Friday, November 20, 2015
The mid range clean vocals that helped round out the previous album are returned here, with arguably even more personality, even though they're still in the minority; if you're into the similar approach taken by bands like Enslaved, Arcturus and Borknagar, you're going to feel right at home since they so seamlessly switch lanes with the snarl, not feeling forced or intrusive. There's also an increased use of more jangly, interesting guitar passages which interspersed with the metric ton of traditional, melodic tremolo picking that dominates a huge chunk of the material. In Conjuration is replete with peaks and valleys of aggression, often steering away from its black metal busyness for simpler chord patterns that are splayed out and 'felt out' over more spacious percussion. These pace changes are timed well enough across the 47 minutes that it helps a lot to ground some of the longer tunes and give them a real sense of consistency rather than growing ennui that a lot of black metal bands can suffer from due to pretentious bloat. The bass and drums here are also the best mixed yet alongside the guitars, subdued enough to allow the riffs the razor edge they so often crave.
The raw speed and technicality of the rhythm guitars is about the same level as the influences, which for me really seemed to hover in that Norse camp like Immortal or Satyricon in their primes. An emphasis is not on pure catchiness so much as a cutting finesse and lots of interesting detail that the listener can discern with future spins of the disc. Again, I don't know if it's just the pure production capabilities of the underground these days via technology, but Infera Bruo sounds as confident and sophisticated, if not more so than many European bands with 20-25 years behind them. The choices in notation are not always obvious, and steer slightly further away from accessibility than either of the earlier works. Ironically, I came away from this slightly less blown away, but we're talking a mere sliver below Desolate Unknown, and I would still struggle to come up with a New England band in this style that I enjoy more right now; Vattnet Viskar has achieved more popularity, but I'm not a big fan...this is just so much more dynamic, vicious and memorable. Good on Bindrune for picking them up, they are building quite a roster. Can't recommend it enough, and it's all here: the chops, the intensity, the artistry. Attention paid, now paying forward. Check them out.
Verdict: Win [8.25/10]
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Yes to all of that. Swelling dark ambient/ritualistic 'Segues' are placed at strategic points on the album to break up the duration of its lengthier tracks (9-13 minutes). Not merely noise, they also involve elements like eerie vocal looping or distorted voice samples. Acoustic guitars are brought out briefly, and the band will often just cede the structure and riffing to pure feedback which also ironically helps to smooth out those mammoth songs. But more vital here is the instrumentation. The bass lines often have a rough, distorted thrust to them which generates an excellent balance to the more pinpoint and polished tone of the guitars. Chord progressions, if not unanimously catchy, manage between just the right levels of dissonance and glory, and while they often occupy the same general terrain, few of them sound exactly alike, nor do they ever wear out their welcome through exhausting repetition which could turn a tune like "Ritual Within" or "Invoking Collapse" into a monotonous nightmare if mismanaged. The beats wander everywhere from the rock grooves necessary to fuel the mid paced Bathory rhythms, to the seamless blasts and double bass sequences; always pretty pronounced so that you can make out all the individual toms, snares and crashes, yet not overly loud.
Most of the vocals are dual black rasps which create a pretty effective gravitas against the energy of the drums and guitars, with loads of little flaws and deviations to keep the ears glued, and the cleans which are understated but excellent. If one were to strip out and analyze specific elements, I'm sure they wouldn't find Infera Bruo's material to be the most distinct or unique in the field, but they operate as a 'package deal', where every component of their creative process is well executed. Had Desolate Unknown been released by some second or third tier Norwegian band, they'd probably find themselves on a label like Candlelight or Indie Recordings in no time flat, that is the level of polish here. Along with Spaniards Foscor, these gentlemen seem like natural successors to the early 21st century evolutions of their Scandinavian forebears, a pretty big sandbox to play around in, and one that I am eager to see shaped further.
Verdict: Win [8.5/10]
Monday, November 16, 2015
Which is not a bad thing, because Cosmic Church more or less drowns the listener in a slew of bright, melodic chords configured into stern patterns that resonate in much the same way the earlier records of a Borknagar might, circa something like The Olden Domain. DNA is also shared with a lot of his Finnish peers, from Blood Red Fog to Sargeist, in their mutual ability to inhabit the raw savagery or roots black metal with extra layers of weeping texture and melancholic phrasing. But beyond that, I was often taken aback here by the changing up of riff patterns that kept the 30+ minutes of content compelling...from the ability to step back for a simpler, meaty melodic palm driven pattern (intro to "Vigilia II") to the myriad unexpected lead melodies that crop up where many other bands might just bore to death with incessant onslaughts of predictable chords. The album also has a swooning, swerving bass presence which doesn't always stand out but creates a robust support for the rhythm guitar, creating a depth and subliminal groove alongside their drive and desperation.
