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Holy crap, can you believe it’s August already?  Barely take down the damn Christmas lights, and we’re in heatwave territory.  Put the A/C in the window, and here comes the chill winds of Fall.  Time really isn’t on our side, is it?

Well, this is a doubly odd month, as we have a good dozen returning champions and coulda been a contenders on our plate.  There’ll be a whole lot of seeing how the latest (if unlikely to be greatest) stack up by comparison to last year (or two years back)’s iteration thereof…

So without any further ado, what say we get this show on the road, and let’s get ready to rumble!

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Leaves’ Eyes – King Of Kings (AFM Records) (September 18)

If Symphonies of the Night (and solo effort Vervain) represented Liv Kristine’s homage(s) to her purely gothic roots with Theatre of Tragedy, then King of Kings is a resounding reaffirmation of the glory days of Leaves Eyes.

Utilizing both the conceptual flourishes and traditional instrumentation of Vinland Saga and the later Njord, the band manages to sidestep the overly soft feel that marked those earlier efforts.

Instead, the Krull-Espenaes-Bauer team opts for the more successful path of melding that tender wistfulness with the bombast of Legend Land (and the stronger tracks on Vinland Saga), thereby sidestepping the comparative forgettability of much of the Njord/Meredead era and reaching for the
dramatic contrast intrinsic to the Atrocity/Theatre of Tragedy merger that made, and makes, the band so interesting and valuable in the first place.

Everyone steps up their game here, with even longsuffering standby Thorsten Bauer getting a rare moment to step out of the effective rhythm guitar role to showcase a few flashy licks for a change.  In fact, it begins to feel a bit Shrapnelesque on the solo for “blazing waters”, which came as something of a surprise for longstanding Leaves Eyes fans like us.

All of this should feel very familiar to old school Leaves Eyes fans thrown off by more meandering mid-career efforts like the aforementioned Meredead or the unusually direct and radio-oriented gothicism of Symphonies of the Night (as excellent as that album is in its own right), hearkening fairly directly to the Vinland Saga/Legend Land era, complete with the historical emphasis, anthemic chant-a-long hooks, sparing but noticeable use of traditional instrumentation, thick and chunky guitars, brutal death metal style growl/pukes from producer/co-lead Alex Krull and Liv’s soaring coloratura.

Look, this has long been one of not only my own, but my wife’s favorite bands (ever since that oft-discussed double bill with the Roy Khan era Kamelot), so you’d be hard pressed to get less than a glowing review out of me.

But those of you who walked away around Njord would be well advised to give this one a listen – you may be quite pleasantly surprised at the long awaited return to full fighting form.

Now if only the next album pays homage to personal favorite Lovelorn, the circle can be marked as complete…

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POWERWOLF – Blessed & Possessed (Napalm Records) (July 17)

Cheesy power metal with an even cheesier “satanic werewolf” thing going on imagistically.  When I had Tomas Olsson of Bloodbound on the show, he laughed about how awkward his band’s earlier use of black metal style corpsepaint proved to be, given their own firmly power metal-based sound.  At the very least, it confused audiences both ways – hey, wait, this isn’t a black metal band!  Wait, what the hell are these guys doing at a power metal show?

So you get the idea of what’s intrinsically wrong…or more to the point, “off” about the whole Powerwolf schtick. If you’re looking for “anti-Christian” or “pagan atavist wolves in human skin”, are you really going to grab for an anthemic power metal act?  No, you’re going for Ulver, Watain, Werewolf, or any dozen Swedish, Polish or Norwegian tremelo-picking, blurry black and white photo- sporting, spikes and nails and medieval armor-wearing black metal acts you can name.

It’s hardly a deal breaker, but it’s just fucking weird to see this sort of thing taken wayyyyyy out of context and put in front of, say, Tyr or Orden Ogan, which is what you get here.

Image and lyrical focus aside, this is fairly anthemic, Helloween-inspired power metal with the usual oops I swallowed a lemon back of the throat a-howlin’ an’ a-growlin’ vocals and fist raising chant-a-long choruses sure to be popular with festival crowds across Europe.

Bottom line is, it’s power metal. I listen to the stuff often enough, but it’s more like background music than a go-to genre.  You know it’s safe, and pretty much any band of renown in that style will give you what you’re looking for…but very few if any will actually wow you, surprise you or stand out from the pack.

Hardcore fans of the genre will probably absolutely love this album – it’s very consistent from start to finish and full of catchy hooks and anthemic melodies, and vocalist Attila Dorn keeps things cleaner than most, making them an easier pill to swallow than usual.

Speaking in all objectivity and given the limitations of the field they’re playing in, Powerwolf are really pretty good…just depends how you take all the pseudo-black metal miscegenation and your personal tolerance for some extremely odiferous and somewhat overripe cheese.

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RUSSKAJA – Peace, Love & Russian Roll (Napalm Records) (July 24)

Craziest damn thing you ever heard.

