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In case by some strange quirk of fate you hadn’t noticed by the crisp chill in the air and the profliferation of angry drivers and website crashes, it’s that time of year again.

That’s right, the holida(ze), when people are of good cheer and filled with warm humanist feeling for their fellow man.

Or is that the stink of desperation, rampant consumerism and the ultimate terror of a yearly get together with relatives you wish you could divorce yourself from blood ties to?

In any case, we have a plethora of November and December releases herein, hot and hungering to be held by your eager, sweaty hands this holiday, to put under that pagan Yoolis Night tree. 

So what the hell are we wasting time yammering here for?  Let’s spread some Christmas cheer!

Hey, who snickered?

oh, yeah, that was meAnyway…

Forward!

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BRANT BJORK AND THE LOW DESERT PUNK BAND – Black Power Flower (Napalm Records) (November 14)

Sounding for all the world like some righteously stoned cross between the first two Black Sabbath albums, the early to mid-70’s Hawkwind and pre-Dopes to Infinity Monster Magnet, Brant Bjork makes his post-Kyuss/Vista Chino debut, with its first two tracks slamming down even the best efforts of his former band members with a surprisingly strong 70’s style homage to the sweet leaf.

That said, far stronger elements of Grand Funk Railroad come to the fore as we move further into the album, and this is a comparative weakness.  While solos are still as trippy as anything Ed Mundell, John McBain or Dave Brock ever laid to vinyl, something as major key and goofy as “stokely up now” or “soldier of love” show a demonstrable drop in quality and strength from absolutely killer openers “controllers destroyed” and “we don’t serve their kind”.

Other tracks fall into more of a drone by way of blues vibe, with “buddha time”, “boogie woogie on your mind” and “where you from man” more or less comprised of a single riff over…and over…and over.  Never resolving, never contrasted with a second complementary riff…just the same thing, as relentlessly and endlessly as a bad dance music track.  Even if you love this sound, it’s a bit too much.

There’s a touch of Hendrix by way of Thin Lizzy on “ain’t no runnin” and “that’s a fact Jack”, and “hustler’s blues” falls firmly in the Monster Magnet camp, but in the end the album is desperately split.  Is it the Hawkwind/Monster Magnet by way of early Sabbath vibe of “controllers”, “serve their kind” and “hustler’s”?  Or the weaker, almost clownish Mark Farmer thing mixed with half-finished riffs instead of songs that takes up the center of this confusing cornucopia of Columbian Gold?

Look, this is still a pretty impressive debut, particularly with (as I understand it) Bjork handling all instruments and vocals in place of his traditional drum role.  What’s indisputable is that Bjork is handling all guitar duties here, and that’s decidedly what’s driving this album.  While the jarring shift in tone for a lesser if related musical touchpoint leaves the affair a whole hell of a lot flatter than its strongest tracks prove it could have been, the very fact that we have such strong material in hand says far more than the album’s weak center of gravity ever should.

Consider it a very, very good EP with some entirely forgettable bonus tracks inappropriately sandwiched in the middle.

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MONSTER MAGNET – Milking The Stars: a re-imagining of Last Patrol (Napalm Records) (November 14)

Speaking of Dave Wyndorf and company, it looks like the man decided to take another trip back to the well, effectively redoing last year’s excellent return to form the Last Patrol into what turns out to be one of the most dispiriting retakes I’ve come across in years.

The idea sounded good: adding vintage effects, Hammond organs, Mellotrons, crybaby wah, you name it, while taking a very deliberate alternate route on much of the material.  Some tracks have more “in your face” guitar and drums, others are buried under layers and layers of psychedelia. But even as an unrepentant fan of the Monster Magnet of Spine of God and Superjudge over anything the band’s come out with since, there’s such a thing as overdoing it, particularly when you’re tapping into the wrong kind of psychedelia.  Think the Strawberry Alarm Clock or the Electric Prunes circa Mass in F Minor without the eerier minor key bits, taking on…well, Monster Magnet.

Yeah.  Not really a good idea.

The one track that does really work doesn’t appear to even relate to its predecessor, namely “goliath returns”.  There are two more “new” tracks here, namely title track “milking the stars” (which doesn’t work) and opener “let the circus burn” (which does), and while a sight less impressive than its original iteration, at least “mindless ones ’68” has an appropriate Zombies meet Doors-like Farifsa organ feel.  But “paradise”, “end of time”, “hallelujah”, “I live behind the clouds”, “stay tuned” and “the duke (of supernature)” have all seen decidedly better days…

Bottom line: I still love Wyndorf and own pretty much every Monster Magnet album from date of release, dropping off for a bit only after the rather moribund and experimental one two punch of God Said No followed by Monolithic Baby – after those two, it really seemed like things had run their course.  But Last Patrol surprised the hell out of me, showing a band willing and able to tap back into an earlier and more potent sound, evoking much of the approach and feel of their 90’s heyday.

Sadly, this re-imagining shows Wyndorf grasping at the same comparative straws he was in the early millenium.  Here’s hoping next time shows a Monster Magnet more in line with the Spine of God through Powertrip period…or for that matter, last year’s Last Patrol.

Retitle this one Last Patrol Lost.

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SKÀLMÖLD – Með vættum (Napalm Records) (November 14)

When you say ‘Viking metal’, the first name that comes to mind is without even a hint of competition the mighty Leaves Eyes.  Then perhaps later Bathory might come up, just, you know, as the guy who pretty much originated the sound of the scene that followed.

Then we may come to earlier Enslaved, particularly in the Frost era, when anyone really cared about those guys, before they jumped off some weird fjord into some bastard variant of prog hell (or more acurrately, hel).  Hell, even some pagan metal acts like Turisas, Primordial, Arkona and the “troll metal” of Finntroll and Trollfest start wafting their way into the discussion.  And from there, is it really that far of a stretch to start thinking Alestorm and their “viking-baiting” variant of ‘pirate metal’?

So with all that established, the operative question that comes to mind is just how does self confessed viking metal act Skalmold hold up by comparison?

Well, to start with, it’s neither gothic symphonic in nature (Leaves Eyes) or black metal for that matter (Bathory, Enslaved).  It’s well and truly some variant of the vastly overcrowded European power metal scene – perhaps a bit more epic in scope, a tad more dramatic and certainly less silly, danceable party music than the folkier, drunker pagan, troll and pirate metal bands mentioned.

So what the hell does that leave?  Tyr, maybe?

hmm…come to think of it…I guess you could call this a slightly less self-serious, even (comparatively) boisterous take on Tyr, albeit one with some pagan/troll metal style vocals.  There’s a rather incongruous touch of Vintersorg to the affair, with occasional Ulveresque clean chanted backing vocals, but yeah, this is pretty much Tyr lite.

Whether this actually works for the listener or no is open to debate and individual taste; personally I found it listenable enough, and certainly more palatable than the po-faced stodginess of, say, The Lay of Thrym.

But don’t expect miracles, or a good naturedly fun time at one of their shows, as you’d expect from, say, an Alestorm with Trollfest tour.

It’s all relative, in the end…

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THE FLIGHT OF SLEIPNIR – V (Napalm Records) (November 28)

Yet another US-based stoner rock band with aspirations towards doom, Flight of Sleipnir makes the odd aesthetic choice of pairing wah-and phase-driven stoner/psychedelic guitars with out and out black metal vocals.

Say what the fuck?

And talk about taking themselves too seriously…forget the trippy, laid back if not goofy vibe of the generator party crowd, the Hawkwind worship of Monster Magnet or even the doomier Sabbathisms of Trouble, St. Vitus, Cathedral and their all too numerous progeny – this is dark, depressive nigh funeral doom.

