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OK, I admit it: it’s a week early.

But with Thanksgiving coming up here in the States next week, and as we already have a heaping helping of releases on hand, reviewed and all ready to roll, consider this an early holidaze gift.   Something to chew on and digest before you start falling asleep on all that tryptophan next Thursday…

Honestly, no grand pronouncement to make this time around.  You all have the internet, possibly you waste your time in front of the idiot box or are luddite enough to troll the newspapers.

As ever, since a pair of controversially elected morons by the initials of GWB and RB”D”C allowed a fatal cocktail of personal hubris and the promise of personal monetary gain (cough Haliburton) to land us in a decade and a half hornets nest of ongoing tragedies, there’s a new group of victims to mourn.

Never forget the responsible parties, and never forgive the two of them or allow liars to misattribute the direct cause of our collective woes.

Je suis desole, mes freres et soeurs du Paris.

Et alors…ca suffit.

Encore un fois, dans la breche…

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Acrolith – Uncharted (self released)

“Why should the devil have all the good music?”

A question first posed by hippie-era Jesus rocker Larry Norman, best known to cult filmgoers as a partygoer in Larry Hagman’s infamous Beware! The Blob and a man whose personal legacy has of late fallen into question, but whose musical one, as de facto father of the “Christian rock” movement, is unquestioned.

But the sentiment behind that rhetorical question holds true, particularly in relation to the album we’re about to discuss.

Now, I’m sure there are a bunch of you groaning and mentally tuning out already, and given the awkward entwinement of and often overtaking of right wing politics to the message and spirituality beneath, I certainly get it.

Both Third Eye regulars and those of you who know me personally should we well aware of who I am in a core sense and where I stand on any number of matters.  And hell, a less iconoclastic sort might well balk at touching the subject, or at best dance around if not drop some snark on anything that doesn’t adhere to some strict Libertarian if not pagan or, given my background in the metal, gothic rock and punk scenes and noted preference towards many variants of black metal, dark occultic viewpoint.

But me?  Hell, no.  And if you’ve read more than two or three things on the site, or followed more than 5 minutes of any of the podcasts I’m involved with, you should know that already.

So let’s make things even stranger, shall we?

Old pal Brian Day of gothicized horror punk veterans The Vladimirs and the ghostly gothic western of Sono Morti came to me with one of his more recent projects.  And it’s a really, really good one.*  But without ruining things by spelling everything out up front, let’s go more or less track by track, to see what’s on tap here.

* The quite philosophical Day himself is quick to clarify that while the band wanted to have a forum to express their personal beliefs, he doesn’t self-identify as any sort of a “Christian” band in terms of genre, but rather as a classic progressive-oriented rock band whose members orient in that direction.  Think Kansas, or even the more speed metal-inclined guitar hero Chris Impelliteri.

We kick off with “going home”, which name checks Heinlein in the lyrics while tapping very much into a mid-70’s acoustic but heavy-toned rock sound.  In fact, this track actually feels like less an outtake from, but one of the better tracks off, fellow Beware! the Blob star Randy Stonehill (“sniff sniff…just kids, huh?”)’s defining 1976 masterwork Welcome to Paradise.

And for those who don’t know me personally, this is high praise indeed: “the winner” sums up my lifelong views on corporatism and persistent cultural misconceptions of what defines “success”, and “keep me running” amounts to something of a personal theme song for decades. Well worth seeking out.

Next up, we get “vigilance”, which starts off acoustic before kicking in to a decidedly prog-oriented vein, bringing acts like Styx and Kansas, if not the pre-Goblin Cherry Red very much to mind.  But between this and subsequent track “when the claws come out”, you notice something very different from even that musical path.

Because they dive straight into “occult rock” territory.

You read that right.  That 70’s style, uber-dark heavy rock feel you’re seeing all over the “occult rock” scene?  Right here.  And instrumentally speaking, one upped.  Dare I mention that it’s (presumably self-) released on “Bloodpact Music”?

If anything, “when the claws come out” gets even heavier, amounting to one of the darkest tracks on the album by any measure. This is about the closest they get to the “heavy metal” aesthetic per se, albeit still as filtered through a far more “classic rock” dynamic – in other words, the same sort of territory being mined by bands like the late lamented Devil’s Blood, Blood Ceremony or Opus Eponymous-era Ghost, just tapping the other end of the spiritual spectrum in terms of lyric and intent.

“Anne Marie” seems like the first faltering of the record, with its lighter, folky acousticness.  But hang in there, because a few minutes in, things pick up to a heavier, more grandiose sort of thing.  It’s far less powerful than the tracks that preceded, but there’s still an ebb and flow going on that fits right in to the 70’s hard rock/prog sensibility being worked here.

And the hits just keep on coming: very much in the same dramatic prog meets 70’s hard rock vein as “vigilance” and “when the claws come out” come “words of wisdom”, the often quite grim and brooding “life in dark water” and the title track.

Only a quick spoken word track and the surprisingly soft folk ballad “all my days” break up what has been a sort of uber-heavy (in the sense of dark overtones and incessant dramatic build – we’re hardly talking the airy spaciness and mental-rather-than-visceral ethereality of a Yes or ELP here) progressive meets “occult rock” experience throughout.

While as I write this I’m unsure of the exact band dynamic between Day and Andrew Sauber* (both credited with guitar and vocals – drummer Patrick Rebsch rounds out the “power trio” – shades of Triumph and Rush!**), the fact is that this is very much a direct progression from, and bearing strong lineage to, Day’s work with Sono Morti.  There’s a very similar sensibility being evoked here, though the more gloomy gothic western elements are gone in favor of the classic rockisms of Revival and especially followup After the Revival.

But here’s what’s interesting: whether due to Sauber’s influence or no, Day actually steps up his game, delivering some clever interplay and more nuanced work on both the acoustic and electric ends of the spectrum.  Solos are more arresting, even eye opening than what we’d heard before.

