Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hail - Lawgiver EP (2015)

As opposed to the Bestial Storms of the Abyssal Pit demo, the Lawgiver EP represents the first official new material released from Finland's Hail in over a decade, and as such will be held to a higher standard by those enthusiasts who follow this particular scene. Two substantial tracks with a brighter, clearer production than on either of the other recordings I've heard from them, and here the one-man act pursues a more organic mesh of black and death metal qualities which are superior at holding the listener's attention than the demo I recently reviewed. Though the cover artwork might not look nearly as strange as that other release, the music really does live up to it, with the less-than-cheerful disposition of the grim axeman. That said, I felt like stylistically this was a smooth evolution from Inheritance of Evilness, with the same sense for loosely focused riffing patterns that snaked around simple ideas and used production and maniacal vocal presence to thunder them home. Don't go expecting anything truly innovative or out of the ordinary, but Hail are far from a clone of other, better known acts from Dirtmaster's homeland.

The guitars have an excellent, grainy level of saturation to them which helps flesh out the tremolo picked guitar patterns in "Lawgiver & The Ghost Sword", but a lot of the time he's playing more open chords that lend the music a more melancholic, heavy/doom atmosphere. Note choices are quite simplistic, but even though they're not constantly ear-catching, they really work within the raw, raucous parameters Dirtmaster has set up. The drums still maintain that demo feel, tinny to the point that even the kick feels a little thin, but they're little more than timekeepers for the rhythm guitars that vainly attempt to penetrate that black, clouded cover to the entire din. The vocals here are nowhere near as crazy sounding as the old demo, and instead focused on a dirtier, gruffer syncopated growl, which functions appropriately within the nihilistic approach to composition. There are a few points where the transitions seem slightly sloppy, which resonates a mildly improvisational aftertaste, but at the very least they always seem to develop into some subtle but epic heavy metal riffing patterns...

Like what he does with the harmonics and chords at the end of "Lawgiver...", where the riffs really adapt an early Varathron-ish Hellenic black/heavy metal aesthetic worthy of a Robert E. Howard short story, before escalating into a pretty evil sounding death metal riff which is frankly the most creepy sequence of notes I've ever heard from Hail. This brand of fell majesty continues well into the second track, "De Revolutionibus Orbium Colestium 666", which occasionally sounds samey to the first, but is broken up by some little dissonant wisps of notes and a more doom-like sparsity by the middle of the track (around the 5 minute mark). The vocals get really vile and mocking at that point, and I just love what he's doing with the atmospheric guitars, using the vocals as grisly percussion. When given ample time to work their horrors on the listener, Dirtmaster seems to just excel at these passages, and while there is some room for improvement and to make the tunes catchier in general, Lawgiver is a genuine, dark glimpse into a musical future that hopefully won't take 12 years to manifest.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, July 3, 2015

Hail - Bestial Storms of the Abyssal Pit [DEMO] (2001, re-released 2015)

Before critiquing a demo like Bestial Storms of the Abyssal Pit, it's probably important to place it into context. This is a recording by Finland's Hail from just after the turn of the century, now seeing the light as an accompaniment to their new Lawgiver EP, but made of somewhat cruder material than their prior full-length Inheritance of Evilness from 2003, which was an unknown gem of the scene. So, hailing (sorry) from the birth of the band in 2001, one shouldn't really expect a high level of cohesion and professionalism, and thus there can't really be much of a sense of disappointment when that is exactly how the material here is delivered. Raw, slightly chaotic black metal which likely doesn't sound distinct from a hundred or so other bands at the demo stage, but that is not to say that it is necessarily bad, and even from these earlier details one can assume that Hail were not completely relying on the 'blast first, think later' qualities of the medium. They can certainly perform in that capacity, but the core aesthetic to this EP and so many of it ilk is that resonating, evil vibe off the riffing and lack of production values.