With stoner rock guitars.  And a black metal vocalist.

Well, I’ll say this.  If you can get over the sheer bizarro world melange of inappropriately mixed together ingredients, it’s certainly listenable, with a particular sort of moodiness and atmosphere that feels a hell of a lot more one man band style ambient black metal than it ever does desert rock psychedelia.

But seriously.  Say what the fuck?

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MORS PRINCIPIUM EST – Dawn Of The Fifth Era (AFM Records) (December 2)

It may or may not come as a surprise to longtime readers familiar with my early review for …And Death Said Live that an album I’d noted as being competent but somewhat generic has become something of a sleeper hit over the last two years.

While many deservedly praised efforts from dozens of other bands under review have come and gone into a burial in the vaults, a few albums among them, some perhaps not so well lauded at the time, have stood the test of time, returning to rotation several times.  And one of the most prominent of these was Mors Principium Est’s aforementioned opus.

So was I too hard on ’em last time around?  Well, not really – the arguments presented still stand.  I’m still not overly enamored of the vocals, though they were never any worse than inoffensive.  And yes, the songs do tend to blur into one another, with few if any truly standing out from the others as a likely single.  But like I said, it’s good driving music.  Good background music to get you through the day.  Hell, if you dig the general metalcore by way of melodeath sound they deliver, it’s one hell of a decent album, all told.  And one thing I couldn’t possibly have said at the time: it stood the test of time and repeat listens.

And so we come to the latest offering from the Finns, Dawn of the Fifth Era.  The At the Gates/Killswitch Engageisms are still firmly in place, but if anything appear to have been refined into a more personalized variant unique to the band and it’s own emerging identity.  There’s been yet another change in the guitar chair, and while both albums are impressive enough on that front, it does in fact feel like new kid Kevin Verlay brings a fresh sense of melodic shred to play, giving Dawn some much needed individuation from track to track and impressing with some very forefronted displays of virtuosity throughout.

While the production style does certainly differ from …And Death Said Live, losing a bit of the Scott Burnslike comfort factor in favor of a drier, more in your face mix, overall this is a noticeable improvement stylistically, coming off as simultaneously more musically accomplished and far more varied in palette. 

While there are certain elements of the prior album and production style I’d have preferred the band retained, the fact is that many of the comments I’d made about the generic blandness of …And Death Said Live are simply no longer applicable here, with Dawn of the Fifth Era sounding more Slaughter of the Soul than The End of Heartache in the grand scheme of things.  Both are certainly more than acceptable, but it’s pretty clear that they’ve opted to travel the better of two converging roads here.

Alongside similarly impressive countrymen such as Deathchain and Battle Beast, Mors Principium Est are a band who are significantly altering my longstanding perception of Finland as a nation incapable of delivering more than a rather cut-rate and often deliberately offensive strain of black metal (hello, Mika) and lame hipster-Hot Topic faves like the highly overrated Children of Bodom.  Because with acts as accomplished and credible as the trio cited earlier, there may be more to the nation than it’s better known, significantly less worthy “headline” names could ever possibly suggest.

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Bloodbound – Stormborn (AFM Records) (December 2)

With a feel more comparable to their strongest effort Book of the Dead, right down to the vaguely Michael Boorman-reminiscent raspier vocals and cheesy “satanic” lyrics, one wonders if they’ll go back to the corpsepaint soon…

Still centered around a core of Patrik Johansson (vocals) and brothers Tomas and Henrik Olsson on guitars, Bloodbound delivers a much stronger album than the spottier In the Name of Metal, eschewing some of the cleaner vocal approach of the last two Johansson-led affairs for a still soaring yet gravelly take that pays homage to the band’s lasting pinnacle of achievement.

Tomas Olsson’s guitars, if anything, appear to have improved since we last spoke, with some especially flashy if still unpicked Chris Holmes-like legato phrasing augmented at times by harmony lead doubling or wah pedal.  Sure, nobody’s going to mistake Bloodbound for Racer X or the Yngwie Malmsteen band, but it certainly catches your attention when he takes center stage for a few bars.

There have been comparisons made to Hammerfall, and that element is certainly present herein, more than it ever was back in the Book of the Dead days – a huge hunk of aromatic cheese that comes out in the often simplistic held barre chord riffing and goofy backing vocals that sometimes overemote with deep vibrato Accept/U.D.O. style and other times appear to be phased up a few tones for maximum screechiness (“iron throne”, for one).

But it’s certainly a huge step up from what we had on hand two years back, and one that approaches the comparative heights of their second album, which featured, it must be noted, someone who was little more than a guest singer (now making waves in the current iteration of Silent Force).

As such, to say that Bloodbound may finally be coming into their own as a band isn’t all that much of a stretch.

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Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter (AFM Records) (December 2)

Playing in the same general ballpark as the excellent Triaxis, Norway’s Triosphere delivers busy if perhaps overly processed guitars and throaty, especially deep vocals from one Ida Haukland.

The simplest comparison would be to say Triaxis by way of Battle Beast with Herman Li-style incredibly artificial sounding processing on the guitar tone and Veronica Freeman from Benedictum on vocals, but that would be a tad disingenuous: while an especially deep alto, Haukland is still quite recognizably female…

There’s a bit more of a modern feel that incorporates some weird melange of emo and country pop despite its overall metallic bent, and even some of that stuttering machine gun death metal thing Echoes of Eternity did so well back in The Forgotten Goddess days (too bad about that follow up album, there…), but the end result just comes off too strange to shelve alongside Rage and Retribution, Steel or the self titled Battle Beast among the all too rarified genre of superior modern (and coincidentally female fronted) metal albums of the last few years.

It’s interesting material delivered by what is without question a strong band of up and comers, but there’s something off kilter if not offputting about it that prevents it from clicking as well as some of its elements would suggest.

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Korzus – Legion (AFM Records) (November 18)

Brazilian thrash metal.  Not blackened thrash, mind – no early Sepultura, Vulcano or Sarcofago here.  Nor is it as impressive as any of those bands were in their formative days, or similarly minded thrash (or blackened thrash) acts from South American climes such as Bestial Holocaust circa Final Extermination or Witchtrap circa No Anaesthesia.

Instead, what you get here is an almost slavish (if modernistic) take on the chunkier, pure thrash metal iteration of Sepultura (think somewhere between Beneath the Remains and Chaos A.D.) but with awful vocals.

Musically speaking, it’s hyperaggressive and tight, making it a safe if somewhat generic choice for younger thrash aficionados – this style of tightly triggered, overly processed and indistinguishably in your face ProTools sound doesn’t work half so well as the classic or retro style for those more inclined to the heyday of the Bay Area, Teutonic or Brazilian variants of the thrash scene.

But that’s not a deal breaker – what may be are the vocals, which are occasionally reminiscent of Tom Araya tonally, but tend heavily towards being little more than a monotone yell throughout.  It’s not death metal, black metal, thrash or even aggro, really – just some guy shouting at you ceaselessly and without even a hint of variation of tone, at the top of his lungs.

I understand these guys have been poking around the Brazilian thrash scene for decades, which may or may not account for the tightness of the musicianship here – then again, that could just be all that soulless click track post production everyone strives for these days, who knows.  But by comparison with a whole lot of stuff getting released in the field nowadays, there’s certainly more than enough classic Sepultura with touches of Slayer to give this one a comparative thumbs up.

But trust me – the question of whether you think this is a really great thrash album (which I could certainly see credible arguments being made in favor of) or more of a generic also-ran will inevitably hinge on how much the vocals either appeal to or conversely irritate the living shit out of you.

