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Whew!

If you’re like…well, just about everyone I know, 2016 is not kicking off on a very good foot.

The corporatocracy is doing its damnedest to crush us all, with an increasingly rabid group of right-leaning political loons hellbent on simultaneously sinking the global economy and kicking off WWIII.  Yay!  Pass the marshmallows, as the world burns!

And in keeping with all of that, it looks like January is not only proving to be something of a bad start for any number of friends and peers, but worse: it’s shaping up to be a pretty rough month for black, death and extreme metal as well.

Oh, well.  At least the more traditional and AOR acts put on a pretty good face this month…

Look at it this way, it gives the average extreme metal fan a month to catch up on their holiday (pagan or otherwise) spending!

So without further ado, let us forge forth, once more into the breach…

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PRIMAL FEAR – Rulebreaker (Frontiers Music srl) (January 22)

Gamma Ray’s Ralf Scheepers, Sinner’s Mat Sinner and Silent Force/Voodoo Circle mainman Alex Beyrodt step up to the plate with yet another hard driving power metal effort.  The best track on this is the surprisingly grandiose and decidedly melodic power ballad “we walk without fear”, which brought fond memories of 80’s nights back to the fore.

For the most part, though, Rulebreaker is all about aggression: more in your face than most European power metal, and far less obsessed with fantasy or historical topics.  While there is definitely the “fight for rock” thing going on in tracks like the title cut, Primal Fear manages to make the sentiment far less cheesy then it generally tends to come off, and therefore leaves them feeling more credible than most of their peers.

For his part, Scheepers appears to be relying less on the growl and shriek end of his vocal spectrum than usual, which is exactly why a track like “we walk without fear” comes off sounding so credibly retro.  While hardly fitting the bill of a “clean singing” vocalist, I found his performance throughout much more manageable than previous efforts, coming off at times like a cross between the singers from Shark Island and XYZ – raspy, a tad pointed with the phrasing, but entirely listenable and yes, likeable. Nice job.

Alex Beyrodt, Magnus Karlsson and a returning Tom Naumann all pitch in to make this a very guitar heavy album, which like other three-guitar acts (well, OK, Leatherwolf) means more of a crunch to the riffing and a whole lot of melodic soloing. Even before looking at the call sheet, I’d noticed what appeared to be extended lead sections.  So while hardly, say, Racer X, it does show an interesting change, and combined with Scheepers’ more naturalistic performance, continues what has been something of a real improvement in the band’s efforts of late.

Another class act from these guys, from the in your face yet crystalline production to the quality of the songwriting and musicianship right down to the vocals.

Nearly faultless.

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NORDIC UNION – S/T (Frontiers Music srl) (January 29)

If there’s a modern day analogue to Mike Varney, it’s Frontiers mainman Serafino Perugino.

Like the famed Shrapnel label head and launcher of a thousand shredders, he has this thing for pulling together worthies from all over the musical map and having them collaborate on some new project band or other.

This time around, Perugino gives us Pretty Maids’ Ronnie Atkins and W.E.T./Eclipse (and producer of such affairs as Dalton and Adrenaline Rush) mainman Erik Martensson on everything else except drums.  Since they’re both Scandinavian, they named it…aah, you got that one.

Martensson pulls in Eclipse bandmate Magnus Henriksson, some fella named Thomas Larsson and…here’s a bizarro one…Unleashed’s Fredrik Folkare (?!?) for half the album’s leads, and some of those are quite good.  But Martensson’s no slouch himself, and it’s hardly necessary for him to cover for any deficiencies on that front (though I was amused to hear him swipe bits from Jake E. Lee’s “bark at the moon” – not to mention a few other classic metal solos you should instantly recognize – in “the other side”).

A typically strong Frontiers affair.

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Resurrection Kings – S/T (Frontiers Music srl) (January 29)

Giuffria/Dio axeman Craig Goldy and fellow Dio/Black Sabbath sticksmith Vinny Appice hook up with singer Chas West (Bohham, Foreigner).  Frontiers standby Alessandro Del Vecchio pens a few tracks and handles the production.

There’s a strong feeling of mid-80’s Whitesnake (and therefore a touch of Zeppelin) in the often quite bombastic hair metal/AOR feel, but with two Dio sidemen in tow, you know there’s more than a little of that band bleeding into the mix as well. You even get a touch of Lynch Mob in the snaking double stop guitar line of “livin’ out loud”.

It’s really retro and pretty damn good, particularly if you’ve been jonesing for Vandenberg/Sykes-era Whitesnake for the last 30 years, and thought Voodoo Circle are a tad too Slide it In for your taste.

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Shakra – High Noon (AFM Records) (February 5)

Well, it looks like what comes around goes around.  In what appears to have been an amicable split, nice guy vocalist John Prakesh (of the excellent Back on Track and Powerplay albums) has stepped down, and previous vocalist Mark Fox (of Rising through Everest fame) returns to the fray.

