Friday, October 31, 2014

Rigor Mortis - Slaves to the Grave (2014)

I'm not ashamed to say that Rigor Mortis has always been a bit of a one hit wonder for me...their eponymous debut has remained in my regular rotation for well over a quarter century now. Even if it was never one of my favorites of that early extreme death-thrash wave, placed behind Reign in Blood, Hell Awaits, Darkness Descends, Violent Restitution, Seven Churches, it's still one of those immortal 80s efforts which loses absolutely no luster decades later, I can pop it in and still feel the same shivers and reverence that I did when tossing newspapers into doorways with "Bodily Dismemberment" in my headphones, mullet flapping in the wind, disgruntled as all youth are won to be when they haven't gotten their genitals wet yet or been beaten down by the monotony of the 'real world'. After that, the Texans provided little more than diminishing returns...the Freaks EP striving towards but not living up to the debut, and the Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth another of those innumerable turds clenched out in the 90s by a band attempting to remain relevant against the shitstorms of alternative, hip hop and grunge that were arriving.

Slaves to the Grave was inevitable; when the band returned to active status around 2005 and started touring, you knew they were going to take another shot in the studio just like so many of them do (Coroner, I'm waiting on you), and when that day arrived it was either going to be a disappointment or a triumph. Well, the reality has been bittersweet; with great guitarist Mike Scaccia passing away in 2012, we've got here a self-released, postmortem comeback that marks what I assume will be the permanent dissolution of the band, since his playing was just so natural and crucial to their identity against a whole host of other groups in the late 80s. So Slaves to the Grave becomes more than a reunion album, but one final chainsaw raised aloft to the heavens, revved up and ready to soak in the blood of angels, or at least the horror-buff thrashers who so treasure this band in their collections. One might say there was a little bit of pressure on this to perform, but I could predict in advance that what we'd have here would be another of those countless 'catch up' albums, a band trying to keep pace with its original magnum opus, challenge its own youth, rather than progress forward in any noteworthy fashion...and that is pretty much what results. Which, depending on whom you ask, will prove either money in the bank, or imminent frustration...

I'm leaning towards the former, not that Slaves is in any danger of dethroning the '88 album, but because while so many of the riffing passages feel dead loyal to their classics, they at least try to restructure them enough that the choruses feel fresh. The signature of Rigor Mortis has always been the marriage of Bruce Corbitt's harsh, distempered grunts to Scaccia's fluid, insanely fast tremolo picking style, and that is 100% intact here, leads shredding out with abandon over the dextrous stream of rhythm guitar notes like entrails being introduced to the air during a summer killing. The original rhythm section of Casey Orr and Harden Harrison is likewise intact, with some great, fat, energetic baselines and drumming that caters more towards the thrash/speed metal roots of the band rather than attempting to keep extreme with the times...this isn't going to be something where you could expect ceaseless blasting, but Harrison definitely contributes to the momentum here with some desperate, straight rock beats that fit the riffing components while never skimping on the fills. Corbitt does sound mildly different here, his timbre doesn't really have that creepy graveyard echo so much as on the debut, but rather you can make out more of its visceral quality, like an even more constipated Phil Rind of Sacred Reich, and lots of gang shouts used as punctuation through both verses and choruses. But the real star of this show is Scaccia's lightning stroke...

There are a few beefier thrashing moments which do seem to pay some acknowledgement of their sophomore effort, but end up coming across more like Gwar during their prime (Scumdogs of the Universe style), which makes sense since Corbitt and Brockie had some similarities in their vocal technique, the latter just a lot more theatrical. But I'd also like to point out the one area in which Slaves to the Grave is distinct from its predecessors...the inclusion of horror soundtrack-inspired, bluesy bayou moments in tunes like "Poltergeist" and "Bloodbath" which are extremely well rendered and aesthetically resonant for a band whose inspirations include all manner of Southern Gothic grotesque and slashers...hell, this is the kind of thing that wouldn't have seemed out of place if the band Agony Column had a more prolific career, and what I found so amazing was how well it reflected the cover artwork, and immersed me once more into the imagery I always associated with the Texans as a teenager. Production-wise, it clings to the older aesthetics of pronounced, airy and evil guitars, but the drums and bass feel a little bit more balanced, and the few spaces between the shredding notes seem's the 21st century upgrade to what they could do in the 80s, sans a lot of the frills their core audience might have feared.