Starts off as a sort of politicized party record with speedy pagan elements (think the more fun elements of Finntroll, Trollfest, Turisas and Alestorm), suddenly goes all 50’s rock with some blazing Chuck Berry meets Gene Vincent by way of Bill Haley leads.  Then we move on to Jamaican ska (complete with horns).  Then things get totally outer space with a trio of countrified ballads (performed in a thick Russian accent, mind), a mariachi with ska elements, a pair of Tejano ska offerings, even a polka ska.

As you can probably tell by now, their core orientation is towards a very genre-crossover oriented ska.  Think of the Two-Tone movement (The Specials, The English Beat, The Selecter, Madness et al), but mixed up with so many weird ethnic traditional sounds as to be nigh-unrecognizable as such.

I don’t think it’s an accident that I’m hearing shades of both Kontrust and Trollfest herein.  Beyond the sheer syncretism of those two bands, Russkaja adopts that same good humored, high energy, all around good time crowd participation vibe those acts have made their core defining elements.

This is the sort of band that will put a smile on even the most dour of faces – it’s literally impossible not to laugh either with or at them, and they’re clearly having such a good time being so openly and abjectly silly, the end result will
always be in their favor.

All the boisterousness of the Slavic races at their most drunken suffuses and informs every note herein.  So what are you waiting for?  Get off your ass, grab a partner and get into it already!

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XANDRIA – Fire & Ashes (Napalm Records) (July 31)

You know, if Liv Kristine ever decided to leave Leaves Eyes, I’d advise Alex Krull to look Dianne Van Giersbergen up.

While she lacks some of the softness and warmth of Norway’s favorite chanteuse, the willowy Van Giersbergen certainly has the chops, range and certain stylistic flourishes that can only be compared to Mme. Espenaes-Krull – and it’s never so prominent as in the three originals herein.

Symphonic bombast that easily tops much of last year’s quite good but often meandering Sacrificium?  Check – try “voyage of the fallen” or “unembraced”, neither of which overstays its welcome much past the 4 minute mark (!) Engaging, dramatic power ballad?  Check – “in remembrance”.

If the EP had ended here, this would have been an easy five star review: it’s clear the band is on an upswing, with each release a clear improvement on the last, and a stellar vocalist (and real looker) at the fore.

The trick is, the EP drags on for four more songs.

Best first: presumably in homage to their erstwhile tourmates, the band covers a classic Sonata Arctica effort in “don’t say a word”.  While it’s pretty much note for note, it feels a bit off to hear Van Giersbergen’s very feminine soprano with coloratura touches where the mind is reaching for Tony Kakko’s light tenor, but still masculine tones.

That said, it’s a very well done cover, complete with the sort of unique touches that make a cover worth hearing – if you’re going to do it note for note, why bother?  You’ll never be as good as the original…and thankfully, Xandria has the taste to take things beyond slavishness, with some interesting contrapuntal vocal bits that complement and choralize with each other quite nicely.  Good job, ladies and gents.

On the other hand, we have a pair of iffy covers from the band’s own past history, namely “ravenheart” and “now and forever”, which apart from nicer vox have little to recommend them over the originals…which hail from the days when Xandria was a more middle of the road, somewhat forgettable gothic metal (skip the symphonic end) act.  Whatever, but sort of a waste to try to revive ’em.

Finally and decidedly least, the band opts to cover tired yuppie mom Meatloaf favorite “I would do anything for love…but I won’t do that!” which is far better as the butt of a joke than it ever was a song.

Again, aside from a bit of mittel-European stiffness (see also Edenbridge’s cover of “for your eyes only”), it’s probably an improvement on the original, but what the hell is THAT saying?  Could be the greatest band and performance on Earth, the bottom line is that you can’t exactly polish a turd…

End result?  Get this one for the first three tracks, which are AMAZING, and skip up to the Sonata Arctica cover.  Just pretend the other 3 tracks never happened.

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YEAR OF THE GOAT – The Unspeakable (Napalm Records) (July 31)

Power metal-inflected classic rock with a few early Danzig riffs and a vague “occult rock” influence.  The vocalist sounds more rock or AOR than metal, with a thin, slightly quavering sound that calls early Bono Vox to mind (think October era).

Then things go all John Lennon by way of Todd Rundgren for “the Emma”.  “The Wind” feels like a spastic Chris Isaak as covered by Ville Valo and HIM, and “The Sermon” has a touch of Tom Petty to it.  Rundgren pops up again for the solo section of “riders of vultures.”  I was half expecting to hear Shaun Cassidy or Leif Garrett after all this…

It’s interesting, I’ll give it that.  What the hell they’re actually going for here, though, you’ve got me…

The Devil’s Blood, Blood Ceremony, Black Widow and Coven it most assuredly ain’t.

