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It’s been a surprisingly silent start to Summer, with precious few releases from the world of metal to satisfy sweating palates.  In fact, it’s a veritable desert.

Given the comparatively extreme brevity of coverage concerning offerings available in the June to mid-July axis, you may even see an album or two which won’t street until sometime even later.

Don’t mind the tumbleweeds rolling past, and try to sip slowly as you wet your sun-parched lips, in the hopes that next month will have more to offer…

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Gloryful – Ocean Blade (Massacre Records) (June 10)

Well, the album kicks off with a song titled “hiring the dead”, so you can be forgiven for assuming this was some sort of a corporate joke band (“the HR department proudly presents…featuring such classics as “exit interview of doom” and “slaughterhouse of the performance review period”).

This impression is given extra weight by the fact that they chose some fairly silly names: “Shredmaster J.B.”?  And can “Johnny La Bomba” really be the guy’s name, or is it a sly hint at either Richie Valens or the Italian slur “cicciobomba”?  Who the hell knows, just seems a bit suspicious to my ears…

Despite that, it’s a pretty good band for its subgenre, which is decidedly tried and true European power metal with strong hints of the earlier, less bloated Iron Maiden.  The guitars are very up front and seem a tad less processed than usual, and there are plenty of melodic, slightly speed-thrash inflected traditonal metal-style leads and fills to keep the average fan happy.

As expected for power metal, the vocals aren’t anything to write home about, but that being said, they aren’t as lousy and growl-heavy as far too many acts seem to fall back on.  It’s uptempo, very Helloween-like, and leaves the listener feeling a strange sort of exhilaration where you’re unsure whether you want to get out there and do something positive or pummel the hell out of somebody.

Yeah, most bands operating in this particular genre tend to bleed together, with few acts really standing out from an increasingly  overcrowded batch – that’s just the plain facts of the matter.  But you can’t judge apples against oranges.  So if you’re in the mood to dig into power metal, be sure to make a check mark for Gloryful on the good list.  They’re pretty damn decent, and Ocean Blade is a really strong release for a band not closely related to an ex-Helloween member (cough Kiske, Hansen or longtime Hansen bandmate Piet Sielck cough) and/or involving Mat Sinner or Alex Beyrodt somewhere in the proceedings.

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Illdisposed – With The Lost Souls On Our Side (Massacre Records) (June 27)

Detuned aggro with typewriter style death metal double bass and shout-puked vocals.  There’s about 20 bands like this a month on Terrorizer sampler CDs.

So not my thing, it’s not even funny.

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DUST BOLT – Awake the Riot (Napalm Records) (May 30)

Adhering very closely to the days when (Bay Area) thrash actually mattered, these guys draw riffs in equal measure from Slayer, Exodus and Forbidden.  There are arguable touches of early Testament or even the Angels Dark and Death floating around in there as well – one could even make a case for a pinch of Vio-Lence for extra spice.  And yet…

Let’s not mince words, the vocals are mediocre to lousy.  Now, Russ Anderson, Don Doty, Sean Killian…all these guys got their fair share of dissing back in the day for their particular stylistic flourishes and limitations of range, and most thrashers loved (and in most cases, inclusive of myself, still do love) ’em all.  So it all depends on how much of a curve you’re grading on.  But Lenny Breuss comes off like a beefier take on Scott Ruth of Ripping Corpse – all 80’s crossover hardcore style puke-screams marked by a touch of a lisp.

But it’s the riffs and leads where Breuss and co-guitar Flo Dehn really stand out.  Just as aggressive yet technical as classic thrash was wont to be, they mix the more staid if intricate feel of a Xentrix or Mustaine/Burton era Metallica (the less said about that band post-1987, the better – spit) with the sheer pummeling brutality of an Exodus or Vio-Lence while plundering the evil riff library of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman as much as humanly possible.  Yeah, they’re really good.

If you don’t mind dealing with sub-DRI vocals (which as crummy as they are, do still fit well enough with the material), this one’s a no-brainer.  If you are an 80’s thrash veteran or a johnny come lately who always wished you could’ve been part of the heyday of underground metal, don’t even give it a second’s thought, you really want to check this album out.

While the album tends to stick to the same general (fast) tempo and (hyper-aggressive) feel throughout, if you’re into the scene, Awake the Riot is almost definitely an album you’ll want to indulge in.

