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]

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Midnight Priest - Midnight Priest (2011)

I doubt Midnight Priest is a band that would ever shy away from the inevitable comparisons to Mercyful Fate and King Diamond, since that set of influences serves as the brick and mortar to their own sound; yet there are actually a few distinct traits which place them slightly further away from the Swedish bands like Portrait, In Solitude and Trial. The native Portuguese lyrics & vocals being the most obvious, while simultaneously throwing a barrier to those who aren't interested in music outside the English sphere. Beyond that, the vocals of 'The Priest' also tend to incorporate a more nasally mid range than 'The King' would use, sometimes reminding me of Euro power singers like Kai Hansen, at least until the falsetto shrieks or harsher, almost narrative Diamond-like barks enter the frame.

Also, the guitar riffing here is very solidly produced and, while wholly traditional heavy/power metal in construction, the primary reason I was compelled to come back to these songs repeatedly and remember to write about the album come Halloween month. This is hands down one of the better records I've heard on the StormSpell Records roster. Not to sling any mud at the Californian label, because I certainly appreciate how it helps carry the torch for this niche, but I have occasionally come across some supbar records there which seem to be more heavily interested in the inhalation of their own nostalgic fumes than in really recreating the 'magic' of 80s thrash, speed and heavy metal. As for Midnight Priest, they seem like they're right on the edge of snatching that spirit back from the ether, by combining "Abigail" meets "Them" meets "Don't Break the Oath" era eloquent lead work with some meatier, middle class charging metal thunder riffs. It's far from a masterpiece, nor would it have been in 1984-5, but it's absolutely capable of evoking some of that old escapism when it tries.

You've got the obligatory acoustic, crystalline guitar parts reminiscent of how they were treated on the later 80s King Diamond material (including The Eye), and also the haunted churchyard intro which felt like someone translating a Poe piece into atmosphere. And then you've got those sturdy, mid-paced, roiling, lightly rusted iron guitars that climb up and down the spires of mystique and horror, while 'The Priest' will occasionally throw out some dead-wringer for KD's ethereal falsetto in tunes like "Segredo de Família". Yes, the tragic bloodline theme of records like Them and Conspiracy is also present in the lyrics here, which I couldn't completely translate, but seem rather obvious on the surface. The drums have a nice splash and crash to them, and the bass is audible if not interesting, but it's truly the vocals and guitars which drive my affectations for the music, especially when they lay out some unexpected, evil groove that would have killed me dead when I was 15. And then, in tunes like "No Calor do Inferno", they show an equal propensity for knocking out straight old Helloween style raging power metal anthems, so it never really feels like a complete xerox of that old Danish aesthetic, which works in the record's favor.

Production is good and beefy, not polished to a sterile finish, with the guitars really loud to the point that they often convey a bit of graininess in the ears. Just enough reverb in place to create those crucial moonlit night atmospheres, as the mind revels in fantasies of chilling after hours in the European autumn or winter, and I think the eponymous proves that Midnight Priest had a very clear, concise vision of where they wanted this to go, the music reflecting the artwork and vice versa. This is not at all an ambitious sort of album that reveals to me that the band can go 'further' than its influences, which frankly we could use a lot more of among today's retro-flavored metal scene. But provided you're open to the Portuguese vocals, which you should be unless you're a rabid ape, this is a good, solid, 37 minutes of melodic heavy metal which pays its dues.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Monday, October 6, 2014

October 31 - Bury the Hatchet (2014)

October 31 records don't work for me because of their production values, complex riffing mechanics or innovative sounds, they work for me on sheer personality alone. To reach back into one's heavy metal influences and record collection and draw upon only the most raw, visceral fundamentals of the genre, and then remake them in your own image is a noble feat in practice, but one with only about a 50/50 sticking chance. Are you unconsciously making a mockery of this style...this culture that so many of us never took for granted, or are you doing it justice? Are you letting the world know you 'believe' in this, or are you perched beneath the eaves of irony, diving occasionally for the breadcrumbs the in-crowd might throw out for you? October 31's answer to this question has been evident from the start, and even if I was not the hugest advocate of their 1997 debut The Fire Awaits You, the full-lengths they've put out since that time have proven quite memorable...