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Stormhammer – Echoes Of A Lost Paradise (Massacre Records) (August 7)

And speaking of power metal, here comes yet another Teutonic power metal act straight out of Munich.  Sadly, they do not cover “im Munchen ist ein Hofbrauhaus”…

umm…what else?

Raspy/growly vox, check.  Riffing that falls somewhere between a sped up traditional and the lighter of thrash acts, check.  Overuse of keyboards, check.  Status as effective background music, check.

Like I said earlier with regards to Powerwolf, power metal is one of those genres that’s pretty much aural wallpaper.  You put it on as background and know you’re fairly safe, nothing will really stand out or offend, there won’t be too many boring ballads or aggressive underground metal touches, it’s all pretty straightforward and a bit dull.

These guys are died in the wool power metal, no better or worse than any dozen or so other bands you could rattle off from the genre.  I leave it to diehard aficionados hereof to deliver any pinpoint assessment of where they stand by comparison to the rest of the pack.

For my part, I’m not hearing anything special, whether for positive or negative.  It’s just sort of there.

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ROYAL HUNT – XIII – Devil’s Dozen (Frontiers Music srl) (August 21)

Well, D.C. Cooper is certainly in fine form here, even tagging in some theatrical style “acting” to his usual light and soaring tones, which are (generally speaking) as clean and powerful as ever.

What’s a bit odd is the way they were recorded – there’s a strange hollowness and distance to them, where it almost sounds like he’s being recorded from the back of an auditorium.

The band duly steps behind their frontman to properly showcase his talents, leaving Devil’s Dozen feeling a bit like a solo project at times, bar some very nice solos from bandleader Andre Andersen and guitarist Jonas Larsen.  Given a fairly straightforward power metal meets AOR template, drummer Andreas Habo Johansson syncopates his parts and fills wherever he can squeeze them in, and it’s pretty nice all around, but that underlying sense of this being a sort of symphonically oriented D.C. Cooper album, rather than a Royal Hunt one per se, remains.

There are phrases where Cooper seems to be showing some strain, perhaps a touch of overuse or fighting off a cold – there’s an uncharacteristic flatness to some of the verses that strikes the listener immediately (and may be part of that odd recording from a distance feel noted earlier) – but then he breaks into some soaring high notes and holds them rock steady. No issues with the important bits, that’s for sure!

But there’s something different here, and it’s noticeable.  Given his performance overall, I think it’s a plus, and even adds a previously unforseen character to his singing that sits quite well with this listener.

But however you view things, it’s certainly not the same guy who did A Life to Die For a few years back – and decidedly not the same quality of crystalline production we got last time around.

Interesting.

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THE MURDER OF MY SWEET – Beth Out of Hell (Frontiers Music srl) (August 21)

Sweden’s own lovely Angelica Rylin rejoins her longtime bandmates for another vaguely Lacuna Coilesque effort.

While Murder of My Sweet features more of an Edenbridgelike choral and keyboard-based approach than the more nu-metal by way of Evanescence approach of the aforementioned Italians, they’re certainly playing in a recognizably similar ballpark, with song structures that wouldn’t sound out of place on Comalies or Dark Adrenaline buttered up and spiced with slight symphonic elements.

At times, in fact, the garnish becomes so pronounced that it becomes slightly awkward, ala Michael W. Smith’s The Big Picture – sound collages that are so overpacked they begin to clash with each other and the songs beneath.  What saves them is a combination of strong if simple song construction, smooth Edenbridgeesque male harmonies and Rylin’s own pleasant voice over the top of it all.

The bottom line is, while certainly listenable enough, Beth Out of Hell could still stand to be stripped of a few…or perhaps a lot of layers of sonic overkill.  Paging Rick Rubin!  We need a Cult/Slayer/Trouble/Danzig style reworking of this band…lay things bare and pare the sound down to essentials, and we’ll have a winner.

As is…well, just how many toppings do you like on your ice cream?

If the answer is “so many I can’t even find the damn scoop”, Beth Out of Hell…or for that matter, June’s equally overkill-inclined Sirenia effort The Seventh Life Path, should be your cup of tea.

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PRAYING MANTIS – Legacy (Frontiers Music srl) (August 21)

We’ve been seeing a number of NWOBHM-era band reformations of late.  Satan, Hell, Angel Witch, Diamond Head, Girlschool, even Pagan Altar and Witchfinder General have reformed in recent years and have released or plan to release new albums, a good 35 years on from their original (and oft short lived) heyday.

One of these acts who, so far as most of us knew, never did a thing since the genre standout Time Tells No Lies back in 1981, is Praying Mantis.  Surprisingly, they’ve actually released material since, mainly in Japan, Impelliteri style.  This is their second album (and only their third per se) available to Western audiences, and their ninth vocalist (one of whom was Iron Maiden’s Paul Di’Anno!).  All of which to say, this is competent, likeable AOR, and thus a perfect fit for Frontiers.

Does it sound even remotely like the deservedly storied Time Tells No Lies? Nope.

But is it decent enough?  Sure.

