Sunday, July 27, 2014

Judas Priest - Redeemer of Souls (2014)

I'll start off with the verdict for once: it could have been worse.

That is not to say Redeemer of Souls ranks on any meter as the sort of career redemption the UK vets implied through their choice of titles, but had they produced what amounted to another overblown waste of time like Nostradamas, my faith in the metal gods would have become incredibly difficult to defend. No, this is essentially a sort of pseudo career retrospective wedged into a supposed swan song, of which the worst crime is that compared to any of Priest's classic run ('74-'90) it feels clunky, retread, uneven, and certainly lazy in enough places that you wish they would have spent a lot more time putting it together...even though it feels like they already spent aeons. But I have to be honest...this is a band I've listened to now for 35 years, and for 2/3rds of that time they have not had much wind in their sails beyond touring, keeping their brand out there, trying out another front man, failing, reuniting with Rob, pressing on, losing K.K. Downing...effort was put into this band on most fronts, but just not in the studio. There was almost no possibility this was going to be good, so I'm simply content that it doesn't suck.

As the cover hints, and many reviews I've seen would have us believe, this appears at first like a call back to the Painkiller years, which is only partially true. The album front loads an inconsequential '88-'90 rager in "Dragonaut" which features some of the most tepid riffing on the whole of the disc, and then follows that up with the title track, which is nothing more than a paraphrasing of "Hell Patrol" only nowhere near as timeless. But once you go in and break down the rest, there is quite a lot of representation here for both their groovier hard rock roots and more heavily conceptual 70s material. In fact I'd say that, from a distance, the album seems to be about 50% what they were doing with its predecessor, symphonic Painkiller-lite, albeit with less orchestration involved, and then 50% waxing nostalgic for the era in which they were a dominant radio force in hard rock and heavy metal. At the same time, nods to the Halford solo records, which represented the man's best work since 1990, are also ubiquitous here. I felt like I was listening to Halford IV numerous times, what with the ProTools-ish punch of the rhythm guitars and the heavily moderated/souped up vocal harmonies that partially hide the wear in his voice...don't get me wrong, he still tears out some fucking lines here that remind us why he is perhaps the most important vocalist in his medium, but this is not "The Ripper" or "Victim of Changes"....

Rob is dealing with the inevitability of time, but most people would pass on both their testicles to science in order to sound like this beloved man at the age of 62. Elsewhere, the band sounds on/off in equal measure, phoning in a slew of saccharine rhythm guitar patterns which dive into basically the lion's share of NWOBHM which the band predated and subsequently outlasted, especially a couple licks that recalled vintage Maiden in addition to their own substantial canon. They can snare us a little more consistently with a bluesier hard rock groove more so than a recycled proto-power metal lick, and the leads are fluent and flashy enough to distract the ear from the relative mediocrity of what is typically happening before, beneath and after them, but whether it's due to the newcomer Richie Faulkner or the lack of Downing, I can't really say. If K.K. were performing these very same songs I don't think the results would fare much better. Elsewhere yet, Scott Travis shows up for a paycheck: the guy can play, but he's only ever as good as the music he's providing the skeleton for, and while you can 'notice' Ian Hill following along the root notes, well grounded as usual, he has just never had a presence with this band that could earn him a place among the ranks of essential bassists. I mean I know it's not how Judas Priest writes, but I'd just love it if for once in 44 years he could just let loose, let us know what he's been hiding all those decades...

Structurally, the album starts off with the aforementioned, skippable harder/faster tunes and then actually picks up in quality with "Halls of Valhalla" (decent power metal, superior to anything of Nostradamas) and the mid-paced, driving "Sword of Damocles", in which only a few of the vocal lines really feel exceedingly familiar, but it has a nice swagger, as does "Marched of the Damned", which functions largely because of Halford's vocals and a nice chorus riff. "Down in Flames" starts off pretty strong too with a nice melody cut into the intro lick, but that song is actually where this brief flurry of 'decent' material kind of drops off, and never recovers, with an unbroken sequence of the worst songs on the disc, like the cheesy Painkiller-era wannabes "Metalizer" and "Battle Cry", or the bluesy, generic "Crossfire". In short, there is about an EP here of material worth saving for a B-sides compilation, but it's really just not good enough for Priest. In a few weeks, who will care about any of this? They might suffer you a few of the tunes live, but you know you'll be pining for the 50 or so brilliant songs they wrote so long ago.

