Sunday, October 15, 2017

Exhumed - Death Revenge (2017)

Innovation is an unlikely event at this point in the trajectory of California's Carcass-inspired death-grinders Exhumed, but I'm not sure if it's even needed. If they can consistently deliver the goods like they have with their 6th full-length (discounting the comps and re-recording of Gore Metal), and sound like they're having a whole lot of fucking fun doing so, then I just don't see myself growing the least bit bored listening to it. This is not a band which has ever let me down, not to say that all their records have been equivalent with one another in quality, but there isn't one among them that I'd put on and not enjoy to some extent. Having said that, Death Revenge is the most entertainment I've had since Anatomy is Destiny in 2003, and it wisely carries forward a lot of the little permutations they first made on that album to glorious results...

In fact, I think Death Revenge serves as a sort of retrospective of all their output, perhaps never going quite as visceral or heavy as Gore Metal or Slaughtercult, but certainly putting the pedal to the deathgrind and keeping pace with some of their faster canon when it needs to. Much of the writing here is of a mid paced, clinical death/thrashing variety, consistent with Necrocacy and All Guts, No Glory before it, very heavily focused on eking out memorable riff patterns and then splattering them with all manner of wailing, amusing heavy metal leads. Exhumed started to take on a more melodic quality on that third album which they've maintained, and it simply adds so much more variety then had they just kept channeling Symphonies of Sickness or Necroticism. They never quite go full on heavy metal or rock & roll like their inspirations did as the 90s wore on, but keep the progressions punchy and intricate, with lots of flash and flair, as in cuts like "Defenders of the Grave" and "Dead End", busy and kinetic enough to mask the fact that you've probably heard most of these riffs before, and not afraid to splay you out with the meatsaw blasting when it fits.

The mix is clean and balanced, maybe a little too dry or polished in places, but to make up for that it delivers clarity between the rhythms, leads, percussion, snarls and gutturals, even the bass as it pops and plunks and thunders along, often using a lot of simpler, sustained notes under the kinetic guitars to give the sound a nice roundedness. The leads here are every bit as precise and competent as on a Surgical Steel or At the Gates' At War With Reality; a component of the band that has become so important in that it precludes them just endlessly aping their first two albums, which were much more unhinged in that department. The blasting is furious enough to balance off against the headbanging mid-speeds and breakdowns. What's more, there are lots of subtle little nods here to thrash and death metal icons of past and present, specifically a few evil Slayer-like progressions or moments where you feel like you've been submerged in some long lost Death track from the late 80s. Lots of details for something that is essentially as straightforward as past outings.

Furthermore, this is just aesthetically satisfying, with an orchestrated, cinematic piano/synth/string intro well worthy of horror classics in the 70s and 80s, reaching a huge crescendo before the bands kicks up the grave dirt and twists your head off in its zombified arms. The artwork choice is really fucking awesome, a folded up poster look from some cult US or Italian cinema which is more than likely gonna involve mobile corpses or some psycho you're not going to want (or get) a second date with. The lyrics are genuinely excellent, with a lot of effort put into them and a lot more elaborate prose than your typical gore mavens, a really cool grave robbing theme and narrative set in early 19th century Scotland! All the pieces are in place here, perhaps not for a true classic of the decade, or even a year's end contender, but just an extremely competent, seasoned record that seems rather timeless in its appeal despite the fact that it doesn't have all the best riffs and vocals exactly where you'd want to shove them. I even kind dug the cover of Exodus "A Lesson in Violence", if only because it was cool to hear them try some blasting and Schuldiner-like growls in it, instead of copying it straight up.

Just a great album for applying your Halloween prosthetics, or kicking back some drinks while you wait for your buds to show up for a slasher marathon. Easily recommended to fans of Impaled, early 90s Carcass, Ghoul, Ex Dementia or the last three records by this very band, Death Revenge proves yet again that Exhumed is one of our very best, dependable American death metal acts, where so many of its peers and precursors flicker, falter and occasionally fuck right off.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (Child of the grave in name and fact)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Force of Evil - Black Empire (2005)

Force of Evil was a project I had pretty high hopes for back when it was active, largely because I hadn't been truly satisfied with a lot of the later Mercyful Fate and King Diamond material, save for 9 and the Abigail sequel, so hearing a 'supergroup' that would bark up that same, twisted tree was promising. That the project was almost entirely comprised of alumni from those two Danish greats was an even greater reason to be excited...Denner. Shermann. Patino, and Holm. Three of those names I'd follow off a cliff, even with the possibility of impending disaster. Well, Black Empire is not quite a disaster, and superior to the eponymous record from 2003, but it does have one obstacle in vocalist Martin Steene that it can never seem to shake...