The drums are also pretty functional, though on occasion some of the double bass beats and crashes can feel either hollow or hissy where they exist on their own sub-level to the riffs. Synth sounds are very tastefully delegated to the backdrop, so you always feel like you're coming up through some dewy valley at sunrise, but they're never quite in your face or obscuring the tremolo picked guitars or clanging, semi-dissonant chords. The vocals definitely come from the raving, painful rasp tradition that bands like Burzum once kicked off, and they're not unlike what you've experienced on some of Horna's more melodic material, but they fit the rustic surges and passionate atmosphere like a glove, and Vigilia ultimately comes across as both fell and majestic in even quantities. Having had only a minimum of exposure to the earlier records, I was pretty impressed with just how easily my psyche was able to plug into this music and escape into Luxixul's universe, even if I can't understand a word of the lyrics. A reliable companion for the ranging of meadow, mountain and wood.
Verdict: Win [8/10]
Thursday, November 12, 2015
Let me clarify...this is not EXACTLY the Queensrÿche of old, at least not in terms of how the music itself is structured. There are traces of that, with a more muscular sculpt to the guitars and a recognition of the groove and hard rock influences which informed much of their material over the last few decades. Todd La Torre maintains his best Geoff Tate impersonation while simultaneously shoveling in his own higher range by the truckload. In fact, he's the shining beacon of this affair, with a number of memorable chorus hooks that rival the best that bands like Fates Warning, Ivanhoe, Angra and their peers have produced in a very long time. The music is a hybrid of their 80s style and a few more modernized, groovy prog metal elements that characterize the verse hooks in cuts like "Guardian" and "Toxic Remedy". Atmospheric dual harmonies and gleaming leads are cautiously applied where they are most useful, and there are even moody moments prog metal moments in cuts like "Arrow of Time" which hearken back to stuff like Fates Warning's Perfect Symmetry. But holding it all together is La Torre's propensity to just soar across the skyline of the rhythm guitar and capture the ear every time.
Scott Rockenfield might not seem the most technical drummer by today's standards, but he charges what might otherwise be some standard hard rock riffing with a lot of genuine momentum and energy that strips away the listener's immunity. Love his fills here even if they're nothing new, and I'd say his performance plays second fiddle only to La Torre, as much as I like the guitars. The bass lines were probably never the forte of the band, yet Jackson's tone here is just perfect for placing such a simple low end to the busier melodies constantly frothing off the imaginations of Wilton and Lundgren. But what's even more impressive is just how damn well paced this album is...it remains fairly weighted throughout, if not with the meat of the riffs than with the emotional impact of choruses in slower, more measured tunes like "Selfish Lives" and the beautiful "Bulletproof". No cheesy or weak ballads, included, even the record's softest cut "Just Us" is firm and memorable. Production is pristine, even elegant. Musicianship restrained to peak effectiveness. A few rungs below perfection, perhaps, but this is just such a joy to listen through, and for a good number of spins it was improving with each successive exposure. Pure class, and with this record, they can finally take back their seats near the head. Hell, they could teach it.
Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (welcome to a generation)
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Of course, this is not the first time that he and his former co-conspirators have gone back to the conceptual/thematic pseudo-universe of Mindcrime, since we got the abortion of a sequel already in 2006. Could The Key possibly be that bad? Surprisingly, it isn't. It's not as weak as American Soldier, either, or Tate's previous band album with the his own appropriation of the Queensrÿche name. If we were to pretend that none of the clusterfuck of recent times had ever happened, it would seem like a somewhat subdued version of the mediocrity he was churning out with his old band through most of the 90s and beyond. Progressive rock, largely, with a few of those same tendencies towards alt rock which seems no less irrelevant now than when they thought it would be cool for an album like Q2K or Hear in the Now Frontier. Bland, noncommittal, and severely lacking in the level of vocal hooks Tate and friends banked heavily on during an age when Operation: Mindcrime and Empire were such inescapable success stories. Aside from a few acceptable leads and nerdy synthesizer flights, the other musicians here have been roped into such an underwhelming set of compositions that one wonders if they're suffering from some kind of collective suspended animation. To say there is not a single lick on this album heavier than the Stone Temple Pilots is one thing, but what crushes me is that a little more speed aggression could have really rounded this thing out to a tolerable level.