The cover of this new MCD release is indeed surreal and compelling, but I can't claim that the music quite lived up to it, even though it offers visual cues to the songs. These guys vomit forth tracks with amusing titles such as "Lava of the Cavernous Cave" or "The Great Semen of Satan's Mantis", and I'm not sure whether or not they were intentionally going for a laugh, or it's just a translation issue, but where some might see that as a flaw, I found it personable. As for the material itself, it is comprised of extremely loud, ghastly vocals which veer between the genre's traditional rasping and some hoarser, disheveled elements that actually sound like a human being regurgitating toxic waste. The vocals are so echoed and stand out so much from the other instruments that they can prove a distraction, however when they disappear you can hear the clashing clutter of the drums, especially the cymbals, and the wildly aberrant leads (like in the closing of "The Great Semen..."). The riff structure of the rhythm guitar is rooted in speed, thrash and punk as most trad black metal of the Bathory lineage, and not a lot of the chord progressions really stand out, but then I'm not so sure that's the point of them, but rather to contribute to the wishy-washy, hostile lo-fi atmosphere.

The third track, "Evocations in a Crypt at an Ominous Forest" is the darkest sounding of the three, because it lacks the firmer riffing qualities and is instead feeling almost improvisational with its crashing percussion and mix of acidic and melancholic guitars. Unfortunately, I didn't find the musical choices on the guitars as creepy as I'd have liked, and the vocals just seem to run away with the whole recording. So far as I can tell, the band has only had one member, the Dirtmaster, and he lives up to his handle by composing aural atrocities that only a small slice of even the black metal audience are going to find merit LEAST on this demo, because the Lawgiver and first full-length have better sounding production that doesn't detract from the sinister intentions. So Bestial Storms of the Abyssal Pit is really meant to suit its purpose as an artifact of this musician's career, and appeal strictly to those who enjoy the rawest, most loosely structured demo recordings of black metal's past. And to that extent, it maintains enough of a crude charisma to satisfy the purpose, but if prompted I would far rather listen to the other Hail recordings.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Injury - Dominhate (2015)

Sometimes it's clever to conjoin a few words and create your own, and other times it's pretty dumb. Dominhate, the title of Injury's second full-length record, is a case of the latter, and for some reason this practice is more common in thrash metal than the other niches of the genre. I get it; it's a slight means by which the thrash bands of the now can attempt to escape the constraints set up before them by their looming, incalculably superior influences from the 80s, but it's the music which should really be attempting that prison break, and once you've nailed that, I think you can worry more about lyrics and titles and so forth. Now, beyond that, these Italians' sophomore is not exactly a 'brain dead' record, but rather a functional and somewhat forgettable fusion of Teutonic and West Coast influences into a cohesive whole that is greater than your average pizza-thrash throwback, but lacking in the distinctiveness it would take to really stand out among a swarm of such bands hailing from Western Civilization, who celebrate the past by reliving it rather than reinventing it.

All that said, Dominhate is not a bad record. These guys play with a little conviction, generally dwelling in that mid-paced headbanging range which might reflect a mixture of modern Exodus and Tankard, with the real roots of those bands' 80s legacies showing through like fading hair dye. The vocalist has a heavily accented inflection which to me seems like an Italian alternative to the mighty Gerre, some genuine vicious qualities that give it an immediate character along with that accent, and just the right amount of gang shouting or reverb to help keep it interesting as it howls across the rhythm guitars. Speaking of which, they're punchy and meaty and varied enough to maintain an interesting flow through the album, though they often break out into these pretty bland progressions that are only made interesting by the more surgical harmonies the duo applies at the end. This is yet another band where the rhythm section seems to do little more than its own job, and as such I really felt like the bass-lines and peppy drums rarely broke out beyond the riffs, which take center stage throughout the majority of the record whenever the front man isn't exuding his wildest lines. But that's alright, because the leads and rhythm structures keep it fairly rounded and interesting.