You can tell something’s changed, the only question is why or what contributed to this.  More freedom to pursue a new chosen (musical) direction, perhaps?  Bouncing ideas off a fellow guitarist, who may or may not be of equal skill (again, I’m not sure who’s playing what here – their credits leave the listener to believe an equal share of what’s on display between the two)*.

* Day subsequently informs me that he was in fact responsible for both lead guitar and vocals on the better part of the album, with Sauber generally (though not exclusively) working rhythm, harmony leads and backing vocals, as well as handling some of the nylon classical acoustic parts.  Nevertheless, there is a definite interplay between the two that was not present in his earlier work with the Vlads and Sono Morti, and it shows forth in rather dramatic fashion.

** shades of John Hand!  That extra dude in the photo never even played with the band, ala Death‘s infamous Scream Bloody Gore photo credits…

Moreover, the production is dead on, once again bringing the legendary Ken Scott to mind with an authentically “dry” “dead room” recording aesthetic endemic to hard rock albums of the period.  To say that they feel much akin to classic Jerusalem would hardly be out of hand, but the fact is that they’re very much reminiscent of all of the aforementioned bands and many more at that.

Kiss and Alice Cooper immediately spring to mind, but you can more or less pick any much beloved album of the era and catch the muted drums and chunky yet tube amp and wah-filtered guitars with tones that die off quickly after being struck.  It’s a comfortable sound, familiar and powerful without relying on the more in your face, non-organic solid state equipment and ProTools production of more modern affairs.  And best of all, it grants Acrolith an unusual analog-style authenticity that would not sound out of place among the crackling vinyl releases of your father (or grandfather!)’s record collection.

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord?

Good by me, if it’s going to sound anything like this.  And if I didn’t know it already from a brief mid-80’s dalliance with a then-vibrant (and surprisingly dark, heavy and experimental!) Christian metal scene, this would be sufficient proof:

Guess the devil really doesn’t get all the good music.

https://acrolith.bandcamp.com/album/uncharted

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Owler – Waves (self released) (Oct. 15)

A vaguely 80’s postpunk/modern rock feel enlivens this Finnish indie act’s debut EP, with reverb-suffused, clean chorused and multitracked digital delay guitar work matched with driving, distorted guitar.  As a proponent of clean rhythm/”dirty” lead as a stylistic flourish (see the Third Eye podcast outro), I can confirm this mix (however variant) works, and quite well at that.

There’s a lot of emo/metalcore influence bleeding into the mix as well, with tracks like “distance” bringing a less screamo Atreyu or AFI very much to mind…but as mixed with, say, Faunts (trippy Canadian postmodern act of Mass Effect fame).  Again, it works.

A contemplative, somewhat depressive feel abounds throughout, though there are elements of math metal/prog in some herky jerky rhythmic bits (the odd breakdown leading into the solo in “distance”), but like the screamo influence, it’s subdued and quite suffused beneath the overall spacey, even relaxed mood that predominates throughout.

Even the weirder tracks never sit still in subgenre long enough to lock the band in as boring.  For example, “Sun” kicks off like the accompaniment to some crappy CW tweeny drama, but then trips quickly into a more modernist, neo-aggro territory, with silly pummeling riffs and growly vox.  Within a minute, they’ve gone all space rock/indie again, then whoops, they switch again.  While not as enjoyable as the two tracks that preceded it, it still works.

The only repetitive bit is where “sun” bleeds into “reckoning” – I wasn’t even aware the song changed until we hit the clean bridge and chorus section. But from there out, even this part does the job.

Would I have changed some elements here?  You bet – the growly vox, out the window you go.  Some of the math metal meets nu-metallish lunkhead pummelling riffing?  Tone that way down, son.

But like an interesting new concoction from a master chef, all the disparate elements – inclusive of the ones that normally deserve a slag – work in tandem, complementing, highlighting, offsetting and bolstering other flavors in the mix.

The final result?  My compliments to the chef, can we get a second plate?

Check them out here:
http://www.facebook.com/owlerband

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FIND ME – Dark Angel (Frontiers Music srl) (December 4)

More 80’s AOR than any number of bands you could name.  I’m hearing Autograph, Giuffria, Y&T and Survivor here, mixed with any number of 80’s action movie soundtrack unknowns.  It’s a very big compliment, I assure you.

The producer and songwriter behind acts like Issa and Murder of My Sweet (whose Angelica Rylin drops by for guest vox on “another day”), Daniel Flores, joins forces with expressive midrange vocalist Robbie LaBlanc to bring back the best of that decade, complete with huge, forefronted keyboard lines and straightforward, positive-toned crunchy guitar work.

You can practically see the training montage before the final battle, where the hero, having been soundly trounced by the villain of the piece, is determined to make sure the second round plays out very differently.  It’s that cinematically 80’s.  There are even moody, dramatic power ballads (“forever”) for that love scene or closing credit roll…seriously, you’ll marvel at how this was produced in 2015 rather than 30 years prior.

Frontiers specializes in extremely polished, impeccably crafted, well phrased songwriting with appropriate dramatic build and subtle shifts in tone, matched with excellent production and impeccable if generally un-showy playing throughout, and Find Me is a perfect example of the label’s approach.

Anthemic, melodic, nigh-faultless in construction, and so, so good.

If you haven’t sampled a Frontiers release yet (and if so, what the hell rock have you been hiding under?), Dark Angel is a perfect place to dive in.

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HAREM SCAREM – Live at the Phoenix (Frontiers Music srl) (December 4)

Some geek with his voice literally cracking throughout gets really overexcited while what is either a really tepid crowd or a cheesily overdubbed, if sort of sparse selection of audience cheers and whistles runs in a minute and a half loop.

It’s a pretty embarrassing start for a live album, much less one recorded in the band’s hometown of Toronto this past July.  Thankfully, the band puts on a decidedly decent if somewhat sonically subdued* performance thereafter, making up for that awkward intro in spades.