Respectable, fairly powerful clean vocals, nice vocal harmonies, melodic stylings and old school bar band rock guitar work.  Nothing to write home about, particularly for a metal crowd who, like myself, may have been hoping for a long awaited follow up to that amazing debut album…but respectable enough and more than listenable, particularly for audiences who follow classic AOR acts like Styx, Journey, Rush and Foreigner around the nostalgia circuit.

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KELLY KEELING – Mind Radio (Frontiers Music s.r.l) (July 3)

A former Trans Siberian Orchestra and Yngwie Malmsteen frontman joins forces with keyboardist/songwriter/producer Alessandro Del Vecchio for a classic AOR effort.

Guitarist Mario Percudani lays down some accomplished melodic solos, drummer Alessandro Mori adds a touch of comparative flash and syncopation to the fairly straightforward hard rock doings, and Del Vecchio takes an uncharacteristic backseat, keeping his contributions very much to an 80’s pop/”modern rock” style of keyboard accompaniment – more structural than noticeable.

Keeling himself did not really impress me, with his tendency to sing through his teeth Geoff Tate/Tony Harnell style and raspy, oversmoked tone, but his sound worked well in conjunction with this rather tight band and Del Vecchio’s typically solid and layered, melodically oriented songwriting.

Bottom line? Another strong effort from Del Vecchio and Frontiers.

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Månegarm – Vargaresa – The Beginning (Re-Mastered) (Black Lodge Records) (July 31)

Whoa, wasn’t expecting that. Manegarm goes all black metal on their fourth release…which is actually a compilation of their early demo work.

For demos, these sound pretty damn good, at least in the current remaster.  Surprisingly, the Vargaresa material comes off a lot better than the subsequent Ur Nattvindar tracks, which sound more muted and distant by comparison – but both sound surprisingly well produced.

So if you find yourself sort of snickering at most Viking metal (and power metal, and a lot of pagan metal) like myself, this one may be far more to your liking.  Certainly took me by surprise, particularly the more directly black metallized Vargaresa tracks.

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Månegarm – Vredens Tid (Re-Mastered) (Black Lodge Records) (August 21) 

Less particularly black metal than Vargaresa, Nordstjarnans Tidsalder or even the transitional Havets Vargar, Vredens Tid is still miles away from the (frankly rather boring) template Viking metal of the surprisingly earlier Dodsfard and the more recent vintage Legions of the North.

Think of this as a “three steps forward, two steps back” release from what is likely the conclusion of a three album transitional period for the band.

While clearly shifting the center of gravity towards a firmly pagan cum Viking camp, Vredens Tid draws more from the aggression of their earlier black metal roots while simultaneously managing to craft and perfect a more likeably listenable melodic structure.  Make no mistake, these are songs proper, not blasts of feral hate from the dark depths.

Why they chose to back things up from Dodsfard’s virulent (and perhaps surprising) shift in allegiance and statement of intent is unclear, but the fact remains that Vredens Tid is a far more enjoyable and accomplished beast, with a fun cover (is that a giant troll?) and singalong folk melodies bolstered by a proper melodic structure underpinning each track.  The simple fact is, these elements were just not there with the comparatively sleepy (and therefore quite forgettable) Dodsfard.

Is this a last gasp of quality before things go all template on us?  If the presumed reissues of Vargstenen and Nattvasen continue more in the vein being tapped here, I look forward to indulging.  But given that we’re only two albums away from the recent Legions of the North, I have my doubts.

Regardless, one of the more worthy releases in the Manegarm back catalogue, and well deserving of your attention.

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Bult – S/T (Inverse Records) (July 24)

Can you smell it?

Seriously. Close your eyes, and take a deep sniff.

I’m confident the stink is virulent enough to waft its way straight to every one of you readers, wherever on this big blue marble you may call home.

Stealing a Carcass riff or two (cough – “the merciless zero of indifference”) does not a death metal band make.

I don’t even have a final word for you.  Instead, I’ll offer two letters.

P. U.

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Barrows – S/T (Inverse Records) (August 21)

Really aggressive, noisy grindcore with elements of Suffocation or post-Considered Dead (i.e. unlistenable) Gorguts.

I don’t think the BPMs drop below 220, at least in terms of the drums.

This is not what I think of when I reach for death metal.  What ever happened to the Morrisound and Sunlight sound? Any technical difficulty of performing this insanity aside, there’s no way around it: this is just crap.

No thanks.

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Pray of North – “Bloodline” (single) (Inverse Records)  

Another power metal style act this month, this time working in the death metal meets emo arena of “modern metal”.

Growly-puke vox that suddenly turn clean for the choruses, detuned, neanderthalic chunka-thunka-thud riffing that display the influences of both Pantera and nu metal…

But then they do something weird.  They make the clean parts sort of catchy.  The solos are melodic.  I can see crowds singing along to the choruses.