Because as it stands, The Key is not actually not complete shit. Just a half-shit. A safe, sedate selection of half formed riffs and ideas that occasionally jive with the pleasure receptors of the ear when they rely on their most unusual, brief melodic phrasings or grooves. Little ventured, littler gained, weaving a conceptual narrative that nobody is honestly going to care about using voice clips, and then attempting to emotionally drive those points home. You wouldn't be able to tell these were a seasoned array of musicians, because the music is just not deserving of their best effort, nor the huge slew of guest musicians ranging from Chris Poland and K. K. Downing to Ty Tabor and Paul Bostaph. It never matters, because they all sink into these simple songs like so much boring wallpaper. The heaviest the record gets is when it grooves out a little with a slightly dreary, doomed feel as in the closer "The Fall", but even then there is a heavy reliance on the atmosphere provided by synths, so when it cuts into those threadbare chugging rhythms, the most 'prog metal' point throughout the entire experience, it is far too little and way too late.
I could forgive some of this if Geoff goddamn Tate would strain himself a little harder in the higher pitch...but he rarely ever escapes his middle range and frankly that's been the case for so long that I'd have my doubts if I hadn't seen him pull off some older material live. It seems a crying shame to have such an iconic register and then fail to use it to its fullest, but The Key is all about rainy day escapes and dramatic, predictable chord progressions that stir an almost cinematic quality, only for a really boring movie. You'll get streaks of world music and echoes of prog rock from 30 years ago, a 'maturity' that betrays any possibility for genuine excitement, but seems serviceable for background music if you've run out of Rush albums and your co-workers are exhausted with Geddy Lee anyway, so you'd spin this and nobody would pay attention whatsoever but they also wouldn't call Security. The mix is fine, and none of the tunes are truly offensive except for the broken grooves of "The Stranger", which seem like a lame callback to Geoff Tate's laughable 'streetness' on some of the prior albums. It doesn't work any better here, but this is the sorest thumb on The Key. In the end, while this record is a step up from its predecessor, it lurks just below banality, and it still seems such a long distance from mattering.
Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]
Friday, November 6, 2015
Essentially this is what might have occurred if Golden Age Death (Scream Bloody Gore, Leprosy) had been spending enough time at the gym that it could pass for vintage Suffocation (Human Waste, Effigies of the Forgotten) or the first Immolation full-length Dawn of Possession. Lots of Morbid Angel in there too, specifically Blessed and Covenant. Blazing, eerie tremolo picked guitars adorned with charging, simpler drum lines which can very easily apply the more intense techniques of blasting and ceaseless double-bass when appropriate. Add to that a lot of nice, throwback lead sequences which thrill and terrify the senses like a freshly-opened tomb, and an enormously fat bottom-feeder bass tone, and you've got a pretty wild ride for anyone who remembers that 80s-90s transition of the genre, or really, anyone who wished they did. Mike Hrubovcak churns in a vocal performance not entirely unlike what you've heard him perform with Vile or Divine Rapture, only the primacy of the material hear really lets his tear his throat open to create a more carnal, ghoulish presence that never smothers the riffing whilst it entertains. There are additionally some higher pitched barks and growls in there, which create an effect not unlike what Glen Benton would have sounded like if you split his raving personalities in two instead of layering them simultaneously.
Composition-wise, it's nothing new, and nothing all that special, but where Despondent Death thrives is in its ability to make the listener forget that fact while immersed in its undead stench. You sincerely feel like it's 1993 again. You've just spun Onward to Golgotha and Iniquitous and you're reaching for the next tape (or CD, if you were lucky) on your rack. This Hypoxia full-length might damn well have been that next tape, a 'second stringer' that would have fully satisfied your cravings even if it wasn't about to blow up the medium. Derivative, because few other death metal bands of today have any other choice, but not derivative in a derogatory or debilitative sense, because it sounds to me like a bunch of guys who experienced the tectonic shift of extremity getting back in touch with their roots without having to jerk them from the soil. Just plugging right into that morbid chronology and finding themselves again. If you were a fan of Suffocation, Immolation, Gorguts or Malevolent Creation BEFORE their respective metamorphoses into increasingly technical, brutal or unusual entities, and you ever dreamed of Dan SeaGrave skylines, or Jeffrey Coombs sticking you with a glowing syringe, then your fix is in.