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HAREM SCAREM – Thirteen (Frontiers Music srl) (December 5)

After a rather good re-recording of 1983’s Mood Swings last September, Canadian AOR rockers Harem Scarem make an effective “comeback” from a long hiatus with what turns out to be…wait for it…album number Thirteen.  How Van Halen, if not Led Zeppelin of them…

As noted last year, I’m not all that huge a fan of Harry Hess’ raspy Bryan Adams by way of John Schlitt-like vocals, but they’re certainly listenable enough and provide a reasonably appropriate accompaniment to the band’s centerpiece, namely the progressively tinged guitarwork of Pete Lesperance.

Keeping things simple enough for a pop radio cum AOR audience, Lesperance still manages to slip in enough complication and quirkiness into the material to keep fellow guitarists (and musicians per se) paying close attention.  The songs are well structured, and solos are flashy as hell (if generally sticking to a more traditionally legato approach) without ever going overboard.

There’s not a lot for drummer Creighton Doane to do here, but he holds up the back end well enough, allowing Lesperance to play with the rhythms and syncopate more than listeners to this style of music are likely to expect, much less be accustomed to hearing on such an ostensibly “safe” and melodically oriented release.

Frontiers builds its ever increasing reputation on putting out any number of quality albums by bands both reunited and new, but even with a generally high bar being set across the board, some releases, some bands are more special than others.  And with Pete Lesperance effectively leading the charge, Canada’s Harem Scarem are certainly in that latter category of non-metallically oriented rock bands who are simply better than they have any ostensible right to be.

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BAILEY – Long Way Down (Frontiers Music srl) (December 5)

Sounding more like Whitesnake meets Stryper than Three Lions ever could, guitarist/vocalist Nigel Bailey delivers an album that travels more comfortably among 80’s style hard rock/heavy metal than AOR per se.  In fact, opener “feed the flames” sounds enough akin to the aforementioned’s “more than a man” to give pause, while still managing to take matters into an entirely different direction.

Driven by the mildly quavering, occasionally a tad gruff yet smoothly melodic vocal style of the surprisingly American-sounding Briton, Bailey draws heavily from the John Sykes school of songwriting, with chunky Whitesnake style barre chords augmented by nigh-Thin Lizzy melodic lines and harmony leads. 

There are bridges, modulations and shifts in tone that musicians in the hard rock and metal field appear to have all but forgotten since the unwelcome dawn of grunge, industrial and aggro in the early 90’s, making this one of the most listenable albums of its type I’ve come across in some time.  Outside perhaps Voodoo Circle, this is the closest approximation to Slide it In (with decided touches of Sykes or even Gary Moore era Lizzy) any of us have heard since the early to mid-80’s.

Backed up and produced by the ubiquitous Alessandro Del Vecchio and a few fellow Italians (an impressive Marco Percudani on lead guitar and Alessandro Mori on drums), the album is definitely far stronger when it sticks closer to the Sykes paradigm than when it veers a bit into Sammy Hagar era Van Halen territory (as it tends towards in later tracks such as “ticket to yesterday”).  But it’s hardly a slag to say the album’s lower points bring 5150 or OU812 to mind…

In all, this is one of the more likeable Frontiers releases of late, which given the label’s typical high standards of quality is certainly saying something.  An easy thumbs up.

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Allen/Lande – The Great Divide (October 17) (Frontiers Music srl)

When I first started shifting the podcast from its original cult/indie film focus to a more musically focused one but prior to the implementation of the monthly roundup reviews, I got a package of CDs that contained, among other notables since reviewed on the site, a fellow named Jorn Lande.

Now I didn’t know this guy from Adam, but gave him a decent review for his fairly obvious homages to the late Ronnie James Dio and Oni Logan of Lynch Mob despite finding the intended symphonic element somewhat lacking in the material.  It was a reasonably good hard rock/heavy metal album, in other words.

So here we are a few years on, and Lande returns to view in conjunction with another vocalist, Russell Allen of Symphony X for an album that finds the two trading vocal spots over the music of Stratovarius/Ring of Fire guitarist/vocalist/producer Timo Tolkki.

As one might expect from a Tolkki production, this is fairly straightforward, generally positive toned if not uplifting power metal effort throughout.  While I wasn’t able to discern a tremendous amount of distinction between the two vocalists, I did certainly manage to pick out Lande’s cleaner, more Dio-like tones on his tracks.

Both vocalists seem to be respectable enough, if a tad generic for the style, alternating between soaring parts and gravelly rasps (Lande is far less grating than Allen in this respect, but both succumb to the sandpaper more than the material demands).  Tolkki does seem to tailor Lande’s tracks a bit towards his strengths, with songs like “lady of winter” sounding like some long suppressed Dio bonus track, but all of the material is rather sound in construction and of consistent quality throughout.

While I certainly preferred Lande’s moments in the sun to Allen’s, you really can’t go wrong here if you’re a fan of melodic power metal.

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Sonny Simmons & Moksha Samnyasin – Nomadic (Svart Records) (November 28)  

Somewhere in between that trancey, Indian raga feel of the expansive, nigh-free jazz of the John Coltrane/Eric Dolphy collaborations and the more grounded audio experimentation of Sonic Youth lies Nomadic, a collaboration of long-retired jazz saxophonist Sonny Simmons (who vanished from the scene at the dawn of the 1970’s, only to reappear for an oddly more prolific recorded career in the early millennium) and a trio of much younger French aficionados going by the rather awkward moniker of Moksha Samnyasin.

Those expecting more of a jazz touch ala Trane, Ornette Coleman or even the freakout big bandisms of Sun Ra are sure to be disappointed. As with Miles Davis’ final experiment in genre crossover Doo-Bop, the sound and feel, ebb and flow of the music is directed primarily by the newbies, with Simmons laying down slow and subtle legato lines that serve more as comment than directive, passenger rather than captain or even copilot.

What results is a very ’90’s style, New York underground sound that borrows equally from hazy nostalgia for the drug influenced head music of the late ’60’s and the grittier, darker sounds of postpunk and no wave that came and went with the 1980’s.  Think a darker, less artsy Stereolab with a touch of Glenn Branca and a whole lot of early Sonic Youth, and you’ll get the picture.

As a New Yorker bearing an abiding love for this general sound and movement, I certainly enjoyed this one, and expect it will remain on the player for some time to come.

But is it jazz?

Plain and simple answer.

Nope.

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Bog Oak – A Treatise on Resurrection and The Afterlife (Svart Records) (November 28)

Ummm…

Ever want to hear an obviously female take on Ace Still, alternating with occasional Lush by way of Darling Buds cum Curve clean ethereal vocal passages, over a somewhat emo-inflected take on Hour of 13?

Yeah, me neither.  But sometimes what you don’t expect can surprise you.

Julie Seymour’s nasty vocals are particularly evil sounding, leaning more towards the black metal (or more precisely, blackened thrash) end of the equation.  While the thinness and lack of basso profundo of the male tone does leave the end result somewhat odd and quirky sounding (which is a noticeably consistent failing among female frontwomen attempting this sort of extreme metal approach to vox), the very fact that she eschews the more standard Angela Gossow death metal belch-growl both plays more to the peculiarities of the female snarl (“singing” this style certainly ain’t, on either side of the gender divide) and helps tremendously in their bid towards credibility, with her all too infrequent clean phrases being both welcome and better suited to contrast with and play against the music behind her.

As for the rest of the band, expect dark and doomy but generic, with more of a modern, emo approach than the more standard Sabbath/Candlemass/Trouble worship bands of this ilk are all too slavishly chained to perpetuating.