So for those of you charting this out, it’s #1 (Pete Weidmer), #2 (Fox), #3 (Prakesh), and now #4…which is really #2 all over again (Fox).  Gotta love power metal.  Can we talk Bloodbound next?

So the relevant question is, how does it come off, particularly after such strong efforts from Prakesh (let’s put it this way, Back on Track is still in semi regular rotation around my place…)?

Well…you know, not bad at all.

In fact, it’s not much of a change, as both men shared some measure of a nasal rasp if not corner of the mouth snarl to their vocal approach.  You do lose a bit of the fuller body and melodic feel Prakesh brought to the table, but it’s not a throw your hands in the air and walk away sort of thing by any means – if you liked Prakesh, you’ll probably like Fox too (or, let’s be honest here, vice versa).

The album is certainly solid enough, hearkening back more to the strengths of Back on Track than the comparative step down of Powerplay.  There’s plenty of guitar work, a stronger melodic approach to the songwriting with reasonably anthemic choruses, you get the picture.

Now, the band self describes more as “hard rock” than any form of metal, even “power” or “melodic”, genre appellations which could easily be applied to much of their output – hell, if Whitesnake, Quiet Riot and Dokken were metal, so is Shakra. But newcomers should be aware of this fact, as it’s hardly, say, Rhapsody (of Fire) or Judas Priest we’re talking here.

So the bottom line here is, Shakra sounds as good as they ever did, with enough strong production and catchy midtempo tuneage to satisfy your average power metal/AOR-oriented fan, and the switch (back) to Fox is hardly a traumatic one – the band remains firmly on track with hardly a veer off course at the Keel.

Even so, I’ll certainly miss Prakesh, who sure seemed like a nice guy in our interview and was a decent frontman to boot.

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Brainstorm – Scary Creatures (AFM Records) (February 5)

Poking around since the late 80’s, Germany’s Brainstorm have long been feted for their vaguely Bruce Dickinsonesque singer Andy B. Franck.  Among the higher echelons of power metal, they probably rank as more of a second tier affair, but you don’t generally get to hang around for over 25 years with nothing to say for yourself.

Last time around, I described Franck as sort of a throatier Alan Tecchio, and you can still pick that tonality up in his performance, but I’m hearing more of a baritone-leaning Dickinson here.  Either way, while well produced and competent in both construction and musicianship, it’s the same story: very listenable but sorta unspectacular.

The real draw here is Franck, whose approach isn’t exactly typical for the genre nowadays.  Again, I’d hardly classify him as one of the great singers of our age, but he has a powerful voice that’s throaty and capable of soaring into the high range and holding it there on occasion.  If you hear him sing, you’re sure to form an opinion immediately, and it’ll probably be a positive one.

These guys are touring Europe with both Primal Fear and Striker this summer, so you know you’re not going to get some shabby never-was act in company like that.

I enjoyed it well enough.

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Rhapsody Of Fire – Into The Legend (AFM Records) (February 5)

Well, Fabio Lione is still in good form, that’s for sure.

I still find it strange that both Alex Staropoli (keyboards/songwriting) and Luca Turilli (former Rhapsody guitarist and songwriter) are out there running seperate versions of the same band (his version, for those who don’t know, is simply “Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody”).

I mean, seriously – for all my wife’s groans whenever I put them into rotation, those first 6 or 7 albums and an EP were the closest analogue to opera proper that modern generations will ever see.

All bombast and gravitas, digging into multi-album ongoing epics of Tolkienesque, Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy adventure with kingdoms in the balance, Rhapsody (later “of Fire”) was an amazing band and set up one hell of an act to follow, though many would try, unsuccessfully, to replicate their efforts.

Sure, it was cheesy as shit – particularly Christopher Lee’s booming basso profundo on the single version of “magic of the wizard’s dream” (belted out renditions of which practically send the wife into hysterics).  But it was fucking awesome at the same time. You seriously don’t like classic Rhapsody?  No, really, don’t even talk to me.  I don’t know you.

But something changed, after the ridiculous lawsuit over the name (screw you, Rhapsody the lame streaming service – you suck anyway). There were a few albums that didn’t feel the same at all, starting with Frozen Tears of Angels, then the split came.  Sure, it appears to have been an amiable one, but still.  The spirit really hasn’t been the same since Triumph or Agony, if not The Dark Secret before it.

But that’s not to say they haven’t given it their damnedest here.