Easily 4 stars out of five, depending on how much the vox piss you off.

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BLOODY HAMMERS – Under Satan’s Sun (Napalm Records) (May 30)

Starting off with a cute snippet of a ghoulish children’s record, these guys do a pseudo-Black Sabbath with clean stoner vocals and kick off the proceedings on the wrong foot by crooning about one of the all time worst slasher films I’ve had the misfortune to sit through, “the town that dreaded sundown”.

Technically, they should probably be filed under “occult rock”, but there are far more interesting and talented bands to be found under that umbrella – the late Selim Lemouchi’s untouchable Devil’s Blood, Blood Ceremony circa the Eldritch Dark, the first album from Ghost, and arguably both Hour of 13 and Venomous Maximus being the pinnacles of the recent crowd (few if any of ’em can touch the debut albums of Black Widow, Coven, Pentagram or Mercyful Fate, so we’ll limit ourselves to modern day).

Bloody Hammers come more under the umbrella of October 31, Jex Thoth or Jess and the Ancient Ones – bands that are still somewhat interesting and have a few catchy songs under their belt, but still come off quite generic and easily skippable.

I get the distinct impression that a song like “death does us part” owes a MAJOR debt to the Vladimirs and/or Sono Morti, but without even approaching the level of quality that statement implies.  I don’t know if it’s just the overly fuzzed out guitar tone playing into this, but I also don’t think they bother to change key once on the entire album…I guess if you’re really hard up for another Kyuss, this may fill the bill.

Not as terrible as all that makes it sound, by a long shot.  But still kind of bleh.

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GRAVE DIGGER – Return of the Reaper  (Napalm Records) (July 11)

Germany’s long running Grave Digger is back, and boy are they ever.  Eschewing the historical focus of their last two decades, Return of the Reaper hearkens back to an even earlier iteration of the band, and it’s all about the music. No message, no lecture, no grand design: lyrically, this album taps into subjects as dopey and pointless as “satan’s host”, the “tattooed rider” and the “road rage killer”.

Yeah, it’s really dumb.  But musically? The band sounds more vibrant, polished and aggressive than they have in years.

I spoke with main man Chris Boltendahl when prior album Clash of the Gods dropped, and he’s one smart cookie, artistic, knowledgeable and well spoken.  So there’s no question this was a deliberate decision to abandon a (historically based) story driven structure in favor of individual songs, and in all honesty, while the topics and lyrics turned out pretty damn silly by comparison, the album in many respects may be better for it.

I’d have suspected there was a decided injection of new blood into the band, all things considered, but nope – it’s the same band Boltendahl’s had behind him since the late 90’s, and “new kid” Axel ‘Ironfinger’ Ritt has been with them since 2009.

Whatever the reason, it shows a band more capable and driving than bands less than a third Grave Digger’s age, and that’s saying quite a bit.  Thumbs up.

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AMBERIAN DAWN – Magic Forest (Napalm Records) (June 27)

Female fronted gothic metal with a radio friendly major key orientation.  Interestingly, the band formerly featured recent U.D.O. Recruit Kasperi Heikkenen.

Current vocalist Päivi “Capri” Virkkunen has a very midrange alto that’s pleasing to the ear while entirely eschewing any pretensions at the sort of bombastic operatic gravitas and gusto the genre was built upon, leaving Amberian Dawn as a likeably melodic and solid if unspectacular contender in what was once a quite vibrant, but now somewhat overcrowded and watered down subgenre of the European metal continuum.

In short, don’t expect Leaves Eyes, Krypteria, Phantom Agony/Consign to Oblivion era Epica or even Xandria under Dianne Van Giersbergen.

But for a band operating in more of an Unsun by way of Nemesea milieu, Amberian Dawn is really pretty damn good, goofy album titles and Zappaesque xylophone fills aside.  I certainly liked it.

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VINTERSORG – Naturbål (Napalm Records) (June 27) 

I had Andreas ‘Vintersorg’ Hedlund on the show a year or so back when the excellent Orkan streeted, and we chatted about everything from global warming to the state of modern black metal.  I found him to be well spoken and thoughtful, and far more mellow than you’d expect for a guy fronting or involved in numerous black metal bands, most notably Norwegian black metal all-star collective Borknargar.

