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What a year so far.

One frigging month in, and we’ve already dealt with more musician and actor deaths than we’ve seen in entire years, if not multiples thereof.

We’ve seen a “historic” blizzard, which can’t be all that historic given how the frequency of such events seems to be increasing to more than one per decade.  If you look back, people talk in terms of the 1800s.  There was a pretty bad one in the 1930’s and another in the late ’40s.  After a long hiatus, one hit us back in ’78, and one more in ’83.  They were nasty, alright, but pretty fucking rare.

Then look at the dates on any site you care to hit up.  All of a sudden, it gets surprisingly regular to see 2 feet of snow and up. 1996.  2003.  2006.  Two of ’em in 2010 and one in 2011.  And now 2016.   At this sped up rate, disasters on a monthly basis can’t be too far down the road…

Tag this onto all the shit going on in the corporate world (I spoke to this one last month, and while yours truly has to date managed to dodge the layoffs that impact all too many personal friends and former coworkers, things are pretty damn bad and getting very much worse, with an impending downgrade in quality of work life on the way next month).

Then tag in the absurdity of the current Presidential election (anyone who isn’t avoiding the establishment candidates is simply out of their fucking gourd, and there’s only one who has a good shot at reuniting a very divided electorate and cleaning up the mess we’ve been in for the last 15 years plus – if you’re not an abject, starfucking moron, you know exactly which of the two men I’m referring to here.  Hint, he ain’t a reality TV star…), and you’ve got one of the single worst months in living memory.

Yay, January?

While I already know bad news is impending there, after all this shit? February can’t come fast enough.

So it is that we come to this review, anticipating the change in month (and please God and all the powers that be, fortunes) by a few days.  It’s time to call, enough, and get this fucking month over with at last.

So in that spirit, avaunt!  Much music, conviviality and laughter awaits…

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Imperia – Tears Of Silence (Massacre Records) (February 12)

Trail of Tears.  Hmm, I think I recall a band by that name.

Never a big deal with us, even in our very gothic metal days, their original female vocalist reappears here with her own band, and it’s – unsurprisingly -a fairly gothic metal affair.

Helena Michaelsen tends to…and I can only assume she’s overemoting here…curl her lips and sing almost out of the corner of her mouth, with a wide vibrato and taking more loud into the mic breaths than Julie London at her most emphysematic.

By the time you get to mid-album tracks like “away” or “frihiten vil seire” she actually starts singing in a more normal gothic metal soprano voice, but nope, then she’s right back to the weird face-voices and gasping breaths.

It’s odd, and hardly the sort of thing I associate with gothic metal – singers like Liv Kristine, Sharon Den Adel, Simone Simons, Ji-In Cho, Melissa Ferlaak, Dianne Van Giersbergen or Ana Mladinovici are more my speed.  Hell, even Charlotte Wessels has become one hell of a powerful presence both on record and onstage, and she was pretty pop (as opposed to dramatically operatic) among that company back in the day.

This is more pop radio than gothic-symphonic (much less the “epic” label the band self-appropriates), and the lady’s bizarre vocal approach only emphasizes that point.

It’s listenable, even oddly likeable, but as is standard for gothic metal, the band is more background and punctuation than the real driver of the sound, which is and should be the vocalist, acting as siren and sylph, goddess and queen driving the men of the crowd wild and offering a strong point of identification for the ladies thereof.

Not really the vibe I’m picking up here.

Think of Michaelsen as the Eva O of gothic metal – quirky, takes some getting used to but may have some appeal once you get past the weirdness of her approach.

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Hatesphere – New Hell (Massacre Records) (February 12)

Danish modern thrash with truly horrendous scream and puke vocals.

I’m not a fan of the overproduced, very in your face ProTools sound of modern metal per se, and particularly not when it comes to the more aggressive and pounding schools such as death and thrash metal.  So we’re already working at a disadvantage here, but I found the riffing surprisingly generic, not to mention overly detuned.

Worse, the music was overly aggressive without bearing the sort of instant appeal as their forbears in the Bay Area, Teutonic, Brazilian or even UK schools of thrash back in the day.  I’m sure there’s an audience for this approach to thrash, and they’re probably either former Pantera and Madball fans or getting sized up for their orange jumpsuit fitting at the local prison.

Seriously, it’s all violently aggro but without a hint of purpose – it’s got none of what made similarly uber-violent sounding bands like Exodus, Exumer or Vio-Lence special.

“Let’s fight to the deaaaaaath, let’s see who is stron-geeeeest?”  Seriously? Not only is that some seriously lame lyric writing, but the sentiment is so backwards as to seem too dumbheaded for a Neanderthal.