Verdict: Win [7.75/10] (skeletal perceptions arise)
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
Going off the guitars alone, there is so much on offer here that you could fill a half-dozen lower tier melodeath discs circa Sweden in the late 90s or early Oughts. Vibrant, glorious melodies springing in near endless succession, often with the density of an early Insomnium. Leads are well plotted and always seem to emotionally capitalize on the sequences leading up to them, and with the exception of a few driving, predictable chord patterns across the nine tunes, I don't think there's any argument to be made that this aspect of the album wasn't the product of great effort. That being said, there was just something about the drumming, the vocals, and the mix of Forward Without Motion that turned me off immediately. The bludgeoning and splashing of the kick and snare drum seem a little too overt and distracting, so when I found my imagination glued to one of the melodies the percussion served only to sever that adhesive bond. The vocals were never really a strong point for Vehemence, since they just lack an original or broad enough guttural charisma to give a proper 'beauty and the beast' balance to those licks. Combined with the drumming, the entire package feels murky and cluttered and somehow unpolished to the level that so many albums of this style seem to thrive on.
And that might not be such a bad thing if the chemistry and effort put into the guitars didn't sound as if it deserved so much more...which they really do. Not all of the riffs are melancholic or sugary or catchy enough to really stand on their own, but they clearly expose a pair of guitarists who have their fingers on the pulse of what has always made this melodic death metal stepchild so distinct from its more visceral sire. It's just a shame that the sum of the disc doesn't come together to highlight them, since they are the beating heart of this material and its one shot at salvation. Granted, if you're an addict for more aggressive/brutal melodic death metal like Japan's Intestine Baalism, or you swear by a lot of those bands that broke in the early 21st century like TBDM or Beyond the Embrace, or you were a die hard for the first three Vehemence records, then I think you're at least going to be impressed by the painstaking effort that went into a chunk of this material. Not a bad comeback by any means. A few miles above their lackluster Helping the World to See, which was their previous swan song with Metal Blade Records, but certain components just have so much more staying power than others here, that it created an incongruous (if consistent) experience, from the production to the lyrics ("She Fucks Like She's Alive" seems somewhat out of place), that put me off.
Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
Monday, November 2, 2015
And it is an all-out assault on the senses, once the rather self-celebratory intro sample cedes to "Detritus (The One They Kept)", a blasting neck-strainer interspersed with all manner of choppy grooves to ensure maximum moshing reaction, and zipping, zagging rhythm guitar lines that help distract the ear from what is otherwise a fairly half-baked selection of chord progressions. Matt McGachy's barks, grunts and deeper gutturals might forever evade the distinction of the invertebrate before him, but he plasters the tracks with an overbearing balance that anchors the far thinner and technical timbre of the rhythm guitar, and the almost effortless strength with which Flo Mounier shifts the gears on his drum kit, bouncing and blasting with little strain over every hill, around every rotary, and hurtling over every pit stop. Coupled with the farting, bustling bass-lines of Olivier Pinard, the undertow of The Book of Suffering would seem a hectic framework upon which to paste riffs, but Christian Donaldson finds a way, his note choices rarely all that interesting, but wild and frenetic enough to not disservice the legacy of intensity that got Cryptopsy this far to begin with.
The pacing is largely out of control, a cork popping off the bottle for much of the 17 minute play length, pausing for breath only for the brief opening guitar experimentation of "The Knife, The Head and What Remains" or the ambient winding-down of "Halothane Glow". Granted, the release as a whole is short, and catering to the expectations of a mixed tech death/metalcore crowd which always valued the band for its position on the edge of the handle, flying off at various intervals, so the lack of much variation could be forgiven. Yet, for some reason, the four tracks on this just did not resonate with me anyway. The dexterity and the suffocating precision of the performance failed to muster individual riffs or lyrical lines that had me reeling for more, and in its quest for such a technically flawless, pinpoint production it almost entirely lacks staying power. As an statement of purpose, I think The Book of Suffering is quite loyal to the s/t, and the band are meting out the style of material which can keep them relevant in a niche that desperately needs a new destination. This newer lineup can play your lights out, there is no question, but I don't know that the band still leads the pack, or that they've ever done so in the nearly two decades since None So Vile.
Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]
Thursday, October 29, 2015
You'll notice immediately with the title track that this is perhaps not the most polished, professional production, but that this does not at all serve as any sort of detriment. More importantly, you'll hear that John Gallo's riffing is the polar opposite of lazy doom composition, a crutch that I readily admit I find with a lot of groups on the lower half of this niche. Melodic, inventive, never restricted to mere dime-a-dozen stoner rock chord progressions, he seems to season the material with influences from a broader spectrum of heavy/speed metal, progressive rock, and even the kitchen sink if it suits him. As a result, each of his recordings is a journey with a lot of left turns and no real discernible ending. Cuts like "Midnight Lurkers" and "Eyes in the Casket" directly channel the Cream, Iron Butterfly, and Sabbath blues/metal tradition, while others take us on a further tour through the sub-genre's evolution through Pentagram, Cirith Ungol, Trouble and Candlemass. The mix is on the murkier end of clear, with down to earth rhythm guitar tones, porky bass lines and slowly grooving drums that create a live vibe to the process. The leads and melodies always soar well above the din, making for interesting prog sequences that stand aloft from the myriad synthesizers and choirs sounds that evoke a purple, psychedelic/Gothic Limbo...
And as much as I like the 'metal' aspect of the music, it's those very organs and synthesizers that really put this over the top for me, and even provide most of the record's most memorable moments, especially where they blend with Gallo's everyman, Osbourne-like croon. They range from very solemn and simple lines to orchestral elevations (as in the depths of "Mental Disease Overture") and simultaneously conjure up Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and just about every horror score you've ever stayed up late at night with and become hypnotized by. This isn't complex, dissonant, or even highly experimental stuff, it just has a very hazy, theatrical vibe to it which makes you want to spin it over and over. The cover of Goblin's Suspiria theme is a nice touch, and while it seems an obvious choice, Blizaro screws with it just enough that it becomes more of a seamless component of City of the Living Nightmare itself rather than a superficial grab for credibility. At just over 60 minutes, this really wraps up into an experience I'd recommend to anyone who enjoys any comparison I've made throughout the review, and then I'd extend that to the Strange Doorways compilation (2013) or the John Gallow debut Violet Dreams (2014) which are this good and better. Vivid, morbid, flavorful, freaky, and fun. Third eyes open at all times.
Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]
Monday, October 26, 2015
This is essentially a brand of melodic, melancholic death metal with simple chord patterns that are infused with cleaner licks, pianos, and other means to conjure up a more emotional response from the listener, and it works really damn well as long as you're not just jonesing to chew out the band for simplifying its sound a few steps below its predecessors. I've seen descriptions of this as 'indie rock' with growled vocals, and I'm not sure there's much merit to that statement, but certainly the songs take a shift towards the dramatic minimalism of pure heavy metal or hard rock and occasional chord patterns wouldn't be out of place on a driving, melodic punk record. The difference is of course that the little leads ("Melancholia") and the snarled vocal anchors it into a shadier terrain which really holds the attention if you're tracking down something which is catchy and relistenable, reminding me of what I liked a lot about an album like Sentenced's magnificent Amok or a bunch of other Finnish bands whose balance of aggression and melody was derived from the Amorphis sophomore.
Rhythm guitar patterns are quite simple in structure, but the chords issued are quite nice in conjunction with the leads, and every song bears some form of distinction, while functioning near seamlessly on the whole. Every choice of mood and shadow seems practiced and deliberate, the tempos are fairly widespread across the track list, and Johannes Andersson's nihilistic rasp is a great contrast to the sadness espoused by the instruments. I couldn't even name a singular song on here which I'd hold above the rest, because it's all so consistently wrought over the hour-long experience, and it's an album I've come back to almost as much as anything else this year. Lyrically it's also a mesmerizing record, paying ode to the personal horrors of nightmares and other intangible unknowns, a 'ghost story' as opposed to a visceral death metal record. To that extent, Tribulation have yet another winner on their hands, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this more than the sophomore. The rare effort where the sum is the equal of its parts but any individual piece of music would be a delight taken out of the context of the entire album. Something unexpected, ethereal, but never lacking in the underpinning darkness of blacks & grays, midnight signals from haunted columns and cobbles. Aesthetically, a 'Gothic novel' of the death metal medium, its dread patient, not punishing until that very last moment when the curse or loss is recognized.
Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (So the earth and so am I)