The question, then: was it worth it? The 26 year wait after the self-titled cult classic? Slaves to the Grave is no masterpiece, perhaps, and about half of the album can be chalked up to pure nostalgia, obeisance to the template they laid out back then...but there is actually just enough here to feel like it something more than a carbon copy, and that those decades did happen and that these guys did mature and bring in a little of their wealth of experience to the sound of their alma mater reborn.The atmospheric breaks really balance out the faster surges of material (of which there are many), whether they're the bluesier sort or the classical guitar representation of "Sacramentum Gladiatorium". A few of the tunes like "Fragrance of Corpse" are nearly as memorable as a "Wizard of Gore" or "Bodily Dismemberment", and there isn't really a 'bad' song on the album, even if it can't compare on a riff by riff basis, and a few like "Curse of the Draugr" just seems to be hanging in there stylistically, without offering much to the sum value. Ultimately, if not a 'run out and buy this right now' level record, it's the best material they've done since 1988, and oozes self-respect not only for what they had accomplished so many years ago, but what they might have transformed that foundation into had they continued to define this serial slasher subject matter in metallic form. Rest in peace, Mike Scaccia. And rest in pieces, Rigor Mortis, because you know they wouldn't have it any other way.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (all of your nightmares rolled into one)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cradle of Filth - Thornography (2006)

Thornography arrived in the midst of that nebulous era in which I had lost all interest in anything Cradle of Filth had to say. I had been a fairly strong advocate for the band, much to the increasing dismay of several of my more vocal vestie friends, up through the record Midian which I thought was their most seamless integration of atmosphere and riffing. Yet, even though I bought Damnation and a Day on the day it dropped, a number of listens in I could find almost nothing to enjoy about it beyond the production and sheer presentation quality, and Nymphetamine further consolidated the indifference until such a time as Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder and Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa arrived and seemed to rekindle the band's missing sparks into something progressively more appealing. Going back to this album now, I can see both strong and weak points that seem to cancel one another out...competently written and executed, but there are simply too few of those hilarious, over-the-top Gothic/black metal surges that infect my imagination to the point that I can't stop jamming the replay button.

The symphonic accoutrements that have defined most of the band's legacy were fully intact here, but the actual construction of the songs seemed to focus more on a straight up hybrid of heavy and thrash metal with the infusion of a few melodeath or melodic black metal tremolo picked guitars that sadly went nowhere except for the most predictable destinations. The guitars stand at the fore, pounding or chugging or occasionally searing along while the keys are used somewhat sparingly, and Dani Filth tries to imbue each of the lines with his trademark personality; anathema to some, beloved by others. It's all very clean and tidy and produced at the level a band like Cradle of Filth aspires towards (even though their name would and should imply otherwise), and that's kind of where I fell off from this. Because without really interesting riff structures that constantly dial my number, I find myself reliant too much on atmospheric aesthetics, which for some reason Thornography doesn't deliver beyond mere 'appearances'. Sure, the string arrangements and swell of "Under Pregnant Skies She Comes Alive Like Miss Leviathan" (for fuck's sake, be sparing with the lines of poetry as song titles, people) sound professional and really impeccable, or the deeper metal immersion of the orchestra in a tune like "The Byronic Man", but I just kept waiting for it to be 'catchy'...and it's not. Almost ever.

Dani Filth does do a decent job with his pitch here, striving for a little higher definition to many of his verse lines (not the screams), which surprised me because I thought this was around the time his voice was supposed to have fallen off, but he managed well enough in the studio. Lyrically, these tunes are just as strong as anything prior or since, diving into the band's stronger subjects of Gothic Horror...Stoker, Lovecraft, plus a little bit of sacrilegious fare. Of course, when you've got a tune called "Libertina Grimm" it's hard not to feel like Filth is just pandering to its Witchy Halloween Industry Horror-Goth ghoulfriends, but that's always been the case...Cradle of Filth is the evolution of Tim Burtonites inflicted with the poetic register of Byron and Wordsworth...if that offends your cold, raw, can't get laid Nordic sensibilities then of course you're going to hate the shit out of them; but if you've got a soft spot for Beetlejuice, Elvira, or the commercialization of Cthulhu then they tend to take on a more endearing, 'pet Gothic/black metal band' quality that is hard to get upset with. But, yeah, the guy just spends so much time on his lyrics...they are perfect for the image this band represents and frankly a lot smarter than many of their peers.

Unfortunately, that alone is nowhere near enough to make Thornography a good album. It gets off to a solid start with "Dirge Inferno", and truth be told there are a dozen or so decent riffs among the many on parade, but none that just blow you away like "Nocturnal Supremacy" or "Desire in Violent Overture" or "Her Ghost in the Fog". The drums sound a little too sterile and polished, the bass lines are nothing more than a footnote in the mix, and while the compositions seem aesthetically fluid with their neighbors, and there's nothing really wrong with them exploring the more pronounced heavy metal riffing and leads (which, frankly, they had done numerous times already), there just lacks a sense of character here. Simply put, not their best set of songs. Grist for the mill, keeping the career on track but not capitalizing on any of that creative momentum they had established up through the turn of the century. In revisiting this, I discovered a few tunes or individual riffs that might warrant inclusion on a longer Cradle playlist, but since I half-enjoy the sort of kitsch this band carries along with it, I expected this one to surprise me, and apart from a few moments, like the weird robotic filtered vocals in "I Am the Thorn" or the morph into straight up Gothic/heavy metal in parts of "The Foetus of a New Day Kicking" it was all normative. I'd listen through it without much aggravation if someone wants to, and even open the booklet to read the lyrics on occasion. It is arguably a little better than its predecessor Nymphetamine, but there are a half dozen other albums in the band's discography which scratch that festering Gothic horror itch a lot better.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10] (the poison in the font)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Revocation - Deathless (2014)