In fact I liked Meet Thy Maker and No Survivors so much that I often wondered what more would become of the band in the near-decade since. King Fowley had done such a knockout job with the last Deceased disc (Surreal Overdose) that I wasn't sure this would ever come out of hibernation; thus was pleasantly surprised when the Gone to the Devil single came out through Hell's Headbangers last year, and the prospect of a new album on the near horizon. And it delivers. Maybe not to the extent that the last couple did, but it fits in snugly with a lot of the excellent retro metal of late, bands who have come to grips with the fact that they can't just reach back and xerox an era of sound, but can also write strong songs within those parameters which can resonate even in today's wasteland of iPad dreams, disingenuous politics and social inversion. But October 31 are not, and never have been trendy, they've been active for nearly 20 years, and kicked this off long before they thought anyone would remotely give a shit...before a lot of the retro metal-think had even become nostalgia yet. So on the one hand, this is old man metal for those who used to browse a little deeper in the used record and cassette bins than to merely hunt down Ozzy and Maiden bootlegs, for something more primal.

On the other, it's perfectly accessible, angry heavy/speed metal for just about anyone willing to overlook the fact it doesn't sound like it was recorded in a Tupperware factory. Simplistic, pounding chord progressions that we've no doubt heard before, just not necessarily with Fowley's distinctive, bitter and scowling tone casting about stories drawn from his usual alma mater: the horror genre. The rhythm guitars are neither bright nor fluttery like you'd hear in Euro power, which benefits from that sort of blinding elegance; but rather grounded and workmanlike, allowing the leads to just tear off into that semi-sporadic space which allows them plenty of wild, obnoxious gremlins breaking loose in a steel mill. Bass guitars are muddy, throbbing and distorted, sounding like a tightrope or electrical cable about to snap at any moment, while the drums lay out a pretty layman set of beats and grooves which are all you really need in this situation. Beyond that, though, there is a lot of variation here, with riffs channeled from everything from airier NWOBHM in the Maiden vein to American staples like early Armored Saint and Lääz Rockit. Fully consistent, but not at all afraid to measure off more melodic sequences against the pulse pounding roadway metal that is more likely to get the heads banging.

Album really picks up on the third song, "Down at Lover's Lane", with its excellent contrast of that tiny, eerie background guitar against the main melody of the rhythm tracks, and then that voluptuous bass in the little breakdown which sets up the verse. Other favorites include "The House Where Evil Dwells", "Growing Old" and "Arsenic on the Rocks", most of which have these glorious old Maiden melodies coursing against the grimier, bruised under-riffing. When these guys break out a groove, it always transforms the tune's landscape into some 80s battle charge, kind of like you might have felt about songs like "The Trooper" when they felt fresh. But in the end, the album doesn't succeed for me off the riff selection alone...a lot of these, in less seasoned hands, might seem trite or predictable, but it's the context of October 31 which renews them. Even their cover of Icon's "Under My Gun" (from the eponymous s/t in 1984) just explodes out of the speakers, transformed into something their own rather than just a soulless analog for the original. There have been comments that King's vocals and the harder and faster material this band writes is a little too close to Deceased, and I can understand that to a point, but really, these are mostly different guys and there's a difference to how they play. A little less complex (not that Deceased are technical to begin with), and more burly with hearts worn right on their sleeves.