There are far too many killer thrash albums from the 80’s and (very) early 90’s, not to mention worthy thrash revivalist affairs – try Mortillery for one – to waste valuable studio time on something this forgettable, generic and let’s get down to brass tacks here – silly as Hatesphere.

The name was kind of a warning.

Pantera tries (and fails) to go thrash, and everyone loses.

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PRODUCT OF HATE – Buried In Violence (Napalm Records) (February 5)

More Pantera goes thrash business. BLEAAHHH BLURRRGHHH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLEAAAAAAAAAAGGGHHH!

All the cool riffing and syncopated double bass drum trills in the world can’t save you when your “vocalist” comes from some crap aggro band background, kids.

James Murphy of all people handles the mastering, and it sounds pretty good on the production end, for what that’s worth.

Sounds like a typical day (or night) tuning in to the local college “metal” station, who’d be entirely unlistenable if they didn’t sprinkle the occasional Priest or Maiden classic in there.

Bands like this are why I have a CD player in the car, kids.

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Onslaught – Live At The Slaughterhouse (AFM Records) (February 26)

I had Nige Rockett on the show a few years back, because I remain a fan of Onslaught’s early material. The punky, raw aggression of Power From Hell, the more mainstream and polished assault of The Force, even the Steve Grimmett-fronted In Search of Sanity still remain in rotation around my place, and with all the changes and issues back when, there’s both a story to tell and due respect to the man for sticking to his guns for all these years.

But let’s be honest – the more recent Onslaught material, while competent enough and more aggressive than players half Rockett and returning vocalist Sy Keeler’s age…isn’t exactly setting the world afire.  It’s so modern sounding, in fact, that present day Onslaught sort of blends in to an increasingly large crowd of similar bands.

So honestly, the first 8 of the 13 tracks here…didn’t really do anything for me. Nothing wrong with ’em, nothing much to gripe about, really…just a bit ho hum.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce to old schoolers like myself that things improve considerably towards the end of the show, when Keeler and Rockett take on tracks from In Search of Sanity, The Force and Power From Hell (working their way backwards in that order), and throw all that modern day speed and aggression into ’em.

So if you’re looking for an old school Onslaught concert, forget it – even when they take on the classics, it’s with a very modern touch.

But if you want to hear those old tracks fuel injected with a whole lot of piss n’ vinegar, this is your chance.

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Elvenking – Night Of Nights (AFM Records) (January 22)

Another live album this month, this time courtesy of quirky Italian pagan metallers Elvenking. Poking around just about as long as countrymen Rhapsody (of Fire), these guys haven’t quite managed to distinguish themselves on a global level, or certainly not to the same degree.

Perhaps it’s their smaller scale approach.  Far less neoclassical and certainly not operatically bombastic, Elvenking appropriates a similar goofy medieval fife and a jig Renaissance Faire sort of thing, but appends it to a quieter, if power metallish take, with the nasal midrange of Davide “Damna” Moras grounding them in a way that almost feels pop-punk on tracks like “trows kind”, which could have fallen off an early AFI or even Green Day album.

Personally, I really like what they have to offer, and find the playful, melodically punkish edge an interesting complement to the more typical D&D/renfaire and power metal elements of the pagan (and symphonic) scene(s), but it’s certainly not geared towards playing to the more dedicated and parochial members of those scenes.

But hell, if Alestorm can piss all over this sort of po-faced cheesiness, so can Elvenking.

A nice introduction to the band for newbies, with a livelier, somewhat sped up take on the band’s fairly lengthy catalog.

Saluti, paisano.

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Emil Bulls – XX (AFM Records) (February 5)

OK, this is weird.

A year or so back, these guys dropped a Hot Topic screamo sort of affair called Sacrifice to Venus, reviewed here.

This time around, the band goes all acoustic and mellow, offering clean, acoustic guitar and piano driven versions of old songs from their catalogue.  I even thought I heard strings in there at points, and there was a soprano sax on “the most evil spell”.

So it’s quite different from what we saw last time around.  But is it any better?

Well, it’s certainly listenable.

But the distinct impression I get here is the sort of music your teenage girlfiend plays in her bedroom and car, where you sort of grit your teeth and try not to say anything too nasty or switch the dial to something more…manly, shall we say.

Look, if this was playing at the mall or perhaps more appropriately, in the elevator or dentist’s chair, you probably wouldn’t complain – there are far, far worse excuses for “music” out there nowadays.

But it’s all too easy to think of XX as Manilow and Streisand for today’s metrosexual hipster set.

