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If April showers are presumed to bring May flowers, what do May showers bring?  Showers of power?

Well, if that’s the case, you came to the right place, as we have a healthy dose of power, symphonic, gothic, black, doom and all sorts of variants of the metal spectrum on tap.

So what are we wasting time screwing around here for?  Let’s get down to the nitty gritty…

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TIMO TOLKKI’S AVALON – Angels of the Apocalypse (Frontiers Records) (May 16)

When the name of Timo Tolkki comes up, very likely the first thing listeners will ask is how much different is this from his work with Stratovarius?  And the answer is, at core, not very…though there are pronounced variances.

With fellow Stratovarius members Tuomo Lassila (drums) and Antti Ikonen (keyboards) in tow and Tolkki handling both guitar and bass duties, fans of that band’s earlier and arguably more essential material should have a fair idea of what to expect here – there’s nothing falling unduly outside the general parameters and ballpark the trio were playing in for so many albums throughout the 90’s and early to mid millenium.

So, what’s changed?  First off, Avalon is more bombastic than Stratovarius, with Rhapsody (of Fire)’s Fabio Lione reaching for more of a Bruce Dickinson-era Iron Maiden approach and tonality on the opener, and a pair of powerhouse female singers (Epica’s Simone Simons and After Forever’s Floor Jansen) also lending their pipes to various tracks throughout.

There are a few other, lesser known vocalists of varying quality (whoever the guy is who keeps puking up his tongue on “the Rise of the Fourth Reich” is particularly amusing), but the strength of the material keeps things on a fairly even keel throughout.

Beyond the guest vocals, there’s more orchestrally tinged keyboard work to be found here, and the whole affair seems to be fishing around more in Rhapsody (of Fire) waters than anything their collective alma mater was noted for.

Tolkki styles Avalon as a “metal opera”, but I’ve always found that conflation of very divergent musical idioms to be something of an oxymoron, if not downright silly.  Much like the “rock opera” before it, it implies a far greater level of musicality, depth and breadth than even the greatest of rock or metal bands is able to offer – like calling a chamber quartet a symphony orchestra.

Now, I generally prefer the quiet power of the quartet over the enormity of sonic overkill the orchestra provides, but 6 in one hand does not equate with a dozen in the other.  Think about it: Tommy?  The Wall?  Quadrophenia?  Ooh, Giuseppe Verdi is absolutely quaking in his boots over the competition…

So the essential comedy of the premise and all other considerations aside, we’re still left with one basic question: namely, is it essential?

Not really – but it is rather good. Ignore the silliness of the effective “libretto” and just kick back and enjoy some well done, bombastic symphonically oriented power metal, with at least three outstanding vocalists in tow.

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Elvenking – The Pagan Manifesto (AFM Records) (May 27)

While self-identifying as “folk metal”, this is more Sonata Arctica style chugging riffed, forward driving power metal with an equal injection of Rhapsody (of Fire), right down to acoustic breaks, flutes and nature-based foley work and “wandering through the village” style sound effects.

Where it falls down a bit by comparison to either influence is in its essential saminess.  While more than competent, there’s not a lot about The Pagan Manifesto that stands out from the rest, with all tracks being of similar feel and quality throughout.

Great if you’re looking for a sort of concept album feel to zone out to, but there’s no highs, no tracks that you jump to in a rush or show off to likeminded friends, to show just what it is you love about this band over any others.  It’s good by several standards, but sorta bland in that respect.

The vocals also fall a little short of the mark; while certainly in the right ballpark (i.e. clean and soaring), there’s a reediness to singer “Damna”s tenor that implies a certain youthful age tonally, exacerbated by a slight but noticeable front tooth-whistling lisp throughout.

Trust me, it sounds like I’m coming down on this album more than it merits – it’s actually rather good.  But if they’re to compete in the same league as their obvious progenitors, they’ll need to come up with more distinctive material than we’re seeing here.

Some of this comes with growth and experience, so this may be a decent if comparatively inessential early salvo in the career of what may become a very strong band indeed. Only time will tell.

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Helstar – This Wicked Nest (AFM Records) (April 29)

When I had James Rivera on the show, he’d mentioned the band’s next release was going to be even darker, harder and more in your face than the last few (“because we’re getting older and more pissed off!”).