Coming hot on the heels of Revocation's somewhat disappointing, eponymous 2013 effort, Deathless seems like an immediate bounce back which adheres more closely to their original tech death/thrash blueprint without sacrificing some of the heightened proficiency that their current roster has brought to the table. I wouldn't say this is perfect, since there are a few components which I just don't think I'll ever really be into, but at the same time I'd have no problem dubbing it my second favorite of their canon, after the sophomore Existence is Futile (2009) which seemed to hit their creative peak. Add to that the classy tattooist/painter Tom Strom's cover art, and a generally more creepy vibe manifest through the leads, and this is certainly a fun, if not fervently consistent effort which should help continue the cultivation of their audience due to its no-nonsense, riff-driven aesthetics and solid musicianship.

Revocation still walks a similar path to that they've inhabited since they were known as Cryptic Warning, a hybrid of the guitar god thrash/speed metal of yesteryear (Megadeth, Slayer, etc) with the emergent progressive death metal of the early 90s (Death, Cynic, Pestilence), all bristling with the momentum and 'gusto' picking sequences attributed to Swedish melodeath masters like At the Gates and Dark Tranquillity when they were making their waves. All of the guitars are carefully plotted to provide a wide variety of pacing, structure and dynamic, but you still get that creeping feeling that they just can't nail down any one identity, nor are they striving to do so. There were parts on this disc that reminded me heavily of Black Dahlia Murder's gradual increase in death-thrashing inertia to a few riffing segments which, blended with the cleaner vocal tone (as in the "Deathless" chorus itself, or "Labyrinth of Eyes") feel a lot like Blood Mountain-era Mastodon; while some of more agile picking progressions almost rival Protest the Hero in their elasticity. However, when you really trace it to the roots, these guys are most heavily influenced by those 80s giants like Mustaine; they just armor and flavor it in a number of the trending sounds since.

And when I limit a judgment of the record strictly to the guitars, it works well in tunes like "The Blackest Reaches", "Scorched Earth Policy" and other numbers that stuck out to me even among a crowd of competence such as the rest of these. Phil Dubois-Coyne's drumming is a seamless fit to the almost mechanically shifting palette of riffs between more clinical, punctual thrashing and warmer, full-bodied chords in choruses like that of "The Blackest Reaches". Brett Bramberger's bass lines are usually just as adequate as the rhythm guitars, often deviating with some appreciable note choices, but I did find that they often got lost under the riff barrage to the point that I was only tangentially aware of their existence. But on the flip side, as much as I think David Davidson is an excellent musician and one of the most talented Massachusetts has ever birthed, I really just can't get into his vocals any more than before. He's assisted here by Gargulio, the other guitarist (progenitor of Artificial Brain, who you should also check out), but even in union the overbearing barks seem streamlined from that whole Pantera-through-metalcore lineage and lack any real charm, nastiness or atmosphere beyond pure testosterone...

The cleans are fine for some much-needed plot twists away from the growls and snarls, but even then they just sound like a lot of bands that have adopted the Mastodon style, ultimately indistinct. And that's really the hangup which prevents this from becoming a 'great' album, even if it's better than Chaos of Forms or Revocation or Empire of the Obscene. All the riffs and leads might not be equally ear catching, granted, but its the vocals smothering them all that just feel like a distraction and don't really take me further into the stories the band is trying to tell with its labyrinthine guitar-work. If you remember tech-thrash monoliths like No More Color, Deception Ignored, Endless War or even stuff Death was doing (Human, Individual Thought Patterns, etc), the vocals stood out just as much as anything else in the songs (not for their volume alone, as they do here)...they might have sounded weird, or flawed in many cases, but that just gave them more personality...the cadence and timbre of these barks just seem cut and pasted from a number of banal modern day groove, 'core or nu-thrash sounds, where even, and I hate to say it, a more brutal guttural might seem an improvement, or something unusual and attention-grabbing.