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Justice Theory – Necessary Evil (Inverse) (January 18)

Promising single from Finnish thrashers that shows a modern-era Exodus inspired riffing approach with more than a hint of Forbidden in the breakdowns, solos and whispered chorus.

They’ve got the sound and political stance of classic Bay Area thrash down – the only part that falls down a bit is the vocal end, which before that final scream (which is totally retro and apropos) is a bit too generically midrange and growly for their approach otherwise (think Max Cavalera with Arise-era Sepultura).

I dug it.  Let’s hear how a full length plays out.

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One Morning Left – Metalcore Superstars (Inverse)

OK, it’s metalcore.  So you know what to expect.  Likeable, pop punk-style melodic choruses with clean singing, a lot of stop-start “quirky” playing with meter and an unfortunate tendency to lapse into ridiculous screamo vox at every possible turn.

What makes these guys a bit weird is their obvious nudge nudge wink aren’t we funny approach, the Do As Infinity/High and Mighty Color-style incorporation of synthesizer electronic elements and a vocalist whose clean vox are so high pitched in tone as to leave the listener thinking this is a female fronted combo.

As ever with the style, I liked the melodic punk-ish parts and musicianship and didn’t particularly mind the other parts musically, but despised all the lame tonsil-quavering emo screaming.

What works, works very well.

What sucks, sucks as much ass as ever with bands in this style.

Dropping the uber-juvenile screamy shit would do these guys, and pretty much every band of their ilk, a tremendous favor.

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Wishing Well featuring Graham Bonnet – “Hippie Heart Gypsy Soul” (Inverse)

Finnish hard rock act pulls in legendary Rainbow/MSG/Alcatrazz/Anthem/Impelliteri vocalist Graham Bonnet for one track, which they’re using as the kickoff single.

Bonnet’s been delivering throaty screams since the dawn of the 1980s, generally working with flash guitarists (Blackmore, Schenker, Malmsteen, Impelliteri).  At this point, some of the trademark growl appears to have gone by the wayside, but he’s still got the same power and tone, and while there isn’t even a guitar solo (OK, when I went back to check, there is a brief melody line sort of thing, but it’s more of a break than a solo proper), this is a moody midtempo slice of AOR/hair metal that wouldn’t have felt out of place on W.A.S.P.’s Last Command, for example.

I’m not sure this will be representative of the album per se, given the guest vocalist, but I certainly dug it.

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Amoth – Revenge (Inverse) (Jan. 22) 

Finish prog act with more aggressive, math metal tendencies.

This really isn’t my thing, but they keep things more melodic than most, with Tomi Kurtti’s nigh-baritone vox oft leaning dramatic and nigh-Bruce Dickinsonian in inflections (though not in terms of range).  There’s a thick tone to the guitars that suggests a strong thrash influence, but the continually shifting meter and stop-start riffing moves beyond the likes of Watchtower and Fates Warning, heading more into latter day Death/Gorguts-inspired math metal territory.

It’s quirky as all shit, but the production and musicianship are excellent, with Oskari Viljanen’s kitwork being particularly impressive.  Tomi Ihanamaki’s oddly syncretist riffing style certainly keeps things interesting, incorporating nigh-jazzy open chording alongside all the expected death-thrash single note and barre chord riffing, oddly even pushing things into Cardigans territory for a bit during “and so they fueled these veins”.  I don’t think I’ve heard any leads, but the rest of it’s pretty damn busy.

If I was going to sit down and listen to modernist prog bordering on math metal, these guys would make the top of the list – they’ve certainly got their shit together, a good sound that feels melodic despite all the shifting focus and some rather good production to boot.

Easily one of the most “professional” sounding acts I’ve encountered on Inverse, this one’s definitely worth looking into.

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MY SILENT WAKE – AN UNBROKEN THRENODY (2005 – 2015) (Stone Groove Records) (Feb. 8)

Wow!

After being exposed to them with last year’s questionable Damnatio Memorae, now I finally get to see why someone would dig My Silent Wake.

Sure, guitarist/singer Ian Arkley’s vox are still pretty overstated, overdramatic and quirky, but in the material here, they definitely do work. This is some really, really good gothic doom in the vein of Paradise Lost or My Dying Bride, but as I’m not really a fan of either of those acts, I’ll go it one better and say My Silent Wake is – or was, as the case may be – a much better band.

Strong production, decent song construction and an abiding sense of melody bolster the expected mournfulness and funereally grinding riffing, while the drums (these days from Gareth Arlett, though that may not be the case throughout this compilation) provide enough Chuck Biscuits in Danzig-style propulsive flair to keep things interesting throughout.