I for one am still glad to hear Fabio Lione’s over-dramatic operatically quavering vibrato tenor blasting away on tracks like “winter’s rain”.  With its keyboards, strings and choirs, that track hearkens very much back to the band’s salad days, an impression bolstered by the fife and piccolo bits all over the “a voice in the cold wind”, which follows.  Further, Roberto De Micheli’s leads are very reminiscent of Turilli’s, something which becomes particuarly noticeable on the aforementioned “cold wind” or the subsequent ballad “shining star”.

In fact, by the time you reach the end of the album, it suddenly dawns on you that what this new album sounds most like is…wait for it…classic Rhapsody.

Now, there is something slightly “off” about all this – there’s a darker overtone, something more resigned and slightly less hopeful and earnest about the entire affair.

Is it the cynicism of age, or a more businesslike decision to try to return to the very elements that made Rhapsody relevant in its 1997-2006 heyday?

Or is it just the fact that, however qualified an analogue we have in De Micheli (and his playing is both impressive and impressively Turilli-like) we’re talking 2/3 of the original recipe here?

Either way, with Lione at the fore and Starapoli on the keyboard and composition end, it’s apparent that what we have here is the better end of the equation, and while the last several albums may have been treading water, that Into the Legend is the closest Rhapsody (of Fire) has been to Rhapsody in a decade.

Put a hand on your heart, raise your head to the sky and sing out your most operatic salute in tribute.

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Manimal – Trapped In The Shadows (AFM Records) (January 22)

So what’s Mike Vescera been up to lately?

I sure did like his work with Obsession…then Loudness, and Yngwie, and the all-star anime themes done metal project Animetal USA.  Nice to hear him again here!

Wait, what?  This isn’t Mike Vescera?

Are you sure?

Yep, apparently Gothenburg, Sweden, home of the whole At the Gates-inspired melodeath scene, has produced some band who swipes riffs and unusual open chording from classic Queensryche and a guy who must have kept Vescera records playing under his pillow every night since birth on vox.

Seriously, if there is a successor to Vescera…arguably, you could throw TNT’s Tony Harnell into the mix, but without the head voice through the teeth and with more body…Samuel Nyman is it.

To sum them up quickly, this is a speed/thrashed up (or if you prefer, Enforcer-fied) Queensryche, with Vescera on vox and (as you get more into the second half of the album) an increasing swipe of Painkiller riffs.  As that was my cutoff point for Priest – hated the album then, hate it now – this isn’t exactly a compliment for a band.  So I’m sticking to Queensryche with Vescera as frontman and ignoring the more boneheaded aspects that appear as you go along.

Udo Dirkschneider shows up for the album’s lone power ballad “the journey”, but it’s just OK.  Which is pretty much how I’d sum up the album as a whole – interesting, some fascinating elements all thrown together – but ultimately, just OK.

And what the fuck is with the faux-black metal cover?  I’d love to see some Gorgoroth fan pick this one up, just to see how the CD gets treated after a spin…bizarre and inappropriate choice, given the band’s sound and approach.

Menza menza.

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AXEL RUDI PELL – Game Of Sins (Steamhammer / SPV) (January 15)

OK, let’s be honest. I can’t say I’m familiar with Pell or his long-ago former act Steeler (Germany – I’m well acquainted with the Ron Keel/Yngwie Malmsteen version).

But he’s got former Rainbow/Doro Pesch sticksman Bobby Rondinelli in tow, a vocalist and general approach to song construction that says Malmsteen, and crunchy riffing to boot.

Oddly, Pell seems to allow the vocals (by Johnny Gioeli, sounding for all the world like Rising Force/Marching Out era Jeff Scott Soto) to take the fore, while the guitars occupy something of a midrange, arguably even with the drums.  Not what I’d expect from a metal guitarist’s solo act…

Also interesting is that while the songs are constructed in a very Malmsteenesque manner, complete with keyboards and Arabian/harmonic/melodic minor scales, the leads are fairly standard hard rock guitar in approach.  Competent, likeable, listenable…but I was expecting a Jackie Slaughterlike shredder, and that’s definitely not what Pell is laying down here.

So for fellow newcomers to the man’s work, here’s what to expect: nicely crunchy compressed guitars (think Obsession-style crybaby wah set halfway to emphasize the harmonic tones, or classic Akira Takasaki Rockman-driven Loudness), a very Malmsteen approach to song construction (complete with keyboards more or less following the guitar lines and a dead ringer for classic Jeff Scott Soto in the vocal chair), some very straightforward drumming from Rondinelli (think his performance on Force Majeure, then remove a bit of the flash) and some likeably dramatic and melodic but surprisingly un-flashy leads from the man himself.

You could draw comparisons to Ulrich Roth’s Scorpions work as well, but again, nowhere near that level of flashiness and fretboard skill.  And yeah, I admit, that really surprised me, having heard this guy’s name bandied about for decades.

But that being said, I liked this album, and for that matter Pell’s overall approach to the instrument, quite a bit.