Sure enough, like more recent efforts from Onslaught by comparison to their classic trio of releases, this is a much heavier, more driving record than veterans of albums like Nosferatu or Burning Star would ever have suspected.

Rivera, a manically garrolous, fun loving sort who seems like he’d be a ball to hang out with, is one of those rare vocalists from back in the day who appears to have actually improved with age, and he and fellow longtime Helstar alum Larry Barragan (guitars) deliver an intense yet quite listenable effort with This Wicked Nest.

Never succumbing to the worst excesses of modern production, detuned guitars or screamo growling, the album allows the sound to properly breathe, without being up in the listener’s face and pounding relentlessly and tunelessly against the eardrum as so many modern producers are wont to do.  The vocals are front and center, with guitars thick and powerful behind him, and drums close behind.

There’s a dash of flatness to the drum sound in particular, but that’s more than worth bearing with when you can easily distinguish every player, note, and drum strike throughout.  Rivera does push things into somewhat of a Rob Halford circa Painkiller modality at times, but without the stridency and shrieking that would imply – he’s a clean singer with a fine voice at core, and things never get too far off the rails.

If anything, this is very 80’s thrash, with the thick and driving guitar and drum production bringing albums like Metal Church’s The Dark, Candlemass’ Nightfall, Xentrix’ For Whose Advantage? and Metallica’s …And Justice For All to mind, but without the reverb that implies- the sound is, as noted, more direct source to signal and a dash flat by comparison.

But put up against the usual ProTools metal production these days? This is nothing if not a surprisingly welcome breath of fresh air, and quite retro in the respect of respecting the musicians involved (and the listeners thereto) by keeping signals and tones as clean as possible given the musical style.

Moreover, tracks like “cursed” seem to directly invoke songs like “watch the children pray” or “dark are the veils of death”, pushing things right back into the heyday of underground metal.  Power metal?  Perhaps, but so much more.  Hail to the veterans.

Highly recommended for fans of the band and style.

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Lake Of Tears – By The Black Sea (AFM Records) (April 29)

Lake of Tears comes to us with a strong guitar based sound and some really nice solos (look no further than opener “to die is to wake”).  The vocals are a bit questionable, falling into the power metal trap of relying a bit too much on the growlier end of the vocal spectrum, and the music is a bit generic, with one song blurring into the next.

It’s a live album, so I’d have to assume they’ve been around for a bit, but I’ve never encountered them before, which probably says something right there.  The guitarists are too good for the material, and probably need a better venue in which to express themselves and light a fire under their asses…because this band certainly ain’t it.

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21 Octayne – Into The Open (AFM Records) (May 27)

Traditional sounding AOR style metal. Y&T, anyone?

I’d almost think it was a Mat Sinner production, or that Alex Beyrodt played a role in the band – as it is, I’m surprised it’s not on Frontiers or featuring Allessandro del Vecchio behind the reins as songwriter.  All of which means, it’s pretty damn good for the style.

Things do peter off significantly after the fourth track, with only closer “come alive” even approaching the quality of the first half of the album, but as with Diabulus in Musica, there’s enough promise in those five tracks to give the album the benefit of the doubt.  Trim all the balladeering fat, and you’ve got a monster on your hands.

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The Mighty Swine – Last Man Standing

Holy shit, is this a long lost Yngwie album?  From the first few bars of “dead man’s stare”, you have to wonder if some enterprising soul dug through boxes of tapes and clutter to unearth an unreleased gem from 1985.  The riffing, the raw production, the nigh-baritone vocals, even to some extent the leads.

Though we’re not exactly talking shred territory, this is still some very strong 80’s style guitar hero material – think something along the lines of early Ratt by way of Masi and you’ll get the general picture.

Then things shift suddenly, and we’re into Pantera-ish aggro/”Southern groove” territory for “empty shell” – not my thing.  There’s a cover of Priest standby “hell bent for leather”, which features a better solo, but Skimmerhorn’s throaty vocals aren’t exactly Rob Halford (no shame in that, admittedly).  Later tracks alternate somewhat between the more traditional metal feel of the opener (“tomorrow”, “vengeance is mine”) and the thicker, more 90’s style of “empty shell” (“rite of passage”, “thick as thieves”, “pool of emptiness”).  One track, while containing some nice harmony leads, straddles the two styles somewhat uncomfortably (“two graves”).