It’s a greatest hits, so you can expect some changes in style and production quality, if nothing else – “burning” positively sounds like crap compared to what precedes it, for example – and suffice to say the first four tracks blow the four that follow all to shit.

But then it picks up again with “the dying things we’re living for”, which comes off like a busier, more gothic take on Cathedral, before turning sort of strange for the remainder of the collection.  There are clearly some periods of the band that are much, much stronger than others.

But those that work, damn do they ever.

If you don’t already have the relevant albums in your collection, get this for those 5 tracks alone – they’re fucking amazing.

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Striker – Stand In The Fire (Record Breaking Records) (February 5)

Dan Cleary and company jump ship from Napalm to a self-release here, and oddly enough, it seems to have invigorated the band to cut the mooring and set sail on their own recognizance.

Where City of Gold felt like a decided turn in the wrong direction, Stand in the Fire returns to what made Armed to the Teeth work so well, and amps matters up considerably.  Where the earlier album was anthemic and rather Enforceresque, Stand in the Fire takes things a few steps further into near-originality.  I mean, seriously – saxophone on “out for blood”?

Better, the lyrics emphasize the sense of elation and freedom the band is presumably feeling for having cut whatever degree of corporate ties being signed to a high profile label brings to the table.  So while there may be some obvious question as to how well the band can pull this off on their own, right now, it just feels right, and this sense of triumphant release and the ability to steer one’s own course after some period of restraint is positively infectious.

More melodic and anthemic than ever, and with a lot more soul than their Swedish forbears ever had.

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Factory Brains – Hard Labor (Wild Kingdom) (Feb. 19)

Swedish act drops their first full length after a particularly strong advance single last month.

It may be more prominent in “I’m no good”, but what I’m hearing here is early to mid-70’s Stones crossed with that sort of singer songwriter “classic rock” thing you get with folks like Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne or Bruce Cockburn.

I could hear arguments for a Black Crowes influence here, and I’m still hearing Urge Overkill, particularly on “Modern Day”, which alongside opener “I’m no good” represent the decided highlights of the album.

The rest is a lot more mellow, very much akin to the lighter and more contemplative end of acts like Junkyard, Counting Crows or the aforementioned Crowes, albeit with a definite “modern” touch in the vein of Urge Overkill as we get to tracks like “friends are friends” or the self aware warbling vocals on “fork in the road” or “arty minds”.

While things never get too out of hand on the downside, the fact is that Factory Brains are the proverbial little girl with a curl.

Let’s just give them the courtesy of saying that the good tracks are very, very good, and leave it at that.

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Obscura – Akroasis (Relapse Records) (February 5)

Speaking of math metal…

A band so dedicated to the concept as to name themselves after one of the style’s progenitors’ key albums, Obscura blends Dragonforce-like bleep blop bloop leads with the busy, machine gun riffing of later Death and Echoes of Eternity, shoving the awkward time changes and ever shifting riffs all over the meter.

Like Amoth, they do at least attempt to keep things at a listenable level of song construction if not melodicism, though this is far more deliberately constructed, even awkward the closer you listen.  While they pull in a vocorder for that spacey robotic thing early Cynic was noted for, there’s also a tendency to slip into puking and belching alternating with rasp-croaks ala Desultory, locking Obscura into a far more generic technical death metal/math metal template.

In other words, they may actually be better players than Amoth, perhaps on par with Cynic or Pestilence…but their approach leaves them feeling less special or unique than Amoth’s more obviously listenable and traditionally melodic variant on a similar train of thought.

The production is fantastic, the musicianship is unimpeachable (though personally I find myself wholly unimpressed by the whole Herman Li overprocessed two hand burbly-blurbly lead style), and in fact, not only is Obscura one hell of a band, but I can say without blinking that Akroasis is one fuck of an album – one that musicos (or whatever you call the metal equivalent of jazzbos these days) should be running to the store to grab a copy of.

For those of us less obsessed with technical specs or busy clusters of black dots on a chart, all I can say is that this is pretty damn listenable for math or technical death, which is generally speaking not a style I gravitate towards.

I’ll give them a due nod of respect.

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Beastmaker – You Must Sin (45) (Rise Above Records) (January 29)

Really nice stuff out of Fresno, of all places.  Hey, how are those raisin crops?

It’s Rise Above, so you know there’s going to be a strong Cathedral influence, and it’s probably going to be old school, 70’s style doom metal.  Promo materials namecheck Pentagram and Witchfinder General, which says a lot right there.

Only two songs, but really, really good.

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Taarkus – Stones (Rise Above Records) (January 29)

And here’s another side of California doom (straight outta La La Land this time), with a strong occult rock influence.

