to say out loud!), these guys are one of the few worth hearing.

Dark, grim, very underground and once again evocative of Mutiilation, Vlad Tepes or even the emergent Canadian black metal sound of Sepulchral Productions bands like Gris, Monarque, Sombres Forets or Neige Eternelle, this is atmospheric, ambient and relaxing – for the black metal newbie, think pre-jailtime Burzum without the haunting shrieks.  Definitely recommended if you dig the style.

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Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart Records)

Weird stomach acid belch-croak vocals give the feeling you’re listening to one of Jabba the Hutt’s bowel movements.  It’s really strange, but has a certain freakshow appeal to it that fans of early, true death metal know all too well.  “Wow, that guy from Obituary has a crazy voice!” “Oh yeah?  Check out this guy in Immolation!”  “That’s nothing, check out this guy from Incantation!” and on…and on…and on…

It’s a compilation of their sole album Nespithe and all four demos, so if you’re a big fan of obscure Finnish death metal from back in the day, this is definitely the one to get…but read on.

As usual, the demos show a more aggressive, pleasantly raw take on the band’s output than what much of the same material would wind up sounding like on the album.  The guitars are strange for the sake of it, as some bands coming at the tail end of the genre’s early 90’s heyday were wont to pursue, and one gets the strong impression that if they hadn’t so deliberately striven for weirdness, they could’ve been a real contender.

As it stands, while certainly of interest to fans of the genre and period being tapped into here, all they really have to hang their collective hats on in the end is a seriously bizarro vocalist who sounds like if they gave a microphone to the Dragon Quest bubble slime and a certain darkness to their sound that marks them as hailing from the days when death metal was an actual genre worth discussing.

So it’s a mixed call, in the end – definite value if you’re a fan of the band, a death metal historian and completist or just into weird shit.  Your take as to whether it’s worth delving into or not.

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Kuolemanlaakso – Tulijoutsen  (Svart Records)

Another strange release from these Finns, at times sounding doom metal, at times death metal, it’s all over the damn place.  Sometimes they’re singing clean baritone, then it switches to Alex Krull-like snarl-growls, then it goes straight into nastier death metal territory.  And this is all in the course of the same song.

While well produced and certainly competently performed, it’s ultimately kind of hard to like, unless you’re a ravenous fan who doesn’t balk at bizarre cross-genre blending like this.  It’s definitely got parts I really liked, and is most assuredly a much better release than October’s Musta Aurinko Nousee EP.  Even so, it’s far too strange to pigeonhole in any nice neat genre box, which isn’t really a good thing.  When you’re in the mood for doom metal, are you really in the mood for this?  Ditto on death metal.

It falls between the cracks rather than bridging the gaps, ultimately satisfying a rarified few rather than a larger-than-normal audience.  Much better this time, but still really weird stuff and therefore somewhat limited in audience appeal.

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Sammal – No 2 (Svart Records)

Despite a strong initial offering, this 5 song EP improves on that more lengthy and comparatively unfocused effort by leaps and bounds.

With a more aggressive, uptempo approach that brings to mind some of the better “occult rock” of late, particularly that of Blood Ceremony’s Eldritch Dark, Sammal really brings their “A” game to No. 2.  Much as on the self titled, Sammal offer late 60’s/early 70’s psychedelic rock complete with fuzz tone, sitar-like guitar lines and Hammond organ, but this time around there’s no slower excursions to drag things down.  It’s far less Sabbath than most bands of similar bent and much more authentically “of its (intended) time”, with the overall approach and feel being much improved and refined thereby.

Interesting, as they make a point of claiming this is not a proper followup, but a collection of earlier material and leftovers… Dramatic improvement on what was an already quite palatable template.

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Stilla – Ensamhetens Andar  (Nordvis Produktion)

Very different production than the warmer, under a pillow muted feel of the more likeable Till Stilla Falla.  It’s clearly the same band and not much has changed stylistically, but the cleaner, more trebly production actually hurts them and cuts a wide swath into the intended atmospheric and emotional effect.

There’s also something about the music this time around that feels very different – dare we say Stilla has gone a bit commercial?  Both “ensamhetens andar” and “till slutet” feature somewhat catchy melodies, and certain tracks (“till slutet” again, “sjalavrangaren”) sound at least Tribulation if not Watain-like.

While not exactly a sellout or jump the shark album, it’s not what I was expecting from the band that put out the aforementioned Till Stilla Falla, and doesn’t hold up half as well.

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Ævangelist – De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis  (Blood Harvest)

Really, really detuned guitars, depths of the belly belch and roar vocals with too much echo, and ghostly keyboard sampled choirs.  The last part sounds interesting, but the first two parts and the generally atonal noisiness of the final mix squelch any possible recommendation here.