For a group so bloody consistent through the first third of its career, one would really hope they could reach somewhere deep within their imaginations and produce an epitaph worth remembering, but I fear that's too much of a Hollywood storyline to apply to reality. Redeemer of Souls is more or less this year's version of Black Sabbath's 13, symptomatic of a band which still recognizes what made it so special in the first place, but cannot achieve that level of songwriting because it has run short of riffs that feel even tangentially compelling when compared to the impressive legacy they stamped on heavy metal a lifetime ago. At the same time, it's not complete trash...a few of the ideas are not half-assed, if not exemplary either, and there are about 15-20 minutes of pleasant Priest to sift through.  It's better than the two Owens-era records, and certainly Nostradamas, but slightly less solid than Angel of Retribution. It's just not a high note to go out with...and considering Rob can still hit some high notes, I'll hold on some sliver of hope. That gibbering late 70s/80s fanatic child within me wants to hear a record he loves by this band again, and not by Halford or Primal Fear or any other band. Kick the new guy, get K.K. Downing back and do it right. We deserve as much, and more importantly, YOU DO.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10] (he's not cutting you slack)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Force of Darkness - Absolute Verb of Chaos and Darkness EP (2014)

Anyone who somehow missed this Chilean band's eponymous debut from 2006 really ought to go back and check that one out. It's a frenetic and rifftastic slab of blackened thrash metal which draws its lineage from obvious but immortal sources like Bathory, but what it might lack for in originality it more than makes up for with its personality and genuine sense of nastiness. The 2nd full-length Darkness Revelation (2010) I didn't have quite as strong a reaction to, but they've now returned with a pretty relentless EP, Absolute Verb of Chaos and Darkness, which was given a vinyl release through the great Iron Pegazus Records and a CD version on Hell's Headbangers, two labels that could not be more fitting to the petulant, infernal sound these guys wring out of their instruments and imaginations.

Granted, there are a lot of really straightforward, steady blast parts here with some pretty basic and predictable tremolo picked guitars that do little more than channel the many bands that have walked this fiery path before them, but it really does have its moments, like the third track "Creations from Obscurity" with its sinister rhythm guitars and those cute little bass lines in the opening moment that set up a really strong, vicious attack, or the warlike and blinding momentum of "Abraxas Revenge" with its surges of neckbreaking thrash. The hellish vocal rasp doesn't betray the native accent nor the barking, messy influences of Quorthon, Angelripper, Mille and T.G. Warrior, and the guitars sear with an honest saturation reminiscent of earlier Teutonic thrash, only a little brighter and stronger than you'd remember from Endless Pain or Sentence of Death. Drums are lethal and fast as fuck, not exactly interesting but then they don't need to be, and the bass deserves some credit for where it occasionally perks up with a wild fill or spasm that immediately distinguishes it from the guitar, though the mix heavily favors the latter.

Force of Darkness might occasionally lapse into a one-track, black thrashing hyper-mind, but they're not above some variation, like the lurching, belligerent closer "Oceans of Black Lava", which is heavily reliant on the thundering lower end of the drum kit and some fat walls of bass guitar; or the eerie chanting and laughing over the acoustic guitars in the intro. The result is a very well rounded 20 minutes of fun while you dance amidst the shadows and flames that form the trio's creative station. It's got as excellently riffy or memorable as that last Deathhammer, or the Antichrist debut, but it's certainly got more depth to it than your average Bathory/Nifelheim knockoff, and worth a listen the next time you whip out your spikes, chains, leather, denim and inverse crucifix. But I reiterate: if you have not heard the first album, and you dig this, go back and buy that one! You can thank me later, with a big old hellthrash embrace (but no tongue, and no spikes, please).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bölzer - Soma EP (2014)

There must be quite some pressure on this Swiss duo, having raised many expectations with their previous 2013 Aura, which garnered loads of positive feedback (I am no exception) and even got them flown in for a Maryland Deathfest here in the States. With all that on their shoulders, you might expect them to buckle and break, the 'sophomore curse' take effect, not that it generally applies to the short form EP releases they seem compelled towards, but in lieu of something more substantial, it counts. Well, Soma is not as good as Aura. I'll say that up front, but with the caveat that I found the two tunes here a little uneven in their quality, with one matching the last batch of material and the other coming up slightly short.