Fair is fair, though, and if this wasn't an issue for you on any of their prior body of work, then it is unlikely to dissuade you from this one, because though I nitpick, it's not like they're awful. The lyrics are acceptable, occasionally lame when they deviate from the horror/death metal tropes (like the self-referential stuff in the title track...'the blood of the insane boils in our veins'?...hardly), but I found the sheer songwriting and riff selection good enough here that I've gotten about a half-dozen listens through it, and will probably get just as many more, though it's not on the level of something like Vector's Black Future which burned itself into my imagination and has hung out there since. That said, Revocation are barking up a similar tree, unafraid to incorporate modern influences and that sense of melody and balance that a lot of their more brutal counterparts shy away from. And it's at least nice, that when you peel away those layers of paint, you know Davidson and Dubois-Coyne retain loyalty to that Golden Age of ideas and execution that so many other bands have either abandoned, or remain painfully unschooled in.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (witness the decibel ritual)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Obituary - Inked in Blood (2014)

I'm not going to delve too deeply into the controversy and politics behind the creation of this record. Yes, Obituary crowd funded the recording of this and then put it out on a label anyway. Yes, it seems awfully shady that they'd need or want to crowd fund an album in the first's not like some label was going to 'stifle' their creative process...they're fucking Obituary. They might place an ill-advised death/groove metal rap track as a joke on one of their outings, but they're not going to be corralled into sounding like One Direction. If you've signed this band, then you pretty much know what you're getting; and as I have discovered through the actual musical content of Inked in Blood, what you are getting is more of the exact same riffs, grooves and vocal meters that the band has been largely rehashing since their first two, genuine classic albums Slowly We Rot and Cause of Death.

There is absolutely nothing on this new 'comeback' which seems even a fraction out of place, but that's exactly the problem with it: no fucking ambition whatsoever, and that's a tactic that painfully few bands ever pull off or should even be allowed to pull off. Where once this style of dirty, fuzzy, grotesque Floridian death metal reigned supreme for its unabashed primacy and vocal murder, it now seems just so redundant, a tactic playbook of stock rhythm guitars which are ultimately really dry and ineffectual. That's not to fault the production values here...the bass is roiling and loud, the guitars are like having your guts twisted into batter, the drums have a nice, flexible feel somewhere between the acoustic and augmented, and John Tardy can still sound like he's vomiting blood into a microphone, but all of the patterns here have already been mastered by the band long ago, were much catchier back then (tunes like "Body Bag" and "Memories Remain" are still far more memorable than any track on this...), and they don't really add anything new apart from maybe an occasional pair of harmonized chords breaking into or out of a verse or lead ("Visions in My Head", "Violent by Nature"), or a bit of Southern haze over a doomy riff, an ingredient that was likely drafted over from the Tardy Brothers project.

Now, Inked in Blood isn't entirely shit...for those who simply wanted more of the same that they've been getting for decades, but it stuns me that nothing here is even as striking as two of their most catering, accessible 90s tunes like the super-groovy "Don't Care" or the hardcore surge "Threatening Skies". A lot of this is that when it comes to the rhythm guitars, they stick to the same dull chord progressions instead of trying to put together something out of left field, something more evil and sinister. The band has long subsisted on Tardy's gruesome vocals, but the issue there is that they have not felt threatening or compelling themselves in quite some time. Tunes like "Back on Top" and "Visions in My Head" are so banal in the guitar department that they seem as if they took mere seconds to write...most groups could improv this entire album without any difficulty, just take a few of those old Hellhammer groove motifs and render them as unappealing as possible. As a result, Inked in Blood is beyond lazy, too invested in repeating itself of giving 'the fans what they want' which is rarely a good thing if that's the same audience which thought the last album was good.

I feel like in some alternate universe there might have been/still be an Obituary which built upon the morbidity and menace of the first two albums and progressed that into something really creepy, but this band went the opposite direction, trading in the cemetery spade for a pair of gym shoes. The album has no atmosphere, no creativity, no strong writing, not even a fucking song title stands out. If they'd throw some weirder guitars, some dissonance, some vocal effects, anything to vary this up a little it could go a long way towards building upon the band's legacy rather than becoming suffocated by it. Inked in Blood can't necessarily be accused of being terrible, because it's twice the album Frozen in Time was (not saying much). But it's just not enough for a band that has so long enjoyed its status as a death metal legend, and if I'm being honest...there hasn't been 'enough' since I was a teenager. Fun live band, but their studio output is almost perpetually lacking.

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Walpurgis Night - Under the Moonlight (2011)

Under the Moonlight gets a few things very right, and a few things seriously wrong in the way a lot of Mediterranean region heavy and power metal bands traditionally have...but probably the biggest affront to my expectations was that the record looked like it was going to be some campy horror heavy metal deal and turned out to be a mash up of Euro-power metal tropes more aligned to the Helloween branch of colorful but not necessarily seasonal sounding school of thought. I was highly enamored with that style in the mid 80s, and still listen to the Keepers discs consistently, but I don't really gel so much with it anymore. Walpurgis Night are not even in the same ballpark as songwriters, so that probably gives you a pretty good hint of how much value I took away from this, though I shouldn't write it off as having no redeeming values whatsoever.