Overall, a decent album, but one which appears to be somewhat uncertain as to its target audience.  I certainly welcome the more traditional stylings of half of the album, and while we don’t get much of the sort of bass vs. guitar wizardry of the Chastain days (think “feel his magic”), guitarists Stacey Donahue and Jeff Tong certainly capture the authentic feel of mid-80’s L.A. style guitar hero metal.  Skimmerhorn is surprisingly competent as a lead vocalist, and drummer Rory Faciane is never less than driving, with his emphasis residing firmly in typewriter-rhythm double bass footwork.

But the equal focus on far less appealing 90’s-vintage stylings turns this veteran’s nose a tad out of joint.  More forgiving listeners, seeing no real difference between, say, a Lizzy Borden and an Alice in Chains, should appreciate this unequivocally.


DIABULUS IN MUSICA – Argia (Napalm Records) (April 11)

Kicking things off very much in Echoes of Eternity circa the Forgotten Goddess territory, Spanish gothic symphonic metal act Diabulus in Musica return for their third round with Argia.

Overall, the album represents something of an improvement over prior efforts, with strong hints of Epica in both Zuberoa Aznarez’s smoothly operatic Simone Simons-esque vocals and the small chorus of backing vocalists the band makes use of, Phantom Agony style.

Like Epica (or early Within Temptation, or several other bands that could be named without effort), the weakest link is growler Gorka Elso, who sounds like a cross between Cookie Monster and lunatic ex-preacher cum satanist Roger Martinez of Vengeance; but in his duties as keyboardist, he provides a far more essential function.  To the extent they (like Within Temptation before them) begin to leave the “beauty and the beast” thing behind them and just focus on Aznarez’ lovely voice, Diabulus succeeds admirably at raising the long-lost (but recently resurgent) banner of gothic symphonic metal.

With Oceanbornesque siren vocals harmonizing and providing some measure of descant throughout, the first half of Argia showcases Aznarez (and by dint thereof, the band as a whole) at their best.  The stunning Ailyn Gimenez of Sirenia joins Aznarez for the Spanish language duet “furia de libertad”, but then something changes radically – other than the oddly titled “spoilt vampire” and “healing”, the remainder of the material declines into quiet, contemplative balladeering (!)

The question must be asked: did they have only an EP’s worth of material ready, but the label requested a full length instead?  Did these songs get written during different periods in the band’s history, or perhaps with only half the band contributing to the writing?

It’s all speculative, but I’ve listened to the album several times over the last month, and every time, it’s the same verdict: the difference between the dramatic, bombastic, soaring first half of Argia and the better part of what follows is striking.

I’m going to go with the promise shown at the outset of the album, and ignore the weaker, sleepier material that predominates thereafter, giving this one a decided thumbs up in the hopes that their next effort will continue down what would appear to be a very strong new direction.

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CROSSWIND – Vicious Dominion CD (No Remorse Records)

Greek power metal. Comes complete with a really nice, Basil Pouledoris style Conan soundtrack intro that blows the standard Epica or Rhapsody one all to shit.

The Phantom Agony-like vocal choir then blends right in to some strong, traditional metal-meets 80’s thrash riffing, topped by a very Fabio Lione inspired vocalist.  No question these guys wear their influences right on their sleeve, and trust me, that’s a good thing.

Good production, strong musicianship, excellent vocals, and well constructed guitar solos with a Randy Rhoads/Neil Giraldo level of understanding of phrasing – and that’s just describing the first song proper.  Later material on the album taps a bit more into Sonata Arctica territory, but that’s not exactly a bad thing either.

So what the hell are you waiting for?  Get out there and grab a copy already! Very good stuff.


Trepaneringsritualen & Sutekh Hexen – One Hundred Year Storm
(Pesanta Urfolk) (June 16)

Twenty-some odd minutes of wandering through an underground parking garage with a lone guitar picking away Chris Isaak style.  You hear vague screaming in the distance.  Atmospheric, but that’s all there is, folks.

Side B isn’t even that good, lacking most of the atmosphere, guitar and screams…at the end it gets a little creepy, but it takes 20 minutes to get there.

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Common Eider, King Eider – Taaleg Uksur (Pesanta Urfolk) (June 23)

A really long, atmospheric drone intro devolves into a sort of black metallized noise rock (albeit without drums, bass or comprehensible vocals).  Then back again.