Lot of chuggy thrash here, but it's slightly more nimble and dextrous in the post-80s-Slayer vein rather than devolving into a more brute metalcore style. I've had mixed reactions to a lot of the modern thrash output from bands like Exodus and Onslaught, but I think this disc fits squarely into that sort of company, with modern analogs in an Evile or Warbringer, maybe a little less Metallica beyond just that beefy precision which was obviously influenced by Master of Puppets in most cases. But you certainly get a German flair here too...whether it be Tankard, or Vendetta's second album Brain Damage, or Destruction, or the latest Accuser disc which was surprisingly good; these guys fit in rather well with their European precursors and counterparts who are ultimately going to be the biggest audience for this particular release. I think the material is solid throughout, if not exceptional, and they might be most memorable when they're doing tunes with more effects in them like "Fashion Swine" or "Ride the Riot". Not an album I'm in love with, but it very clearly shows a level of effort well beyond the lazy pale of trend-jumping nostalgiacs, and those listeners invested heavily into the second tier thrash of the 80s and beyond will find themselves comfortable here; if that bill fits you, then at least give it a spin through.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Fadom - Pantophobia (2014)

First, a moment of silence for the fact that Pantophobia is not, in fact, the fear of wearing pants, but rather the fear of just about everything under the Sun. Fadom reflect this with their choice of rather cheesy photo rendered cover artwork, a man crushed by all the world around him, though I'd imagine we might not fare much better off ourselves if the city was alight after a bloc party with a bunch of arsonist phantoms. This is a Greek thrash act that we might consider among the second or third tiers of that prolific but unsung scene; not as known as Suicidal Angels or Exarsis, but managing to score a deal through the recently defunct Athens Thrash Attack imprint. The title of the band's earlier EP, Thrash Bandicoot did not hold out much hope that this would turn into a high tier modern thrash act with anything on its mind beyond being 'in' on that oh-so-funny joke, thrash metal!!! But in their defense, Pantophobia hardly comes across as any sort of self-aware mockery of the medium, more a solid if ultimately unremarkable paean to a lot of the lesser known American acts of the later 80s.

There's a little bit of clinical, cutting melody to the guitars which recalls records like Kreator's Terrible Certainty or Destruction's Cracked Brain, but I actually got a strong whiff of Arizona's criminally underrated Atrophy, what with the biting, snarled vocals (also a little Schmier there), the gang shouts, and some of that appropriately saturated rhythm guitar...especially in the title track, which is not bad at all. Another influence I picked out was the Megadeth of the 1990-92 era, specifically the little groovy rocking guitar fills executed at the end of progressions like those in the unfortunately titled "Thrasholution (Thrash is Solution)". The tracks offer a pretty fair variety of breakout speed/heavy metal licks, mid-paced neck strainers, safe but well structured leads and melodies that capture a lot of their inspirations without ever threatening to surpass or innovate upon them. I think the mild reverb and other vocal effects used here due a lot to apply just the right quota of once-future nastiness to the delivery, but at the same time the rhythm section on the album seems to do little more than click with the construction of the guitar, in other words...this is a record driven purely by the guitarists (one of whom does vocals), and everything else just sort of falls in line.

Pantophobia is unlikely to turn heads enough to matter, but as derivative as it might seem in spots, it clearly shows the band's proclivity to do a little research into the bands they were giving tribute. Not all the riffs blaze, but there were enough of them to spark a little fire of nostalgia for back when nearly every thrash album I was buying felt like some pioneering force among my metal collection; when bands were taking the formulae of Slayer, Possessed, Metallica, Anthrax and the Germans and then running with them. I could do without the shitty "Thrash...." song titles (one of which is sadly the titular cut of their previous EP), but it seems like a crop of these bands feel like they have to wear that as a badge or all the fucking poseurs in the audience won't recognize them for what they are. The down side is that the practice ends up painting its users in quite the same strokes. Which is clearly not necessary for Fadom, because they are a solid group with a lot of the right sounds and influences that has no need whatsoever to devolve into pizza party territory. "I get it, I get that you are playing thrash metal, or else I would not have checked you out to begin with." So, apart from a few annoying choices like that, Pantophobia is not bad at all...I banged my head a few times, remembered why I liked this music in the first place, why I continue to enjoy and defend it decades later, and that's how these things go.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Running Death - Overdrive (2015)