I'm not saying Martin Steene performs poorly here, this is a guy with more than capable lungs who simply seems to lack focus. When he's on point, as he is occasionally in his mainstay Iron Fire, he delivers a kinetic, frilly, unique pitch that might have distinguished him among the crowded Euro power field. I just think he goofs off too much, or he goes overboard, attempt to ape a lot of different vocal styles and exhibit his range, and some times the screams get a little try-hard when he's going full King Diamond or Ripper Owens mode, which is unnecessary over a lot of this music. I get that he's got the Mercyful Fate guys in the band, and maybe there was a particular set of expectations that this was some sort of proxy for them, but Black Empire only really comes together when he's just absorbing the music and complementing it with his mid-range and pacing, whereas on tunes like the titular opening he's just all over the place trying to develop a more orchestrated, schizophrenic performance that just loses me entirely. This happens on roughly 50% of the album.

Vocals aside, the music here is generally consistent, varied and interesting enough that the listener's attention won't lapse too long. There is a good deal of straight-ahead, mid-paced Germanic power metal rocking, mixed with a lot of the dingier, haunted grooves of the Shermann/Denner team that one would have come to expect from 90s Mercyful Fate fare like In the Shadows or Time. A lot of cool, cleaner guitars and audible bass hooks (like in "Days of Damien") help to round off the metal edge, and you can tell the band put a lot of thought into their choices, attempting to find a common ground between that reunion Fate era, and Steene's own band. However, while the music is well enough written, I often found that the grooves lacked the atmosphere and memorable chords that were so important on much of In the Shadows, replacing those traits with a more modern polish that doesn't do much for me. When they pick up the pacing towards power metal, the riffs also just seem to fly by without sticking to me.

The production sounds great, even when Steene is performing his theatrics, the tone of the rhythm guitars has a nice, clear cut to it that beautifully sets up the leads, and allows the drumming and the bass to hover through. The songs are all paeans to various horror stories or films, and they don't just stick with the safer choices either...Damien and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are paid tribute, but there are also tracks here devoted to movies like Candyman or In the Mouth of Madness, to name a few. "Disciples of the King" is just dedicated to Stephen King in general. Heavy metal and horror movies have had a relationship for all the decades they've existed together, but I often find that the music just feels too bright and glorious to truly convey the themes expressed in the lyrics. Like those other Danish legends which supplied the band's lineup, Force of Evil does focus a little on getting this right, with mixed results...the moodier sequences with the cleaner guitars are quite well done, but often erupt into lackluster melodies and riffs.

The cover art also looks pretty hot, but I'm not sure that it has much to do with the music. A pretty package, all told, but not really living up to its potential. With all the great Fate albums between Denner and Shermann, this one doesn't hold a lot of appeal, not even against the middling Dead Again. Or if you'd like to see more hard hitting material from the duo, their latest collaboration for the album Masters of Evil has better riffing than what you'll find on the two Force full-lengths. This is far more than a trainwreck, committed to its subject matter, and competently executed, it just doesn't add up to something I've ever wanted to listen to repeatedly.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (it's a long walk in the dark)

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mystic Circle - Damien (2002)

Mystic Circle had a fairly substantial career, starting in 1992, as one of Germany's earlier black metal acts, and dropping a number of albums on fairly visible labels like Last Episode, Massacre and eventually Dockyard 1 for their swan song. Through this period, their progress ran parallel to the rise of black metal to its mid-90s popularity, but they were often critiqued of having a lot of vapid and unmemorable records that were lost in the shuffle of the genre's explosion and subsequent over-saturation during that era. That said, as you'll hear on this or a number of their other albums, it was not for lack of trying, because these guys hit fairly hard and maintain a level of consistency that suffers only through its lack of any real distinction; nothing that really stood out against their peers from the Scandinavian countries; nothing unique like what you'd hear from the Greeks, Czechs, French, etc.