It’s interesting, and while hardly the sort of thing I’d run to, the very quirkiness of their approach gives them a leg up on far too many members of the competition these days.

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Lotus Thief – Rervm (Svart Records) (November 28)

Tube amp-style tones ala Monster Magnet or Hawkwind mix with Cure/Church/Echo and the Bunnymen-isms.  It’s an odd melange of early 70’s drug rock, 80’s darkwave and a more modern approach that pulls in black metal blastbeat drumming and Britpop style experimentation that brought totally out of left field acts like Blur to mind (!)

It’s strange and too syncretist for its own good, but there are enough obvious nods to both the “space rock” and 80’s neo-gothic bands they reference to give this a guarded thumbs up.  And regardless of what you make of the admittedly bizarre sound per se, those clean, trancey female vocals certainly help.

Weird. I think I like it.

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K-X-P – History of Techno (Svart Records) (November 14)  

Well…

Let’s be honest, I never liked fucking techno.

Despite getting very much into the short lived drum & bass variant of “electronica” and digging on a lot of club music bordering on trance back in the mid to late 90’s, there were two styles that would just piss me off whenever some taste-lacking DJ decided to give ’em a spin: the annoying, whiny-voiced Latino dominated freestyle subgenre…and fucking techno.

Yeah, I can’t even say fucking “techno” without prefacing it with a swear word.

Oh, yeah, these guys even dredge up that old Terrence MacKenna bullshit about dance music and shamanism.  Hey, I liked The Shamen too, for the all of 5 minutes they were popular.  But if you’re looking into that general ballpark, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult did it one (ahem) hell of a lot better, with and without Tom Thorn in tow.  The rest were just dabblers, in the end…

So I guess if you long for the days of brain-eating spongiform enhancing Ecstasy, glow sticks and Dr. Seuss hats with baby pacifiers, this may appeal to you.

Me?

Fuck, no.

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Bhleg – Draumr Àst (Nordvis) (December 1)

Aspiring to the sort of mournfully atmospheric sound Sepulchral bands do so well, Sweden’s Bhleg make the same mistake as most black metal acts hailing from their icy shores, in grounding any such melancholic or majestically gothic sentiment in a flurry of obviousness, all in your face guitars and vocals and far too much emphasis on speed.

While we’re hardly talking Marduk here, this still fails to reach even the level of Norway’s Tsjuder atmospherically.  They seem to have the right general idea, but it gets bogged down by often sub-Mutiilation guitars and poorly mixed blastbeat drumming, alternating with a few nigh-ambient tracks that just go nowhere.

As noted, the vocals are VERY MUCH UPFRONT AND IN YOUR FACE with that sort of uncalled for emphasis, leaving the somewhat sloppy sounding guitars to trail awkwardly just behind.  By contrast, the drums are shoved so far to the back of the mix, it’s hard to pick up much beyond the snare.  Hell, do they even have a bass in there?

I do appreciate this general approach to black metal far more than the ubiquitous “modern” sound that apes the likes of Watain and Mortuus era Marduk (public service message: two bands that sound like that are quite sufficient, thanks. The rest of you kids, find your own damn sound, or pick a better role model already), so I do hesitate to knock these guys overmuch. 

And honestly, with repeated plays, the non-instrumental tracks did start to grow on me.  But it does seem like dicey production and some extremely awkward mixing has severely sabotaged what could have been a much better album.

Look, it’s really not bad, and shows definite promise, if they can get somebody to shove all this whole production back a few dozen yards, musically speaking.  In other words, next time, add a little reverb and ambience.  Equalize the instruments a bit.

And drop the aimless ambient bits, they really don’t work.

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Grift & Saiva – Skarprättaren & Sjiedvárre (Nordvis) (January 19)  

Is this really the same Grift of Fyra Elegier?  That’s what listeners will doubtless find themselves asking for just about 3 minutes of the 7 minute track the band contributes to this brief split.

Thankfully, after this uncharacteristic and overly lengthy mellow instrumental intro, a far more familiar Grift pours into frame right about the halfway mark, building from what from that point becomes a strong start to a suitably dramatic build.  For the life of me, I can’t fathom why they’d append such a boring pastoral…let’s be honest, 3 minutes is a fucking song, not an intro!…onto what is otherwise a continuation (and productionwise, development) of the sound fans have become accustomed to.

If you just scroll up to about 2:47 every time, it’s a damn good song.

Next up comes Saiva, another band of melancholically inclined black metallers from Sweden with zero debt to their all too influential countrymen peers.  These guys seem to tap more into the Ulver cum Vintersorg by way of Primordial school of thought, with pagan/Viking style chanting punctuated by the standard snarls and growls.  You could even toss Frost-era Enslaved into the comparisons here, albeit more vocally than musically in any real respect.  It’s not bad, and maintains much of the atmosphere set by Grift on the flipside.

In all, a very worthy split, that leaves me eager for full lengths by both bands involved herein.

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MIRNA’S FLING : for the love of me (Trollmusic)

Dark folkie schmutter along the lines of Nick Drake being covered by Jakob Dylan.  There are unfortunate veerings into more of a Julian Lennon territory that result from the addition of piano, which comes off less the intended Leonard Cohen by way of Tori Amos vibe than a far lighter, cheesier neo-pop ala The Wallflowers, Crash Test Dummies or likeminded yuppie “rock” favorites of the past decade or two.

When mainman Arjan Hoekstra really digs down into his own inner darkness and melancholia, things certainly do turn interesting, but this almost inevitably takes place in the more guitar/dobro based compositions rather than the pianistic ones (which indubitably fall into the cheesier ballpark noted with no small measure of sarcasm above).

There are exceptions on both directions (“for the love of me” is so arch and ironic, it’s practically camp despite the lack of keyboard accompaniment, “goodbye” nearly achieves its obviously Cohenistic goal of sheer afterhours introspection and despair), but my advice for next time is stop tickling the ivories and stick to the (handheld) stringed instruments.

And while we’re talking much needed tweaks, please do all of us a favor and leave the vague but lingering stink of postmodernism and self-conscious irony behind next time around.  One Smashmouth and a Barenaked Ladies on the side are quite more than enough, thank you very much…

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Darkher “The Kingdom Field” (Prophecy Productions)

Working ostensibly the same tilling ground as Mirnas Fling but with a far greater level of efficacy comes Yorkshire-bred English rose Jayn H. Wissenberg, whose sparse, nigh-Chris Isaak or Sono Morti soundscapes are built around droning distorted guitar lines and clumsy yet appropriate drumming.

Atop this minimalist yet effective setting, Wissenberg’s wispy ethereal vocals drift in and out like a ghostly apparition over these haunted lands, resulting in a far less affected or contrived variant of Projekt Records style darkwave.  If Sandy Denny were alive, well and about the same age as she was when recording Northstar Grassmen and the Ravens, she’d very likely have produced material not all that far removed from what’s being vetted out here.

For this general area of darkwave inflected, neo-Western gothic folk, you probably can’t find a more solid release than this.  Dare I call it close to perfection within the parameters being worked here?

Very, very good stuff.

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Sleeping Pulse – Under The Same Sky (Prophecy Productions) (November 4th)

With that same vaguely emo feel as you get from the music they play on all those crappy teen oriented CW shows, Sleeping Pulse draws in equal measure from a vague 80’s style darkwave sound and that annoying quavering, sing out of the corner of the mouth countrified whininess of grunge and the snarky yuppie/hipster music that followed in its wake.

Don’t ask me to name specific bands, because I avoid music containing this sort of vocal like the plague.  All I can say is they play it while you shop at the local supermarket and at occasional get togethers with since-yuppified former coworkers or schoolmates.