Unlike similarly named label mates Raging Death, the Germans Running Death have actually developed a slightly unique, punchy and compartmentalized modern thrash style which took me a little by surprise due to not only the compelling structure and variation found in many of their riffs themselves, but the clean, contemporary production through which they are all delivered. That's not to say that Overdrive has no precedent, that it's the most original approach to the medium I've experienced in modern times, or that it's the most memorable example of its class, but clearly some thought and organization went into this recording beyond just the typical 'we want to sound like band x plus band y that we found in our older brother's bedroom closet gathering dust back in 2005' derivation and aimlessness that so many of their peers suffer in the endless recycling pattern that has partly stunted this genre beyond its still standing luminaries and the few other pioneers left in its waters. Running Death might hang out just at the edge of the harbor, without going on a long cruise, but at least they're not beached whales, fattened so much off nostalgia that they can no longer sail or swim.

Some of the frilly licks and clinical harmonies assembled on the disc might contain small traces of DNA from Teutonic precursors like Mekong Delta, Destruction or even Deathrow, but I also found that this record had a lot in common with West Coast second tier thrashers of the 80s like Defiance, in particular that band's similarly clean and impactful sophomore Void Terra Firma. This is a little more forceful in execution, and the riffing slightly more varied, but the grainier, gut-fed vocals and several of the guitar progressions are cast of a similar mode, or perhaps to that of British hopefuls Xentrix on their own sophomore For Whose Advantage?, or a few lesser known German bands like Erosion or Accuser. Maybe Midas Touch's Presage of Disaster, only less bitter in disposition. But Running Death are arguably even more bizarre, for their proclivity to bust out into weird dissonant rock grooves in the middle of tunes like "Psycho". From the onset of any particular track on this album, there seemed very little precognition as to what exactly was going to happen throughout, and they tend to experiment a little more in the bridge sequences where they'll fly off the handle and experiment more with spurious tempo shifts, melodic harmonies and whatever their imaginations conjure forth. Not to say that it's always as unique as where that might lead them, but they do try.

The rhythm guitars have just the right amount of crunch to keep them tidy but not neutered, and the bass is often saturated in slightly more distorted ooze for a great contrast. The drums are perky but simplistic, the strength coming through primarily in the fills of the grooves. Vocals are probably the weakest component of the album, a little lower in the mix than might suit them, but capable of a more vicious metamorphosis in places like the chorus of "Raging Nightmare" where they reminded me slightly of a less carnal Jonas Nilsson from Raise Hell's triumphant Not Dead Yet. Yet, although so many of the components here really work well together, it's those guitars that constantly steal the show, whether they're galloping along like later Crumbsuckers' weird prog-thrash pacing or bursting into a Megadeth-like excess with leads and melodies, they are always resonating in my ears and lending themselves to one of the most credible and replayable albums I've heard yet from the entire Punishment 18 Records roster. Between the deft skill level and that sleek, cubicle thrash appeal that they muster, Overdrive is a winner, but I wouldn't mind hearing how they develop their style into something even more insane or sinister or muscular sounding in the future. Either way, this is a band I will continue to follow, because they capture that precious novelty I felt as a teenager in the 80s, exploring hundreds of paper route-purchased thrash cassettes through the genre's prime.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Raging Death - Raging Death (2015)

The cover of this album had me doing a double-take, not because of the obvious necrophilia laws being broken on it, or these guys are striving really hard to return to the 'source' of their style with one of the most generic monikers I've seen in years, but because within a small span of days, Punishment 18 has ALSO released the debut of a German band called Running Death. I bet those Italians over there are getting a real chuckle at this, but I fear the joke might be forever lost on us all if both albums turn out quite so mediocre as this one in particular. Reaping Death, Racing Death, Raping Death, Ripping Death Ricocheting Death, Rollerskating Death, I'm sure all of these must be in the pipeline somewhere. But surely I jest...right?