Damien, it should be said, is one of their stronger, more intense efforts, and like on a number of their other albums, they're quite capable of grabbing a concept from either horror or the occult and then committing to painting it into a tempestuous landscape. This record features a lot of traits which you would expect from any album celebrating our favorite Satanic love-child, from the organs and synths that lend it a sacrilegious shade, to some evil, thundering black metal which makes you feel as if you're being torn apart by demon-driven attack dogs. Mystic Circle were a band often heralded as a Teutonic alternative to a Cradle of Filth or Dimmu Borgir, and this comparison does hold for this particular album, which threads a lot of leads and keys in with its rhythm guitar riffing, and a heavily symphonic structure and bombast, though they don't layer that on too thick, and permit the intensity of the blasting, chugging and chord patterns control the tempo, which ultimately gives this disc a slightly different feel than those more popular acts.

This album really has a pummeling, forceful low end to it created by the grimy tone of the rhythm guitar, which seems to hone in on the bottom strings rather than the cold, razor-tinted chords that thrive among the many traditional black metal acts. It's almost like a death metal battery at points, but glazed over with the snarled vocals, thickly embedded synthesizers and slightly audible spurts of shredding guitars that give it a nice, frantic effect. A great example of this is "God is Dead, Satan Arise" which beat me to a pulp, even if it doesn't escalate into anything truly unforgettable. There is a slight monotony to the album in that so much of it seems to consist of the same, tirelessly thundering pace with only small variations in the note pickings, synth lines and vocal patterns, but when it gels together it really is something you can feel in your gut. A more visceral and brutal aesthetic than you might expect from the climbing, almost operatic evil of The Omen itself, but lyrically this album is more of a direct invocation to some Satanic apocalypse, and uses the film as an inspiration towards that end rather than a strict narrative outline.

The intro and interlude pieces are brooding, and lovingly cheesy, with deeper string sounds and then flurries of chiming dissonance. They merge pretty well with the bulkier disposition of the guitars. I doubt there are even a half dozen riffs throughout the album that stick to my memory, and some are painfully generic and predictable, but many others are at least smooth and sinister enough that they are engaging for the ears to follow. It's a textbook 'solid' sort of album, which I can still listen through 15 years later and enjoy to an extent, but would rarely choose it over those examples of its genre which I find preferably inspired or original. If anything, it's evidence enough that these Germans could perform, and in better times might have spread greater ripples were there just not so much competition overshadowing them. A moot point, now that they've been broken up for nearly a decade, but in some alternate universe I wouldn't be surprised to see Mystic Circle clinging on to some esteemed veteran status, having survived the backlash against the more mainstream side of the black metal spectrum and garnered respect from even the lowliest heckling cellar trolls.

Verdict: Win [7/10] (even now he's in the world)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ex Dementia - Crack the Coffin (2017)

Crack the Coffin is a record that honestly surprised me, not that I had any doubt as to Ex Dementia's musical ability, but because it's just so well written, accessible and fun for its style that I'm shocked it isn't being spoken about more, or at least being released officially through a label. Whether or not you're into its style is a matter of personal taste, but this is an album that can easily insert itself into a cross-section of metal audiences who will appreciate it for the level of clarity, catchy riffs and leads, and adherence to the themes offered through its colorful comic book artwork that will instantly draw your attention if you're into classic horror graphics ranging from the Marvel and DC magazines of decades gone, Rob Zombie animations or even the Mignola-verse of Hellboy and company.

Yet the music is even better. Some will brand this melodic death metal, and that's not an invalid label at all, but unlike a lot of music of that medium its components are more clearly extricable from the typical morass of genre-smash ups. The rhythm guitars are almost entirely thrash metal based, and smothered in tasteful, rock star lead work that constantly ramps up the excitement level while not leeching away from any perceived punch of heaviness. The exceptions are tremolo picked passages or chord selections more reminiscent of thrash's evolution into the formative, Floridian style of death metal, in particular the first few Death records, only the production here isn't quite so abrasive or raw. You'll get a pretty wide variety of riffs, from straight up Exodus neck-bangers, to faster palm muted thrusts and eerie melodies that were highly redolent of the pair-up of Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick over the classic Testament discography. Where it gets grimier and more intense it can verge of the Carcass-fed death metal style that bands like Ghoul, Impaled and Exhumed worship, but the mix is just so clean that it doesn't aesthetically feel too much like any of those.