But as followers of the man’s work are doubtless well aware, Hedlund is far less about diabolical doings, burning churches and hatred for all fellow man than a deep and abiding appreciation of the majesty of nature and the forces thereof. Immortal may stylize themselves the true sons of Winter and kings of the mountainside blizzard, but you can feel all that and more in the music of Vintersorg, albeit without the clown makeup and cheese topping.

With each successive release the man puts his name to proving increasingly impressive and managing to match if not top the last, Hedlund shows himself to be a true force to be reckoned with.  Further, while fully capable of (and often utilizing) traditional-style harsh blackened snarls, he specializes in the sort of clean, flowing, truly accomplished low-end tenor vocals and harmonies the metal scene as a whole would be well served to note and emulate (hello, power metal, death and aggro fans).

Is Naturbal truly an improvement on Orkan? Well, that’s open to debate – that was one hell of an album and still in relatively frequent rotation around my neck of the woods. But it certainly matches that storied effort, and blows even the excellent Urd (Borknargar) all to shit by comparison.

As always, Hedlund waxes philosophical with his lyrics, at least so far as we’re informed by translation, but for me, Vintersorg has always been more about the music, which he and longtime partner Matthias Marklund continue to deliver in superlative fashion.

There’s really no other bands playing in the same ballpark.  If you like Vintersorg even half as much as I do, Hedlund and Marklund are the only guys out there supplying your fix, so this one’s clearly a no-brainer.

Do you really need me to spell it out for you?  Go get yourself a copy already…

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Nightmare – The Aftermath (AFM Records) (June 10)

These guys have been kicking around since 1979, so you have to give them props for sheer longevity if nothing else.  Hailing from France (a nation not generally noted for its plethora of metal exports), they made the in retrospect wise move of folding back in the late 80’s, thereby skipping the whole Hollywood-led tattooed junkie rock thing, grunge and the hegemony of hip hop among suburban youth.

Like many acts who saw there was (at least in European climes) a resurgent market for real music, they reformed in 1999 and have been busy ever since.  Former drummer Jo Amore moved over to the vocal chair and recruited younger brother David for the drumstool, and while he and bass player Yves Campion are the only original members returning for the band’s more recent history, that may be part of what keeps them from being a bigger name globally.

Straining and growling in a similar vein to David Wayne of Metal Church or Les Carlsen of Bloodgood, it’s like someone semi-melodically growling through an empty paper towel tube: all nasal, hollow, reverberating but with an unpleasant aftertaste that you wouldn’t get from a clean tone vocal.

Once again, it’s power metal; with precious few exceptions, they all seem to growl and howl in place of singing.  If you like it, you like it; personally, I find it holds some otherwise rather good bands back from the larger audiences they deserve.

Working a more aggressive, very thrash-influenced strain of power metal, the band is certainly accomplished and slips some proper song construction amidst all the sonic overkill, with bridges and modern punk-style guitar line melodies enhancing choruses and verses alike.  Neither Franck Milleliri or Matt Asselberghs is what you’d consider a “guitar hero” by any stretch, but they do work well in tandem, albeit with only one of them working leads or melodic lines at any given time.

It’s hard to comparatively rate power metal acts after awhile.  While a few really stand out, most of them tend to blur.  And while certainly fine for what it is, The Aftermath is really no exception to that rule.

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U.D.O. – Live From Moscow (AFM Records) (June 10)

Oh my God, is this like the 5th U.D.O. live record?  Coming right on the heels of 2012’s Live in Sofia (with only last year’s Steelhammer between), it’s starting to seem redundant.  Is the legend starting to dial things back at last, falling back on an endless recycling of his large and extensive catalogue of material (both U.D.O. and Accept in origin)?

About the only thing that can be said here is that he may be looking to showcase his two new guitarists, Andrey Smirnov and Kasperi Heikkinen (ex-Amberian Dawn) who replaced longtime Accept/U.D.O. string slinger Stefan Kaufmann a year or so back.  But to do two live albums almost back to back (with more than a few in the back catalogue as well) doesn’t strike me as a positive sign.  I seem to recall Iron Maiden dropping a few live albums in a row, right before losing Bruce Dickinson for several years…

The cover’s pretty snazzy, there may or may not be a bit more energy to the performances than there was on Life in Sofia, Herr Dirkschneider himself remains in fine form after all these years, and it’s nice to hear old favorites like “holy” and “go back to hell” brought out for an airing, but seriously.  Another live album?