If you can get past the yaoowwww nyaaaahhhwww waahhhww quiver quiver vocals, the guitars, keyboards and understated drums fall somewhere between AFI and a more aggressive variant of the sort of band you find on Projekt Records.  In other words, it’s fairly unspectacular, but certainly more than listenable.

They just need to lose the singer and all the obviously precontrived “sensitivity and emotion”.  Vile Valo he’s not.

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Manimalism – S/T (Adversum) (November 17)  

OK, this I do not get.

Norwegian black metal from the dawn of the 90’s.  Think anything from the obvious (Mayhem, Burzum, early Ulver, eventually Immortal and Gorgoroth) to the worthy yet obscure (the Thorns, Manes and Fleurety demos, earlier Tulus), and you’ll have a basic picture of what second wave black metal is all about, and why an entire genre coalesced around this sound and feel.

What even the most adventurous of adherents, fans and collectors of the sound, period and locale would not expect, or perhaps even accept, given how orthodox things can get in this particular subgenre, is the sort of bizarro post-Spiritual Healing Chuck Schuldiner atonal semi-musical meanderings on display here.

Apparently dropping a few demos under the name of Taarenes Vaar back in the mid ’90’s, Kim Solve and friends offered weirdo sub-Bowie or Television Personalities style Rudy Vallee croons about “the cocktail party to end them all”, “the dandified and the devilish” and “demons in tuxedos”.

While the obvious if tongue in cheek nods to Decadence are duly noted with an appreciative salute of the wine snifter, this is simply not the sort of thing the black metal crowd is likely to latch onto.

While the guitars are thick and droning enough to approach the Snorre Ruch stylings that built the underpinnings of the genre (in first Stigma Diabolicum, then Thorns and eventually co-opted for the only listenable studio release from Mayhem), there are far too many off kilter oddities and offputting dissonances to resonate with crowds not altogether appreciative of the likes of Tulus.  It’s got a lot of the right feel, in other words, but something is rather off in the equation.

Personally, I found myself rather enjoying it for all it’s strangeness and vague Grymrykisms and Trondertunisms, and found the affected if slumming dissolute aristocratic approach of the vocals and lyrics quite likeable and amusing.  But I’m also a huge fan of Bowie’s Thin White Duke Berlin period, a lifelong goth and most importantly, a true Decadent at core.

Self consciously “evil” types who spend their corpsepainted eventides awash in butcher shop blood and spikes, shrieking earnestly about satan all the while simply need not apply.

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CENTINEX – Redeeming Filth (Agonia Records) (November 21 EU/December 9 US)

Fuuuck, somebody out there actually gets it.

Old school death metal in the general vein of the more obscure US based death metal acts of the genre’s heyday (essentially 1990-93), you get Baphomet-style vox with Morrisound-like chorus backup screams ala the Glen Benton guest spots of the time, over thin toned but hyperaggressive guitars (sort of a “crunchy tube amp sound”, if you can picture such a beast) and typewriter-esque drums that rely less on the laziness of D-bass kits and triggers than good old fashioned analog style footwork.

It’s really good, and stood out like a shiny diamond amidst an ocean of modernistic black metal posing as death metal bullshit that passes for a scene nowadays. I’d be lying not to admit my ears perked right up and pupils widened into an unexpected attention within the first few bars of the album.

I’ve certainly heard the name of Centinex before, but can’t claim to recall any of their earlier work – they apparently took part in the early Swedish death metal scene, but sound nothing like such compatriots as Carnage, Nihilist or the half dozen bands that sprung from their membership rosters. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing that says Tomas Skogsberg, Sunlight Studios or Boss HM-2 on this album – in fact, with the exception of “death glance”, the sound is far closer to an Obituary injected with the venomous aggression of Demolition Hammer.

But take my word for it…that’s one hell of a compliment. An easy four stars, and if you’re comparing against what passes for “death metal” these days, give it an extra star.

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VARATHRON – Untrodden Corridors of Hades (Agonia Records) (November 21)

Another long running band I have no prior experience with comes courtesy of Greece this time around, home of Rotting Christ, No Remorse Records, Enemy of Reality and…well, the great Nico Mastorakis.

Apparently brothers Haris and Sotiris Kakkinos and company have been poking around since the late 80’s, delivering that oddly Greek variant of melodic, somewhat death metal sounding black metal for four albums, two EPs and a slew of demos and splits over the past 25 years or so (albeit generally within two distinct four year periods per decade…what was that all about, anyway?).  But yeah, never heard of ’em before.

To compare these guys to Sakis and Themis Tolis’ long running act would be a bit too obvious, and somewhat of a disservice to the Tolises, who tend to provide a far catchier, more likeably riff based formula than their more generically inclined countrymen.

In fact, it appears that the main focus of Varathron is to be deliberately “satanic”, with bits of ritual invocation and juvenile “spit on the cross and deny Christ” Satanic Bible bullshit tending to take precedence over any real measure of listenability.

While “realm of obscure” does an admirable job of snatching the melodic extreme metal crown from Rotting Christ for 7 minutes and 42 seconds worth of the album’s running time, the remainder falls remarkably flat by comparison, failing to even truly distinguish itself, much less repeat this lone success. And that’s unfortunate.

That one lone track showed actual promise.

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Sepulchral Temple – S/T (Invictus Productions) (November 24)  

Several minutes of excruciating build results in a short burst of liveliness.  Rinse, repeat.  That’s one half of the release down…

No, wait, second track, same formula. Or is that track 3, since both tracks are appended by a pointless ambient “outro”?  That’s right, while it may appear to be a four track EP, what you’re actually getting here is two lone tracks followed by about a minute of garbage apiece.

Selah.

Well, it’s certainly dark and sort of mournful at times, but really nothing significant to speak of unless you’re a fan of black metal pretending to be death metal (or perhaps even doom, as some sources would suggest).

Harmless, but nothing special.

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EXECRATION (Norway) – Morbid Dimensions (Hells Headbangers) (North America) (December 9)

Weirdly experimental black metal with strong djent leanings and inclinations.

Not the worst thing to pass across my desk, but they certainly chose the right moniker for the sound they seem to be shooting for – it is indeed fairly execrable.  Only a few short phrases near the end of “miasmal sabbath” show any actual promise.

This label generally has much better taste.

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NUNSLAUGHTER / PERVERSOR Split 7″ (Hells Headbangers) (October 24)

Long running Midwestern blackened thrashers Nunslaughter offer some particularly aggressive tracks herein, likely in an effort to match co-headliners Perversor in their Morbid Angel by way of Sarcofago Chilean blackened death-thrash approach.

In the grand scheme of things, Perversor take this one hands down with their hyperactive yet reasonably precision based assault, but Third Eye regulars know of my affection for the leading act well enough to realize this is hardly a slag in so noting.  Recommended.

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NUNSLAUGHTER / WITCHTRAP – Split 7″ (Hells Headbangers) (October 24)

And here, Nunslaughter practically go off the rails with songs so speedy and nasty it seems like they’re about to fall apart at the seams. Interestingly, they titled both of these in Spanish, which neither of their splits’ compatriot acts have done…and they’re both from South America! Got me…

While Witchtrap has since failed to match, much less top their defining career high point of No Anaesthesia (still one of my favorite post-1992 thrash albums ever), both “sex commander” and “the devil’s on the loose” certainly hearken back to the lyrical and sonic approach of earlier (and still much beloved) efforts such as Witching Metal and Sorceress Bitch over the disappointingly bloated and dispirited misstep of Vengeance is my Name.  One can only hope this signals a much needed return to form for the stalwart Columbian classic metal militia.