Next track.  Another drone, but more Buddhist chant inspired.

Next track.  Another drone, more organ-style.

Final track.  Mellow, double tracked harmony acoustic guitars ala Kreator’s intro to “behind the mirror”, while noisy buzzing drone gradually builds and overtakes the lead.  Eventually it’s back to the black metal-style tremelo guitars.  You get the picture.

Want to trance out and don’t mind chancing a really bad trip?  Skip the Monstermagnet or Hawkwind, this will take you where you probably don’t want to go.

Really good for what they’re shooting for.

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Begravningsentreprenörerna – S/T 10″ (Ektro) (July 4)

Independence Day over here in the States brings with it a three song from this Finnish punk outfit.  Indebted to equal parts Iggy Pop and indie “college rock” of the late 80’s and early 90’s, this is pretty dirty sounding rock n’roll inflected punk with an odd edge and even some obvious musicianship to boot.

Picture Johnny Thunders with Richard Hell in the Heartbreakers crossed with Pat DiNizio and the Smithereens, then give them the chops of a 70’s rocker and some postpunk sensibilities, and you get the general idea.

First and third tracks are outstanding.  It doesn’t get much better than this, kids.

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Tusmörke – Riset Bak Speilet (Svart Records) (May 16)

Alia O’Brien, look out…it’s the second coming of Jethro Tull!

No, wait, it’s some guys named Tusmorke.

So early to mid-70’s it hurts.  And honestly? I don’t even like Tull, but I did like this.  Should I toss in Pentangle and Lonesome Crow-era Scorpions as reference points? Yeah, it’s that good.

Psychedelic, prog and pagan folk all in one, with plenty of musicianship, period-accurate instrumentation and vocal harmonies, with flute and drums as the true “lead” instruments.  If you’re a musician or attentive listener, you’ll find plenty here to keep you interested.

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Profetus – As All Seasons Die (Svart Records) (June 13)

A full track of creepy, mournful organ music – already a plus.  The other tracks are straight up funeral doom, with guitars, organ and monster in the bog-style belches.  The pace never picks up above a crawl, but what did you expect from bands in this particular subgenre?  Atmospheric.  Good for what it is.

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Rippikoulu – Ulvaja (Svart Records) (June 13)

aaaaand it’s another funeral doom act!  This one’s more blackened, sounding for all the world like a mid level black metal act on their most “normal tempo” (and hence briefest) track “loputon”, but things slow back to a more expected crawl and doom approach for the other two tracks.  They aren’t half as good as Profetus on the doom end, but not bad as a BM act on the middle track.


Dråpsnatt – Hymner till undergången (Nordvis Produktion) (May 19)

The best way to describe this is black metal inspired.

In other words, they think they’re black metal to be sure, but there’s a bit of an Addams Familyesque faux-ghoulishness to the proceedings, a Taake-style lilt that undermines any more sinister aspirations the band may or may not be attempting to evoke here.

There’s a decided Watain influence, but the rest is too syncretist if not original to tar them with the sadly omnipresent sad copycat brush far too many would-be black metallers these days deservedly recieve herein.

A bit too “pop” (if that’s the right word), too “mainstream” (in the sense that acts like Cradle of Filth or Dimmu can be termed such – non-metallers still hate ’em!) to really work for me, but it’s certainly more than listenable, and has an unusual degree of harmony for a band working in this genre.

Flawed but definitely interesting.  Say hi to Uncle Fester for me, guys.


Abbey ov Thelema – Liber DCLXVI (Wraith Productions) (April 30)

Crowley inspired?  Well, the comedic elements certainly smack of Uncle Al…seriously, were they joking?

Mr. Bungle goes all ooky spooky.  Look, guys, when he channeled “do what thou wilt (et al)”, half-assed free jazz was not what the man had in mind…

Avoid like the plague.

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Zgard – Contemplation (Svarga Music) (June 23)

Not bad.  Certain tracks are vaguely reminiscent of Gorgoroth under Pest or Hat, albeit without the aggressive, punky edge.

Put more of a melodic, traditional cum thrash galloping guitar rhythm in place of the more “underground” elements, then toss in symphonic metal style sound effects, keyboard sampled choir bits and quiet instrumental breaks: Rhapsody (of Fire) gone black metal, I guess.  Later in the album, you even get a trance track or two(!)