Female vox, old Farifsa organ and flute…I’m definitely hearing everything from Blood Ceremony and Coven to the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, but with the lumbering psychedelic heft of HP Lovecraft rather than a more specifically “witchy” or Sabbath vibe.

Very, very good. Second 2-track single from Rise Above this month, and the second act I’m chomping at the bit to hear a full length from.

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Admiral Sir Cloudesly Shovell – Isobelle (Rise Above Records) (January 29)

Thick, meaty early 70’s rock in the vein of Blue Cheer, Grand Funk and arguably even Jimi Hendrix.  The bass is right up front, but very muted and rear-pickup (nice touch), the guitars are buried in the rear except for the blazing heavy rock solos and double stop fills throughout (another very retro touch, much appreciated) and the drums that can barely be made out above all the bass and guitar come as “dead” and thick toned as possible.

This shit feels more 70’s than your dad and granddad’s old school photos.

Crack out your elephant bells and tie dye and fire up the bong, these guys are more retro than Monster Magnet.

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Convulse – Cycle of Revenge (Svart Records) (March 18)

Another Finnish act, this time death metallers whose Evil Prevails was so Patrick Mameli-fronted Pestilence it was hard to differentiate the two at points.  That, mind you, was a huge change from their prior Inner Evil, which sounded very traditional death metal.

So now they throw all the dice up in the air again, and decide to go all Love-era Cult (or even early Mission UK, if not Echo and the Bunnymen!) albeit with some pretty upfront and aggressive drumming and retaining the Mameli-esque death metal vox.

Promo materials note, with some bemused trepidation, this huge shift, calling it a return to some early “death and roll” tendencies the band held prior to Inner Evil.  Now, given Cycle of Revenge’s very Britrock bordering on goth and dreampop approach to death metal, I can see why that might come up, but trust me – Wolverine Blues era Entombed is about ten million miles away from whatever the band’s going for here.

In fact, it was so bizarre, I’m reminded of early Mortification, or the odder, bluesier divergences of Vengeance (later Vengeance Rising).  You know, the sort of totally fucked up nonsense where you have no idea what they’re trying to be…though it’s apparent they still want to be a death metal band somehow.

So what next, the tender balladeering of Sinead O’Connor meets death metal?

I wouldn’t put it beyond these guys.

Interesting, well produced, well played…but who the fuck told Wayne Hussey death metal was the new goth?

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Tusmörke – Fort Bak Lyset (Svart Records) (March 18)

60’s psychedelic rock with weird folkie tendencies.  Promo materials mention old Turkish psychedelia and Black Widow, which are some pretty odd comparisons to float, but I’m good with it.

I can certainly hear Black Widow in there, as well as old Coven and HP Lovecraft, even the less “popular” (read: desperately overplayed) Jethro Tull. There’s a lot of flute, some space rock synth work and a nicely muffled bass and drum setup, not far removed from Lonesome Crow-era Scorpions.

What’s especially interesting about this is that I’ll be damned if I hear any guitar…at all.  It’s all bass and drums, flute and spacey organ/synth – that’s it.

Another very believably retro act – the late 60’s/early 70’s template hereof is the sort of thing I was listening to during metal’s decade plus death in the States (among other things, such as classic jazz, wartime swing and 70’s fusion), so the closer bands get to the real deal, the more I like it.

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Total Hate – Lifecrusher (Eisenwald) (Feb. 26)

Interesting.  These guys hail from Bavaria, and bring that crystalline production and machine-sheen level of musical professionalism with ’em.

Then they play in a rather Marduk-esque vein (albeit with a drum recording so crisp you can hear every hit of the kick drum and every flick of the blastbeat fingers across the snare – this is literally the only time I’ve ever heard that style used where I didn’t find it utterly amateurish!).

Promo materials say they’re shooting for “old school Scandinavian black metal” – which is only half right, as Marduk’s pretty well new school/modern black metal to these ears, despite their long history.  But then they get a vocalist who’s very much of the Polish school – there’s little question that “Adrastos” has taken his vocal tonality directly from a certain Rob Darken.

So it’s a German-Polish-Swedish stylistic hybrid, in the end: Darken fronts the premier “norsecore” act, with Teutonic production values.

Luckily, I like the bands they’re aping and combining here, and that fantastic drum production (and excellent production overall) definitely helps matters considerably.

Nothing special or unique to be found here, but definitely worth a listen if any of that intrigues you.

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Krater – Urere (Eisenwald)

Modern black metal with a decidedly Swedish feel. It’s a bit more Viking in feel than either Marduk or Watain – think early Enslaved – and seems to rely on a bit more melody than “norsecore” and there’s a bit less of that open chord eeeeeviiiiiil bullshit the latter is known for.