* the live recording could certainly have used some production boost – while crystal clear, it’s kind of low and quiet throughout.

Harry Hess’ vocals are likeable enough, with a smooth midrange tenor marked by a slight rasp.  European shredder Magnus Karlsson thought enough of Hess to bring him onboard his recent all-star opus Kingdom of Rock, where he rubbed noses with the likes of Tony Harnell and Joe Lynn Turner, so you get the general idea.

That said, the real focal point of Harem Scarem has always been the Reb Beach meets George Lynchisms of flashy guitarist Pete Lesperance, whose skills on the fretboard, melodic inventiveness and mastery of phrasing cannot be understated.

Let’s put it this way: as much as I love Frontiers and the resurgent AOR scene (and I do, as Third Eye regulars should certainly know by now), flash guitar is pretty much the last thing I’m expecting to hear when I take a dive into albums from the genre.

Sure, there are folks like Neil Schon floating around out there, but they’re the exception rather than the rule – AOR is more about strong production and songwriting, the tightness of the band and conciseness of composition.

So when I run across a player on the level of Lesperance (or the aforementioned Karlsson), it’s a real suprise, and tends to elevate the efforts of said players’ associated bands well above those of their peers, just by the merit of sheer skill and complexity.  Hats off to ya, eh?

Now, don’t go getting the wrong idea here: Harem Scarem keeps things very much in the typical AOR vein, and musically tends towards the lighter end of the scale at that.  Think Steve Perry’s solo work more than classic Journey, if you get what I’m saying.

But the fact is that the band’s got all the right stuff going on (tightness, conciseness, a smooth melodic vocal approach and a measure of catchiness to boot), and Lesperance’s obvious and impressive musicianship pulls what would otherwise have been a decent if unspectacular AOR act into the upper echelon.

Shred away, bro.

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KHYMERA – The Grand Design (Frontiers Music srl) (December 4)

Keeping things to a firmly Foreigner meets Loverboy tonality, Pink Cream 69’s Dennis Ward takes a former Steve Walsh (Kansas) side project into his own hands for The Grand Design – not to be mistaken for the far more grandiose Edenbridge album of the same name.

“Land of golden dreams” is the real standout here, a midtempo nigh-power ballad rocker with a very 80’s-style mysterioso minor key feel that pushes the band into hair metal/action movie soundtrack territory.  Other tracks like “a night to remember” dance somewhere between Aldo Nova and Survivor, but these are the exception rather than the rule: the overall tone of the album is more sedate and low key than these occasional breaths of life and gusto would imply.

While not exactly predisposed to balladeering per se, Khymera tends to keep things more towards the softer end of AOR – the very Jefferson Starship cover art should have been a good indication of what to expect.  Like the aforementioned Loverboy or Foreigner, the band is often quite listenable and even catchy, but to put it quite bluntly, Khymera is hardly the sort of thing you put on to get your aggressions out.

Now, make no mistake, there are enough strong moments here, particularly with respect to Michael Klein’s restrained guitar work and brief but emotion driven leads, which are more or less solely responsible for giving the band what measure of grit they possess.  With a lighter touch, The Grand Design would have been a real powder puff, blowing away with the barest puff like a dandelion in spring, so the band is to be commended for securing Klein’s quite welcome grounding.

But make no bones about it, overall I really liked this album, the production is decent and it should be mentioned before closing that Ward’s vocals are more than adequate for the style, with an equal measure of grit and smoothness that leaves Khymera as a definite contender regardless.

But when it comes down to it, there was just a bit too much of the softer end of AOR for my tastes.  More material like “land” and “night” would have won these guys a decidedly different review.

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BLOOD RED SAINTS – Speedway (Frontiers Music srl) (December 4)

1988-9 hair metal.  Think everything from Firehouse, Winger and Lynch Mob to Roxy Blue, Trixter, the second Hurricane album or Danger Danger.

This was a period where all of us diehards realized something was going very wrong, with Guns N’Roses bringing on the tattooed junkie Aerosmith/Hanoi Rocks wannabe thing, and Bon Jovi pulling traditional metal into a softer, more female-oriented balladeering and glammy variant.

Personally, I was cooler with the latter than the former (though obviously I dug bands on both ends – especially gritty, accomplished outliers like Vain), and that makes Blood Red Saints a whole hell of a lot easier to review.

While never quite approaching the powder puff lightweightness of some of the aforementioned acts,* the band appropriates many of the stylistic flourishes of the style, thankfully inclusive of the strong points thereof: slightly gritty yet very “clean” and melodic vocals courtesy of Pete Godfrey and melodic, legato yet rather flash guitar heroics from Lee Revill.  Think something along the lines of XYZ, with slight Reb Beach elements in the leads and, like XYZ, Lynch Mob or even Dokken, some often quite George Lynch-style riffing.

* at least in the first half of the album – the second half falls a bit flat with a more midtempo to ballad-heavy orientation. Still good stuff.

In true Frontiers style, other acts on the roster collaborate: James Martin of Vega brought them to Serafino’s attention and cowrites a few songs, Harry Hess of Harem Scarem handles mastering duties.  Even a former Eden’s Curse member shows up in the lineup (drummer Pete Newdeck).

As ever from Frontiers and particularly with the younger guns on the roster, this is an impressive debut, with excellent production, multilayered, collaborative songwriting and a sound so much of its intended period that even fellow veterans could be fooled into thinking this some long unreleased album of the era.

Another in a long line of heartfelt hats off to the fine folks at Frontiers for yet another quality release.  Salut.

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Voodoo Circle – Whisky Fingers (AFM Records) (December 4)

More John Sykes-era Whitesnake homage from Silent Force/Sinner/Primal Fear guitarist Alex Beyrodt, Pink Cream 69 frontman David Readman and Eden’s Curse / Silent Force / Frontiers Records regular keyboardist/producer Alessandro Del Vecchio.  Beyrodt drafts Primal Fear bandmate and ex-U.D.O. skin pounder Francesco Jovino to fill out the package.