Not what I’d normally consider black metal, but I did like it and odd enough to merit some measure of replay value.

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Blood Red Fog – On Death’s Wings (Saturnal Records) (May 26)

OK, this is more like it.  Not quite Sepulchral level, but aggressively mournful mids-heavy black metal with a vague Les Legions Noires by way of Horna feel.  What makes things a bit strange are the vocals, which are more of a poor man’s approximation of death metal, or better yet, Nasty Ronnie of Nasty Savage(!)

If you can get past the vocal hurdle (consider it an endurance test, where you have to prove how “troo kvlt” you are – can you enjoy an otherwise good black metal album despite ridiculous, even comedically goofy vocals?) it’s a definite recommendation…but I’d give a listen first to see whether you burst out laughing or not.  Could really destroy the mood they’re trying to evoke here…

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Hellspirit – Dawn Under Curse (Saturnal Records) (May 26)

Much more genre appropriate vocals on this one, so I’m already breathing a sigh of relief.  Comparatively speaking, though, it’s a bit overproduced.

Bears more of a punkish, nigh-first album Bathory feel, which is a good thing.  But there’s other influences in the mix that don’t mesh quite as well – possibly Dark Funeral, in the repetitive, transpose a step up and down guitar lines, which just becomes silly and even irritating after a bit.

To the extent it’s approximating stuff like early Bathory, Maax, Intoxicated and Joel Grind’s Yellowgoat Project, it’s good stuff – it’s the other stuff in there that doesn’t work.  A little tweaking and refinement of the recipe should do it.

Decent, but hoping for some improvement next time around.

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Somnabulist Red – Birth Throes,Shadows and Serpentine Curves (May)

OK, this is an odd one – a single track. No B-side, no nothing.  Just instrumental indie noise rock with a vague Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine by way of Stereolab feel.   3 minutes and change, and it’s all over.

Not bad at all, but that’s it?!?

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Deus Ignotus – Procession of an Old Religion MCD (Forever Plagued) (June 2)

A reading from the book of Revelations kicks off another one of those supposed death metal bands that’s really a black metal act in disguise. Definitely has the Baphomet (of Dead Shall Inherit fame) style vocals down.  Feels like it’s driven more by incessant blastbeats than any putative guitar line.  Noisy.

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Necuratul – Sanguine Lupus Graves (Forever Plagued) (June 16)

Trancelike, harmonically sluggish, somewhat doomy black metal.  It keeps matters essentially midtempo throughout with slower breakdowns spicing things up every now and again, but the overall impression is of stillness, not motion.  Or in other words, it’s black metal: little to no harmonic movement covered by frantic swarm of bees tremelo guitars, blastbeat and double bass drumming and croaked or shrieked vocals. Good stuff to get you through the workday.  I liked it.

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Taatsi – Season of Sacrifice (Forever Plagued) (June 16)

These guys clearly worship at the altar of Gehenna circa First Spell, all keyboards, mournful guitars and plenty of dramatic funeral atmosphere.  And that’s a good thing.

When the band’s vocalist intones something about a “shimmering sea” in the title track, I could have sworn he was going to discuss the “shivering voice of the ghost”, it’s that close.

Only two tracks, but I’m happy.

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Hrizg – Individualism (Moribund) (June 23)

Geez, what a strange production! The guitars and drums are simultaneously up in your face and hollowed out, akin to the sound of a tube amp when you’re used to solid state.  It gives the whole affair an unusual if not bizarre sound and feel, much like Gorgoroth and that weird drum tone on Under the Sign of Hell.

Hell, there’s even separation to the guitars, so it’s like hearing stereo for the first time when you’re only accustomed to mono.  And yes, the production really does play into the overall sound, giving these guys a feel all their own.

Interesting sound, decent band, replay value. Sold.


Mortualia – Blood of the Hermit (Moribund) (June 23)

Depressive, mournful, wintry…have I missed any cliches in describing the overall sound here?  It’s very doomy in the sense that I’d almost swear they spend the entire album alternating between the same two chords, but it works.