Another bizarrely syncretist act that owes too much to Slipknot for my taste, but it’s hard to slag them outright given the more appealing melodic touches noted above.

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Rifftera – S/T (Inverse) (August 28)

Well, it’s modern metal, a bit hissy on the production but otherwise sounding good on that front.  There are some very traditional thrash riffs being bandied about, and a few recognizable swipes from old school Bay Area solos as well (yeah, I caught ya there – nudge, wink).  There are nice emo-esque clean vocals on the choruses.  I was thinking, hey, pretty damn good, eh?

Except.

Do all of you kids have to go for the aggro vox?

Terrible, terrible growly snarly puke it up vocals ala Madball, Anselmo and their ilk nearly ruin what is otherwise a rather good, somewhat syncretist release that manages to combine a somewhat old school thrash feel with a more modern metal sound and production.

Pretty winning combination overall, bar co-guitarist/founder/songwriter Janne Heitala’s unfortunate Anton Kabanenesque desire to screw up what is otherwise a really good band (cough Battle Beast) with the unwanted contribution of his awful pipes.

Let the actual singer sing, and take a note from Frank Zappa:

“Shut up n’ play your guitar.”

For the record, I really liked it otherwise.

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Grift – Syner (Nordvis Produktion) (September 18)

Now a one man band, Grift changes…not at all!

That’s right, the same gloomy, melancholic feel that permeated both Fyra Elegier and their side of the Grift & Saiva split remains unchanged, and the loss of drummer J. Hallback appears to have impacted their sound not in the least.

Regular readers should be well familiar with my love of this sort of introspective, ethereal strain of black metal (cf prior reviews of most French or French Canadian bands and labels, or Italy’s Vardan, as well as those for Grift themselves) – it’s the ideal accompaniment for lonely strolls through the woods, preferably in the night fog.

Need I spell it out?

OK, one last time for the extremely dense:

Look! Another killer Grift release! Now go out and get it already.

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Nechochwen – Heart of Akamon (Nordvis Produktion) (September 4)

A gorgeous piece of artwork adorns this reasonably traditional mid-to-late 90’s
style black metal effort straight out of…West Virginia?

uh…as in “mountain mama, take me home, country roads?”

Well, location aside, this feels somewhat Ulveresque, with elements of acoustic folk on traditional instruments mixing with black cum pagan metal and some very melodic leads augmented occasionally by likeminded clean, Gregorian chantlike vocals ala Ulver or Vintersorg.

Again, this is a strain of black/pagan metal I absolutely adore, and with material this well constructed (not to mention presented – again, great cover), how can you expect anything but an unreserved horns up?

West fucking Virginia?  Really?

(shakes head bemusedly…)

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Speedtrap – Straight Shooter (Svart Records) (September 11)

Not as instantly likeable as 2013’s Powerdose, partially due to comparatively inferior production (shades of Royal Hunt’s Devil’s Dozen!).

This one sounds like microphones were set up across a football field, it’s that distant and compressed feeling.  It’s particularly noticeable on the vocals – did they dangle the microphone 10 feet above the guy’s head and have him scream up at it, Lemmy style?

Apparently they lost their drummer, so bassist Markus Hietamies switched to drums (shades of Racer X vocalist Jeff Martin becoming Badlands drummer Jeff Martin!), and they took on a new (second) guitarist and bass player, so it’s a big ol’ reshuffle that may be playing into the reasonably dramatic change in sound and feel…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still uptempo, fast and catchy, like Motorhead with a touch of Bon Scott era AC/DC and a 3 Inches of Blood by way of Laaz Rockit style screamer on vox.

But if you haven’t already picked up a copy of Powerdose, that’s definitely the one to stick with.

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Sabbath Assembly – S/T (Svart Records) (September 11)

Well, at least it’s an improvement over Quaternity.

At least there appear to be actual songs this time around, and we’re not dealing with Process hymns and such…

That said, don’t expect the apple to fall overly far from the tree.

They’re still talking DeGrimston in promo materials, and they’ve hardly altered focus, except in the most vague Mercyful Fate to solo career King Diamond sense.

Nothing changed, they just hide it a little better to fool the obtuse.

At points they almost sound like a real metal band, like during “only you” or “sharp edge of the Earth”, but generally, the music with these folks is just a front for the “message”, if you will.  It’s sort of casually dashed off, with a lot
of lazy man construction, transposing riffs up and down like a cross between Alex Lifeson and Skid Row.

There’s not a lot to recommend here, except for the obvious improvement between albums.

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Skepticism – Ordeal (Svart Records) (September 18)

Apparently these guys were one of the original funeral doom acts. I’m not hearing it, really – while they’re certainly contemplative and sort of slow, they’re certainly no Ahab.

I’d recommend approaching this one more like a typical Svart (or Prophecy, for that matter) act – it’s contemplative, a bit folk inspired, maybe some traditional instruments, and reasonably dark in tone.  And on many of those fronts, we have a match.