Bölzer continues to mete out an atmospheric hybrid of black and death metal in equal proportions, the former coming through heavily in the vocals and a few of the faster riff progressions, which are often redolent of Immortal on the song "Steppes" to the point that tonally and structurally the pacing and plot of that particular cut wouldn't have seemed out of place on Sons of Northern Darkness. Now the death metal element is cut from the same cloth, some of the tremolo picked guitars definitely feel more like a morbid throwback the earlier era of that genre, and there are also numerous gutturals to support the KzR's standard rasp, but the distribution might marginally lean towards the black when you factor in the lack of much bottom end/bass to the recording (they perform as a two-piece), the lyrical themes and artwork. Either way, it's how they approach this union which makes it seem more unique and effective than most of their peers who engage in this same crossover space. The actual techniques have been stripped back to the genre's origins, but they don't approach songwriting with that same over-the-top blasting, furious war metal mentality I generally associate with black/death.

That said, I haven't really been able to get into "Steppes". I appreciate that the palm mute to tremolo Immortal-meets-Bolt Thrower riff phrases do give it that feel of a great bloodstarved host marching across that selfsame terrain, but it often too dry to stick to my ears, whereas the bulkier "Labyrinthine Graves" (almost 13 minutes long) brings in a lot more of the atmospherics and range that I loved on Aura. Pensive, thundering drums built off fills continue into a compelling, simple tremolo guitar line with an unusual depth, and they layer in a lot more of the grotesque layered growling/rasping vocals, including some good ol' Tom G. Warrior/Nocturno Culto grunts which function as a callback to that legendary countryman, and really elevate the song when accompanied by the lower chants around the 5:30 mark in the tune. Also the ambient finale to this second tune is stunning, cavernous but soothing tones resonating off the roof of some faint picking; it really tied the experience together and gave me a stronger emotional feedback than I would have expected to that point.

Stylistically, the two tunes are connected well enough, so the riffs from the first do flow naturally into the second. I simply felt as if something in the Bölzer formula was absent in the first that was then reinstated with "...Graves", and so my praise for this EP is heavier in the back, where Aura was really damn consistent throughout. This is good stuff, and I've listened to it a half dozen times, but mostly for those closing components. A larger issue with this group is that I feel like their style of writing might better lend itself to a full-length experience, 40 or 50 minutes in which the band can really thread their penchant for gradual development into some truly brilliant escapism. Here, once the goings really start to get good, it's over unless you loop back into one of the two tracks. Soma is ultimately a marginal disappointment if you go in listening for another revelation, but not the sort to give me pause as to their greater potential. Just an open/shut case of me not digging one track as much as the rest I've heard. Otherwise, it did transport me to that same nocturnal plain that they did last year.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fallujah - The Flesh Prevails (2014)

Serving as both an evolutionary leap forward for the San Franciscans, and a modern day analogue for Cynic's classic Focus, The Flesh Prevails is one of those records I sat down with expecting only a tepid reaction, but came away feeling this was the best solitary experience I've had in the technical death metal field thus far in 2014. That's not to imply that it is by any measure some straightforward, brutal exhibition of musical proficiency like a lot of Fallujah's West Coast peers, but a unique record which blends a lot of sublime New Age and jazz fusion styled guitar effects with the melodious precision and surgical incision of the aforementioned Cynic or Swedes Theory in Practice, taking it to an entirely different level. I'm also reminded a little of Lykathea Aflame's Elvenefris, not that the two discs sound much alike, but they both have that penchant for a combination of simplistic melodic, synthesized components with hostility...though where that Czech anomaly is founded more on a grind ethic, this has a more acrobatic guitar wizard feel to it, which when bound to the 80s-like ambient tones and tasteful use of ethereal female vocals, seems as ridiculous as it does refreshing.