In fact, Urere boasts a crisp, polished production and meh…not so scary feel that simply screams German black metal.  I mean, come on, Belphegor arguably aside, whatever else the Teutons may be accused of taking seriously, black metal is not one of ’em…

It’s definitely somewhere between the aforementioned acts in feel, but with a bit of the fat guy with a beard and a flagon of ale to the vocals and chant-a-long bits (which have “pagan” “Viking” and “troll” stamped all over ’em).

There are definite points where I hear that fucking Watain zombie shit (midway through “bury the light”, for example), but the band saves themselves from the dumpster pile by shifting things into a Tyr meets Atrocity by way of Finntroll and Amon Amarth sort of thing just a few bars later.

To the extent that they mix modern/Swedish black metal touches with the pagan/Viking ones, Krater comes out doing surprisingly well for themselves…there’s just way too many Watain riffs glaring at us and giving the listener the bird to give ’em the nod.

Not a bad effort, plenty of polish and killer production…just needs a pernicious degree of Danielsson and company flushed out of the system.

I could recommend a good colon cleanse.

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Alastor – Waldmark (Wrath of the Tyrant) (March 11)

Austrian black metal act gives the kickoff to a new label with old school intentions – like many of the original second wave releases (and particularly those of scenes like France and Poland), these are supposedly deliberately limited release.  While I’m not a fan of the whole “collector” thing that keeps portions of the scene afloat, it’s undeniable that this approach is true to an earlier, less commercially-minded vibe and scenic stance, and offers some decided echoes of better days musically.

And in tandem with that, what you get here with Waldmark is a definite mid-90’s Norwegian-style black metal release – think First Spell (and earlier)-era Gehenna as a good marker.  All the polish and studiocraft of the Teutonic variant is in place (think Belphegor, for example), but the sound and tremelo-driven approach is far more raw if not simplistically straightforward and retro, with a touch of atmosphere to boot.

I was definitely comfortable with this one, and if this is any indication of the sort of thing Wrath of the Tyrant intends to release going forward, they’re definitely setting themselves up to be one to watch.

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Morte Incandescente – …o mundo morreu! (War Arts Productions) (March 18)

Portugese black metal with an odd, DIY feel.  You’d almost want to call this blackened thrash, except there’s nothing thrash about it – occasionally a bit deliberate and doom inspired, certainly noisy (it sounds more like a demo if not a rehearsal than an actual release)…but not really thrash, certainly not death…so I guess you could consider this “black metal” in the same sense as early Bulldozer or Mortuary Drape is (or isn’t, depending on your perspective).

Sometimes they belch, sometimes they scream…Sarcofago was very probably an influence vocally, but the guitars are more specifically Norwegian black metal than that.

Again, as with Goatcraft, being old school-ish and underground (not to mention analog) serves as a definite move in the right direction, so you can’t complain too much.

But is it essential? mmm…I don’t know about that one.

Give it a spin and see if it grabs ya.

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Barbaric Horde – Gasmask Perpetrators (War Arts Productions) (February 15)

Portugese black metal. It’s pretty raw and simplistic, as you might have guessed from the band name and label (gee, think they’re trying to do “war metal”?) but not in the positive sense of feeling particularly old school.

In fact, it feels very modern, akin to something along the lines of Zom or Von, all belches buried in slap echo and children’s first guitar riffing.

But that’s the good part.

The real kicker, and I can’t emphasize this enough, is this.

The drumming is horrible!

Think of one of those schlubs who only knows blastbeats and can’t otherwise handle the kit, then change that taptaptaptaptap shit to slow quarter note tap tap tap tap tap throughout, usually in unison with the crash cymbal or open hi hat.

Would have been very boring and par for the course nowadays, except for that one special quirk that makes them stand out.  Cough – nice drummer.

Unfortunately, Barbaric Horde actually starts off by jumping onboard a bad trend, and their “unique touch” actually makes them stand out for the worse.

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POWER FROM HELL – Devil’s Whorehouse (CD, LP) (Hells Headbangers) (February 5)

Motorhead meets early Bathory. Vocals are croaked, but so low you can barely hear them beneath the pounding, if straightforward drums and oddly overdriven (rather than metal-style distortion driven) guitars.

The Bathory self titled and Maax are probably good touchpoints to use here – promo materials also list Hellhammer (sorta, but nah) and the Japanese Sabbat (OK, yeah, I can see that).  Only real issue is…it doesn’t feel aggressive enough.  With all those clean guitars buried under the drums and the vocals beneath both, it’s practically mellow!