At its best, this is energetic, flavorful heavy metal glazed with loads of melodies and a rich guitar tone...though it does feel somewhat more 'processed' than usual, especially when it comes to the flurries of lead guitars. Don't get me wrong, a lot of effort seems to have been spent on the solos that they fashion together memorable, emotionally effective strings of notes, but they often blaze in and totally steal control away from the rhythm component. Sometimes the rhythm guitars will carve out a meaner sounding, 'street metal' progression as in "Laser Smash" which almost takes on an aspect of thrash-lite, but it does direly lack an effective 'edge' to pull off that brash cruelty; or total old school hard rock ala "Nightrider". A lot of the riffs and melodies also bear a striking resemblance to the earlier works of a band like Labyrinth or Eldritch, only lacking a lot of that prog/power polish and just not as interesting or memorable. They will also inevitably be compared to another Italian group, Trick or Treat, with a similar level of tongue in cheek lyrics, and for touting the sort of cheesy Halloween/horror imagery when the actual musical aesthetics don't pan it out beyond the most superficial connections.

Some credit should be given in that about half the tunes on this records have guitar patterns that at least strive to be creative, even if they don't ultimately succeed; in particular I'd point out tunes like "Castle Ghoul" and "The Assassin" which at times reminded me of Scanner's sophomore Terminal Earth, lighter and flightier heavy/power which has some genuinely catchy parts. The drums are decent, the bass doesn't cultivate much of a presence for itself, but if I've got one real gripe with this record, it's the vocalist. He's well capable of hitting pitch and harmonizing, he has some range, and there are moments of pure feel-good soaring Euro-power escapism, but his normal range verse tone seems to reveal a little too much accent, and a little too sloppy and disjointed what with all the backup lines being hurled around by the guitarist. In the end, the guy's just not that powerful or distinct, nor does it generate a lot of personality through its flaws. I'm not saying front men like Fabio Leone or Rob Tyrant are incredibly original, but they were pretty pro and this might seem a little too blue collar at times, a little half-assed compared to some of the music.

But, hey, if you really into those Underground Symphony years when an entire scene of this Italian stuff was booming in import record shops, I doubt they'd prove too great an obstacle; like I said, they do hit moments where they come together with the guitar melodies and transcend their limitations. Overall, though, such inconsistencies sort of strangle Under the Moonlight, robbing its better ideas of breath, and filing it into that dusty drawer of Italian heavy metal records few people will ever want to listen through. The lyrics are also really weak...I was hoping for creepier paeans to cult monster movies and stories, but these are average at best and cover a pretty broad net of subjects. If you look at the cover and expect some campy romp through the graveyard, it really isn't. A shame. They've got another record the following year which I have not heard, so I can't really comment if they improved, but the cover art is abysmal, even worse than on this one (which is charming in a juvenile way), so it doesn't exactly bode well for its content. Anyway, unless you practice the fetishization of a lot of the lesser tier Italian, Spanish and Portuguese heavy metal of the 21st century, I wouldn't bother.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] (I don't want to see what's behind the dark)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hessian - Bachelor of Black Arts (2014)

Had history gone a little differently, and the NWOBHM of the late 70s/early 80s was actually the New Wave of New England Heavy Metal, Hessian might have been one of the forerunner bands. A four piece Maine outfit, fully cognizant of the pure nostalgia they channel, stitching together elements of Diamond Head, Angel Witch, Thin Lizzy, Budgie, Rainbow, and Sabbath, with what is damn likely my favorite local record of 2014, at least that I've heard so far. Bachelor of Black Arts has struck on the StormSpell imprint kind of like a lightning bolt striking an airbrushed van, pimped out in scenes of psychedelic sorcery, diabolic congress, trafficking with the dead and the damned by candlelight. Raw heavy metal that evokes the scent of old denim, gasoline and cigarettes, the crush of old 70s concert billets underfoot and the urge to throw horns like horseshoes. This record feels so real that I was shocked the band members weren't at least in their 50s...

What's more, Hessian have the novelty of utilizing a male/female vocalist/guitarist duo who do their best to surpass their own limitations by laying those flaws bare, grafting together suave harmonies and rustic sincerity. They also don't shy away with a little 'narrative', like screams or gloomier male whispers that shadow Salli Wason's lines. The guitars cruise along with lo-fi, slightly filthed out rhythms in that old British tradition, primitive melodies glazing the shuffle and charge of classic, grainy radio rock riff progressions which shift seamlessly into leads; minimal enough that the vocals take charge and so noisy in execution that the album constantly feels like a rehearsal taping with little regard to polish or overproduction. The drums have that live hiss to the crashes, and box-like kicks and snares which sound like the kit cost $100 from a mail-in catalog in the 60s. You think I'm saying that like it's an insult but believe me: totally the opposite. The bass-lines bounce along haphazardly, following the general note placements of the guitars but curving off enough on their own to feel like they're not falling asleep at the wheel.