I'd hesitate to outright accuse this debut of being the sort of sidewalk-bound pizza thrash we hear so often, young bands recycling a handful of riffs from the 80s and then attempting to resurrect the old aural cues like flies from amber...and yet, that's kind of what this is. Raging Death is about velocity, pure and simple, a slightly more melodic brand of thrash than most of the harder West Coast stuff of the Golden Age, threaded with triplets and riffs that sound like a sort of heavily NWOBHM-soaked Destruction or Necronomicon. Progressions arrive at a fairly fast clip but are almost unanimously predictable in structure, often with harmonies that leave me with an aftertaste that seems like what Running Wild might have sounded like if they were more of a thrash act in the vein of Master of Puppets. The Polish band does not necessarily lack for energy like they do for compelling ideas, but the biggest issue I had was that the rhythm guitars seem to have this volume and bluster which outstrips or outpaces the snappier, thin drums, almost like meat so excessively steamed that it surely peels off the bone, and a number of tunes feel indistinguishable for others, which is obnoxious.

The accent of the vocals definitely recalls a lot of East European and Teutonic thrash of the 80s, somewhere between Destruction and Wolf Spider, with lots of elevated screams and at the end of phrasings, and this is perhaps one of the strengths, because though they could easily be written off as a sort of 'this is how thrash SOUNDED' caricature, they are at least pretty fun, whereas the picking parts, as hard as they might try, seem at best like mediocre plays on Mortal Sin's sophomore album or some other forgotten record that arrived humbly at the point that thrash had already reached its saturation point when it actually mattered the first time. The bass guitars don't pop out on this disc at all, and the riffs and tunes, while not always incompetent or uninspired, simply don't blend in with strong vocal lines or chorus hooks to produce anything more than a samey rush. If you are into any of the other bands that I listed here, or perhaps some of the first two Artillery records, or the debut by Vendetta, then this might satisfy a niche craving, but the mix, presentation and songwriting are just not at a level yet beyond the raw reproduction of an era and aesthetic. I've heard worse, surely, but also a lot better. And speaking of Shirley, traipsing around the graveyard buck naked might not be such a great idea after all.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Ancient Dome - Cosmic Gateway to Infinity (2014)

The danger in combining science fiction concepts with thrash metal is that it so rarely feels like the proposed amalgamation, but a little too weighted on the one or the other. A few modern bands like Vektor have managed to avoid that issue by writing technical and frenetic material which recounts many of the greats of the 80s, but the era of hearing a novel band like Voivod or D.B.C. seems buried forever more. It's not that I'm expecting a Killing Technology or anything when I come across one of these shots in the vacuum, but at least something unique that conveys the atmosphere of the future, or the unknown, experimenting with chords and song structures that mirror either the alien or technological implications of the subject matter. Cosmic Gateway to Infinity, the third full-length from Italian power/thrashers Ancient Dome, falls well shy of this goal, but at the very least this seems like an attempt at melodic, majestic riffing that isn't just pretending to be Exodus or Slayer from their prime, instead picking up tiny traces of slightly more obscure bands like the great Heathen, who played with a similar mix of styles.

Transitions are often a little abrupt and lack power here, but they've got a nice crunch on the rhythm guitars that serves as a concrete foundation for the melodic avenues they trend towards. I definitely felt a little Victims of Deception here, with a few nods towards the first, excellent Mordred album Fools Game, and a healthy heaping of late 80s Paradox (the German band), which is in itself a rarity. There's a power metal thrust to it all, which ideally might manifest in something like Artillery's brilliant By Inheritance, only the way the Italians build their rhythmic pairings is nowhere near as layered, complex and unforgettable. These guys seem to just dip their toes in the water of what a potent melodic power/thrash album might be, without committing fully, and the little lead fills and other transition bits often feel a little loose and jarring, unable to accumulate into the raw, inspirational power needed. That's not to say they suck, or put in little thought to what they're playing...this is head and shoulders above a lot of the mediocre pizza party thrash that for some reason seems to have carved out a new 21st niche of trendy plasticity, but where I would go into a tune like "Empire of Lies" or the semi-flashy instrumental "Nebuloid" with some degree of excitement, I always came away thinking that were was just a lot of wasted potential, inconsistent riffing...and, well, the vocals...