I’ve always been more of a Moody/Mardsen era Whitesnake fan, but let’s face it, Slide it In was my introduction to the band, and to hear the original mix contrasted with the Sykes-inclusive remix is an entirely different…and to be blunt, quite lacking experience.  Sykes made that album, period.

Sykes was a smooth, melodic master of phrasing and emotion with Michael Schenker-like laser focus on laying down the perfect lead in the most concise and affecting manner possible – an all too rare skill that brings masters of the style like Carlos Santana, Randy Rhoads and Neil Girardo to mind: get in, get out, leave ’em deeply moved.

It’s no accident that those three guys are the very players who got yours truly to pick up the instrument all those years ago, and Beyrodt has without question learned more than a trick or two from the same playbook.

With the more-Coverdale than Coverdale’s been in decades Readman in the vocal chair and Del Vecchio working the Jon Lord thing, every successive Voodoo Circle release sounds more akin to the 1984-released template.

And you can take that as a definite compliment.

Keep the flame alive, guys.

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Lethal Steel – Legion Of The Night (High Roller Records) (January 29)

Swedish retro-traditional metal.  Think Enforcer crossed with Heavy Load and you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect.

Just to prove that my ears remain dead on, it actually turns out that Olof Wikstrand produced the album…and the band goes on to mention Heavy Load as an influence.  Boo-yah.

At this point in time, retro-trad is sort of on life support, with most bands having moved on to more “occult rock” style endeavors* or even straight up 70’s rock concerns.  Hell, look at Enforcer themselves, who’ve long since lost Adam Zaars to the far darker Tribulation.  So to hear a young band punting away at this particular sound seems a bit odd – like, hey, did you miss the train or something?

* to be fair, the band does throw in a few light, not entirely believable occultic trappings, just to show solidarity with similar-sounding “occult metallers” Portrait and In Solitude.

Even so, they have all the classic Enforcer elements down pat, from Viktor Gustafsson’s throaty, oddly accented tenor vocals to Johan Frick and Jonathan Nordwall’s dual guitar assault.

I liked it well enough, despite Lethal Steel’s particularly late to the party status.

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MAMMOTH STORM – Fornjot (Napalm Records) (November 6)

Uber-detuned Cathedral worshipping doom with goofy vocals.

Seriously, I kept wanting to tell these guys to tune up several notes to get to, oh, I don’t know, dropped B tuning?

And the vocals…you know those toothless hobo types you used to find hanging around burning garbage cans trying to stay warm on cold nights?  All chin and gums, like Mammy Yokum from Lil’ Abner or someone out of Popeye?  Yeah. That’s exactly what this guy sounds like.  It’s actually hilarious.  Come on, sing “I yam what I yam an’ that’s all that I yam.”  How about “that’s all I kin stands, cuz I can’t stands na more!?!”

Well, if you don’t mind hearing guitars detuned so low they’re practically rubbing across the pickups, these guys are definitely atmospheric enough, and certainly qualify as “heavy” by any standards.

The production is very, very good as well, which is a bit surprising considering the simplistic material being recorded here, but hey.  It’s a plus.

But yeah, those vocals…

Sorry, I actually laughed out loud when typing that last line.  No bullshit.

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HONEYMOON DISEASE – The Transcendence (Napalm Records) (November 20)

Another entry in Sweden’s ever growing circle of retro-minded acts.  Think Heart meets Blue Oyster Cult with more than a touch of the “occult rock” feel, if not the associated aesthetic.

They work the same rear pickup, straight to Marshall overdrive meets distortion thing that The Devil’s Blood was known for, albeit with better production and more of a Glen Buxton-era Alice Cooper meets Thin Lizzy approach, and wholly absent the Luciferian trappings.

It’s no secret that I love this sort of thing; I’d grown up on this sort of 70’s and early 80’s heavy rock and still consider Neil Giraldo (Pat Benatar/Rick Springfield) one of the best players of his day.  So if you’re seeing a lot of love given the less psychedelically inclined “occult” and retro-70’s rock scene, don’t start acting all shocked. Just take a look at last month’s Supplemental Roundup

And for the more feministically inclined of you, note that the excellent dual guitar interplay is entirely courtesy of the distaff end of this four member equation.  Who knows, may still surprise a few fellow old timers out there.

Damn good stuff, sure to stick around for future replays.  Try slipping this in the rotation when the folks get together for the holidays, I’ll bet the parents and grandparents get all excited and nostalgic.

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PHANTASMA – The Deviant Hearts (Napalm Records) (November 20)

Damn! Georg Neuhauser of Serenity and the increasingly lovely with age Charlotte Wessels (Delain, who also penned an associated novella) join forces for what would sound, on paper, to be a match made in heaven.

Joining the two are regular Delain co-producer and guest musician Oliver Philipps, Neuhauser’s partner in crime Thomas Buchberger (also of Serenity) and guest spots from members of Van Canto and the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

The bottom line here is that this sounds a whole hell of a lot more Delain circa We Are the Others, or arguably even April Rain, than it ever does Serenity.  How this strikes the reader is a very individual thing, but for me this was the band at their softest, which is definitely what you get with Phantasma.

So let’s put a fine point on this: while certainly melodic, well produced and featuring two of the better voices in the scene these days, The Deviant Hearts is decidedly tapping into the softest end of gothic/symphonic metal.

Hell, there are moments (such as that little instrumental line in “miserable me”) that are obvious swipes from the Abba songbook (somewhere between “money money money” and “I’m a marionette”, the latter recently poorly covered by the increasingly unimpressive Ghost – what the hell happened after Opus Eponymous, guys?).  And as much as I admit to loving Sweden’s finest, this isn’t really what I’m looking for in gothic/symphonic metal.

I guess if you crossed the lightest moments of Delain with the softest balladeering of Edenbridge, you’d get something similar to Phantasma.

It ain’t bad…it just ain’t metal, either.