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Kap Kap – Flux of Solace (Rapu Records) (June 6)

This one gets points just for the cover.  A Virgil Finlayesque sci-fi/fantasy pulp cover reproduction from sometime in the 30’s, it sets the tone for some unusual but rather catchy music within.

Falling firmly into the realm of what used to be referred to as “college rock”, Kap Kap features vaguely foreign accents (and really, how many bands weren’t British back then?) and a mix of artsy experimentation and melodic pop that brings to mind both pre-Dirty Sonic Youth and Inspiral Carpets.  And if that juxtaposition doesn’t throw you, you may have some idea of what to expect here…

There’s vaguely druggy psychedelia worming its way through the mix, but it’s not exactly in Monstermagnet or Hawkwind territory, being too indie-hipster for either.  All I can tell you is that overall, it’s pretty damn good.

While later tracks tend to get a bit too Echo & the Bunnymen-level mellow for my tastes, let’s make no bones about it: when there was any degree of propulsiveness to the material (think the first three tracks), I really liked ’em.

Suggestion for next time?  A few less downers and a bit more caffeine and stimulants.  A full album like those first few tracks, and this would be an unreserved five star recommendation.

As it stands, Flux of Solace is a somewhat flawed album, but Kap Kap definitely comes off as a band to watch.

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Rippikoulu – Musta Seremonia (Svart Records) (June 13)

Much worse production than Ulvaja, and sticking far closer to the funeral doom meets death metal template (think Baphomet of And the Dead Shall Inherit fame for the general idea vocally), and we never get that strong inflection of black metal Ulvaja stood out for including.  It’s not bad, but nothing to particularly write home about.

Go with the EP first and if you like it (and don’t mind stepping down several notches production-wise), you may dig this as well.

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Unaussprechlichen Kulten – Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath (Iron Bonehead) (July 14)

No real progression since the split with Godless last year, these guys are perfectly average post-Morrisound/Sunlight Studios death metal, all sloppiness and noise and rambling 15 minute tracks.

Inoffensive and sometimes even decent, but guys, this sort of inattention to crispness, musicianship and (dare we say it) melody (gasp!) is exactly why the genre died out back in the mid-90’s.

Even so, can’t get too mad at a band who still recognizes the difference between death metal and black metal and tosses in Lovecraft references besides…

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Sacrificio – S/T MLP (Iron Bonehead/Nuclear War Now!) (July 25)

Well, I certainly love the cover.  Three dumpy guys wielding chains and torches while dressed up in leather, chain mail, bullet belts and straps, and of all things, full on knight helmets(!)  How met-al can you get?

As far as the contents, two 10 minute plus tracks of lo-fi, sloppy underground metal.  In some respects, brought me back to the days of Matt O’Shaughnessy’s Midnight Metal and WMSC with Bill Zebub, the Axeman and Angel – all grimy, New Renaissance, Combat, Roadrunner and the very dawn of what would later be marketed as black, death, doom and grindcore (but which at the time was left under the general umbrella of “thrash” or “speed”).

It’s filthy, nasty, awkward and not incredibly well played, but positively suffused with atmosphere.  The reverb’s there but not overdone on the vocals, the guitars are distorted and muddy but not to the point of distraction, and the drums are clean and take up the entire left channel (guitar and vox are shoved to the right channel…who knows if they even bothered with a bass).

No, they don’t quite “get it right”, this isn’t a strictly retro act by any means.  But they’re appropriating a similar atmosphere, and engender the same sense of discovery of a bizarre new soundscape and scene (or scenes) we weren’t previously aware existed.

And in that respect, at least, I loved it.

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Athanatos (Chile) – Unholy Union TAPE (Iron Bonehead) (July 7)

Another one with a great cover, this time a black and white comic book style line art of a hooded wizard in his musty castle ritual chamber, attended by several cat familiars and facing a black goat.  It’s cheesy and evocative all at once.  Great touch.

The band is far better produced than Sacrificio and playing more into the realm of a comparatively tight Morbid Angel-influenced death metal  sound.  Of course, they aren’t half so intense or accomplished as that band (or those who closely followed their template, such as Necrophobic, Centurian or Immortal on Blizzard Beasts), and the very fact that they’re playing in a rather overutilized ballfield leaves them fairly uninteresting by comparison.