There are two styles of singing here, one of them a cleaner, accented voice which is is a little limp, if not unpracticed, and the other a more psychotic, meaty barking which sounds like Belgium's After All jacked up on steroids. One of them simply does not equal the other, and while the former does at least offer a little versatility and the ability for Ancient Dome to traipse further into Euro-anthemic territory, the latter feels just so much more appropriate when the riffing gets some punch. Neither is all that distinct though, and I can't help but feel that a more vicious approach would have done the music better, even at its more warm and friendly. Other factors, like acoustics and at least one lower pitched narrative voice seem forced and awkward, attempts to insert a little more variety and perhaps a science fiction narrative that simply do not impress. Drums sound good, and the bass lines are smooth if not adventurous, but what I'm listening to here is about 60% of an excellent album that badly needs some further development to succeed on a world stage. Frankly, there a ton of us closet freaks for Paradox, Scanner, Toxik, Realm, Mordred, and Heathen who would love for a band like this to take off, but despite an earnest attempt, colorful artwork, and a degree of imagination, Cosmic Gateway to Infinity is not going to be that diamond in the void; but it's not exactly space debris either. I don't hear a record like this every day, so there's at least that amount of appreciation.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Monday, June 1, 2015

Nuclear Assault - Pounder EP (2015)

Had Pounder been released somewhere between 1985-87 as a filler EP between Nuclear Assault full-lengths, it might have made a little splash as eager thrash fans snapped it up off the shelves when this New York legend's iron was still pretty hot. As it stands, the material contained here, being produced so long after the band's prime, with intervening decades of nothing worthwhile happening whatsoever, no good records, seems insipid at best. That's not to knock it completely, because the four tunes here sound intrinsically like the Nukes you remember as a teen (or I remember as a teen), but it feels like too little too late and I were to randomly cast an audio dart at any track off the full-lengths, excluding the itty bitty goofy ones, I would wind up stabbing something much more memorable. Ten years after the most horrific and boring album of their thrashing careers, Third World Genocide, it just doesn't seem like enough.

The band has not moved forward in any meaningful way in terms of progressing its ideas to a modern context, nor is it writing nostalgia that eclipses or even matches the best songs of Survive, Handle With Care, and Game Over... I might say that they at least 'try', but the majority of riffs here just seem like they might have been scraped up off the cutting room floor 20-odd years ago. "Pounder" itself is your typical mid-to-fast paced rager like what the band would often kick off a record with in the past, and "Lies" is your analog for a classic headbanger like "Brainwashed". If I had to pick the best of the cuts, though, it would be the closer "Died in Your Arms", which is this swaggering, burly tune in which the buzz of Lilker's distorted bass lines owns up to the rhythm guitar chords, the leads seem bluesy, sporadic and atmospheric, and it really doesn't feel like much of what they've put out in the past. The mix of the entirely EP is appropriately dirty, definitely straddling the line between the first and second albums, and I kind of dig that...but by the same token, I wouldn't have minded a massive sounding modern Nuclear Assault that just wrote killer hooks that twisted my head off.