Well worth giving this one a listen.

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PRONG – X – No Absolutes (Steamhammer / SPV) (February 5)

Last time I dealt with Prong, Tommy Victor was busy begging to differ, proving people wrong and telling bosses he’d snap their necks.

I was pretty much OK with those three songs, though they were very much of their (early 90’s) time period, more grungelike than metal in any real respect.  I still love “snap your fingers, snap your neck” and mentally quote it on a regular basis.  It happens when you have to work for a living.

But so far as I knew, they went the way of all 90’s indie/grunge/proto-nu metal acts (whatever happened to Clutch, Tool, Sponge and Helmet, anyway?  Or are they still pathetically crawling around out there somewhere, God help us?).

Then I heard “chamber of thought” on a sampler a year or two back.  And perhaps a little to my surprise, I really liked it.

So here we are, and what turns out to be their tenth album drops in my lap.  How will this one play out, you have to wonder?

Well, the answer is – grading on a slight curve, not bad at all.

Turns out that they did in fact go the way of all things 90’s late in that decade (1996, to be specific), but had a trio of indie label reunion sort of things during the next decade and a half.  Who knew?

But with their signing to Steamhammer in 2014, the band seems to not only be back, but reinvented as less of a 90’s grunge sort of concern (like they were when I knew ’em) and more of a metal band per se.  And while I’m not hearing another “snap your fingers” here, I’d say that’s something of an improvement.

Victor eschews most of the minimalist approach that defined the band, dropping (for the most part) the jagged edges, negative space and vaguely industrial feel in favor of a far busier, harder driving power metallish crunch.

Some of the old feel certainly rears its head in tracks like “soul sickness” or “belief system”, but overall, this is more tailored to ears accustomed to today’s metal than the weird, generally quite inferior substitutes that took its place in the 1989-early millenium period (at least here in the States).  Hell, he even approaches a downtuned but radio friendly variant of gothic metal on “ice runs through my veins”, so you know this is a changed man and a very different band than the one I knew back in the dark days of the early to mid 90’s.

Look, Prong for me will always be “snap your fingers” and “beg to differ”, but damn if Victor doesn’t come off like a new man for a new era here.

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Toothgrinder – Nocturnal Masquerade (Spinefarm Records) (January 29)

Asbury Park, New Jersey act that goes for the aggro-screamo thing.  Would be a huge snore except for the infusion of some clean vocal bits that offer a touch of melody.

You could more or less correlate this to metalcore acts like Atreyu, where what seems like a bunch of pimply testosterone gone wild teens raging disproportionately to their actual life experiences winds up carrying just a hint more depth due to a slight injection of mournful melodicism at the chorus.

Tracks like “I lie in rain” work so much better than the rest, as the hyper-pissed off aggro shit is more of a punctuation to the clean vocalled, depressed emo feel than vice versa.

If more bands of this type, present company inclusive, would reverse the general formula likewise, I’d be giving out a lot more passing grades to this sort of thing.

As things stand, one song aside, this is just another fail.


Imperial State Electric – “Anywhere Loud” (Psychout Records) (Dec. 18)

Entombed/Death Breath mainman Nicke Andersson drops another retro-flavored number.  This one’s a bit more on the mellow end, evoking Todd Rundgren and the Ringo All Star albums more than anything else.

As ever, nice solo…


Factory Brains – “Modern Day” (Wild Kingdom) (December 12)

Take a dash of Afghan Whigs, add a touch of Urge Overkill and just a hint of The Pursuit of Happiness, and simmer over a modern production.  Voila, you have yourself a nice dish of Factory Brains!  Bon appetit!

I liked those acts (particularly the Whigs circa Congregation and Gentlemen), so combine that with the fact that this one’s in and outta there in less than 3 minutes, and you have a winner.

Hope the main course is half as good as this apertif was.

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Dissona – Paleopneumatic (self released) (January 15)

Prog metal, but more in the vein of progressive death metal or even djent than, say, Dream Theater.

As much as I love early Queensryche, Fates Warning, Cynic, Sigh and even Watchtower (most of whom these guys appear to have opened for at one time or another), this is more in the realm of a slightly more musical Unexpect (ditto) than any of those.  Now, I’ve seen Unexpect opening for Epica and Visions of Atlantis, and while they were visually amusing…sorry, I don’t get it.

Dissona is more traditionally oriented than Unexpect, which probably comes from the drummer and guitarist’s claims of a jazz orientation, but it’s still pretty out there and amelodic.  It’s another one of those “technical” prefix acts where you know everyone can play and knows how to screw with meter, but which just never gels into music proper: pieces jut every which way, but never fit together.

Doesn’t make a damn bit of sense to these ears, and I’ve been around, and delved deeply into, enough broad based musical genres and styles to know.