Charlotte Church and Sarah Brightman “rocking out” might not fall too far from this.

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MANEGARM – Månegarm (Napalm Records) (November 20)

Another well produced, atmospheric mix of pagan folk and bombastic Viking schmutters from the generally quite dependable Manegarm.

If you’re into the whole Viking thing* and don’t have a taste for the smooth yet oft valkyrie-like vocals of Liv Kristine, once you get past late period Bathory and latter day Graveland, these guys are pretty much the only game in town – or at least among the precious few worth paying attention to.

* as distinct from the more generic pagan thing ala Primordial or the trollish thing ala Trollfest and Finntroll.

While I find a stronger preference for their earlier, more black metal influenced material or even their wholly acoustic Urminnes Havd than anything they’ve released since Vredens Tid, there are a few things you can always count on from Manegarm: excellent production, an expansive, bombastic guitar sound that brings odd correlations such as Big Country to mind, and plenty of traditional instrumentation adding welcome color and contrast to the more straightforward, “metal” sound per se.

I walked into these guys with Legions of the North and worked my way forward through their discography’s recent re-releases, so I’m a bit more flush with their earlier successes than their more recent, comparatively “mainstreamed” output. Even so, suffice to say that the band hasn’t changed gears all that radically over the years – elements that have become quite apparent today were more than hinted at from the start, and vice versa.

While I’ll probably stick with the back catalogue for ongoing rotation, there’s nothing whatsoever to grouse about or balk at here.  Generally a band going all self-titled this late in the game implies some radical reinvention, a shedding of past glories and announcement to the world that this is the new, presumably improved version.  I’m glad to say that this is not the case here.

Raise your horn of mead in tribute to the sky gods.

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Vorna – Ei valo minua seuraa (Inverse) (December 4)

A surprisingly aggressive pagan metal act that melds distinctly modernist and death metal touches in the machine gun guitars, black metal gargle-snarls on the vocal end and the expected bombast, drama, folkish acoustic bits and crystalline production of the pagan/Viking subgenre.

It’s hard to describe something as contemplative when it’s this propulsive and in your face.  I mean, even a band as grandiosely over the top as Primordial keeps a measure of distance between the instrumentation and vocals and the speakers – this is totally shoved up front, metalcore/emo/modern metal style.

And in that respect, it’s a jarring bit of sonic-cognitive dissonance: how can this possibly set a mood when the production motif is so particularly punch you right in the fuckin’ mouth close?

And yet, like the best black metal and…well, one or two superior pagan acts I could name (cough Manegarm and Primordial), it pulls this off somehow.

Sure, the tremelo guitars are totally up front, every hit of the drum is slamming right up against your ear and the vocals are close enough to hear Vesa Salovaara’s snotty tonsils wiggling, but yet and still…the band’s sound is expansive.  And I mean Leaves Eyes/Primordial expansive.

You can picture these guys sailing out on the high seas in their Viking longships, alright – only difference is, it’s like they sneaked up on you and surprised everyone by pulling right up alongside your ass.  Ship ahoy, prepare to be boarded!

Definite props to twin guitarists Arttu Jarvisalo and Henri Lammintausta, who keep things tremelo and yet majestic throughout (and thereby bringing a whiff of Gorgoroth to the proceedings).

All told, if you can take the decidedly incongrous production, this is easily one of the better pagan metal albums I’ve run across during the year.  A bit of distance and foggy atmospherics would do Vorna wonders, but hey, in light of the quality on display here otherwise, I’ll even accept this as is.

Just keep that in mind for when you get around to recording round 2.

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Dark The Suns – Life Eternal (Inverse) (December 15)

Finnish gothic metal with some decidedly upfront keyboard.  There’s something decidedly off kilter about this that brought Magica circa Lightseeker and Hereafter to mind, particularly on opener “the sleeping beauty”

There are moments that feel rather akin to a Prophecy Productions act, such as the melancholic yet very piano driven “sleepless angels” and even moreso, “all ends in silence”, but then they move back into pseudo-Magica territory with “the dead end” (which features creepy little girl vocals – WTF were they thinking!?!) and “alone”.

The thick toned guitar bombast is there, the quirkiness too, and certainly the not merely integral, but very much forefronted nature of the keyboards ala “6 Fingers”, but at no point do we mistake the two bands for each other, because no one in Dark the Suns is Bogdan Costea – this is a very rhythm guitar driven outfit, with absolutely zero leads to speak of.

You could also arguably compare Dark the Suns to Elis (particularly in the Sabine Dunstler era), though there are more than a few major variances between the three bands that throw such facile comparisons somewhat into question.

Even so, if you’re starving for some prime-era, keyboard-led early to mid-millenium gothic metal without the female vocals or any measure of lead guitar, you really can’t go wrong with Dark the Suns.

As a veteran aficionado of that scene myself, I can assure readers that I felt quite comfortable with the band’s sound here, and could easily picture them opening for the likes of Leaves Eyes, Epica or Within Temptation, much less far closer kin such as Nemesea, Unsun, Magica, Elis or even Theatres des Vampires.

Nice stuff.

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Standing Ovation – Gravity Beats Nuclear (Inverse) (December 4th)

I’m honestly not sure what to make of these guys. Are they trying to be modern metal with prog leanings?  Or are they some sort of good humored joke band?

Seriously, not since Trollfest have I run across a band where I wasn’t quite sure what the intentions were.  Sure, there are acts that are essentially “serious” who like to have a good laugh on the audience like F.K.U. and Gama Bomb, and there are bands who are clearly just in this to take the piss out of everyone like We Butter the Bread with Butter or J.B.O.

But when the music seems like a (far) more aggressive take on Dream Theater as fronted by Crispin Glover crossed with Weird Al,* you have to sit back and shake your head in disbelief.

* complete with absurdist lyrics, yet!

Well, I appreciate the goofiness of it, that’s for sure!