Connelly might seem a little aged in his inflection, but I think for the most part he continues to create  that frustrated, constipated anger that made him unique in the 80s. Otherwise, the band sounds pretty much business as usual, had that business been conducted back when it mattered. Again, I can't be too hard on the thing, because at least the tracks here aren't as miserable as the 2005 album, and they do feature a nice balance of tempos sort of like The Plague EP. But this is a band that used to make me want to arm myself with a spiked baseball bat and storm the streets, burning vehicles and beating up Cold War mutants, and there's just nothing kinetic or memorable enough here to invoke that same delinquency from my inner thrasher. The best this is, is 'non-bad', and I guess that's a start, but one that they'll have to capitalize on by reaching into themselves and pulling out that rage, those nights of dirty clubs and cigarettes, the political unrest their music used to address. Pounder tells me that it is a possibility, but doesn't justify its existence to me beyond that simple tease.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Light Force - Mystical Thieves (1988)

I hadn't listened to Mystical Thieves in approximately 25 years, since I discovered the cassette haunting a discount bin at a record store at the local mall, and thought the cover artwork was cool enough to take it home for a few bucks. Pure Metal Records had a bit of a reputation as a Christian metal label, sure, but at the time I was around 15-16 and religiously independent (having walked out on confirmation at my parents' church), I was never one to really hold this as a sole reason to avoid a band. In fact, I had a number of pretty decent Christian thrash and heavy metal tapes in my stash, with names like Vengeance Rising, Deliverance, and so forth, and for all external purposes the Light Force sophomore seemed like it might join them...

...which, of course, was wishful thinking, because Mystical Thieves sucks. The few among you who might even be aware of this band probably recognize it as Australian Steve Rowe's previous band before he launched Mortification, a heavier thrash/death metal outfit which has gone on to produce a rather long and prolific career which even had some material licensed to labels like Nuclear Blast. I am not a big fan of that band, never have been... a few of the earlier CDs like Scrolls of the Megilloth had some potential there, but although the lyrics were fairly Christian all along, the band seemed to dumb itself down on subsequent releases through the 90s. Love them or hate them, though, this man soldiers on; irregardless of what the extreme metal audience thinks, there is no question he is pretty serious and unshakeable in his commitment to both his faith and his bog standard death metal. All the power to him, or Power to get the point. But speaking of 'power', Light Force is considered one of those earlier examples of power metal which was difficult to distinguish from the later phase NWOBHM of the time...certainly it has little of the fire and fury of the USPM in the 80s, or little fire and fury AT ALL.

Rowe was the bassist here, and he's perhaps the album's most overt culprit of Steve Harris' playing in Iron Maiden, with loads of pluggy, driving triplets that combine with the melodic guitar harmonies to produce an atmosphere highly redolent of things like Number of the Beast, Powerslave, Piece of Mind and Somewhere in Time; whether trudging along or erupting in an anthem speed much like they do in the album's titular opener. The problem here is that the riffs are just so bloody uninspired, that even as a teen I found them mind numbingly boring and predictable in an era that was producing works like Thundersteel, Master Control, No Exit or even Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which is more or less everything some of these songs attempt, but exponentially superior. The beginnings, middles and ends of these cuts are quite uninspiring while a little TOO inspired, and there are lots of choices that don't really make much sense, seemingly amateur like when Rowe starts frenzying on the bass at the end of the opening cut, only to have it all just...whisked away.

Even worse, the singer here is just so painfully average that it feels as if he's extremely hung-over and just trying to make anything stick. Not the worst intonation I've heard, but he hangs out too much in that upper mid-range, sounding sloshed and entirely incapable of tackling a proper chorus. Hell, if you're going to be doing a Maiden-ish thing, wouldn't you want a singer who can dominate the material with some range and power? There are particular tracks where he gets more potent to the degree that it doesn't come off offensively lazy, but generally these are also tunes where the rhythm guitars  also come together in a more powerful, if not any more memorable combination like in "Crossfire" or the more forceful, speed-metal approach of "City Streets", which is a style I wish they would have adopted on far more of the album, since it shows a meaner edge and kind of abandons the aimless airiness of the title track. But then, there is very little consistency on the record for which they could capitalize on such momentum..."Metal Missionaries" feels like so much tired mid paced Judas Priest worship, while "Searching" had a few insipid callbacks to Sabbath stuff.