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Charm Designer – Everlasting (February 19) (Inverse Records)

Colombia gives us a surprisingly good old school gothic metal act somewhat in the vein of Irreligious-era Moonspell crossed with, say, Theatre of Tragedy (particularly noticeable when a female guest vocalist duets on “never after”).

It’s quite familiar and very listenable.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this one gets some radio airplay with the right promotion.

There are some (uncredited or guest) keyboard bits that fit in quite nicely with the chunky but thankfully standard tuning guitar work from vocalist/6 stringer Andres Herrera, and he even throws in an understated solo or two.  But this is gothic metal to the core, so expect more of a subtle harmony fill approach than out and out take the spotlight and shred style soloing.  Even so, it’s a nice touch, and much appreciated.

They appear to be a three piece, with an extra relief pitcher credited for “live guitars” – not the sort of thing you generally get on an album’s liner notes.  Maybe they did it for a laugh, since that means the lineup is comprised of 3 Diegos (and an Andres).  Who the hell knows.

Any way you slice it, if you like gothic metal, particularly that of the genre’s late 90’s-mid-millenium heyday or the male fronted, Moonspellesque variety, you’ll probably appreciate this.

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Centipede – S/T (Inverse) (March 4)

Terrible vocals, an overly aggressive, near-thrash riffing style and hyper clean, in your face production mar what appears to have been intended as a stoner metal affair.

Apparently “They draw inspiration from bands like High on Fire, Mastodon, Weedeater and the Melvins but don’t piss on the graves of Sabbath or Metallica either.”  Yeah, that’s a direct quote, I’d never write anything that stupid.

Here, have another. “One German review said that the vocals sound like taking a shit after three days, but it remains unclear whether this is a good or a bad thing.”

Now THAT made me laugh.  Leave it to die Deutsche Presse to drop something so blunt and yet dead on target…

The fact that I just shared two quotes from the promo materials shows two things: one being how hilarious both were, and the other, how little I have to say on this.

It fails at what it’s shooting for, and the German reviewer was right, vocalist Markus Nurminen really does sound like he’s been seriously constipated and is straining on the can after a heaping helping of Metamucil.

Give us a courtesy flush, willya?

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ANGEL DUST – Into The Dark Past (No Remorse)  (January 19)
ANGEL DUST – To Dust You Will Decay (No Remorse) (January 19)

Another pair of obscurities given reissue courtesy of No Remorse, this is classic German speed metal from 1986 and 1988, respectively.  Dark Past comes with the band’s demo tacked on as bonus tracks (something I always appreciate), Dust comes with a few rehearsal tracks likely intended for a never-released third album.

It’s speed metal, so you sort of know what to expect: cross pre-Michael Kiske Helloween with Violent Force and maybe toss in a dash of Darkness, Agent Steel* or even Running Wild.  You can practically smell the sauerkraut and hofbrauhaus, the sound is so distinctly Teutonic.

* The Agent Steel influence becomes quite pronounced on the later Dust, but is fairly negligible on Dark Past.

I found the earlier, more distinctly Germanic material to be a bit generic, if certainly listenable enough, but the closer they get to John Cyriis and company, the thrashier they get and the better it sounds to these ears. This may not be the case for everyone (I could easily see someone preferring the more Kai Hansenesque approach of the earlier material), so just note that while both are very much of a piece, there is a noticeable shift in obvious influence if not sound per se between the two albums.

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Forndom – Dauðra Dura (Nordvis Produktion) (January 29)

Ambient pagan/black metal.

At its best (“nar gudarna kalla”), it’s all haunting horn-blasts over cold water, violin scraping, tribal hand-drumming and cultlike chanting as they march through the woods.

Otherwise, it’s a long basso ostinato drone with occasional violin scrapes, hand drum and the odd moan or two.

Sets a good eerie atmosphere.  I liked it.

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High Priest of Saturn – Son of Earth and Sky (Svart Records) (February 26)

Cross retro-minded, early 70’s style occult rock psychedelia in the vein of Eldritch Dark-era Blood Ceremony with old school doom metal, and you may get something very much like High Priest of Saturn.

Now, I have to admit, with so much stuff coming in every month, listening to what often amounts to lesser xeroxes of earlier bands and albums which have stood the test of time can become a bit yawn inducing.

As much as I appreciate hearing new bands working classic stylings, when it turns into dozens and hundreds of such acts, many of whom can’t even get the stylistic flourishes straight (because genre-blending syncretism makes us somehow “original”, right?), it’s hard to ramp up the enthusiasm and give these folks the pat on the back their efforts, however imperfect, probably deserve.  I mean, look, they’re trying, they got parts of it right – you have to hope they’ll get it together and go the whole 9 yards next time around, right?