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An Ocean Of Void (Inverse) (December 4)

Strange mix of Pink Floyd aesthetic, where mellow, dreamy, phase/chorus/delayed clean guitar lines are matched with croaking post-black metal vocals and Black Sabbath riffing.

There’s even some prog thrown in there, with some off-time meter shifts and suchlike that bring the lighter, Ray Alder-era Fates Warning occasionally to mind, but it’s pretty fucking strange any way you slice it.  Then they throw in some weird electronic elements and a touch of nu-metal guitar noise for no apparent reason whatsoever.  Don’t ask me.

Floran Guillou’s belch-croak vox aren’t exactly playing in the same sort of “oh, my God this is ridiculous” territory as far too many modern bands I could name, but they are kind of goofy and very, very incongrous for the music they front. While I’m not overly worked up about them for a change, the bottom line is that they sort of blur into that haze between “for the love of God shut this man up!” and “yeah, whatever…”

Props, on the other hand, go to the musicians (Benoit Lamote and Julien Lesseur on guitars, Pietter Delmas on drums) and the producer (who keeps things clear but not overly bright throughout) – it’s oddly listenable, particularly if utilized as background music.

The sort of thing that may really grow on you over time, depending on what mood you’re in.

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Spiders – Why Don’t You? (EP) (Spinefarm Records) (October 16)

More 70’s-style hard rock from the Swedish retro scene.

Female fronted, very raw guitars with that Glen Buxton meets Ace Frehley by way of James Williamson lead approach and forefronted, clean alto vox ala Suzy Quatro bolstered by busy old school, unembellished kit drumming.

How the hell can you go wrong, seriously?

They even cover Abba’s “watch out” and manage to turn it into a straight up hard rocker!  Sure, the original has elements leaning vaguely in that direction, but you know…it’s Abba.  Great as they are, you don’t exactly associate them with rocking out…

There’s a pleasant feel of The Runaways to all of this, but as filtered through the aforementioned Quatro, Cooper and Stooges influences.  I’m guessing Ann-Sofie and John Hoyles (vox and guitar, respectively) are brother-sister from a vague facial resemblance, but don’t quote me on that one.  If so, congrats for being able to put up with a sibling in a band situation!

Sounds like they’re planning on hitting NYC in January, so who knows – may just make my way down to the show.

Can’t wait for the full length.

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Nucleus Torn – Neon Light Eternal (Prophecy Productions) (November 6)

Mira meets Beatmistress’ “tigerlily”, minus the drums. There’s even a hint of early (gothic era) Cocteau Twins, the latter day, more mellowed out version of Mephisto Walz, and strangely, a dash of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (!) but overall, it’s very Projekt Records and surprisingly close to Mira’s Apart in tone and approach.

Then just to fuck with everyone, they go all pseudo-death metal, with nasty, nigh-Boss HM-2 level distortion and stuttering machine gun riffing.  Then back to Mira territory…

There are only three tracks here, but one runs 22 minutes, and the other two are more in the 7-10 minute range.

The band is best when they’re just embracing the drugged out, depressive gothic dreampop thing – I didn’t really “get” the inappropriate detours into metal territory, which totally did not fit and just leave the listener scratching their head in bafflement.

Apparently this was the band’s last gasp, which is too bad – weird juxtapositions aside, a lot of what they’re working here is quite familiar and welcome.

I understand they’re Swiss, which may explain it all.*

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Nhor – Momenta Quintae Essentiae (Prophecy Productions)

Intensely introspective piano with the damper pedal down. Then a very Ulveresque dual acoustic guitar piece in minor.  Is that cello being bowed?  Nope, it’s a wordless nigh-baritone range tenor in mournful ululation.  Then the piano joins in.

Back to a (very quiet) piano piece with sparse, sad vocals.  This time the string section is real, appearing for a single swell of emotion before fading away.  Now a track of nothing but strings, with a brief, belated cameo from the piano.  Then a piano and vox piece.  An acoustic guitar with reverberating damper pedal piano.  A solo piano piece.  A final guitar/piano duet, then fade.

This is the sort of thing we tend to listen to around Christmas, at least when the weather is actually cold and snow is falling outside: chilly, mournful and contemplative yet simultaneously expectant and wide eyed with as much nostalgia as wonder.

Very, very nice stuff, particularly for background music to an especially dark Winter evening.

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Triumvir Foul – S/T (Blood Harvest) (February 15)

Guitarist and drummer from Ash Borer move to more of a black-death startup.

There’s certainly a much, much greater orientation towards a vaguely Swedish death metal sound here than their prior act, though it’s still very underground, modern and blackened throughout.

There’s definitely a hint or two of Left Hand Path-era Entombed wafting about, however subtly, but don’t make any decisions based on that statement – it’s a very, very faint perfume overpowered by a nose crinkling eau du men’s room that predominates and crushes any more refined notes with a decidedly blunt and raunchy scent and mouldering palate.  Foul is right.

I found them quite generic, actually.

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VoidCeremony – Cyclical Descent of Causality TAPE (Blood Harvest) (December 4)

Arguably better production than April’s Dystheism demo, but that’s like comparing peasoup to porridge – the gradations are slight and both are thick and muddy.

Last time around, we compared them to Immolation. That still holds to some extent, though they’re clearly striving for a more vaguely progressive if still quite sloppy/noisy strain of death metal – Suffocation meets Atheist as fronted by Ross Dolan and recorded in somebody’s uninsulated basement?

It’s kind of messy throughout, the riffs are all over the place and feel like they’re trying to jump in and out of key while the tonal center never really shifts to any appreciable degree…it’s strange.

I think I liked the demo a lot better.

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Necrosemen – Vglns TAPE (Blood Harvest) (December 4)

Swiss blackened death act.  Liked these guys a lot more than Dakhma, that’s for damn sure.

While it’s pretty listenable for modern underground black-death, the most interesting thing here is actually the rotating member list.