If the music is weak, the production is weaker, with Rowe's bass level set just about the same as the rhythm guitar, stealing some of its bite without supplementing enough low end thunder. It all feels thin and wimpy, and the drums sound like they're being played half the time by banging on tin cans and bicycle chains. Very little force or muscle. Perhaps the only part of the music that felt slightly invigorating were when the leads broke out over some of the rhythms in the bridges, they definitely have that feel of wild abandon so precious to traditional 80s speed, heavy and power metal, but it's such a chore to get around to them that who even cares? In the end, Mystical Thieves is just dull and third rate Australian metal with nothing going for it when you could just put on the Hobbs' Angel of Death and hear how it really needed to be done. Rowe would move on to bigger and better things, because Mortification was certainly a step up from this, but the Light Force sophomore seems in retrospect just a waste of decent artwork with an evocative 70s/80s Michael Whelan feel.

Verdict: Fail [3.5/10] (No, no, no mind control, it's a Satanic craze!)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Six Feet Under - Crypt of the Devil (2015)

For Chris Barnes and Steve Swanson to 'arm' themselves with a trio of Cannabis Corpse members on this 11th (original) studio album turns out not only to have been an interesting ploy, but one that more or less pays off, giving the long mediocre act a fresher sound that complements the veteran vocalist's gruff delivery with some more elaborate and intricate musicianship. That's not to imply that Crypt of the Devil is somehow flirting with technical or brutal death metal territory, but the riffs themselves here have a  more insistent, consistent, compelling quality to them which offered me a lot more mileage and unpredictability than the lion's share of garbage mock tough guy Obituary grooves that populate the 6FU canon. In fact, in a different world, where the band's career had ignited with the shockingly memorable Undead, my raining favorite of their catalog and the only one I own, and then suffered a few growing pains with the less impressive Unborn, and at last ended up here, I don't think this band would have ever had such a frustrating, divisive response from the casuals and haters.

Crypt of the Devil is not exactly the second coming of The Bleeding, and I've already hinted that it does not surpass the catchy Undead, but it's interesting how it partially mirrors recent Cannibal Corpse fare like Torture in its construction. The riffing progressions here are corpulent, adventurous in a semi-clinical death metal fashion, often akin to records like Bloodthirst which rank among Barnes' alma mater at their prime. Though some of the punch to the patterns does exude a Cannabis feel, the guitars are more muscular in the Six Feet Under fashion, the bass lines oozing like a leaky whiskey still into the swamp water, and a few bridges accelerate into some tense patterns where a few more melodic, trilling hooks offer aural callbacks to Barnes' most famous appearances. Some of the harmonic guitars splayed out over meatier rhythm tracks in lead hooks feel similar to what Carcass did on their reunion record, and even though there's a general sameness between a number of the cuts, you can often expect the unexpected, with a great lead sequence or riff break coming out of nowhere which is suddenly more adept and memorable than the rest of the disc. The drumming and bass often ceded to the density of the riffs, and Barnes growls a little too monotonous for what is happening around them, but that was occasionally the case on Undead and it did not dull my reaction to the songwriting whatsoever.

Coupled with the classic death metal cover artwork, Crypt of the Devil is really just what these guys have been capable of delivering to us all along, when they weren't too busy being lazy with lopsided, meat head groove death. It feels like both a self-tribute to those final years of Barnes' run with his old band, and a more involved and musical direction for the band to progress towards in the future, even if these particular player were only along for the studio album itself. It's not going to be a popular opinion to take the guy seriously after so many years of keyboard crusader mockery through the metal underground, but it very clearly sounds like that more legitimate Six Feet Under, akin to what we heard three years ago that turned at least my reality upside down. This is unquestionably the death metal that these men was always meant for, almost entirely eschewing the dumbed down formulae that filled out so many of those first 15 Metal Blade years, and while Crypt of the Devil is hardly the stuff of legend or even the stuff you'll be humming along to in your head six months from now, I am enjoying an age in which I'll see this band's logo somewhere and not take the easy reaction to write it off. Just Death Metal 101, straight from one of the campus alumni and assisted by a number of ace grad students who want to make him sound as good as possible.

Verdict: Win [7/10]