But then, every so often, a band stands out among the crowd.  That one in every 25, maybe 50 acts that you say, yes, they actually get it.  These are the ones that stay on the iPod as the months roll by, alongside older and more established acts.  They’re the good ones, the bands whose superlative efforts make the slog worthwhile.  The “new discoveries” you introduce likeminded friends to.

And while I don’t recall being overly excited about their debut album (which just predated these monthly roundup reviews), I found this album not only listenable and likeable, but completely immersive.  In fact, it was one of those rare albums where when I hit the last note, I went right back to the start to dig in a second time.  And I know there’ll be many more listens to come.

Now, it’s probably no accident that these guys amount to one of my favorite “occult rock” acts of the modern era, as they follow a similar setup to Blood Ceremony: silky female alto vocals from Merethe Heggset, who also handles organ, backing guitar and bass, rounded out by Martin Sivertsen and Andreas Hagen on guitar and drums respectively.  What’s different is that they eschew the tired Sabbath worship of the first two Blood Ceremony albums in favor of a similar but far more pronounced Pentagram approach to the guitars.

What this means to the listener is scorchingly heavy, lumberingly slow riffing, bolstered if not driven by Hammondesque vintage organ tones and Heggset’s likeable voice.  It’s hardly Devil’s Blood territory, but the fact that you get some thing very much like recent Blood Ceremony by way of Relentless-era Pentagram should say it all.

Absolutely essential for fans of the occult rock, psychedelic and doom genres.

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Dead Procession – Rituais e Mantras do Medo (Labyrinth Productions) (March 1)

Guitar (and possibly keyboard) feedback drones with sparse drumming and occasional moans and chanting.  It’s quite atmospheric and would be great as an intro or closer on a black metal album, but really doesn’t go anywhere or stand on its own.

Best you can say is the chanting really helped matters, giving this rather sparse recording a bit more weight than it would otherwise merit.

Kinda pointless.

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ARMOURED ANGEL – Communion (12″ MLP) (Hells Headbangers) (January 29)

Reissue of 1990 demo from Aussie thrash act.  The riffing is very thick and chunky and the vocals are throaty and growled, so think mid-period Sepultura more than Bay Area.  There could easily be arguments made for these guys being a sort of death metal act, but it never quite gets to that level of discourse – this is still quite strongly grounded in thrash.

It’s pretty good and comes with fairly strong production – the only issue with this is a prevailing sense of saminess.  It feels like they never change key, and may in fact be continuing the same riff throughout all four songs here.

Luckily it’s that old school chugging train Exodus sort of riff we’re talking about here, so I’ll give it the thumbs up.

Title track is the definite winner.

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TERROR (Cleveland) – Legion of Gore (7″ EP) (Hells Headbangers) (January 1)

Ohio thrash band with strong death metal leanings. Apparently they’d been a demo act from the late 80’s-mid 90’s, and this is their long-delayed comeback.  The sole surviving member (as it were) apparently gigged with both Nunslaughter and Mortician at some point or other, and he’s joined here by a former Incantation sticksman.

The title track is a winner, feels very early 90’s death metal but with a rather un-Morrisound/Sunlight in your face production.  It works very well, and reminds me of early Death more than anyone else, which is a very good thing.

“Carving techniques”, on the other hand, is an iffier proposition.  Starts off strong, but then does that annoying transposition up and down a step thing that always pissed me off back in the day (typically used by hair bands like Bon Jovi and Skid Row for lack of creative ingenuity or understanding of proper modulation).

Then it bounces back and forth between this midtempo sort of thing and an irritating speedy single note riff (I’m thinking vaguely Malevolent Creation, but not that good by a longshot) before slowing down to a vaguely Obituary pace.  Pieces work, others really grate, none of it fits together.

So will their future work lean more towards “legion of gore” (i.e. quite good)?  Or will they stick with the questionable, at best disposable mishmosh of “carving techniques”?

Only time will tell, but I can tell you what they should be going for here.

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SATANIC WARMASTER / ARCHGOAT – Lux Satanae (Thirteen Hymns of Finnish Devil Worship) (Hells Headbangers) (March 4)

Satanic Warmaster has a long tradition of doing splits with bands that kinda suck.

Sure, there were one or two that actually worked, but given the political stance of some of the acts involved, I won’t even give ’em a mention. Those who follow the guy probably know which few are even worth a listen – the fact is, most bands he shares splits with seriously blow.

So here he is with some act named Archgoat who’s apparently been poking around since the dawn of the 90’s, but only managed to drop 3 albums, 2 EPs and a handful of splits during all that time.  We’re talking 25 years, kids.  And there’s probably a good reason for that, as on their own merits, they ain’t much.