First I must mention the drums here, which are astounding, not solely for Andrew Baird's obvious blasting ability and effortless technique, but for his willingness to flush out those fills and implement some tasty higher pitch percussion to balance off the business of the slick snare/kick patterns. It's one of those rare recordings of which I could honestly just shut off the rest of the tracks and enjoy the amount of effort and finesse put into the beats alone. But that's not to take away the rest of it, the swerving and colliding bass guitar mechanics which give it a lot of that Cynic feel, or the pinpoint rhythm guitars which shift between clinical death/thrashing patterns, hyper melodic death and the more pummeling intensity we equate with a lot of their Unique Leader peers. Certainly there is an undercurrent of post-Human Death here, much like a band such as Decrepit Birth exudes, but with that obvious added level of brutality which you would never have heard out of Chuck Schuldiner's 90s transformation. The leads are honestly one of the weaker elements to the recording, but that's saying a lot, since they're all well-constructed, technical spectacles of shred inspired by both the fusion gods of the three prior decades and the fret-lords like Steve Vai, Satriani etc who ran concurrent as a mainstream alternative to that musicians-only scene.

Where this disc really stood out for me is how it will just mete out this minimalistic sequence of melodic notes, much like Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah/Special Defects fame would do on records such as Destroy Erase Improve, and you get this unified disparity of throttling intensity and transcendent airiness. Intros to songs will often involve cleaner guitar passages that ramp up fluidly into the riffing barrages, and that great use of the female vocal, which in many situations would sound absolutely cheesy on an Enya level, but here just blends in with the magnitude and scope of what Fallujah are pursuing. Production is polished to a vorpal edge, but there's also a lot of depth due to the mix and multi-tracking which gives it a stereophonic, radiant, futuristic you are actually listening to this panning at you from a cloud-top throne, rather than through a headphone jack. The Californians were well on their way to such a sound with this album's 2011 predecessor The Harvest Wombs, but that was not so much about this sort of progressive balance as just getting the heavy correct, and while I did enjoy that to a degree this just exceeds it on so many levels...Fallujah have written something here that I'm going to spin repeatedly through this and several subsequent years at the very least, a dynamic whirlwind of calm and storm.

If I found any component of the disc to be lacking, it might be the guttural vocal performance of Alex Hoffman, which in any other band of its scene would seem perfectly adequate, but against the wealth of ideas presented through the instrumentation does come up somewhat bland. However, through the use of reverb, panning, and occasionally layering in of a Deicide-style snarl/growl combo, even he manages to embrace the shifting currents so crucial to upgrade The Flesh Prevails from a compelling technical exhibition to something with more emotional impact. The lyrics are personal and poetic, decent with the exception of the ambient/electropop lead-in piece "Alone With You", to which the words are obvious and groan inducing, but musically I didn't have much of an issue with the will appeal to people who enjoyed Yoko Kanno and Origa's collaborations on the Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex anime, for instance, which I really enjoy. But I found that those are really the only two areas in which the chinks in the armor of this record are revealed.

Ultimately, the clean vocals (female and a few faint male lines) and synthy melodies will prove an instant turnoff to that same niche audience which is likely going to (i.e. already does) hate the band for its production style, deathcore roots, and emphasis on flashy musicianship anyway, but even to those folks I want to exclaim 'we already had 35 records these last two weeks which sound like Autopsy...sweet, how about spending 42 minutes with something else for a change?' Fallujah's full-length sophomore is not perfect, but it does instill some faith in me that a band can put the pedal to the metal of proficiency and production standards while still writing something inspired and important. No, The Flesh Prevails is not for everyone. Nothing is. But it IS an exception, an exemption from the trending now, challenging and curiously accessible in one, and I have already listened the shit out of this record, with no plans to stop anytime soon.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (you're weaker now, but you're alive)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Diskord - Oscillations EP (2014)

Diskord's musical palette might not always prove as vivid and splashy as their choices in cover artwork, but they are certainly left of center when compared to the majority of the retro death metal currently trending everywhere, without lapsing into the excessive self-indulgence employed by a lot of the cutting edge tech death outfits. Their sophomore album Dystopics was an improvement over its predecessor Doomscapes in several departments, most notably the stickiness of individual, insane riffing sequences, and this new Oscillations EP out through Hellthrasher Productions tends to follow that pattern, with solid songwriting and a few clever surprises awaiting those that can wrap their heads around it.