Now, a lot of bands, particularly in the thrash/death/black metal scene swap members back and forth like there’s no tomorrow – it’s part and parcel of the scene aesthetic, and has been since all this stuff came to life back in the mid to late 80’s.  Just think of how many great bands and albums would have never come to be without all the hirings, firings, guest vocalist/guitarists and “revenge bands” that went down back in the day.

But what’s usually a constant is the number of band members.  If it’s a two guitar band, they usually stay that way.  If there’s a vocalist/bassist who leaves or gets shit canned, they’ll replace him with two guys, one for each role.  It’s sort of a given.

But this is a one man band…who expanded to a five man band…who just dumped three of those guys and will henceforth be a duo.

What the fuck?

Well, look, there have been a few successful black metal double acts – Darkthrone, Immortal and Satyricon spring immediately to mind.  But this is blackened death, which is a different beast entirely.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring…

In and of itself, this is nothing to write home about, but fans of the style should be happy enough with it.  You can more or less distinguish one riff or track from the next, that’s saying something right there…just don’t let anyone con you that it’s “war metal” by any measure – I’ve seen it (quite inaccurately) mentioned in that respect.

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Ripping Death – Tales of the Ripper TAPE (Iron Bonehead) (December 18)

More blackened death with a sort of old school feel from the fine folks at Iron Bonehead.

Alongside Hell’s Headbangers and the more “war metal” oriented Nuclear War Now!, Iron Bonehead more or less specializes in this sort of thing, unearthing and reissuing one forgotten demo act or retro minded new band after another, all generally falling under a similar umbrella to that of classic Teutonic or Brazilian thrash.

This is the shit I came up on, what I was playing when I first picked up the guitar and the bands and albums that seldom if ever left rotation over the years, so it’s a pretty safe bet I’m going to give the better part of what these labels drop at least a cursory nod, if not a horns up review.

Ripping Death are really no exception to the rule, though they seem to be playing, as the name might suggest, an ersatz take on death metal more than blackened thrash per se – and for me, aside from the classics that spawned the genre (early Death, Possessed, Celtic Frost), death metal is Morrisound, Scott Burns and Sunlight.

The label’s also claiming that while they’re a new band, the members are veterans of the scene…if so, I’ve never heard of any of ’em, and can’t find their pseudos popping up anywhere on the web.

Call bullshit?  Who knows, and honestly, who really cares.

It’s uptempo, aggressive and raw as all get out.  I’m down.

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Dakhma (Switzerland) – Astiwihad-Zohr (Iron Bonehead) (February 29)

More of this comical modern blackened underground stuff.  When I first heard, say, Zom, I was surprised – like, seriously?  Where the hell did this beam in from? It’s weird, and that makes it sorta cool in a way.

But a few years on and about 10,000 likeminded acts and releases later, and it just becomes groan inducing.  Really?  Another one of these?

BLUUH-UUUH-UUUHHH-UHHH-UH-UH-UH!  BLUUUUH-UH-UH-UH! while guitars buzz like bees around them.

ZZZZ-ZZZZ-ZZZ-ZZZ-ZZZZ


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Ice War – Battle Zone 7″ EP (Iron Bonehead) (December 18)

Holy crap, my ears were dead on again.

The riff kicked in, and instantly I’m thinking, this sounds a hell of a lot like those guys Iron Dogs.  Same odd, thin guitar tone, same early 80’s straight through the Marshall rig sound.

What they’ve done here is improved…dramatically.  Sure, it’s the same feel with the guitar, and they certainly haven’t lost the strange, quirky vocals, but to compare Ice War with Iron Dogs…nah.

Less an ersatz Heavy Load than a sort of speed metal/punk take on the post-Ulrich Roth Scorpions, both tracks here kick some serious ass, with only the listener’s ability to accept questionable vox as a potential pitfall.

Melodic, speedy and pretty well crafted.  Iron Dogs seriously upped their game – no surprise they went with a new name and image entirely here.  It’s like two completely different, if clearly still related bands entirely.

Horns up.  Looking forward to the full length.

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Black Twilight Circle – Desert Dances and Serpent Sermons (Iron Bonehead / The Ajna Offensive) (December 18 CD / February 26 LP)

Another round of Black Twilight Circle material, this time a four song EP* from “circle leader” Volahn and 3 of his pals.

* albeit one being classified as a full length LP due to the average 10 minute length of each track.

Interestingly, Volahn’s offering kicks off with a very movie western showdown sort of thing that brings early Sono Morti very much to mind, before moving into a more traditionally black metal sound.

Even there, elements of clean, twangy guitar and atypically open space predominate – hell, there’s even a slide break (!)  I kind of liked it, and props for making an effort to push boundaries and do something different in an increasingly (cough Watain-worshipping) soundalike black and blackened death scene.

The other bands follow suit, to greater or lesser success.  Shataan offers an even more interesting, almost Native American-inflected suite of chanted, flute filled material quite suggestive of the open expanse of the mesa and pueblo.  Is this the highlight of the album?

Arizmenda starts off promisingly by working a bit of an Italian giallo soundtrack thing, with a girlish accapella female lullaby kicking things off…but then it turns fairly traditional and somewhat tuneless modern underground black metal.  The intro is the most interesting part, to be sure.  The least of the four by a desert-wide margin.

Kallathon closes things out with a gloomy guitar with the volume knob turned down neo-acoustic intro that eventually morphs into a midtempo, almost pagan metal affair with automatic rifle-fire drum patterns and early Samael vocals.

It’s probably the second most listenable track after Shataan in objective terms, but you get the distinct impression they, like Arizmenda, didn’t get the memo that this was supposed to be – hey, guys, get this – an Old West/Native American traditional sort of thing.

Look, 2 of these tracks are really good, and both Volahn and Shataan are really tapping into welcome new territory here.  Overall, I’d have to rate this as 3 out of 4 tracks that you should probably drop what you’re doing and take a listen to.

Definitely the best thing this “circle” has released to date, and hoping to hear more of this sort of thing from them in the future.

Raise your prayer stick in salute to the Great Spirit.