If so, sign me on for their next album…8 years is too long of a wait for a proper followup.

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SHED THE SKIN – Rebirth Through Brimstone (7″ EP) (Hells Headbangers) (December 12)

OK, this is unusual.  Ash Thomas, who I spoke with in his role as part and parcel of the excellent and long running horror punk band The Vladimirs appears to have vacated the drum stool in favor of Incantation’s Kyle Severn, working some serious if unexpected old school death metal vocals over the guitars of a certain Matt Sorg.

The riffing is a bit too busy for my tastes, but there’s no denying the quality of the drumming here, and as noted, both Thomas’ vocals and to some extent the production are surprisingly credible and reminiscent of the sort of thing coming out of Morrisound, Sunlight and wherever the hell Colin Richardson felt like recording back in the day.  Just check out those reverbed, whammy bar inflected guitar solos if you’re feeling nostalgic…

I understand this is a preview for an upcoming full length, and while I’d certainly prefer to hear more news on the Vladimirs front, if we’re jumping tracks entirely into old school-reminiscent death metal, I’m certainly on board for this one.

Pretty good, particularly given what little of value we’re otherwise seeing produced in this general style nowadays.

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PORTAL / BLOOD OF KINGU – Split 7″ (Hells Headbangers) (November 24) 

errrr…

well…

OK, so…Portal disguise themselves under the names of “Horror Illogium” and “The Curator”, which admittedly sounds pretty evocative until you play the track.  Which is just a huge fucking mess.

Sounding like an angry 16 year old thrasher picking up a guitar for the first time and just wheedling away as fast as his untrained fingers will fly, the general sound is like a tape on high speed rewind, or a particularly awkward Morbid Angel solo played in reverse.  No variation, it never starts or stops or pauses for a bridge, chorus or time change.  Just a mess of quirky food processor set on high gobbledygook with some guy picking random moments to vocalize death metal barks and grunts over the top.

What the hell were you guys thinking?

At least Blood of Kingu appear able to play their damn instruments.  Oddly, what little vocals there are don’t arrive till a good 4 minutes in to a 5 1/2 minute track –  the rest is dark toned black metal driven by tremelo and blastbeats, but with a general death metal feel.

Nothing particularly impressive about it, but after the childishness of Portal, these guys end up coming off like Yngwie Malmsteen playing against the stars of your high school talent show.

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NEKROFILTH – Filling My Blood With Poison… (Hells Headbangers) (November 24) 

Much shittier production than Devil’s Breath, but in an odd sort of way, it suits them.

All mids, sounds like it’s recorded through a single hanging microphone while the band plays at the bottom of a subway terminal, it’s the closest thing you’ll hear nowadays to an 80’s live bootleg of Slayer – not in musical terms, but in the sense of being that sort of incredibly low quality, overdriven recording.

If anything, this results in the band sounding looser, punkier and far more aggressive than last time around, with the Demolition Hammer feel coming off far nastier and more raw than the comparatively precise production of their prior album ever could. 

They compare themselves to any number of grindcore and likeminded punk bands, actually going so far as to cover G.B.H. herein.  And you can certainly see why – it’s all raw, violent energy and very, very underground in tone.

I liked it a lot.

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Spire (Australia) – Metamorph 12″ MLP (Iron Bonehead) (December 8) 

Slow to sub-midtempo black metal of the more modernistic persuasion.  Went nowhere. 

Was there a purpose to this?  To quote from Johnny Yune in They Call Me Bruce, “ah don’ geeeet it.”

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Vircolac – Codex Perfida TAPE (Iron Bonehead) (December 22)

Irish death metal?  Who ever imagined such a thing?

Well, the land of the Pogues and Primordial has indeed tripped the light fantastic into full bore blackened death metal territory courtesy of these four Dubliners, and if it weren’t for the musical lilt to the narration during “the worm turns”, you’d be hard pressed to tell this didn’t hail from more familiar shores.

Featuring a snarling black metal-like vocal from Invictus Productions’ Darragh O’Laighre, this release is fairly underproduced, leaving guitars, bass and drums to blur into a hazy, thumping drone of sorts.  But attentive listeners can still pick out the general quality of Colin Purcell’s kitwork, all pounding double bass, syncopation and aggressive tom rolls when not falling back on those damn lazy blastbeats extreme metal appears to have adopted as an unwelcome “go to” measure cross-stylistically.  To the extent he actually works the drums, he’s really quite good and is certainly the standout member in that respect.

Otherwise, this is a fairly standard modern underground black metal affair, neither good or excruciating enough to make any particular note of.  If you dig the blackened thing death metal appears to be prone towards these days and don’t mind the sort of production that sounds like the band was recorded under a heavy woolen blanket, you’ll probably enjoy this as well.

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Kult Ofenzivy – Nauky ruznic LP (Iron Bonehead) (November 17)

Czech metal.  Master’s Hammer, Triumph Genus, the other Tormentor (not the Atilla Csihar or pre-Kreator ones).  The sort of weird but interesting stuff that inspired folks like Oystein Aarseth to invent what became the second wave of black metal back in the day.

So here we have another in a long line of likeminded, similarly toned acts hailng from Czechoslovak shores, and as expected, it’s all imperious, declamatory Atilla-style vocals over oddly circular, not especially Western harmonic scale oriented old school black metal.  Just to make things extra weird, it’s all one long track, which is noted as “Parts I thru V”.

Who the hell knows what they’re singing about.  And honestly, who cares?  If you dig bands like this, you know exactly what to expect, and Kult Ofenzivy delivers in spades.

Thumbs up.

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Cadaveric Fumes / Demonic Oath – Entwined In Sepulchral Darkness – split MLP (Iron Bonehead / Impious Desecration)  (November 28)  

OK, first Ireland, now France is belatedly jumping on the death metal train.  Cadaveric Fumes are pretty modern and definitely underground, with the same sort of cavernous reverb you see with bands like Zom (though hardly suffused in that extreme a layering of digital delay). 

I hear too many bands like this to be impressed with the style anymore.  Not bad at all, but more of the same old, same old.

Demonic Oath buries the vocals even deeper in the mix, and ups the reverb quotient significantly on vox while simultaneously bringing the guitars (and to a lesser extent, drums) to a dry mixed forefront. 

They ascribe to more of a tremelo and blastbeat thing than the more standardized death metal approach of Cadaveric Fumes, but also slow things down for a lengthy breakdown during “soul redeeming carrion rite”.  I liked that part a lot, but otherwise, this one also failed to really stand out from the pack all that much.

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Blaspherian – Upon the Throne…of Eternal Blasphemous Death 7″ EP (Iron Bonehead) (November 28)  

Blackened death metal again, but with strong elements of older school sentiment and influence.

I sort of liked it, but it didn’t exactly blow my mind.  Think Suffocation crossed with Baphomet, but with strong black metal touches.

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Cult of Fire – Ctvrtá Symfonie Ohne 7″ EP (Iron Bonehead) (December 8)

As the strange, oddly sinister portrait on the cover suggests, this is something of a return to form for the Czechs, leaving behind the annoying overproduction, generic sound and bibbity bobbity boo Sanskrit gibberish of last October’s unpronounceable (and unlikeable) effort in favor of a more varied, dramatic and typically quirky production worthy of a black metal leaning underground act hailing from Czechoslovak climes.

While comprised of a mere two tracks, Ctvrta Symfonie Ohne says more in its brief running time than last year’s rather misguided effort ever could.  A definite thumbs up.