Norway does not have an extensive history of death metal, perhaps, but they've always been a go to for unusual artists like Molested in the 90s, or Obliteration's last two full-lengths. But at the heart of Diskord's jilted and jarring aesthetics, I found a sound most comparable to 80s dystopian sci-fi thrash and speed metal bands like Canada's Voivod and DBC, only embedded into a more brutal disposition involving both traditional death metal and spurts of grindcore chords which keep the material moving forward and always on the edge of control. Curious, jazzy bass lines support a contrast of both crude and exotic patterns...the trio seems to know just when to shift between the exotic and mainline mode, and so the result here is something that might damn well appeal to fanatics of spazz-core or uncanny metalpunk just as much as those who want their death metal constructed from an unusual, musically proficient perspective. I mean, sure, I could tell you that this has a few traces of Gorguts' Obscura, Demilich's Nespithe or Carbonized's Screaming Machines, but they might necessarily be conscious decisions...

Of course, it's 2014, you can barely explore a fretboard or chord relationships without treading on some familiar ground, but at least a few bands like this are trying. More often than not, Diskord are succeeding, with enough variation and exciting riff structure that I must have spun this a half dozen times before even thinking about typing a key. Zany without going too far overboard that the listener cannot readily digest the material through his/her ears, I enjoyed a lot of the band's breakpoints and 'calmer moments' which would inevitably explode into a carnival of punishment. Hans Ersvik's vocal lines have a strangely nihilistic bark which at times reminds me of Satyr, but at others older David Vincent and maybe even a little of van Drunen's style on Pestilence's Mallevs Maleficarvm, sans that more grotesque and clinical tone. Considering his drumming talents, this is actually something I'd really like to see pulled off live, but that's not to take away from the other two members who are even more impressive due to the warped and colliding patterns they spawn.

I did feel that the EP was slightly backloaded with its better material, the closing trio of "Elystrous Oscillations", "Symbiotic Whims" and "A Downward Spire" some of my favorite tunes the group has released to date, but it's all equally impressive for anyone who enjoyed Dystopics. I also would point out how they imbue this all with a very natural production; unlike the more brickwalled tech death bands invested in studio modernity, these guys sound like it all sprung straight from a jam room and was put to tape and dusted off with some post-work. I think it's that feel which will allow for a lot of more traditional death metal types to become interested in their sound rather than intimidated or outright opposed to what they're creating. But as someone who enjoys both extremes in the genre, I found this a great balance of components that aren't entirely unique independent of one another, but once combines give the Norwegians some desperately needed personality among a field of more overt impersonators that no one will give a shit about next year.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Necros Christos - Nine Graves EP (2014)

My response to Germany's Necros Christos thus far is that they rank among the more ambitious of the old school death metal throwbacks in how they incorporate loads of instrumental, ethnic vignettes as a counterbalance to the metal elements, and also have quite the eye for packaging that is no doubt responsible for a lot of hype that surrounds them. Unfortunately, I just haven't found the band's music to really live up to repeated scrutiny, being that the riff selection left a lot to be desired. Both Triune Impurity Rites and Doom of the Occult were decent albums, don't get me wrong, but I rarely found myself breaking them out to re-listen after the several mandated review spins.

So I was a little surprised when I came across "Black Bone Crucifix", because it seems like the group had examined itself and decided to get a little more in depth and charismatic with the rhythm guitars, as they weave between both occult death metal nostalgia and crawling, funereal death/doom. The riffs in this thing are both laid back and genuinely evil, the lead placement invigorating, and though they don't play with a level of extremity or saturated, obese gutturals or cavernous rhythm guitar tone that a lot of folks probably expect of that Autopsy/Incantation niche, the drums keep delightfully busy enough to give the riffs a sprightliness that amazingly does not betray their diabolism. Fuzzy and direct tremolo picked riffs give way to the slower sequences where atmospherics like organs or bells are sparingly implemented, while the solo harmonies always stick way out like patterns of candles being lit around the circumference of an ancient summoning. Vocals have a straightforward bark with a modicum of reverb, but their nihilistic tendencies weave well into the gloomy environment created by the guitars and drums. It's not like it didn't work before, it just works better this time...