The majority of its death metal element centers on the vocals, an entertaining guttural which is often slathered in snarled or growled 'harmonizing', again in that age-old grind-borne Carcass camp, or akin to Deicide in places. However, while sustained in spots, the vocal patterns are more punctuated, coming off like a mix of David Vincent, Max Cavalera and the front men to the thrash acts I had previously mentioned. At any rate, they never feel lazy or sloppy, but precisely plotted to give the riffs a maximum of amusing impact and to balance off against the slew of leads. Speaking of which, these are almost to the point of transforming Crack the Coffin into a 'guitar hero' sort of record, not because they're glaringly original or innovative, but because they clearly show an influence from bands like Megadeth, or again, Testament, who always emphasized the importance of this to their own classic compositions. At no point do they feel wanky and excessive, but they're obviously a huge part of this record, even more so than when bands like Carcass or Impaled would use them.

The drums sound great, mixed for adept heaviness, and the bass guitar is fat and audible plodding alongside the neck straining guitars on tunes like "Splattervision Channel 3". The introduction to the album, "Trials and Exhumations", opens with a great horror-style intro that's obviously a play on the classic like Carpenter's Halloween theme, only enriched once it transforms into melodic guitars, not unlike something the Swedish band Raise Hell would do. The cover of the Misfits' "Skulls" is a bit bland, but only because it's much the same as the original, with the vocals changed to growls, but little other metalization, something I'm always fond of hearing on these sorts of tributes. Thankfully that's just the end of the record, and the 22 short and sweet moments leading up to it are incredibly consistent, engaging and well worth your time if you're into the sort of stuff I've compared it to, or you just want a fun Halloween thrashing with death metal tendencies. Prior albums were far from slouches, but this kicks The Red Mass in the pants, indicative that the eight years since that time were put to great use as these Jersey boys honed their chops.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cardiac Arrest - Cadaverous Presence (2008)

Cardiac Arrest is another of those hard working Midwestern acts which never seems to quite catch a break or generate a ton of buzz despite being capable at its craft. While they've never really put out anything that blew me away, records like Haven for the Insane and Vortex of Violence have been serviceable, competent and entertaining old school death metal platters that stand out to me mostly because they pursue a style that is simply not heard too often in the realm of brutastic boor-wankers, Dismember addicts, cavern core drillers and Floridian acolytes. Instead, they've got a sound strikingly reminiscent of English death and grind circa early Carcass and Bolt Thrower, perhaps with a little Repulsion in there and a whole lot of horror influence rather than songs about medical processes or Warhammer.

When I say 'reminiscent', I don't mean that they completely ape those bands' tones, but rather feel like a parallel, North American development to them, with some similarities in riff construction, chord choices, and pacing. For example, the instrumental intro, "The Inevitable" sounds a hell of a lot like something you'd hear Karl Willetts growling over, a slow and churning piece with groovier drums that almost can't support the fuzzed out rhythm guitar tone. The title track definitely has a couple of roiling riffs, as in the bridge breakdown, which would have fit right in on Symphonies of Sickness, though they also break out into a lot less distinct grinding and blasting, faster patterns that are in the Morbid Angel camp, and then some leads whipping their tendrils about that feel a bit aimless but not out of place. You can hear traces of a few other influences in here, like old Pestilence or maybe even the first Entombed record, but that constant grinding to grooving ratio evokes a whole lot of the Earache camp circa the late 80s or early 90s, which is surely a nostalgia trigger.