But taken in the context of “bands who share splits with Satanic Warmaster“?  They’re probably one of the better ones, for whatever that’s worth…

Belly belch vomit vocals over “war metal”-like nigh-grindcore blasting away on guitar and drums.  At least it’s fairly well produced, and you can listen to it without reaching for the “skip track” button, but that’s about the best you can say for ’em.

On the other hand, for all his questionable political commentary and stance over the years, Lauri “Werwolf” Penttila (formerly Horna’s “Nazgul von Armageddon”) has delivered a pretty solid catalogue of old school black metal in the tradition of the early second wave (Norwegian, Polish, French or for that matter, Finnish).

Here, both bands appear to be doing current covers of older material, and in his case, that means one from Strength & Honour, one from Opferblut and one from Carelian Satanist Madness, plus a cover of the Finnish Pest’s “satanic winter”.

About the only difference I noticed between the modern versions and the originals is in terms of production and polish – you could make comparisons to Viking-era Graveland covering the grim 90’s iteration thereof, but it’s nowhere nearly as pronounced as that makes this sound.

Either way, it needs to be said: I really liked Fimbulwinter.  You can go back and check the review for yourself.

But compared to the old school feel of the sort of material he put out from Nachzerer back?  There really is no comparison.

So if you’re looking for a quick introduction to Satanic Warmaster (or for that matter, Archgoat), this one could serve as a fair primer…just keep in mind it’s a bunch of re-recordings.

And we all know how well those stand up against the originals, whatever the band, style or genre.

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Xantam – LifeDeathBeyond TAPE (Blood Harvest) (January 25)

OK, the guy behind this one goes by the pseudo of Xantam the Beholder, which becomes kinda cool in a D&D sorta way when you realize that’s exactly what he’s getting at with that name: check out the cover.

It’s fairly straightforward blackened death metal, but with an unusual (for what we’ve been hearing in that arena over the past few years) orientation more towards the death than black metal end of that equation.  So not another Watain or Dark Funeral clone this time around, which is a big positive just for the sheer audacity of the guy opting to change the formula for once…

Apparently he’s a death metal drummer who decided to go the one man band route for this one, and it shows given all the frenetic D-bass kitwork.

Problem is, it’s 3 (rather long) songs, they all seem to be recorded at different studios (or by different equipmment), and the only one I sorta liked was “transcendence” – the others are really pushing the borders of pure noise, and not just because they’re subjected to increasingly shittier levels of recording quality (seriously, the production values drop from track to track).

He does throw in a sort of 80’s horror atmospheric keyboard line at the end of the last track that sounds pretty good, but it all depends on how much you like “transcendence” or not.

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Mörk Gryning – Tusen år har gått (Reissue) (Eisenwald)

1995 debut of a Swedish black metal act.  Interestingly enough, they don’t entirely follow the same pattern as most of their peers (Marduk, Dark Funeral, Opthalmia and later Dissection and Watain), with all the goofy speed of “norsecore” or the snooze inducing wide open chord business of the latter.

Instead, this follows a bit more of a Norwegian example, less a slavish regurgitation of the sounds laid down by the likes of Thorns, Mayhem and Burzum than the eerie, haunted spirit of darkness that made those bands’ early work special (and which inspired entire likeminded scenes in France and Poland).

In other words, while hardly “perfect” by anyone’s standards, for the most part, it actually works.

Now make no mistake, they are a Swedish act, and therefore you can definitely pick up plenty of that trademark overproduced, speed oriented Marduk sound – it’s just not on the level of “norsecore”.  There are actual melodies involved, and more than a hint of atmosphere.

If you’re into the sound and feel that made so much of the early second wave work, you’ll probably want to give these guys a spin.

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Titaan – Kadingir (ATMF) (January 29)

Black metal with some death metal touches.  In other words, grindcore style barfing alternates (and occasionally duets) with the more typical snarls, while detuned guitars drone on over blastbeats.

More than half of the album is pointless ambient business where nothing much happens other than a vague cavernous hum.  Once in a while, an acoustic guitar may be lazily picked in the manner of some guy falling asleep, instrument in hand.  It’s just a lot of wasted space, really.

A few odd touches (like the rhythmic chanting during “kadingir”, which sadly enough may be the best thing on the entire album) almost make this seem more interesting than the dumpster fodder it actually is.

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Eucharist (Australia) – Endarkenment 12″ MLP (Iron Bonehead) (February 1)

Better production than Demise Rites, for what that’s worth.  There’s a bit of chanting thrown in for a bit, but essentially it’s just the same old black-death thing.

Judging on the enormous curve my general distaste for this uncomfortably paired subgenre implies, I like Eucharist better than most of their peers – at least there’s a little bit of melodic structure and proper kitwork on the drumming end to latch onto.

But that’s really not saying a lot.

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SPEKTR – The Art to Disappear (Agonia Records) (January 29)

French black metal that owes zero allegiance to either the Les Legions Noires or the more mournful Sepulchral Records-style, Burzumesque thing the Gallic (and Francais-Canadienne, for that matter) are known for.