As for the acoustic guitars/percussion that represent a lot of the 'temple' interludes, some purists will scoff at their presence, but I find they really place Necros Christos into their chosen context: that of the brooding, black world antiquity as seen through the lens of an early 90s death metal band. As brief as most of these are, they still seem like they required a little bit of work that they'd be catchy enough to maintain the listener's curiosity, and frankly I've always thought this was one of their more standout characteristics. But it's the meat of the matter, the death metal component, which has on this EP improved steadily, if not dramatically. The style is not much different than Doom of the Occult, it's just that note placement on cuts like "Black Bone Crucifix", "Baptized by the Black Urine of the Deceased" and "Nine Graves" itself which keeps me coming back. Quite enjoyed this.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cardinal's Folly - Our Cult Continues! (2014)

This was actually my first brush with Cardinal's Folly of Finland, despite it not being their first record, so I was immediately drawn in by the opening track "Chant of Shadows", this creepy atmospheric piece which lives up to its title...occult samples, gloomy multi- tracked vocals, droned out guitar feedback and thudding bass that was used like a percussive bottom end for the remainder. Sadly, once the next tune "Morbid Glory" broke out, it became evident that the intro was going to be an exception and not the rule, but even then the Finns have a slightly unusual approach to the doom medium which made for a decent, often interesting listen. The cover art definitely fired up the imagination with its more colorful approach to the ritualist orgiastic baphomety we so often associate with the tenets of Satanism in cult horror film and literature, but the music itself doesn't consistently enough cling to that aesthetic.

Our Cult Continues! is all about its massive, fuzzy guitars and louder, plodding bass grooves which both tend to dominate the recording while the wistful, everyman vocals of M. Karnstein just sort of hang in there with an accented, weird tone to them (somewhere between Yearning, My Dying Bride and Reverend Bizarre). You'll experience the simplistic, 70s-borne chord patterns so familiar in many doom and stoner rock bands traced back to Sabbath, but they also will sprinkle in some more tremolo riffing, melodic higher-pitched progressions and other elements you wouldn't necessarily expect. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed from the opening few lines, this was an occasion on which I found that the more moody and atmospheric the band became, the better the music was. Their straight out riffing patterns leave something to be desired, adequate for the style but never really standing out like the classics which inspired them. But then, when you hit a toon like "Sighisoaran" with its more soaring, sorrowful vocals and mourning guitars, or the bass-driven charge of "The Lovers Crypt", it all becomes so much more effective, and these are genuinely great songs that I kept going back to...

The album's a fraction louder and muddier than some might find comfortable in their doom, but the band isn't performing with such harrowing despair as an Electric Wizard, so instead it gives off a more garage rock vibe only if jammed out by bands like Witchfinder General or Iron Man. The vocals were real spotty for me...I realize the guy is also contributing the bass, which is an extremely important factor on this record, but when he sings it's either appropriately melancholic and melodic or just sort of laconic and sloppy sounding. Each line is a roll of the dice, really. In the end, this was one of those cases where I thought about half the album was really good ("Chant of Shadows", "The Black Baroness", "Sighisoaran" and "The Lover's Crypt") and the other half not so much, so the two sides sort of balanced one another out. But I have no question there is some promise to this band, and with only a few tweaks they'd be representing the forefront of nostalgic Finnish doom alongside neighbors like Seremonia and Reverend Bizarre. Coincidentally if you like those groups, the current wave of retro psych/occult doom, or the rosters of Rise Above and Hellhound records, then it's likely worth the hour of time to check Our Cult Continues! out.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Overkill - White Devil Armory (2014)

I had the inverse response to many Overkill fans over the course of the last two albums, finding The Electric Age more memorable and explosive than its predecessor Ironbound, which of course was the group's most viral effort since at least the earlier 90s, but I don't think there's any question that the incessant New York thrashers have found a new lease on existence this new decade which has catapulted them back to the levels of legend they deserve...and depending on whom you ask, have always maintained. White Devil Armory (which seems to me like it could be a syllable too long due to some last minute chickening out on the part of the band) is now the group's 17th full-length, and yet there is evidently no tiring of the joints or phoning in of much, just a solid, appreciably intense effort which throws a modicum of unused riffing phrases into the arena, but otherwise seems like business as usual, neither one of their strongest works nor worst by a long shot...