Every once in awhile Hessian will rattle out some really generic chord progression that has simply been played out so many times that it could have been cooked a little further, and that's a value issue, since it reeks of a lapse into laziness; but in general I think that, for a band so intent on touching its roots, and yours, they do a damn fine job of coming off as imaginative, and not just another soulless clone of the specter of the past. Like they want to take this style and really open it up, run with it, lace it with variation, color and spunk, which goes really nicely with lyrics rooted in fantasy, mysticism and cult horror. The acoustic folk/rock sequences are very well integrated amidst the dirty, thundering riffs to give the music a bit of a Coven feel, only they extend this outward into a more malign aesthetic than coming across like a troupe of hippy Mansonites that want to shoot acid while they shoot your live-ins with, these are necromancers weaving a far more prolonged, tragic fate from you from their obsidian towers, and while Bachelor of Black Arts isn't quite a masterpiece of a debut, it's nonetheless magical. Saving throw failed, mother fuckers, this one got me good.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Friday, October 17, 2014

Mercyful Fate - Dead Again (1998)

Much as The Graveyard proved the nadir to all those things King Diamond, an uninspired and pitifully bland paragon of career exhaustion, so too does Dead Again prove for the King's off and on alma mater Mercyful Fate. Now, to be clear, this is nowhere near as bad as The Graveyard, an album I have actually had physical altercations with, broken up only when the authorities arrived and took us both away in handcuffs. Dead Again does have a handful of choice moments, scattered throughout the track list, but even those sometimes sound like partial retreads of ideas the guitarists had pretty much perfected in the past. The best I could say for this work as a whole is that it's a competent, high 'average', but it marked a clear declination in the quality of the Danes' musical ideas, part of which I'd attribute to the front man having been so busy for just so long, kicking ass I might add. In the Shadows was a superb comeback, Time was still quite memorable, Into the Unknown solid, and then whoosh...the steam ran out (thankfully not for the followup to this).

The riffing progressions were still distinctly Shermann/Wead, with a huge emphasis on groovier patterns as heard in cuts like "Torture (1629)", "The Night" and "Crossroads". Personally I found the guitar tone and production of Dead Again in general to be solid, a little on the dry side but fully evocative of those moonlit, classy horror aesthetics that the King had always invested himself into with both bands. The producer here was involved with In the Shadows, and King did a lot of the mixing himself, so it's not a coincidence that this is thematically and atmospherically a spiritual successor to the 1993 reunion epic, with a lot of those grooves that just storm in and cut out against the lighter material ("Since Forever", etc). The problem for me is just that the songs lack the extra, intangible 'something' which made for such a hot streak from the time Don't Break the Oath had arrived all the way to efforts like Time and The Spider's Lullabye. It's not an ineffably lazy round of tunes like one will find on the painfully sterile Graveyard, which had a mix like a Tupperware party in Prude county, but for whatever reason the songs just don't connect with me quite like most of the albums that were released before it.

Sharlee D'Angelo's performance here is solid in tone but rather forgettable, I often feel like a few more interesting grooves in his own playing might have supplemented the rhythm guitars with the 'edge' I needed to carve them into my memory. The leads are in general pretty bleak, you can perceive all the shredding and technique the guys are capable of meting out, but emotionally the breaks all seem rather phoned in and fit to order the song structures rather than the phantoms and haunts which underscore many of the lyrical themes. The drums sound good, mostly laying out standard hard rock rhythms since a lot of the material is fairly mid-level on the energy and momentum scales. As for Diamond himself, he gives the usual versatile performance, but doesn't seem to imbue a lot of the individual lines and stories with the same level of personality you'd remember from Melissa, or Don't Break the Oath, or even Fatal Portrait. On a technical level, most elements that went into this recording don't sound out of place or digressive from the three full-lengths before it, but once you get beneath the surface it just seems a bit hollow...

Even on the ambitious 14-minute title track, which is a jumbled mesh of mundane progressive rock swells, corny narratives and a few seconds of the most inspired and excellent harmonies to be found here. Others, like "Fear" start off really ripe and then grow progressively less compelling, while a tune like "The Lady Who Cries" is rather a dud that I struggle to remember at all. What I find most curious is that I find King Diamond at its heights and lows to be better and worse than Mercyful Fate. Abigail and The Eye just marginally surpass Don't Breath the Oath in my estimation, though I realize that's not the Officially Approved Opinion™; but on the other hand, records like Give Me Your Soul... and the dreaded Graveyard aren't fit to spit-shine Dead Again's inverted crucifix. So, as gloomy as I might have made my position seem in the opening paragraph, it's a testament to this band, that even the album I'm least likely to appreciate in their catalog, still isn't entirely a drag. In fact, this would make a pretty solid 4-5 track EP if all the better licks and vocal hooks were abridged. But it remains In the Shadows' less attractive younger sister, safe to propose to if you blew it when you were dating the original, but in the back of your mind, you'll always be wondering where that might have led if you just weren't such an asshole... And, yeah, I realize 'sister' is probably a bad choice of words when discussing the Mercyful/Diamond canon.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (I'm drifting still)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Morgul - Parody of the Mass (1998)