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Khtoniik Cerviiks – SeroLogiikal Scars (Vertex of Dementiia) (Iron Bonehead) (February 5)

Following on last August’s Heptaedrone comes the debut full length from these German black-death impresarios.  All I can say is, what an improvement!

Whether you dig this or not, hey, I’m mixed myself – never did like trojan horses.  You’re either black or death, you can’t have both, people.  Sorry, but it just doesn’t fucking work.

But in terms of this specific band, while still comprised of often sloppy sounding buzzing bees guitars, noise bleed-filled production and irritating POUND POUND POUND POUND on the snare drumming, it’s crystal clear that they’ve been practicing since we’ve last heard from this particular camp.

Strange to say in a release that still comes off this uncontrolled and messy sounding, but there’s a (greatly) increased level of precision to the guitar work and even occasional double bass on the otherwise meth-head hobo let loose on the kit drum end.

In other words, if you’re new to the band, be warned, this is a big fucking noisy-ass mess.  But if you heard Heptaedrone…these guys have really polished up and improved their game since.

Do I like it at all?

Please.  Don’t make me laugh.

But a well deserved tip of the hat for the marked improvement.  Who knows, another year of similar improvement, they may actually put out something worth spinning more than once.

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MACHINÆ – Clockwork (Concorde Music Company) (November 20)

Finland gets in on the gothicized industrial meets “dark metal” thing that bands like Gothminister and Megaherz are tapping.

They’re a lot more inclined towards the melodic mainstream than either of the aforementioned acts, but are clearly playing in the same ballpark.  Hell, in many ways, I found them reminiscent of far lighter hearted and oft unclassifiable “crossover” act Kontrust, with a jumble of subgenre aesthetics mashed together under an unrelentingly and quite blatant radio friendly melodic core orientation.

They’re detuned and riffwise, quite dark and pushing somewhere between industrial, modern metal and even aggro/nu-metal in the very basic, neanderthalic nature of the guitar lines and (thankfully occasional) growly-barf backing vocals.  But don’t be fooled, this is a catchy, tuneful, (mostly) clean sung affair that would not seem entirely out of hand appearing on even the most hopelessly pop oriented of your friends’ playlists.

If there’s a problem with all this, it’s in the simple fact that most of the album sort of…blurs.  There are moments that work better than others, and a few tracks are certainly more or less listenable than others (“don’t get used to this” is the definite stinker of the album, with no clean vocals or melody lines in sight…), but it’s all more or less of a piece.

While I can offer to the curious that I liked this one overall and can see some definite potential in this band, I do on the other hand have my doubts as to just how much replay value listeners will get out of the album.  It works, it’s very listenable in a nigh-melodeath meets Gothminister sort of way…but it just feels like something essential is missing.

Who knows, it’s hard to define.  Maybe it’s something that will come with time and subsequent releases.  For now, I’ll give ’em the nod, they’ve definitely earned that much.

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BODE PRETO – Mystic Massacre (Iron Tyrant) (January 7)

Brazilian blackened thrash leaning towards “bestial” or “war metal”.  The riffing is pretty cool and individualized (you’ll actually pick out and remember these riffs for a change – just like the old days!), the drumming is horrible and noisy (again, just like the old days!) and the whole thing feels just this side of falling apart. How very Exumer of them.

Promo materials name check Holocausto as well as Sarcofago – I might throw early Vulcano and Sextrash in there as well.  Not exactly top tier, but hardly comparisons to sneeze at either.

I didn’t find them particularly retro-minded, though on the flipside, they do get the whole “uncontrolled aggression” thing, particularly when they throw studio reverb and a bit of phase on the vox for “hall of mirrors”, which really improves what are otherwise fairly workaday snarls and growls for a (very) brief interlude.

Again, I really liked the evil-sounding, quite distinctive riffing.  Holocausto is a very good marker to go by here.

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NACHTLIEDER – The Female Of The Species (I, Voidhanger Records) (December 7)

Female fronted black metal from Sweden.

It’s hardly Myrkur (who are in fact quite excellent, despite the apparent buzz among internet trolls – try having an original thought for once, instead of one carefully vetted among your ostensible friends and peers), but if you can ignore the questionable vox, guitarist/screech-puker Dagny Susanne and drummer “Martrum” deliver a straightforward modern black metal assault not far removed from the relentless locomotive aggression of Marduk (though perhaps with a tad more melody).

“Nightfall” further offers strong hints of Battles in the North-era Immortal or perhaps even Gorgoroth, but this is so much in the Marduk school of thought, you could be forgiven for thinking someone re-recorded Panzer Division Marduk with shitty vocals.

I’m definitely down with the instrumental end here, which just works in the same weird way that repetitive but oft-spun signposts of the middle period second wave like the aforementioned Battles in the North and Panzer Division Marduk (or even Heaven Shall Burn…or Nightwing) do.

If that were all we had to deal with, this would have been a five star review.

Just hire a real vocalist, already.

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NAR MATTARU – Ancient Atomic Warfare (I, Voidhanger Records) (December 7)

Mediocre black-death from Chile.  Production’s not too bad, the puke vox are right up close and personal, the guitars buzz like bees and there’s plenty of blastbeats.

Nothing terrible, but nothing to get excited about either.

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SPECTRAL LORE – Gnosis (I, Voidhanger Records) (December 7)

umm…how do I review this one?  Is it a good sign that I went through 2 tracks and didn’t have an actual conscious impression?

Seriously, this is instrumental music with a black metal bent.  There’s a nice acoustic-style track (“Averroes’ search”), but the other three tracks, while quite listenable as background music…never actually make an impression.

What amazes me is that there isn’t a single vocal on this album.

Seriously.

If you strain really hard, you’ll hear some faint hoarse whispering.  That counts as a fucking vocal?  Seriously?

That aside, it’s not bad, certainly somewhat contemplative at points, and obviously works as BGM.

Nice cover, anyway!  Liked “Averroes’ search”…

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