As for production standards, this is naturally a little weaker than the records to come after it, with the drums a little weak in the mix to support that excessively fuzzy guitar tone. Combined with the distortion levels on the bass, this is where part of the Repulsion comparison comes in, and you could make an argument that Cadaverous Presence is a more dynamic alternative to Horrified, those dynamics taking the form of the riffs and progressions which sound like the other bands I've brought up. This is ugly, hostile and ultimately punishing, with just barely enough polish to place it beyond the live or rehearsal category of recording. But, at the same time, that actually lends it some character and forces the listener into a more terrifying, grotesque dimension in which they've got to earn their appreciation a little more. The range of riffs, which aren't terribly catchy on an individual basis, is another strong point, since it's interesting and varied enough to prevent this from being some slog saved only by its disgusting tones.

Alas, that's not to say I think this is an album as good as those to follow it. The gutturals are rather monotonous and sound more like your average brutal death frontman, both in tone and the patterns of syllables being belched out. Half the riffs are exciting, the others are entirely forgettable, while the balance of the guitars and drums doesn't exactly allow them to properly complement one another. Apart from the sheer visceral nature of the music, the titles and artwork, there is very little here that rises above the horror level of your average slasher. That said, its truly fuzzy and abusive nature will certainly appeal to some that miss when death and grind bands reveled in raw production, and there are least the inklings and intentions of cool songwriting ideas buried across its twisted, fleshy canvas.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Friday, September 29, 2017

Horrific - Your Worst Nightmare (2009)

Many will recognize Slasher Dave immediately from his more visible band Acid Witch, a cool mash-up of death, doom and marijuana haze with a heavy lyrical emphasis on the horror genre. However, that wasn't Dave's only ticket to the creature feature, as he put together this very short-lived pet project called Horrific, which dropped an album on Razorback just a little after Witchtanic Hellucinations was unleashed. Your Worst Nightmare is a perfectly appropriate album to populate the basement of that label, a love letter to the camp and sleeze and nostalgia of the horror genre, for folks who loved flicks with really bad monsters, serial killers using signature items like guitars with drills on them, or whatever kept you up late at night watching cable TV throughout the 80s.

The style here is a departure from his mainstay, fueled heavily by rock & roll and barebones late 80s death metal, and yet rarely at all sounding like the Swedish 'death & roll' scene spearheaded by acts like Entombed or Desultory. The death metal element comes directly through the raunchy growls, carrion snarls and a few of the riffing selections that might burst into a tremolo picked passage, a few evil chords or a wailing, unhinged lead, whereas the rest of the material is purely 3-5 chord driven punk or rock rendered a little heavier just by nature of the vocal style and the genre Slasher is used to playing in. Guitars and straightforward, with a functional, sometimes boxy tone to the rhythms. The bass is a bit of a nonentity in the mix, and the drums are your basic rock and roll pace with perhaps a little added splash to support the weight of the vocals, which are overall the most prominent force across the album, matched only by the leads. A little bit of reverb on the growling so it occupies a cavernous plane slightly above the mix of the instruments, and Dave will apply snarls or weirder growling sustains just to give their presence more character.

This record has a lot of spunk to it and it's fairly fun to listen to, but most of the riff construction is entirely too generic. There are exceptions, tunes like "The Ultimate Sacrifyx" and "Orgy of the Bloody Parasites" which had moments that rocked my face off, but I feel like a little more creativity would have gone a long way towards what is otherwise an inoffensive, charming, nostalgic effort. The production seems a little dry, perhaps not due to the isolated instrument tones but just how they're all brought together, and a little more variation and dynamic range to the drums and bass guitar would make it feel more like a raucous stereo attack. The album has a few less riotous moments where the guitars are used to build more mood as in "Metal Cemetary", one of the other better tunes, so it does do the service of avoiding monotony, and the shit kicking punked out parts, as predictable as they seem, don't lack for energy, especially where the leads are applied.