Not bad, but it’s more of the same old same old, and thus a bit boring.

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Kult of Taurus / Erevos Aenaon – Born of Fire, Forged by Death – split CD (Forever Plagued) (July 14)

There are bands who benefit significantly from underproduction, and Kult of Taurus is definitely one of them.  Where Divination Labyrinths came off as a noisier take on the decidedly overused Watain sonic palette, this time around they feel a lot nastier, a lot more appropriately black metallized.

Sure, the vocals are still too death metal for the tremelo-guitar and blastbeat driven music they’re prone towards, but the greater prominence given in the mix to the muddy yet beefy distorted guitars (with vocals buried below them in the mix on a similar level to the drums) helps the band tremendously.  While there’s still plenty of Watain and Gorgoroth playing into the sound, Born of Fire, Forged by Death is far more credible and deserving of high marks than their earlier full length could possibly merit.

How much of this is purely due to the (decided under-)production vs. any actual growth on the part of Kult of Taurus themselves is open to debate, but the bottom line is that much to my surprise, I’m moved to give this one an unreserved thumbs up for fans of modern black metal.  Much better, guys.

Erevos Aenaon, on the other hand, doesn’t fare half so well.  Extremely generic and even more underproduced, which really doesn’t work for them.  While I can see why the two bands were put together (there’s a strong similarity in vocal style and overall sound), they’re not half the band Kult of Taurus proves themselves to be on the first four tracks here.

Bottom line, even if you (like myself) had little use for Kult of Taurus last time around, you might still want to check this one out.  You may be pleasantly surprised.

Consider the other band a bonus, or just stick to the first four tracks.

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Taatsi – Amidst the Trees CD (Forever Plagued) (July 25)

Picking up exactly where Season of Sacrifice left off, this is more First Spell-era Gehenna worship.

This time around, it feels a bit overproduced, with some odd, slightly offputting symphonic elements to the keyboards taking an unwelcome prominence and distracting from the overall feel and haunted atmosphere as much as their presence otherwise helps establish it.  Think Gloomy Grim’s Whisper at her most overbearing, and you’ll get the general picture here.  One hand holds a gift, the other, a blade, but it’s the same keyboardist offering both.  Perhaps they should have buried him in the mix a bit more.

The right idea overall, but stick with Season of Sacrifice and hope they pull their shit together again for next time.

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Mat McNerney & Kimmo Helén – The World Is Burning (Svart Records) (June 27)

Haunting traditional folk from one of the guys behind Beastmilk.  Bar one track, it’s all instrumental, acoustic guitars, violin, banjo, accordion or harmonium.  Apparently it’s all Newfoundland based, but it sounds oddly European, with an eerie, ancient seaport fishing village feel you’d more expect from, say, Norway or Finland than Eastern Canada.

That said, Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas album taps into some of the same vibe, so they could be on to something here…

Very, very good and wholeheartedly recommended for fans of Celtic and British Isles-style folk, which while quite different in sound, come closest to approximating a similarly ghostly and mournful feel.

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Psyyke – 1983 – 1985 (Svart Records) (June 19)

Damn, now this is more like it.  Classic gothic rock ala Theatre of Hate, UK Decay and the Birthday Party with touches of Skeletal Family or Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.  Hell, stretch the circle a bit and you can even pick up vague echoes of Specimen, early Gene Loves Jezebel, Bauhaus, Virgin Prunes, March Violets or Danse Society.

The vocals are more aggro-screamed (in the manner of the day, we’re hardly talking Phil Anselmo here) than deep baritone crooning or ritualistic murmuring, but the guitars are clean with overdrive and the riffing strays well into avant garde or noise territory…which also brings earlier Cure and especially pre-Hyaena Siouxsie and the Banshees to mind.  In fact, if you had to narrow things down to a very basic comparison, think Siouxsie meets the Birthday Party and you’ll get a good idea.

I was a punk and goth several years before I was a metalhead, and never gave up on either, just dropping in and out to greater or lesser degree as the scenes ebbed and flowed in vitality.  I still consider this “my” music, and Psykke is something of a heretofore undiscovered gem from the first and most vibrant of goth’s heydays.

At least I’d heard of Hexenhaus back in the day…these guys are brand spanking new to these ears.  And I like what I’m hearing.

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