There’s far, far worse out there and I guess this bears a vague atmosphere of sorts, but I strongly doubt I’ll be pulling this one out ever again.  By all means feel free to skip it.

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False Prophet -The Second Death DLP  (Blood Harvest)

Pretty cool semi-blackened thrash along the lines of Sacrifice circa Torment in Fire by way of Morbid Saint or perhaps even Infernal Majesty circa None Shall Defy.  There’s a touch of Mike Browning to the vocals as well, and a certain veneer of underproduction that says Morbid Angel circa Abominations of Desolation.

While not quite as exciting or destined to bear the longevity of any of the classic thrash albums aforementioned, this is definitely a fun flashback to the days when there were far less bands cluttering up the landscape, and when just about every one we did have did their damnedest to make their shot at glory count.

If for nothing else than getting the basic idea right, I’ll give these guys a thumbs up in the sense of “A for effort”.

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Shroud of the Heretic – Revelations in Alchemy LP – (Blood Harvest)

With a low rent hand drawn cover trying to be all witchy or whatever, I certainly wasn’t expecting extremely downtuned, belly-belching and reverb suffused brutal death metal…

It’s certainly sinister sounding enough to bring to mind some of the lesser also-rans of the early 90’s death metal scene, but it doesn’t really set me on fire either.

Interesting but a bit of a one note joke, the only “revelation” here is that Shroud of the Heretic turns out to be somewhat of a one trick pony, never actually varying the sound and approach a whit from the start of track one to the last seconds of track seven – not one jot or tittle.  Take a gander and see if you care.

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SKULL FIST – Chasing the Dream (NoiseArt Records)

Oh, come on, you know I love Jackie Slaughter and Skull Fist – they were one of the very first bands I contacted and put on air with the radio show, and I’ve stayed in virtual touch with the man ever since.

Perhaps the only true Shrapnel Records style shredder out there among the retro-trad scene today, Jackie wears his influences proudly and obviously on his sleeve for all to see.  Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, Michael Angelo and Nitro, Ronnie LeTekro and TNT, Paul Gilbert and Racer X, they’re all there and more.

The kid can play, as can fellow guitarist Johnny Nesta nee “Johnny Exciter”, trading off leads like a modern day Cacophony or Racer X.  As a fellow shred-head from back in the day, you know he’s got my wholehearted attention and thumbs up support.

Yeah, there’s good players all over the place nowadays, but few with any real soul and less with a dead on link to what made the 80’s forefathers of the scene great in the first place.  Slaughter and company get it, and long may they reign.

Check out both of my interviews with the fretboard-burning madman of metal and Canada’s favorite son here and here.

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SUICIDAL ANGELS – Divide And Conquer  (NoiseArt Records)

Exodus style riffing, a guy who sounds like Russ Anderson from Forbidden on vocals and the sort of guitar solos you’d expect to hear from Alex Skolnick (Testament), Craig Lociciero and Glen Avelais (Forbidden) or Lee Altus and Doug Piercy (Heathen).  Hell, there’s even an obvious Reign in Blood-era Slayer nod in “divide and conquer”, just to make sure all bases are covered.

Yeah, it’s one of the fairly rare San Francisco Bay Area retro-thrash acts on the scene today.  As discussed with similarly minded Mortillery here and here, it’s far more common to hear bands taking on the Teutonic or South American blackened variants, so consider these guys something of a welcome anomaly.

Definitely brought this old thrasher back to the glory days for a bit, though Forbidden was sort of known at the time for having one of the lousiest vocalists on the scene (Anderson took a lot of shit for his less than soaring pipes back when…), so they could have taken a better role model on that end.  Otherwise, a definite thumbs up and hope to hear more acts following suit.

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Chapel (Canada) – Satan’s Rock N Roll LP  (Invictus Productions)

Well, somebody’s a big fan of Joel Grind and the early Bathory worship of his Yellowgoat Project.

The first album has always stood alongside Sign of the Black Mark as far and away the best of the late Quorthon’s efforts, so I’m happy.  If you’re more of the “one road to Asa” crowd much less his more faltering efforts as we progress later into the 90’s, don’t even bother – but if you love Motorhead, Venom and blackened thrash-style black metal, this is a definite go-to.

Not quite as essential as the aforementioned Yellowgoat Project, but certainly playing in the same ballpark and recommended for fans of Maax, Intoxicated and Promiscuity.