Slasher Dave's head was in the right place here...with cool titles that pay tribute to some great horror cheese, and lyrics that, while almost painfully simple, really stick to the graveyard partying and a paean to playing metal and horror itself, with colorful poetry like 'Zombie fuck freaks attack!' He doesn't dress it all up with a bunch of samples or incidental horror music bits, or tackier synthesizers, not that these are things that couldn't work in conjunction with the stripped down rocking, but this is Guitar Driven 101 metal devoted to partying, killing, and spooking. It's not as good as Acid Witch, and so it makes sense that this project would evaporate while the other persisted, but if you're in the mood for stuff like Ghoul or Frightmare but simpler, it might fit the bill.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10] (absorb the carnage collages)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Nightshade - Autumnal Equinox (2008)

The biggest crime committed by Autumnal Equinox is that it's just so aesthetically scatterbrained, where from appearances alone it looks like it could have been a fun, campy Halloween metal romp which capitalized on the cheesiness of its themes. Essentially a one-off project by Rick Scythe, who you might know from the Midwest black death metal legends Usurper, and more recently the decent black thrash outfit of his namesake, Scythe; with a couple of his friends, and a drum machine, Nightshade seems like a primitive array of beats programmed to support over-saturated guitars and a mix of vocals that range from his nastier, familiar snarls to a deep Gothic timbre reminiscent of Andrew Eldritch and Peter Steele.

Stylistically it ranges from thrash to heavy metal, to punk riffs that recall The Misfits only clad in a heavier level of distortion and feeling too inorganic because of the drums. Although they lack the distinction that a few threads of Goth rock melody or unpredictable dissonance would give them, the rhythm guitars aren't written all that poorly, only configured into patterns you've heard before that aren't really enhanced or complemented by what's happening around them. The deep, clean vocals are effective enough for that style, but in several of the verse lines or choruses it almost seems like the band is letting us in on the joke, as they become increasingly goofy. Granted, there is no possibility a listener is bound to take Autumnal Equinox seriously. It's meant as a fun recording, but the lyrical content, samples, titles and so forth aren't actually that amusing or even sarcastically humorous, and the cleaner vocals come off like barely intelligible mumbling across half the songs.

It's a strange mix, and frankly if I didn't look at the date it was released out through Sempiternal Productions, I'd have thought it was some bizarre drunken bedroom reel from sometime in the 90s I had stumbled across, so it seems a little displaced from an era where it might actually feel like a lovably bad, sarcastic success. The song titles with subjects like "Midnight, Down in the Lab", "13 Spiders", "It Lives in the Lake" and "October's Scarecrow" all sound like they could be pretty entertaining if they adorned some fun horror punk songs, or even campy death metal like the sort put out by bands like Crypticus and Ghoul, but there's just not enough 'theme' dripping through them, despite the limited use of samples, haunted house keys, etc. The metal aspect of the record seems to be its driving force, but at best the riffs and drum machine make it sound like scraps from the cutting room floor of a Ministry or Rob Zombie record from nearly 20 years ago.

I can't hate on it all that much. It doesn't seem to be intended as anything more than an oddity, I've heard worse, and Rick Scythe seems like a genuine guy with some great material in Usurper and Scythe, just kind of screwing around here. Much of the disappointment for me comes by the aforementioned lack of focus, and because...just look at it. The crones on the cover with the dorky fonts look pretty entertaining, and the music that ends up on the album just isn't anywhere near that...imagine it were a fun Goth metal record with a huge kitschy influence from old punk and rockabilly, or just a really cheesy, awesome horror speed metal record from when they took cover photos like this.

Verdict: Fail [4.5/10]

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hexx - Wrath of the Reaper (2017)

When it was announced that Hexx would be returning with a full length after so many years, I admit to some elation that we might be hearing the long-desired follow-up to their 1986 epic, Under the Spell, a mean and lean slab of heavy/power metal from the West Coat that to this day eludes the appreciation it deserves. I was never quite a fan of the band's death/thrash years up into the 90s, despite the competent, frenetic style they attained on Morbid Reality, which I would imagine was many fans' introduction to them. No, I truly hoped that whatever nostalgia or midlife crisis provoked the group into reformation would be one for their burning early years, and hearing the track "Burn or Boil", from last year's split with another veteran Californian act, Ruthless, with vocals similar to Dan Bryant's on the aforementioned 1986 sophomore, was everything I had hoped for. Fast, potent, memorable power/speed metal with only a few hints at the thrashier edge they spiraled off into right before their initial heat death. Even better: there was a version WITH Dan singing too, in their 2016 box set.