Certainly, though, one band will scratch the itch for the other if you go in realizing this band services a different set of King's influences, and if you also appreciate both the heavy/speed metal traditions and the darker thrash and proto-death metal involved with the other. A good album here, with only a few tracks dragging behind the rest in quality, but overall seamless in pacing and presentation, never wearing out its welcome over 42 minutes. The songs don't often grab me as much as several off Meet Thy Maker or its successor did, but this is definitely worthy of joining the regular rotation, arrives at the perfect time of year, not only for the excellent band name but also the feelings it evokes for when I was a denim-clad teenager with a frizzy, cowlick-ridden quasi-mullet, and a stolen, skunked beer from that cabinet dad seems to have forgotten, watching campy horror flicks like The Gate or Invaders from Mars, or any number of cliche slashers, standard definition pixel paradise, on cable TV. Remember that, when you watched those channels for the movies and not the multiple-season, award winning drama series? Then this record is for you.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Lurking Corpses - Workin' for the Devil (2014)

The Lurking Corpses are one of those fondly spoken-of bands deep in the heart of the US scene that I've taken far too long in getting around to check out. Not that the results of doing so have proven all that fruitful, but these guys definitely have a party metal atmosphere about them which rescinds any real effort to take them too seriously. Which leads to an obvious question: 'If they don't, then why should you?' Frankly, I doubt they want you too...this is a band which plays campy horror death/thrash for fun, imbues it with a healthy heaping of punk, rock & roll and traditional heavy metal aesthetics and then use their lyrics as paeans to the classic horror films and stories which inspired them. 'Death' in the Nunslaughter/Deceased sense, not exactly Morbid Angel or Bolt Thrower. Band members have handles like 'Cousin Eerie', 'Friar Frightengale' and 'Lord Vladimir von Ghoul'. Really, this is fit for Halloween keggers, apple bobbing with just the hint of a razorblade...maybe being in there...somewhere. Thrash for killer clowns, or Addams Family fanatics. Better yet, The Munsters.

What manifests musically is some very stripped down, semi-meaty death/thrash/heavy metal circa King Fowley's October 31, but with tendencies to swerve off directly into Misfits-land, like in the verse of "The Leech and the Worm", or the chorus of "Tonight", where the simple punky chord progression is festooned with Lord Vladimir's best Glenn Danzig drawl. In other places like the opener, "Workin' for the Devil", there are higher pitched shrieks which I can only guess are an attempt to scratch a King Diamond itch, but these are an exception to the rule. Von Ghoul isn't just strictly trying to bite off his inspirations, though, so he throws in a more churning mid-ranged growl, or a ghastly growl like in "The Legend of the Swamp Hag". Variation isn't exactly a problem, and he strives for at least some charisma, but I often felt like the vocals felt too impromptu sounding, lending the record a loose and 'live' vibe, which isn't in of itself a flaw, only I just never found many of his lines convincingly catchy. More like goofy and serviceable, which mirrors my impressions of Workin' for the Devil as a whole, an album that is probably decent for a few cruises through the neighborhood on Halloween night, spraying some pumpkin spice confetti on the unwary Trick or Treaters, but not much valued beyond that...

The riffs are alright, but all pretty safe and stockroom for punk, thrash or even the proto-power metal sequences, to the point that I can't point out a single moment that impressed me. Leads are present but disposable, lacking the emotional impact they generally require to stand out. Lyrically, it all tends to vie for the rhyme scheme, with plainspoken imagery linked directly to the films they celebrate (like The Gate). Production is vivid and never lacks in punch, and the cover art colorful without completely stepping into comic book caricature land ala Ghoul. There are also a considerable 15 tracks, of varying lengths and styles, including a cover of Slayer's "Tormentor" to top it all off; yet this actually doesn't end up working in the album's favor, because it feels like too much average material for too long. A myriad of decently placed samples throughout the songs help shape the kitschy horror theme, but without strong, explosive riffs or highly atmospheric moments to capitalize on them, they seem almost like an afterthought. We know silly masked bands are capable of also producing some excellent music, hell just listen to Scumdogs of the Universe, We Came for the Dead or Destroyer....this album just doesn't seem to strive for much. But, despite these many critiques, I didn't actually hate this at all. It's aware of its limitations, consistent in its formula. Promises and delivers a little whiff of nostalgia, parties hard, and then flies off on a broom. A B-movie you'll throw on for mood, never for story.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]