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Solstice (UK) – Death’s Crown is Victory – (Into the Void Records (a division of Invictus Productions)

Speaking of “one rode to Asa”, here we get a British band who appears to be working similar territory to that, with vague hints of Primordial for good measure.  But wait, that’s just the instrumental “fortress England”…hold up, now they’re trying to be some doom metal cross between Hour of 13 and Blacklist (of Sin Sentence fame).  Say wha…?

In any case, it works well enough, with the yawning baritone vox-driven “I am the hunter” proving a worthy contender for placement among similarly backwards-leaning beefy toned music of the mid 80’s: a minor sideline of the scene that produced acts like Blacklist, Trouble and St. Vitus whom Solstice is so clearly trying to squeeze in among.

Apparently the band has been kicking around since the early 90’s, despite only releasing two albums and an EP prior to this one, all whopping four tracks of it.  The title track and the closing instrumental fail to live up to the promise of either the viking/pagan inspired “fortress England” or the retro-doom of “hunter”, but it may be worth looking into on the strength of whichever of those two rather oddly conjoined tracks your genre preferences point you towards.

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NOCTURNAL BREED – Napalm Nights (Agonia Records)

Retro minded musically speaking, but marred by some pretty ratty vocals.  Kudos for the somewhat thrashy 80’s underground metal guitars (gee, they’re even tuned properly, how often do you see that nowadays?), but unless you’re a huge fan of Pat Lind from Morbid Saint or (at a stretch) Darren Travis of Sadus, the vocals are a bit hard to take.

Bottom line is, if this were 1985, any interested label would probably demand a replacement of vocalist before signing what is otherwise a more than competent band.  Food for thought.

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Abyssal (UK) – Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius DLP (Iron Bonehead)

Another set of bowel-emergent vocals, but far less interesting than Demilich by dint of its very modernness: the black metal and noise influences are far too obvious.

Atonal and deliberately playing with meter (check out the pointedly  stop-start-change style again drumming on opener “tongue of the demagogue”) while afflicted by muddy/hissy production, Abyssal relies on overly detuned guitars and Watainesque treble string sequences, but without that band’s skill or quality.

Third or fourth tier stuff, and yet another supposed death metal band that’s really a black metal band in disguise.  The drummer’s interesting, but enough of this already.  Don’t call yourself a “sanitation engineer” to disguise the fact that you’re a garbageman.  Despite some variances with the general style, this is black metal, and a somewhat middling offering thereof at that.

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Nechbeyth – Coerce Creed MLP (Iron Bonehead)

Despite some really low rent, thin and noisy production, this is at core yet another modern style black metal act.  You’re talking to a traditionalist here and lover of the underground – and this certainly ain’t it.  I guess if you like it fast and insubstantial…

The drummer gets a nice polyrhythmic double bass fill about 2/3 through “ruination conquest” and does similar work in portions of “eradication vertex”, so they’re not wholly without talent or merit – just doesn’t work for me in the least.

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Nebiros (Col) / Nekromanteion – In Command Tenebrae – split 7″ (Iron Bonehead)

Nebiros is South American black metal with more than a touch of the sub-equatorial inclination towards blackened thrash.  Not bad at all, but doesn’t distinguish itself all that much from similarly minded acts like Bestial Holocaust.

Nekromanteion is more underground and sounds very middle-American to these ears.  A lot of slap echo and some extremely primitive early Sepultura riffing marked by cheesy Lovecraftian invocations.  Not bad either, but no comparison to the real deal they share the split with.

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Entartung – Peccata Mortalia (W.T.C. Productions)

A bit more mid to late 90’s Swedish or Norwegian black metal in sound than most of what’s coming my way of late.  Like a good majority of the post-Kerrang article bands and albums of the scene, there’s not a hell of a lot to it and it certainly pales by comparison to the acknowledged classics of the style, but at least they’re not band #14,656 aping Watain over this past year (seriously…enough already…).

Consistently speedy without actually going anywhere, it’s competent enough to make mid to late 90’s BM fans happy.  It doesn’t stand out in the least, but if you’re a huge fan of what turned out to be the early decline of the scene, this will certainly fit right in.

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Tortorum – Katabasis (W.T.C. Productions)

Here we go again with the distorted yet arpeggiated open chords, endless variations on the tritone and bark-snarled vocals.  You guessed it, it’s yet another Watain influenced black metal band.  Zzzzzzzzz…

That noted, they’re a lot more competent than their tens of thousands of likeminded competitors, and bring a touch of Gaahl-era Gorgoroth to the mix to spruce up the usual formula a tad.

Tribulation still did it better, but if you’re craving the pre-Wild Hunt disaster Watain, you could certainly do much, much worse.

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