The deal sealer has always been the relationship between Blitz' pissed off, charismatic raving and the pulverizing guitars, and the bonds have been renewed here since these guys can still really knock out a verse/chorus structure without ever lapsing into tedium. That said, there are a lot of individual vocal lines in tunes like "Bitter Pill" which certainly recall older tunes, and I also believe more of a groove metal element akin to their 90s material. For instance, in that very same song there's a lot of low end thrash chugging redolent of early 90s Pantera, and in fact a lot of what Tailer and Linsk are playing on this particular album reminds me of Dimebag's technique, with the harder concrete grooves being supplemented with some melodic finesse, bluesier bluster and bar room attitude. That's not always a bad thing, unless you've got an eternal hate-on for the style, but those expecting the purest of thrash and speed experiences (Taking Over, Feel the Fire, etc) out of this disc might find parts of it to mirror an era of Overkill they don't really care to revisit. Only parts, I assure you, since so much of this is just uncaged bricklayer blue collar aggression reminiscent of the bigger label thrash masters of the 80s, with not only nods to their own legacy, but riff progressions akin to those found on records like Master of Puppets (listen closely to the picking through "Freedom Rings") Fabulous Disaster, etc.

On the production front, Overkill has rarely proven anything less than professional, and this one maintains that severely punchy, compacted rhythm guitar tone which goes for maximum impact in the listener's guts...effects are left to the atmospheric, melodies which almost always do their job of standing out due to the sound alone. The drums feel incredibly mechanical and clean, as if Lipnicki showed up with new cybernetic parts, but still human at the core. Loads of double kicks to help the and keep that harder relevance. This is not a band which has ever shunned the evolution of their medium...not that they've fully embraced it, but clad themselves in this or that technique to keep themselves 'current'. On the other hand, D.D. Verni's distinct plopping bass lines are fully intact, at this point on of their most recognizable characteristics alongside Ellsworth's singing. The leads did not always catch me, but it's obvious they try to, with scads of little licks in there that uphold the melodic ballast and variety of the rhythm guitars. However, the simpler melodies they'll toss onto a verse or bridge almost always give the music that extra something which pushes it up past mediocre.

Very few problems with this, and I can't really explain in much more detail why I don't like this quite as much as The Electric Age, but on the same fundamental level as Ironbound, beyond the fact that the songs just don't individually grip me as a handful did back in 2012. Rotten apples to squeezed's an Overkill record, and if you've heard anything they did in the late 80s (Under the Influence, The Years of Decay) or really, EVER, then you're not going to surprised by a single second of this fucking music. If you're one of the old guard, you can crank this on your Harley while you cruise the strip in a tank top and combat boots, and still justify to yourself why this is one of your favorite fucking bands on earth and always will be. The attitude stays the same, as does much of the songwriting. Blitz and crew have never teased us with massive upswings in progression/evolution, and they're sort of grandfathered into just living up to a standard that they set so long ago. White Devil Armory is worthy of the brand, like a reliable steakhouse that you'll always fall back on when your significant other concedes a dining choice from one of her usual, eloquent and exotic Thai, Vietnamese or Indian haunts. Take a knife and fork and dig right in. Medium bloody. Wrought with iron. Just like the last few trips.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (give 'em what they're looking for)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Empire Auriga - Ascending the Solar Throne (2014)

Much like its predecessor Auriga Dying, Ascending the Solar Throne functions far more effectively as an ambient/industrial piece than a metal one; no doubt what the Michigan duo had intended, and yet still clinging to its black metal inspiration in the use of ungodly snarled vocals and walls of heavily effected tremolo picked guitars, or raw, droning chords that take inspiration from the more suicidal, depressive black metal sources. I suppose Empire Auriga belong in the same sphere as acts like I Shalt Become or Austria's Summoning, only the thematic geography of is a long way from the former's varied-by-album concepts and the latter's Middle Earth fixation. Instead, the duo inhabits a sort of metaphysical/cosmic environment in theory, but the music felt a lot to me the ruins of burnt out, blasted industrial cities on distant world where the hostile, native environments have reclaimed the technological defiance of advanced human civilizations... Radiated memories, floating through the now-empty shells like phantoms while fields of radars still reach to neighboring worlds in hopes of a signal...anything.