Good stuff, but the vocals when they appear are really whiny-shrieky and kind of hard to take.  Maybe if they pushed him way back in the mix…

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NUNSLAUGHTER – Angelic Dread (Hells Headbangers) (June 24)

A new album from Nunslaughter?  Not a reissue, compilation or what have you?  Wow, neat!  Come on, Reggie, let’s bring this one down to the sock hop and give it a spin…

Displaying no sign of getting old and tired in their dotage, the band keeps on chugging forward irrespective of the passage of time.  This release shows the band holding true to their punkier roots to be sure.  In fact, not one track tops 3 1/2 minutes, most falling closer to the one minute mark.  And it’s hard to get bored when things move along quite this promptly!

Somewhere between black metal, thrash and whatever the hell you want to classify Necrophagia as these days, Angelic Dread shows the guys in top form.  If you liked Nunslaughter at any point in their long career, you’ll love this one as well.  And it’s 31 tracks worth, besides!

Dig it. Horns up!

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NOCTURNAL DAMNATION / NIHIL DOMINATION – Baphometic Goat of Thermonuclear War (Split 7″) (Hells Headbangers) (May 12)

Nocturnal Damnation is hyper-underproduced noise, sounding for all the world like some clown stuck an 80’s boom box in front of a wall of Marshall stacks and pressed the record button.  Seriously, it’s that overdriven – the signal breaks up all over the place.

The guitarist is a joke – picture the worst soloing excesses of Kerry King, Trey Azagthoth, Tom G. Warrior and the guys in Deicide and drop your lead guitar skill expectations several notches from there.  I was doing better leads at age 17, weeks after picking up the instrument. Embarassing.

Amusingly, Nihil Domination is either the exact same band in disguise (and utilizing a different “singer”) or two bands this inept actually found each other. Must have been love at first sight…

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CEMETERY LUST – Orgies of Abomination (Hells Headbangers) (June 24)

Chunky, Exodus style rhythms burst into blackened thrash if not black metal tremelo riffs. But it’s a punk band, or at least features punk style shouted vocals and punk drumming, as if Lucky Lehrer and Ian MacKaye suddenly decided to mix 80’s Bay Area and Brazilian or Teutonic thrash.

It’s weird, but works in its own bizarre way.

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Vassafor / Sinistrous Diabolus Split LP (Iron Bonehead) (June 16)

Vassafor is very underground, with an ultra lo-fi production and creepy if busy sound endemic to the better black metal releases nowadays.

Thankfully they take two of the three tracks here, because Sinistrous Diabolus smacks of an Abruptum reunion.  All slow paced droning and noise with occasional puked growls, until it eventually does the running in place thing black metal is known for harmonically (or should that be unharmonically?).  Whatever.

If you’re interested, get it for the two Vassafor tracks.  The rest is cannon fodder.

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Temple Desecration – Communion Perished MLP (Iron Bonehead) (June 27)

Another one with just one track, what is this?  With a name like “ghoul prayer”, I was hoping for more…

Noisy, barely competent, inessential.  Has a somewhat sinister vibe, but I can’t see that salvaging this fairly weak effort for a prospective listener.

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Swarþ – Omines Pestilentiae DLP (Iron Bonehead) (May 30)

Somewhat derivative and middle of the road, but competent enough and has plenty of atmosphere to keep the less demanding listener happy.  As background music, it works well enough, but hardly something I’d go chasing after.

Unspectacular but respectable black metal with death metal vocals.  It’s OK.


Demonic Rage – Venomous Wine From Putrid Bodies LP
(Iron Bonehead) (June 2)

Hyper aggressive blackened death metal.  Brought Necrophobic and early Immolation to mind, which is a good thing.

A few tracks slow down (a lot), and that’s unfortunate – the doomier sound doesn’t really work for this band. But when they’re going at it, guitars chugging and buzzing like a swarm of angry bees, it’s damn good stuff.

Almost enough to put into question the time tested assertion that death metal died off as a genre back in the early to mid 90’s.  Not quite, but definitely tapping the right vein.

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Sacrocurse – Unholier Master LP (Europe/UK = Iron Bonehead; US = Hell’s Headbangers) (June 2)

Much better production than last year’s Sulphur Blessing, but clearly the same band, even showcasing new versions of two of the earlier release’s tracks herein.

Noisy, nigh-tuneless and decidedly underground, there’s been zero growth or improvement in the interim, beyond securing proper studio production for themselves. It is what it is, for better or worse.  Your call.