It doesn't look like much, with the stark contrasts of the red logo and lame album title font against the gray castle tower backdrop, but Parody of the Mass left me with a decent impression at the time, a solid (if less attractive) advancement in production quality over Lost in Shadows Grey, which takes on a more decidedly 'spooky hue' with Charmock a.k.a. Jack D. Ripper's more involved vocal efforts and the better placement of keyboards that conjure up nostalgia for 80s horror soundtracks, sad patterns of repetition that seem quite flush with a serial killer stalking by the moonlight, or a spectral apparition. In fact, this is just a solid 'haunted castle' black metal record if there ever were one, not as amazing as the first Tartaros EP but it's one I know I can rely on from time to time, especially in the autumn season, because I have a fetish for a lot of this later 90s symphonic black metal.

Parody of the Mass is not so thematic or atmospheric as its successors The Horror Grandeur or Sketch of Supposed Murder, in which Jack was bringing forth industrial/electronic influences more to the fore, but this does at least show some traces of that. The black metal performed here doesn't often take on the tremolo picked, traditional face so much as it involves a lot of slower chugging patterns with the 'orchestration' carrying the melody, but he'll also lay out these big unexpected grooves and squeals ("Healing the Blind") and break down into these impish 'horror' sequences where the metal drops out, and the drums will press on with vocal modulated narration that is simultaneously cheesy and endearing, so bad its so good and so forth. But there are more tranquil moments of escapism, like the piano/string instrumental "Torn" or the sweeping finale "The End" where the keys feel a lot more like an actual symphony, and it actually inspires some raw emotion. Otherwise, from a production perspective this all sounds tight...the bass is audible, the drums beats are fulfilling if unimaginative, and Jack's nasty rasp was definitely first class among his Norse peers Ihsahn, Satyr and Nattefrost in the 90s.

If you loathe the heavily keyboard-infused black metal, this won't prove an exception, because this was never a band drifting in favor of the Darkthrone/old Burzum style, rather floating away. I've long thought of this band's progression as a sort of aural analog to how horror movies evolved in the 90s and 2000s, the genre oversaturated with a lot of bad CGI ghosts and kill scenes and this guy was also sort of embracing the technology towards his own compositional evolution. But I like Morgul a lot more than most of that shit, and this was the birth of the transformation. My few tangible issues with the songs here are that, 1) several of the riffing sequences are too repetitious for too long, and 2) the guitars here only rarely spike off into a harmony or interesting note progression, too often settling as a pure rhythmic countermeasure to the symphonics, which is kind of boring regardless of who the artist is. Beyond that, this is a good album, Mikael Hedlund (Hypocrisy) and Terje Refsnes did a good job assembling it and if you're actually into bands like Crest of Darkness, Gloomy Grim, old Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir then it's worth an 'approach', even if you don't end up buying it a drink or taking it home for an evening of passionate faux-Goth lovemaking.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Monday, October 13, 2014

Exhumed - Gore Metal (1998)

I've mentioned before that I really like having some 'continuity' for metal niches that I really enjoyed during their original incarnation. Very often a groundbreaking, legendary band arrives and departs from a choice sound within the span of as little as a single album, and in some of those cases I feel like it just wasn't explored to its fullest. That's not to imply that soulless knockoff bands should get a free pass when they can't apply even an iota of personality or raw conviction to their chosen nostalgia trip, but there are certainly scores of bands who cultivate a more genuine obsession. As far as England's seminal Carcass, their rapid musical evolution across albums left some of the 'possibility' of their earlier work in the dust, and as much as I love discs like Necroticism and (especially) Heartwork, I was quite relieved when a handful of Californian acts decided to pick up the torch from where Symphonies of Sickness left off and further carve out that specific aesthetic into something immortally volatile, grotesquely fun.

Exhumed first came onto my radar with the Relapse debut Gore Metal, although they had already been butchering cadavers for nearly a decade prior to that, manifesting right about the time that British classics like Symphonies of Sickness, Realm of Chaos and From Enslavement to Obliteration were starting to make ripples across the pond. So it's not too much of a stretch that this early grind sound plays so prominently into their development. Yet Matt Harvey, Ross Sewage and company imbued this with a healthy helping of carnal thrash, Floridian morbidity (in particular from the Scream Bloody Gore/Leprosy era of Death) and a lot more structure than progenitor efforts like Scum and Reek of Putrefaction would ever be accused of. Carcass is what I hear the most clearly, to be sure, with to the warring guttural and snarl vocals and flesh-churning guitar tone, but not every riff progression is some analog for those meat-hating metallurgists. Where their British forerunners had a more political theme behind their songs, citing medical journals to make the listener sick to his/her stomach, you can tell from the get-go that Exhumed were more interested in the slasher and gore genres of horror these cold, forensic lyrics, which have a similar clinical quality to them, seem more like the aftermath of a murder spree...