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Witchrist – Vritra 12″ MLP (Iron Bonehead) (December 31)

Recruiting Okoi Thierry “KzR” Jones from Bolzer of Aura and Soma fame on vocals, these Kiwi death metallers deliver a particularly noisy pseudo-retro approach that appears vaguely indebted to Grotesque, albeit without the appealing oddness of Kristian “Necrolord” Wahlin’s quirky noodling guitar lines.

Jones’ vocals seem to suit their heavily detuned guitars and bursts from lumbering single note riffs into frenzied motion unusually well, and the production is good enough that the out of tune guitars actually start to grate on the listener a bit, particularly in the doomier single note/whole tone chord sections.

There’s enough about this that works to give it a recommendation, though it’s hardly a revelation in any real respect.  Consider this a slightly guarded thumbs up.

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Volahn – Aq’ab’al (Iron Bonhead / The Ajna Offensive / Crepusculo Negro) (January 9)

When introduced to this act on last summer’s Black Twilight Circle compilation album, I  noted Volahn’s contribution “Yaxche” as bearing somewhat of a more solemn atmosphere than the other bands showcased, while retaining no small measure of the awkwardness and clunkiness endemic to most of the acts involved.  The drums were sloppy, the riffing strange, it never really gelled the way it should have.  It was probably one of the better tracks on the comp, but just didn’t work.

So what happened?

Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t precisely my cup of tea when it comes to black metal.

There’s precious little of that trademark cold wintry forest feel, no sense of wandering forgotten ruins, none of the mournful feel of the French Legions Noires/Sepulchral Records bands, the classic Bathory by way of Brazilian and Teutonic blackened thrash sound or the grim, tremelo driven atmospherics of the Norwegian approach. 

But any way you slice it, this is a damn sight more accomplished than “Yaxche”!

Seriously – the production is leagues ahead of what was heard on that earlier track, the drums are far more precise and much of the hesitancy and uncertainty has been reined in, resulting in a more concise and comparatively polished production that while retaining much of the intrinsic strangeness of the man’s approach to the genre, results in a far more listenable affair.

Sure, the drums are still kind of sloppy (particularly that blastbeat snare, which continually veers off meter and misses beats at random intervals), but this is so far removed from last summer’s showing as to seem an entirely different band.

Thumbs up for the tremendous improvement, if nothing else.

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Orcultus – Black Rust TAPE (Forever Plagued) (November 13)

More of the same from Sweden’s Orcultus, who provided us with a questionable self titled 7″ back in February, with an odd approach defined by rambling songs prone to aimless meandering before closing out on a surprisingly strong finish…on just about every single track.

Here the pointedly anonymous duo follow a worthier path, delivering 7 far more consistent voyages into the black unknown that, while slightly prone to a certain feeling of repetition in the later half, nonetheless represents a major improvement on the formula. 

Comparisons were made to Horna in the press materials, and while that may still remain something of a stretch, you can certainly ponder that one without snorting derisively this time around. 

You know, not quite, but maybe…

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Orcultus – Endless Hate & Misanthropy TAPE (Forever Plagued) (November 13)

Here we jump back in time a year for a reissue of the band’s debut EP, and once again, it shows a far more developed, quite Gorgoroth inspired band than the one we got on the self titled.

Which came afterwards, mind.

Which also came before Black Rust.

So at this point, you have to wonder.  Are bands like Orcultus just ill served by good production?  Or were they reaching for something they ultimately failed to attain back in February’s self titled?

In either case, there is far less melancholic bombast and drama to be found in either of these surrounding releases than the close of such songs as “Tribus” and “Unus”, but at the same time, the band displays far more consistency and unity on these two releases, despite (or perhaps due to) far worse production and an arguably more simplistic approach to the material.

Listening back to the self titled in light of these two releases, I can certainly appreciate its merits far more than its flaws could ever grate, and there are certainly elements present therein that Black Rust could have benefited from retaining. 

But short of expanding their penchant for particularly effective denouements into worthier full length affairs, I have to thank Forever Plagued for releasing (or re-releasing) these surrounding efforts to put this band into better perspective.

Who knows, they may wind up as another Gorgoroth yet.

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Ill Omen – Remnant Spheres of Spiritual Equilibrium LP (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (December 15)

More nigh-ambient droning with occasional whisper-chant-growled vocals from the guys who brought us Enthroning the Bonds of Abhorrence back in October.

Unfortunately, this is no real progression from that album’s general zeitgeist, and actually comes off far less adventurous and interesting the second time around, whether by comparison or on its own intrinsic merits.

Only four tracks, which are pretty samey throughout.  If pressed, I’d have to say “subterranean litany” is the one to sample, but that may give a better impression of what else awaits herein.

Unless you’re a completist, stick with Enthroning the Bonds of Abhorrence.

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StarGazer – A Merging to the Boundless LP/CD (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (December 8)

Noisy, hyperactive, caffeine and speed-driven Australian black cum death metal with prog to djent leanings.  Sure, they can turn on a dime and the drummer really knows how to work his way through some awkwardly fluid time signature shifts with panache. 

But if I want prog, I’ll listen to Fates Warning or even early Watchtower, not some extreme metal band.  Well, at least one not going by the name of Believer…

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Skelethal – Interstellar Knowledge of the Purple Entity 12″ MLP (Iron Bonehead) (November 28)  

Even more classic Sunlight Studios-style Swedish death metal worship from the Frenchmen responsible for March’s excellent Deathmanicvs Revelation.

I’m actually tempted to say this is a marked improvement, which is really saying something, because I absolutely loved the last album.  Come on, they even do a dead on cover of old Carnage chestnut “torn apart”…

If you need to ask, you just haven’t been listening.

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Morbosidad – Tortura MLP (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (December 15)  

Old school Brazilian style blackened thrash in the vein of early Sepultura, Vulcano and Sarcofago, but hailing from California of all places.  The band had enough bad vibes surrounding it to have lost two drummers in an almost Spinal Taplike run of tragedy and ill luck, only nobody’s laughing here.

Reforming in an entirely new Texan locale, the band continues it’s brutal, almost Blasphemy-esque cross between classic blackened thrash and the noisier related variant of black metal since designated as “war metal”.  It’s really rather good, and far more precise than comparisons to the likes of Beherit may indicate.

Four tracks simply isn’t enough.  Here’s hoping the band can break that streak of bad luck that seems to dog them at every turn, and drop a full length on us soon.

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Gnosis (Florida) – The Third-Eye Gate LP/CD (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (January 15)  

Floridian blackened death metal in the best sense, more in line with “blackened thrash” than the bullshit “black in death’s clothing” they try to pass off as a death metal scene these days.  These guys don’t seem to have even heard of Watain, much less have the zombie like urge to shamelessly ape them as so many of their supposed peers are given to…

The press release made a comparison to Mystifier, and you know what, there’s some truth to that.  If Mystifier could actually play their instruments and actually had a measure of structure to their songs, they might actually have sounded a bit like Gnosis…

While this sort of music has an unfortunate tendency towards saminess, Gnosis offers enough variation in tempo, stylistic approach and riff structure from song to song to actually keep things interesting over the course of the album’s eight tracks and two ambient bookends.  Hell, even the closing one of those was pretty damn good, making it surprisingly apropos rather than bizarre that this actually turns out to be the album’s title track!

In all a surprisingly strong debut from the state that otherwise gave us ‘stand your ground’ laws, rigged voting booths and Jeb Bush…

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Infra (Portugal) – Initiation on the Ordeals of Lower Vibrations 7″ EP (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (January 15)

Buddhist temple prayer bells ringing unexpectedly gives way to a lumbering, Asphyx-style death metal.  It’s rather well produced, if you don’t mind a gaping, sucking maw in the apparent total absence of mids – expect a unique cross between crisp brightness on the vocals and cymbals with everything else buried under a mudslide of molasses, if you can even picture such a thing.