It just doesn’t feel as dramatic, as lumberingly slow, as layered…hell, as meaningful as the former Midnattsol folks offered on their fairly essential trio of albums.

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Mastiphal – For A Glory of All Evil Spirits, Rise for Victory LP/CD (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (July 31)

Polish black metal with a strangely power metal-like emphasis on cheesy keyboard stings.  Sure, you have a few acts that were able to mine the keys for gold: Gloomy Grim on Blood, Monsters, Death, Werewolf’s Temple of Fullmoon and Gehenna on First Spell come immediately to mind.

But this feels more like everything that was wrong about Nocturnus, for example.  Or Dimmu.  Or even (though sonically this is quite a stretch) the strangely beloved Emperor.  There are cheesy calliope phrases that sound like early Mortiis, but at no point does this feel like Rob Darken’s keyboard intros and flourishes on the early Graveland material.

In fact, while reasonably well played in and of themselves, the keyboard bits are so jarringly major key, they come off at complete odds with the more particularly Gravelandesque snarls and fairly simplistic riffing and drumming.  If the keyboards were removed entirely, this would actually be a decent Polish black metal album in the Darken mold.

But who was the moron who told the ivory tickler to play jolly major key drinking songs in the middle of a grim underground black metal album?

Picturing Ronald McDonald with a big goofy grin working cheery 80’s style keyboard lines amidst a band of corpsepainted, chains and spikes bedecked group of eeeevil black metallers…

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Necromantic Worship – Spirit of the Entrance Unto Death TAPE (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (July 10)

After a long soundbite from some pagan ritual (very possibly cribbed from some 70’s vintage British horror film or other), some very Drawing Down the Moon era Beherit vocals kick in over simplistic, vaguely hypnotic music.

But even the music’s sort of strange – speedy alternating bass/snare blastbeat drumming and bass driven rather than guitar driven – there’s a strong feel of 90’s alternative rock to the sound in that respect.

Then the second track is all keyboard intro, with the weird vocals showing up in the last half a minute.  Final track is nigh-Abruptum level simple, again, bass and drum driven in those same simplistic patterns.

Nothing’s really that distorted, which leaves things very clear and easy to discern – another strange touch for ostensible black metal, even hailing from that noted black metal hotspot of…er…Holland.  

Ahem.

It’s a three track demo, it’s got a weird, ritualistic atmosphere, and it’s nothing like most of what you’re listening to.  If that’s enough to recommend it for you, then hey, have at it.

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Necromancy (Greece) – Ancient Wrath 12″ MLP (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (September 1)

And here’s another pseudo-Beherit, at least vocally. Apparently it’s an early demo in the history of Greek black metal, so there’s some measure of historical curiosity to it that very likely outweighs the considerably arguable quality of its contents.

They’ve got the spooky keyboard thing going on (not the cheesy happy keyboards of Mastiphal, mind) and the simplistic lead guitar lines/solos are shoved right up in your face, akin to early Rotting Christ but as performed by a child just learning the instrument rather than Sakis’ nicely constructed melodic flourishes.

Two of the tracks are actually the exact same song, complete with the same riffs and solo.  No idea why they split it up into two (or more to the point, provided two recordings of the same track, one longer and superior and the other shorter and weaker), really.

The final track brings in Samhain-style “tolling bell” keyboards before the “hey, I’m 11 years old and this is my first song ever!” lead guitar kicks in with the Twilight Zone theme.

Like Mastiphal and to a lesser extent Necromantic Worship, this is very DIY and underground for all its failings, which means I’m (barely) hiding a bemused affection for the material despite (or even because of) its sheer ineptitude.

But if you’re a more demanding listener, even at this level of underground extreme music, you’re really better off looking elsewhere for your fix.

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Elysian Fields – Adelain DLP/CD (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (August 15)

Doomy death metal from Greece, oddly promoted as being part of the Greek black metal scene, which it’s very much not.

Reminded me a bit of early Amorphis, My Dying Bride, that sort of fourth tier act from back in the day.  They’d play this sort of thing on the underground metal stations I was privy to, but it never engaged my interest sufficient to add any of it to my personal CD (or cassette, or vinyl…those were the days) collection.

There’s a distinct melodic element to all of this, which leaves it quite listenable by comparison to the sort of thing being produced nowadays, but neither do I get the impression that I missed anything.

The plain fact is that Adelain is very workmanlike, for all its merits otherwise.  That feeling of “damn, there was this cool band (like, say, Eldritch Horror) that I knew nothing about, who the hell knew?” just never crosses my mind.

Old school-ish death metal with tremelo guitars and vocals vaguely reminiscent of black metal snarls?  Check.  Strong melodic structure?  Check.

Worth a listen or two?  Definitely.

At this day and age, I find I liked this one a lot.  It’s actually rather good, objectively speaking, and probably worth at least a 3 1/2 star review, possibly four, so don’t get the wrong impression here.