Hardly reinventing the wheel here, but the above concerns aside, it’s really not bad at all.

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DEATHRAID – Submit to the Will of Chaos (Iron Tyrant) (January 25)

Starts off really well, with some old school riffing and some very Jeff Becerraesque vocals.  Then the sloppy blastbeat-filled drumming kicks in and things get a lot more questionable.

When the band slows things down a notch and gets more of a midtempo groove going, sometimes our methhead sticksman will actually cut the crap and do a little Gene Hoglanesque double bass and a tom roll or two.  But all the Possessed vox crossed with Slayer meets Exodus riffing in the world can’t save you from a shit drummer, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with Deathraid.

Somebody a bit more restrained and/or schooled in the efforts of the masters on the kit would elevate these guys quite dramatically.

As things stand, they’re definitely a bit interesting in concept and not a million miles off in terms of vocals and guitars…but as a band and unit?

They’re just a fucking mess.

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Goatcraft (Slovakia) – Olethros 12″ MLP (Iron Bonehead) (February 22)

Black metal that seems to pull bits and bobs from Mortuary Drape, arguably Goatlord, Master’s Hammer and more than a bit of (surprise, surprise) Watain in the droning pedal tone riffs and blustery “dark and eeeevilllll” feel of the guitars.

They manage to keep things off kilter and old schoolish enough to maintain interest, and therefore keep themselves from falling into the usual Swe-black/death zombie trend that’s pretty much decimated the black and death metal scenes nowadays (does anyone else realize how boring and shitty all of this regurgitation is?).

Even beyond the traditional bad (but thankfully not blastbeat) drumming and grungy, early Bulldozerish riffing, this definitely has enough marks of (gasp!) individuality and (shock!) classic underground/blackened approach to give them the nod – the cavernous (but not overdone) reverb and analog feel really do help matters in their favor as well.

To the extent that this sounds like second wave weirdness in the vein of Italy and Czechoslovakia’s finest, it works, and very well at that.

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Infernal Curse – Apocalipsis LP (Iron Bonehead) (February 26)

Argentinian blackened death sort of affair, not far removed from Barbaric Horde (albeit with far more acceptable drumming).  Heavy and doomy, buried in reverb belch vox and simplistic detuned riffs, and so utterly boring.

There’s wayyyyyy too many bands copping this particular sound nowadays to give anything more than a stifled yawn and stretch before ejecting the CD, picking up the needle or heading to the next iPod folder.

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Altarage – NIHL LP (Iron Bonehead) (February 26)

Oy.  More of that detuned below B flat grumbly growly shit, with reverb-suffused puke vox, this time somewhat reminiscent of an ersatz Martin Van Drunen.

The only changes here are that the guitars are well in front of the vocals (now that’s a 180 degree switch!) and the drummer actually seems to be a halfway decent player when not wasting everyone’s listening time with half-assed slow blastbeats.

Thanks to the drumming and the vox being somewhat of an upgrade to the usual for this bizarre subgenre of blackened death metal, I was able to listen to it without running for the fast forward button for a change.

But it’s still crap.

I think one or two of these guys may have some unrealized potential, if they decide to polish up their skills a little and hook up with a different band down the road.

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Asphodelus – Dying Beauty & the Silent Sky 12″ MLP (Iron Bonehead) (February 22)

Finnish dark ambient gives way to some reasonably traditional old school blackened thrash.

There’s a vague feel of early Sodom, maybe even Tormentor or Mortuary Drape here, with a gloomy, cavernous (but not ridiculous like the newer school) reverb and thick, grinding guitars that sound like they’re being run through a Mesa Boogie (that clean, beefy feel on even distorted guitars is pretty unmistakeable).

The drum production is pretty damn good and the guy does some nice triplets on the double bass and a few nice tom rolls – he’s not bad, though it feels like he’s a bit hesitant at points, like he’s about to fall out of meter (but never actually does).  Overall, I liked the guy’s work.

The vox are forgettable, but inoffensive, veering more towards a loud growly Viking sort of thing than black metal or blackthrash.  But overall, the gloomy, even funereal feel pervades here, with the two actual songs being quite likeable and moreover, listenable.  The two ambient tracks, hey, whatever, but they don’t hurt either.

Consider it a very good single, and look forward to more from these guys in the future.

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Folteraar – Vertellingen van een donkere eeuw LP (Iron Bonehead) (February 26)

Yeah! Dutch black metal!

Said no one, ever.

Well, here’s your chance to see why the Netherlands are best known for their gothic symphonic metal…and not black metal.