Things never really pick up to even a walking pace, so it’s hard to give this the nod, but it certainly shows promise for those looking for a fairly traditional, if lazily slow bout of death metal.  Not bad.  

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Hands of Orlac – Figli Del Crepuscolo (Horror Records) (November 13)  

Weird but likeable 80’s Italian horror/slasher soundtrack music gives way to a very old school underground proto-black metal cum occult rock that crosses the guitar sound of early Whiplash with the “evil” yet sloppy riffing of bands like Sodom, before tagging in the psychedelic/occult rock female vocals and flute of Ginevra “The Sorceress”. 

The band obviously derives its lyrical approach from the supernaturally oriented horror of 1930’s Hollywood and 1960’s Italian gothic, not only from their choice of moniker, but with tracks like “mill of the stone women” and “coin in the heart” even pulling dialogue from Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura, but it’s all good – hell, I’m Italian and desperately love all that stuff too. 

If you wish Blood Ceremony took their current Pentangle by way of Sandy Denny era Fairport Convention sound a bit more into the black metal arena of early Mercyful Fate, Hands of Orlac provide the answer. 

Quirky as hell, but all the more recommended for it.

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Evil Spirit – Cauldron Messiah (Horror Records) (November 13)

South America gives us an act that truly understands the eerie underpinnings of the sound Black Sabbath gave us on their debut album.

Rather than slavishly yet uncomprehendingly aping like so many bands in the current doom explosion, guitarist Ari Almeida taps into the same spirit as tracks like the eponymous “black sabbath”, “N.I.B.” and “sleeping village” on such affairs as “grey ashes of the reptile” and the title track, all dark single note lines giving way to grinding depressive barre chord bits.  Other tracks stray more into death metal territory, but still wander back to the Sabbath template for a phrase or two between.

The death metal is inoffensive but forgettable, but this is the closest I’ve heard to the true spirit of early (and more particularly gothic) Black Sabbath I’ve heard to date, despite a mountain worth of would be doom acts crossing my desk on a monthly basis. 

Learning a riff is not the same as understanding where it comes from, kids.  Evil Spirit seems to get that.  I dug ’em.

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Metal Cross – Metal Cross 2LP + 7″ (Horror Records) (November 13)  

When it comes to compilations of old material, demos, EPs and albums short enough to fit multiples of on a CD or two, there’s nothing worse than labels that randomly choose things to skip over. 

Well, OK, there’s labels that put out reissues of CDs that used to have the extra material, but drop the extra stuff that made them worth owning in the first place (Def Leppard’s High N’ Dry without “me and my wine”, Heathen’s Breaking the Silence or Kreator’s Endless Pain without the demo material, Slayer’s Show No Mercy without the Chemical Warfare EP appended thereto, and worst of all, Possessed’s Beyond the Gates without the essential Eyes of Horror EP (which is then left unreleased going forward, just to add insult to injury!)  And when they cram two albums on one CD that don’t quite fit, ever notice it’s always the best stuff, the most significant tracks that get dropped, while aimless balladeering and filler remains intact…

So it’s always a pleasure when you get a label like Horror Records, who actually goes the extra mile to ensure that anything and everything of a certain time period winds up in print, on one self contained release.

At their best, Denmark’s Metal Cross come off like some bizarre bouillabaise of countrymen Mercyful Fate, Sweden’s Heavy Load and the overdramatic vocal approach of Diamond Head’s Sean Harris.  It’s very traditional metal, but with some measure of accomplishment and nigh-progressive if not Bay Area thrash influence as we move past the simpler, more Malice or Omen-style material of the first demo.

The only barrier I can see to the band having achieved greater success at the time was a result of both timing and focus.  Now, the main issue here is certainly the former, as in who the hell was playing 1983-style NWOBHM-like metal as late as 1987, when mainstream metal per se was peaking and about to hit a sudden and unexpected decline into Guns N’Roses style Hanoi Rocks/Aerosmith worship and disappear in the wake of Seattle grunge?

But there’s another, more intrinsic issue to be noted as well.  While surprisingly strong for such an obscure find, Metal Cross seems to make tentative steps forward into a more expansive Euro-prog metal sound, then take two steps back into a safer, more basic if not lunkheaded Judas Priest modality, almost at random. 

While it’s incontestable that their live soundboard material is the best and most advanced songwriting (and playing) on display herein, the studio material never really wants to commit to any change in direction, as if the band were afraid to alienate old fans by evolving into something more.  All of the material is more than listenable, but there’s a huge difference between something like “with heart and honour” and the band on stage in 1989…

Because of this, I find the band interesting but spotty, with some very strong material offset by far simpler and occasionally even weak moments. 

But for all of that, Horror Records is to be commended for gathering, mastering and preserving all of this demo, comp and soundboard material from a very obscure band who despite issues noted are more than worthy of reappraisal.

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Scapes – One:Unseen:One (Night in Terrors) (December 1) 

Here’s an oddity for you.  Ever want some Ulver, Moonspell and…er, Crash Test Dummies mixed in with your emo? 

That’s right, it’s a moaning (if not exactly whining) “dark metal” act not all that far removed from the sound and vibe of teen favorites like My Chemical Romance and company, but with a heavier, crunchier edge on certain tracks, particularly “the melancholy cycle” or the Evanescence meets Leaves Eyes by way of Tool (!) gothic metal of “devil may dare”.  It’s wayyyyy too syncretist to sit well with more experienced palates, the same way you lose the taste for pineapple or strawberry soda and pop rocks when you hit puberty. 

Now admittedly, they can play well enough, the music is sufficiently moody, and nothing’s particularly “off” or annoying here.  Hell, vocalist “Olli” certainly has a pleasant enough clean nigh-baritone, so don’t take this as a disgusted slag – it’s just not exactly to my tastes.

Are you surprised a band this weird hails from Finland?

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Henosis (Chile) – Apotheosis Pulsio CLVI double-7″ EP (Blood Harvest) (December 1)

After an annoying, scratchy bit of business involving low chants and guitar feedback, what you get here is four tracks of uber-messy blackened thrash sloppiness along the lines of Mutilator, Mystifier or Chile’s Pentagram.  I love old blackened thrash, particularly the kind hailing from Brazil back in the day, but bands like this are just too noisy and unrefined for my palate – there’s no “crucifixion” or “troops of doom”, “spirits of evil” or even “satanic lust” to hang the album on. 

I guess it works in a pinch for those desperate enough for this general sound, they’re certainly playing in the right ballpark.  But with that out of control blastbeat drumming and vocals mic’ed far louder than the buried guitars? 

Nah, just doesn’t do it for me.

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Bones (Belgium) – Awaiting Rebirth 10″ EP (Blood Harvest) (December 5)

Reasonably traditionalist if unspectacular death metal. 

What’s truly bizarre about an album with guitars quite this trebly, with cymbal and distortion bleed all over the mix, is that you can tell the actual recording was quite clear and pristine – check out those echoing drumstick clicks in the countoff to “awaiting rebirth”. 

So yeah, kids, the band just plays this loud, and apparently never heard of a noise gate or compression…

I guess if you were one of those revisionist types who ran around cursing Scott Burns for making his productions sound too clean and precise, this sort of wall of white noise should be right up your alley.

Me, I’m wondering why the fuck somebody didn’t get the producer off coffee break or the toilet while the tape was running here.

 

 

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