But is this some lost classic?

Hell, no.

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Dalkhu – Descend… into Nothingness LP (Iron Bonehead) (September 4)

Sub-Incantation sloppiness on the underground death metal front.

Why, people?

Why?

Has rare moments of grandeur (the quieter and more melodic portions of “in the woods” for one), but oft torpedoed by a return to aimless atonal noodling, Watainesque upper string noise riffing and crystal meth-fit blastbeat frenzies, all covered by incomprehensible low end ipecac induction.

Nah.

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Saritap – Sorcerers of the Seven Gods TAPE (Iron Bonehead) (August 7)

Polish black metal demo that feels more of a cross between Norwegian riffing and Italian oddness.

The comparatively clean gargle-vox are put under a lot of reverb, but it never gets into the level of Zom-style slap echo inanity all too many underground acts opt for lately.

The band produces some very unusual sounds and off kilter riffs that allow for negative space (imagine that!), with stops and starts and bits that are allowed to sit there and ring rather than staying in a continual state of agitation.  The drumming is pretty sloppy, with the ride cymbal being mic’ed too close and ridden too hard at points, but if you can get past glaring flaws like that, it’s not as juvenile as at first appears.

It’s hardly essential, but if you dig the weird old schoolish vibe of the Italian black metal underground (but with a strong Norwegian second wave feel to much of the riffwork), you’ll probably enjoy Sorcerers of the Seven Gods as much as I did.

Horns up, if only for the individualistic strangeness of it all.

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Creeping – Revenant LP (Iron Bonehead) (August 28)

Gaahl era Gorgoroth nee God Seed meets Watain, and both go a tad death metal.  Nobody wins.

Generally slow and doomy, it does occasionally erupt into a midtempo blastbeat frenzy.

Didn’t we get enough of this on Black Mass Krakow and Opus Diaboli?

zzzz…

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Altarage – MMXV 7″ EP (Iron Bonehead) (September 4)

Spanish black metal in death metal’s clothing.  More detuned than you’d ever believe, it sounds like some unholy cross between Dawn of Possession era Immolation and Incantation, but with the “vocals” from Sect Pig.

I guess they took Deliverance to heart!

“Squeal like a pig, boy!”

Surprised I didn’t hear dueling banjos somewhere in this release…

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CEMETERY LUST – Screams of the Violated (Hells Headbangers) (September 4)

Stolen Slayer riffs (caught ya!) paired with hardcore crossover vocals.  I dug DRI, Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law, At War and Ripping Corpse too, so hearing that paired with obvious Slayer swipes works for me.

Seriously, that’s all there is to it.

They more or less obsessively mined the essential Slayer albums (i.e. everything prior to and possibly including South of Heaven) and distilled them for all their speed, aggression and chord progression, then add the sort of mid-80’s hardcore crossover vox of the bands mentioned above.  How can you go wrong with that formula?

Far more aggressive than Orgies of Abomination, and far more blatant and pervasive in its “borrowings”, but these are both real pluses for old school vets like yours truly.  In fact, Screams of the Violated blows Orgies of Abomination right the hell out of the water, to the point where there’s really no comparison.

The furthest pole possible from original.

But an easy five star release, and one I’ll be spinning for a long time to come.

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CIANIDE – Death, Doom and Destruction (CD, DLP) (Hells Headbangers) (August 7)

A reissue from the dark days of 1997, long past the heyday of death metal.  Includes their 1996 Rage War demo and The Truth 7″, so this is pretty much the complete package for fans of these guys.

It’s reasonably traditional, with strong elements of Asphyx and Bolt Thrower permeating and resounding throughout.  At one point (“envy and hatred”) they even cop Napalm Death’s penchant for Mitch Harris-style snarling vocal punch-ins, which is a nice touch and breaks things up somewhat.

It’s a bit surprising this came out so late in the game.  While no classic, it’s definitely old school and pretty respectable.  I could have seen adding this one to my collection if it’d been released 4 or 5 years earlier, before the genre jumped the shark into the plethora of low quality wannabes and sad and sorry “technical” death acts that killed the scene entirely.

While hardly on the level of the sort of Floridian/Swedish/New York area/British acts that made the death metal scene what it was in the first place, Cianide deserve a nod of respect for staying true to what was by that point already a long dead concern.

Not bad at all.

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Throaat – Black Speed (Invictus) (August 3)

Old school black metal with speedy thrash elements.

It’s a very American vibe, and much akin to the sort of thing regularly released by Hell’s Headbangers – a tad biker, a nod to early Bathory, bits and bobs of Venom, Sodom and the Braziilan blackened thrash scene, but that doesn’t quite sum it up.

I guess if you combine all of that with, say, Maax, you may get a fair idea of what to expect, but unlike what aficionados have come to expect from even the most retro of black metal (or blackened thrash) acts, Black Speed’s got a lot of traditionalist NWOBHM if not straight up rock n’ roll to it, believe it or not.  It’s more on the level of subtle underpinnings than right in your face, but it’s definitely there…

Their cover of Venom’s “in league with satan” is quite forgettable, but the other four tracks ain’t half bad.