Another uber-detuned, uber-reverbed affair, this time sounding like it was recorded in a sewer tunnel.  The vox are sort of death metallish, but unimpressive.  The guitars are detuned and all sloppy noise throughout and the drums are all blastbeat and cymbals, with one of the worst snare sounds ever caught on tape.

I have to ask…do people actually listen to this stuff voluntarily?

I mean, like back in the day, you used to walk into friends rooms, and they’d be covered with magazine photos and posters of bands they practically worshipped.

Does anyone actually sit there and say “YEAH! Folteraar, these guys ROCK! I’m going out to buy some clothes and accessories so I can look just like them, then I’m going to learn an instrument so I can form my own band, we’ll cover a few of their songs, chicks will dig us for it, crowds will be banging their heads and moshing to our stuff, it’ll be awesome!

Yeah, I didn’t think so either.

And this is why the metal scene today is such a pale imitation of what came before, as an admittedly general, but very hardy and defensible rule of thumb.

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Xibalba (Xibalba Itzaes) – Ah Tza! 7″ EP (Nuclear War Now! Productions) (March 1)

Some business about Mayan myth informs this brief three song affair from Mexico’s black metal act Xibalba (currently appending “Itzaes” to avoid confusion with another act with the same name). Apparently they did a few things back in the early 90’s, then folded – this is their first non-demo release since ’96.

There are parts I liked (the grinding outro on “dawn of endless horrors”, for example), but I can’t say it set me on fire, either.

You may dig it, who knows.

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DISSVARTH – Between The Light And The Moon (I, Voidhanger Records) (March 11)

Well, this is a weird one from I, Voidhanger…don’t they usually specialize in modernist, more particularly occult oriented black metal?

Well, this one’s nothing like that – a rather mellow, sorta ethereal darkwave affair, with crashing waves, space-ambient synth (think Lycia), tinkling piano and acoustic folk guitar and a rather Audra-like gothic baritone vocal suffused within the mix.

Hey, I was a goth at points during the 80’s and during its brief but fertile resurgence in the mid-90’s, so this feels right at home.

Those expecting something like, say, the Howls of Ebb may want to look elsewhere for their fix. But fans of Peter Murphy, Mission UK, Audra, Lycia or the classic Projekt roster of the 90’s should be quite…is happy the right word? with this one.

Nice stuff.

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SUSPIRAL – Delve Into The Mysteries Of Transcendence (I, Voidhanger Records) (March 11)

OK, this is more like what I’ve come to expect from I, Voidhanger – grim modern black metal with a decidedly dark mystical bent.

This 3 song EP starts off fairly driving and straightforward despite the heavily reverbed vox, before it starts devolving into overuse of feedback and dissonance.  But that’s not the problem here.

While I didn’t mind the album overall (the unusually good production probably helped in that respect), the reliance on drones and open chords, alongside the aforementioned feedback and dissonance, started feeling all too familiar.  It’s not quite template Watain wannabe, but the influence is definitely in there, and to a much stronger degree than I’d care to hear.

Look, it gets as boring to have to usher this one out every month as it probably is for you guys to hear it.

But come on, already. If you have to ape an older band in the genre…can you at least make it a good one?  You know, how about early Mayhem or something for a change?

Sheesh.

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SKÁPHE – Skáphe²  (I, Voidhanger Records) (March 11)

Still more of this pointless sub-subgenre of black/death metal, where everything’s buried beneath reverb and slap echo and they detune so low the strings just lay there grinding against the fretboard.

Is there any purpose to all this?  Why does this trend even exist?  And who the hell says, “yeah! Another record from (fill in a band other than, but including Skaphe, I give you permission)!”

To quote They Call Me Bruce, “Ah don’ geeeeet it.”

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Temple of Gnosis – De Secretis Naturae Alchymica (ATMF) (March 4)

Another one of these blackened doom sort of things, with the overly-reverbed to the point of slap echo belch vocals and nigh funeral doom-slow guitars.

Only real change here is a layered synthesizer/light organ sort of thing that sorta half-assed justifies their self-proclaimed “symphonic” label and some annoying undercranked spoken word bits that come out SWORTA SWOOOOOOW AND DEEEEEEP when played back at normal speed.

Oh, and they talk some bullshit about Hermes Trimestigus and alchemy. Uh huh.

Whatever.

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The Burning (Lustre) – Summoning the Lost Energy (De Tenebrarum Principio) (November 1)

Lengthy dark ambient/space rock which goes more black metal as you progress.

It’s a full discography comp for the band who would morph into Lustre, and it’s pretty well produced and atmospheric throughout.

I liked the more driving (comparatively speaking) black metallish tracks far more than the more relaxed ambient/instrumental ones.

Not too bad overall.