Instead, it’s some weird Watain meets industrial thing.

You already know how I’m gonna rate this one, do you need me to spell it out?

Another easy skip.

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Akatechism – Dripping Flames (Invictus Productions) (December 14)

More of the Watain meets non-Rotting Christ Greek school.

Where the fuck do all these soundalike acts come from?

Next…

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Serpents Athrist – Heralding Ceremonial Mass Obliteration (Invictus Productions) (December 14)

Interesting…blackened death metal from Sri Lanka.

It has decent, if a bit oddly skewed production – the vocals are crystal clear and very upfront, the drums are simultaneously tinny and buried under the mud of mids, but with cymbals that are right up there with the vox – what the hell did they do, close mic them?

The guitars are thick but buried back with the drums, and the overall sound owes a lot to “war metal”, with Beherit being the most obvious influence, but equally to the black-death scene in approach (check out the partially quite clean production and the over-reverbed vocals).

It was different enough to raise the old eyebrow askance, yet bore enough elements of familiarity to say y’know, I think I kinda like this.

I could do with more from these guys.

Seiradewa!

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Löbo – Alma (Signal Rex) (February 13)

Judging from the song titles, this looks like a Portugese or perhaps even Brazilian act – “aqui em baixo a alma mede” sounds close enough to “Xe do Caixao” for me!

Regardless, this is uber slow, nigh funeral doom with psychedelic/space rock touches (check out the clean, out of sync phased guitars on “por fim so livre”), but without the bottom of the belly vocals that implies.  In fact, there’s no vocals whatsoever…

If you’re just looking for the heaviest sounding release out there at the moment, this may very well qualify.

Just not sure there’s a point to it.

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OCERCO – A Desolação (Signal Rex) (February 5)

Essentially, yet another Watain wannabe with great production.

There’s a lot of throaty barf-growling and enough variance from the template to argue they’re just into this whole “modern black metal cum black/death” thing, but one soundalike throwaway is as good as another in the end.

Haven’t you already heard about 10,000 acts just like this over the past year or so?

And isn’t everyone getting tired of all the copycatting already?

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Villainy – Villainy II: Dim (Listenable) (February 12)

From the “Low Countries” of the Netherlands comes a nigh-Mr. Bungle level of quirky act who switch from slow, detuned nonsense to mid to fast paced, well played death/black metal with an emphasis on the former in its instrumental prowess and excellent production.

Then some guy comes in and starts growling in this high pitched snarl that brought both Nuclear Assault and Hellhammer to mind.  Then they start moving straight into Watain territory, with all that dissonant ringing open chord nonsense, and stick with that approach for the last, oh, 5 tracks or so…

Not sure what these guys are actually going for.  They clearly have the chops to make better music and the production skills to deliver a polished, radio-ready product…and yet, they choose to screw around a whole hell of a lot before giving in to a slavishly Watainesque underpinning.

I had higher hopes from the start of the album than where it actually meant to go all along.

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VOIDCRAEFT – Ἕβελ (I, Voidhanger Records) (February 5)

Busy and somewhat noisy one man band out of Germany.  The production is very good and the structures are built on some very hyperactive single note riffing.  So far, so good, right?

Well…not quite.

You see, those riffs…aren’t always in the same key, or at the very least, not in the proper modality, and therefore tend to clash with their pairings (not sure I heard much actual chord playing or bass in the mix, but the guitar lead lines are multi-tracked).

Worse, the drumming is just a fucking mess of sloppy blastbeats, making this a fast moving rumbling towards utter chaos.  At first you can sit through it for a bit, then the utter atonality and noise of it all just gives even the hardiest of listeners a splitting headache.

Promo materials compare it to Deathspell Omega, which should say a lot right there.

Next…

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ECFERUS – Pangaea (I, Voidhanger Records) (February 5)

Modern black metal.  Compared to several other acts discussed this month, they’re almost listenable.

Almost.

Did I mention they consider themselves “progressive black metal”?

Yeah, seriously.

Enslaved lost it when they went that route, but this ain’t even on that level, it’s a lot more primitivist at core.  So what you get, effectively, is Watainesque nonsense peppered with atonal guitar soloing and a whole lot of weird juxtapositions that never fit together.

Do you even have to ask for a rating?

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THE WAKEDEAD GATHERING – Fuscus: Strings of the Black Lyre (I, Voidhanger Records) (February 5)

Noisy, atonal modern black/death with strong Watain leanings but a belch and puke death metal vocalist.

What’s weird is that they’re supposedly trying to do a King Diamond and tell a spook story about hunting some witch deep in the swamp.  Sounds cool as shit, until you hear the music it’s paired with.

 

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