But the music, that better recounts the actual act, with this fat, voluptuous rhythm guitar tone which feels like someone packed Repulsion's Horrified into some delicious, fatty livestock, seasoned it with Pestilence's Consuming Impulse and then served it raw, by the slice. Regardless of whether you want to call this 'gore-grind' or 'death-grind', the songs eschew the obnoxious practice of :50 of blasting, sloppy riffs and haiku-like lazy political ravings and morph into pure metal tunes, with demented, wailing leads that fit the tireless momentum perfectly. Oh, fear not, there are loads of blast beats, but these are balanced off against the death/thrashing obtrusions of a Leprosy, squirming entrail Symphonies of Sickness grooves, and King/Hanneman frenzies which abandon all home of coherent melodic components to reward the listener a more fresh perspective on 'the kill', the undiluted chaos of pure violence. Col Jones keeps the time with loads of fills ricocheting around the mix, and a solid tone to the kicks, toms and snare which don't mirror the more processed sounding drums of the brutal tech death movement that was in full swing by this point; and the bass guitar metes out the normal grinding fuzz, but still seems quite corpulent beneath the incendiary six-strings.

Gore Metal didn't tear my face off nearly as much as its successor, but to this day I think it's rightly a 90s 'classic' in the field which doesn't seem to age fact I enjoy the album more than I did when initially exposed to it, and would easily recommend it to anyone who just wants some kinetic mayhem emanating through the speakers. Again, it's not exactly a repackaged Carcass, they've managed that themselves with Surgical Steel...but if you were seeking out a 'mirror universe' of that band who let themselves loosen up and have fun, this was the album that quenched the urge long before retro death became this overcrowded norm. A well-fed upgrade to a wealth of classic grind, tearing its way across the States and beyond, while General Surgery was simultaneously flavoring the same inspiration with their native Swedish crust overseas. This disc definitely scored the first few goals for bringing this sound back around, before being joined by wingmen like Impaled, Ghoul and Frightmare a little further into the game. Well worth owning this grisly, controlled charcuterie.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (a condition impossible to correct)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Crypticus - The Barrens (2013)

I've yet to be displeased with anything Patrick Bruss has released under the Crypticus brand, and The Barrens has not proven an exception to that fact. It doesn't quite hit me as directly in both the gut and funny bone as the sophomore They Called Me Mad!, but I think this is easily the most matured material he has put together, channeling old Swedish and Floridian influences into a broader palette of riffing progressions and idyllic horror atmospheres than your garden variety Dismember wanna-be. The album looks great, with that Lovecraftian, cartoon-like figure interposed against what looks to be an undead sun, and really the whole thing breathes...or rather 'reeks' of enthusiasm for the campy and classic horror tales to which Bruss is paying homage, while sort of transcribing them into his own mythology of monsters, black magic and mad scientists. Hell, I even read "Late Night Horror Queen" as a ravenous tribute to Maila Nurmi (Vampira) or Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), which is kind of fucking awesome.

Rhythm guitars definitely swerve slightly into Swedish territory, which is nothing new here, but the difference is how he constructs the riffs themselves, which take on an often more thrashy aesthetic more directly reminiscent of a median between Slayer and Carcass. Pair this up with Patrick's gruesome gutturals, which often sound like a rent in the time continuum from which some vast, otherworldly eyeball is staring forth, and then sprinkle loads of simple but effective melodies, both airy and tremolo-picked above the death/thrashing vortex below and you've come up with a fairly close approximation to how this album sounds. Like esteemed labelmates Ghoul, the 'fun factor' doesn't really ever leave the picture...but that's not to say he isn't spitting out some serious lyrics or writing music that favorable evokes death metal's underpinnings of terror and helplessness, he is just more apt to conjure up mental visions of Hammer Horror flicks, or black/white classics, rather than the edgy and uncomfortable torture porn which serves as much of modern horror. And I like that, that sort of passionate but lighthearted spin on the medium which Razorback has long exemplified, because when you're staring too long into the abyss, it's good to break for a beer and a laugh.

The Barrens seems a little more morose a title than the album sounds, but it's still plenty dark, a midnight matinee delivered with loads of themes and samples. The strength of the music does vary, with the occasional outbreak of some boring d-beat driven riff or a chord sequence that doesn't really go anywhere, but even within the limited subset of styles in which Crypticus experiments, he does manage to achieve some degree of variation, and though the music is never 'complex', he does seem to invest a lot of shifting time signatures and structures into even the shorter pieces. I will say that I did not always love the drum tone on this one, it feels a little too loud and mechanical, in particular the lower end of the kit, which sort of contrasts against the more atmospheric combinations of the grinding rhythm guitar, ugly growls, and lead harmonies and melodies. But when this record totally comes together, like the beginning of "Ceremonial Surgery" or the old Entombed-like groove that opens up "Misanthropy Mine", I am reminded of why this is an act that will still take me some time to grow tired of. Not his best album, but definitely consistent.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]