Sounds pretty cool, right? If you can subordinate yourself to its sense of escapism and sense of 'background' aesthetics to a bright nightmare, then this is certainly an improvement over their debut, but it does still lack somewhat in the personality department. Walls of distorted, heavily affected guitar are used as an atmospheric cloak to the clunking, minimal sense of percussion, as opposed to the riff-centric structures we associate with most black (or other) metal acts. The vocals range from distorted black metal rasps to more wailing, edge-of-perception haunted tones that seem to blend right into the blinding, fiery ambiance of the guitars. There is no tenable bass element to the music beyond some of the deeper drums occasionally resonating off into this or that speaker, but this is not really the sort of style that would benefit from it. No, tunes like "Jubilee Warlord" and "Are You Worthy of Gold?" feel more like you've just awakened from a cryogenic sleep in a post-apocalyptic survival capsule buried on the edge of a desert, and you nearly lose your sense of sight once the airlock doors open and you behold the fiendish radiance of the sun-stroked wastes...

And then "Waste" takes the sense of foreboding even further: dissonant, raw-as-fuck filtered chords giving the impression that this nuclear wanderer is being stocked by mutant scorpions who have yet to finish proving to mankind who is the new king of the food chain. I kept thinking of the film version of Zelazny's Damnation Alley when I listened through this disc, or Fallout 3, rather than the fields of colliding asteroids and glimmering celestial bodies the band might have intended, but I guess you also do get a small whiff of interstellar radio noise being broadcast through the uncaring void. At any rate, if any of the imagery I've painted in this critique tickles your curiosity, and you'd rather have such music crafted in an uncomfortable, repulsive means rather than that of melodious warmth and harmony, then Ascending the Solar Throne is probably worth the time. It's not too heavily industrial, more reliant on the stinging static of its guitar effects than on beats, so just expect something a little more loosely defined, which leaves plenty of terror for your imagination to fill in, rather than incessantly guiding your hand through a standard pop or rock song structure. I have a feeling there is better yet to hear from this pairing, but the sophomore is undoubtedly more effective and troubling than its predecessor and consistently caustic.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, July 18, 2014

Provocator - Antikristus (2014)

Slovenia's resident cult black metal act Bleeding Fist has almost constantly reveled in the old 90s template of the medium, producing raw and simplistic aggression the likes of which pays homage to the 1st and 2nd waves with little consideration for the very existence of much beyond them. So it's no great revelation that their vocalist Hellscream's solo project Provocator remains within the same wheelhouse. He gets a chance here to perform all instruments, and has written what equates to stock bedroom black metal, saved from (or committed to) the fire solely by his distinct, charismastic vocal presence, since there are sadly not a lot of musical ideas or individual tunes here that really stand out...

Antikristus is more or less a collision between faster, blast-based raw black metal circa Mayhem, Marduk or certain Bathory records with an overt Hellhammer influence in the slower sequences, to the point where the chord choices are basically just paraphrased from Warrior's early 80s backlog. If this were merely the inspiration, and Hellscream created some more interesting riffs from the same building materials, then it could have been a lot more compelling. That's not to say he doesn't try once in a while here, like the doomy, disjointedly melodic front half of "7 Storms of Damnation", but even those potentially memorable moments cede to a rather generic mid-speed blast beat which a chord series that is all too predictable, so much that it in of itself is barely modified from other tracks on this very album! The rhythm guitar also doesn't do much to assist the situation, sort of just roiling along the crashier tones of the drum machine while another track seems to hover at the edge of the mix like hearing mosquitoes occasionally buzz into the ear. What leads exist are messy and don't really hit for maximum dissonance or impact.

Really thought it was silly to blatantly resurrect the 'let Jesus fuck you' intro scheme, seeing that Marduk had already done it some 23 years ago and to much greater effect; perhaps Hellscream was just being referential?! There is little or no bass presence to speak of throughout the album, and also I felt like individual tracks had inconsistent mixes, giving this a sort of 'demo collection' feel about it like Bleeding Fist's last compilation Death's Old Stench (which was good stuff, don't get me wrong). But what saves Antikristus from dropping below the level of passable to outright bad is that this guy just has so much fucking fun with his vocals...growling and snarling and groveling and sometimes (if not always) completely over the top. He's like a pack of wild dogs fighting for meat-scraps, a poor man's Attila Csihar who uses his natural accent to his advantage and never settles for just boring lyrical lines...not 'technically' excellent by any stretch of the imagination, but that is exactly what makes the disc so raw and sporadic and, once in a while, genuinely cruel, even if the music itself lacks the quality that could distinguish it against the many thousands of middling demos and albums created in this very style.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]