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Vaee Solis – Adversarial Light (Signal Rex / Mordgrimm) (August 21)

Portugal gives us a female fronted blackened doom act.

Personally, I find female extreme metal vocalists a bit dicey.  While I prefer the female voice (clean, operatic or even a bit raspy rock n’ roll style) as a general rule, when they get all screamy and shrieky, it’s just piercing, unappealing and weird.  Sometimes it’s absolutely abominable (cough-that Agonist girl who’s gone on to a much bigger band-cough).

Frontwoman “Sophia” isn’t quite THAT bad, but her voice is pretty damn hard to take.

The music is really slow and doomy, never really going anywhere…but it’s listenable enough if you’re in the mood for, say, funeral doom.

But oy, those perfectly awful vocals…

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Atila – V (Signal Rex) (September 18)

Ambient noise/electronic business from the guy behind Orok.

“Homem” stands out for the odd screaming freakout vocals from somebody named Antonio Costa, which are so earnestly pained as to prove interesting.

As for the rest…I guess it depends on your tolerance for a nigh-beatless, somewhat meandering variant of industrial/drum and bass…

Tangerine Dream and (very) early Kraftwerk for the millenial crowd.

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HOWLS OF EBB – The Marrow Veil (I, Voidhanger Records) (September 7)

OK, the guys behind this bizarro project introduced themselves with a hilarious, absurd little chant, which I find so ridiculous as to include herein. Enjoy, and try not to spit out your drink laughing.

“We are the Howls of Ebb! Observing and recordings transients of decay
We are Hob! Singing the portents of nigh
We are the marrow veil! Blowing along the rubikon of the sentinel divide”

uh…yeah. Calling the men in white coats, we have a trio of ringers for ya…

There’s a whole lot of wasted time and ambient noise with whispers and such.  It’s getting pretty common in the black and (what passes for) death metal underground lately, so snore.

Eventually (as in, 8 or 9 minutes later!) it resolves into a song proper, sort of a low key midtempo death metal piece. Then back to the noise and silence.  A bit of a return to the music, though it’s slowed down a lot.

A wasted middle track of more ambient noise, then another 3 minutes blown on the same before the second and final song starts.  Sounds pretty much just like the one last time, really.  Then it goes to noise and silence again.  Surprise, surprise, a bit of a return to the music, then it’s all over.

So.

What do we have here?

Two long “suites” that mirror each other exactly.  Very derivative of current scene trends, plenty of wasted time and not a hell of a lot of actual music involved.

“We are the Howls of Ebb! We’re looking to ebb the cash from your flow!
We are Pure Rubbish! Blowing a good half hour of your time!
We need to write more than one fucking song!  A bit of variation…or more to the point, a change, might do as good as a rest!”

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Funeral Throne – Threshold (Blut & Eisen Productions) (September 15)

British doomy death metal with a rather Watainish (if not Mortuus era Marduk-like) feel.  For some reason, (and quite ironically given their musical orientation and cough-wannabe Watain status) all of their surnames end in W (seriously).

It’s not as slavish as all too many Watain clone/zombie acts out there, but there’s not a lot making it stand out by comparison to the obvious template.

A few more death metal-like leads, a tad more doom, a touch here and there to slightly alter the aesthetic…but it’s really not enough to say “look, something original and individual”.

Decidedly mediocre.

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Istengoat – Atlas Shrugged LP (Blood Harvest) (August 10)

Black metal in death metal’s clothing.

While the band may have tightened up a bit since, prior EP MMXII felt much superior, possibly due to some more in your face, trebly and clean production.

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Moon (Australia) – Render of the Veils (Moribund) (September 18)

Far less ritualistic feeling and losing all the ooky spooky church organ that made The Nine Gates almost sorta kinda like listenable, Render of the Veils is a very hollow sounding, vaguely trancey and very repetitive bit of modern underground black metal.

Nah.  Pass.

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Vardan – From the Pale Moonlight (Moribund) (September 18)

Somewhere between The Night, The Loneliness and Enjoy of Deep Sadness, not only in terms of feel but production.

There’s a bit more liveliness than Enjoy, but it’s not as diverse and comparatively “upbeat” as The Night could be at points.  About as speedy as this gets is on “III”, which about halfway through turns anthemic and driving, while still bearing an emoesque despair and darkness for all its (relative) excitement.

Promo materials mention how this was “his most emotive work to date”, and while that’s pretty much the usual blast of hot air, there is a very palpable and gloomy, almost Japanese sense of buried emotion and sadness being expressed in “III” that appealed to these ears tremendously.

A whole release worth of songs bearing that feel and quality would be nice.  How about it, paisano?

Damn good stuff as usual, with hints of something even better in the closing salvo.

 

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