Fast forward, and to see the cover art to Wrath of the Reaper, and the heavily horror-emphasized themes and titles for the songs, I thought this was going to be one of those no-brainer comeback records, a strong showing akin to what comparable bands like Vicious Rumors and Attacker have mustered in their later years. While this is far from disappointing, and gets a few kicks in here or there, it's sadly a bit less consistent and memorable than I was anticipating. They've largely gone back to their roots, of that there is no question, but the bulk of the power metal material is slightly offset by a few thrashier moments like on the pounding, excellently-titled, opener "Macabre Procession of Spirits", which is simply not even close to one of the album's better tunes, and has little business being where it is. To be fair, though, a lot of what I'm hearing on the album is what I would have expected, workmanlike USPM, and the band plays around with dynamics, between anthemic, arena fist pumpers, speedy blitzes, and slower, more atmospheric mid paced pieces that erupt with manly power chord theater.

Cuts like "A Slave in Hell" and "Exhumed for the Reaping" are certainly worthy of that 1984 - 1986 era, and I think overall the production packs in plenty of nostalgia with the right level of gain on the guitars, elegantly threaded lead work that hits just at the right moments, and plenty of force in the drumming to give it the heaviness it needs for the 21st century. The riff structures range from the primacy of old Bay Area thrash and speed, to Maiden-esque triplets and most of what you'd find in between those two poles. Bass lines don't stand out very far in the mix, but you can hear them thudding and bounding along in step to the rhythm guitars, and overall when cranked up I thought the album sounded fulfilling enough through my speakers, and like the choice to avoid going too overly polished or neutered as you'll hear with a lot of modern power metal.

I guess the big question is, what do I think of new vocalist Eddy Vega? For a good chunk of the album, he maintains that harrowing, slicing, near-melodic style that Dan Bryant reigned with on the Under the Spell record, although it's slightly less beefy and catchy. Range is about right, but I was much more often reminded of Rob Halford getting nasty on Painkiller. In fact, there are places where his syllabic delivery and enunciation sounds EXACTLY like it belonged on that album, as with the second track "Screaming Sacrifice". He can also scream high coherently, as on the title track, another of the record's highlights, but in doing so he tends to feel a little more like any generic power metal singer and loses some of that edge and distinction that his predecessor possessed. Considering he's a new singer, Vega does a decent job, if not enough to truly distinguish himself among the field, but I hope he'll move forward by eking out a more unique, nuanced presence.

Overall, Wrath of the Reaper is a functional comeback album that positions Hexx back where, in my opinion at least, they were the strongest. Psycho-death/thrasher Hexx fans will undoubtedly appreciate this less than had they chosen instead to progress the Morbid Reality style, but there are means to find that fix elsewhere, like Sadus or Vektor. The horror themes are really cool, even if the music itself doesn't always lend itself to spookiness or 'evil' melodies as much as its manifests into an iron gauntlet to the face. I liked the album, even if I was hoping for more, and some songs are clearly stronger than others. It's also cool to hear vets like guitarist Dan Watson and drummer John Shafer pulling this off today. A natural fit for folks into Vicious Rumors, Liege Lord, Agent Steel, and Marshall Law, but I can't say it'll hit rotation for me as often as Under the Spell, or peer efforts like Giants of Canaan, Razorhead or Warball.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, September 22, 2017

Witch - Salem's Rise (1985)

There are obscurities and then there are OBSCURITIES, and being printed in a limited run of a hundred copies on a US imprint that, so far as I can tell, existed only to promote this band and a solo release from one of its members, Salem's Rise is unlikely to exist in its corporeal form for a few friends, family members, and perhaps a tiny pool of hardcore collectors and heavy metal fans that dug it up somewhere. No, it's far more probable that to experience this sole work of Ohio's Witch, not to be confused with California's Witch, or the Dinosaur Jr. spin-off Witch, you'll have had to run across it online like the rest of us schlubs. Now, whether or not this debut even deserves a cursory listen via the intertrons is debatable...

In fairness, this record is a lot less crude than I thought it would be from looking at it. That's not to say that I hate its cover artwork, as it exudes a certain type of base nostalgia and charm around this time of year; but there's no denying that it looks like a high school project; the wispier hair of its subject almost at odds with the finer detail of its eyes and eyebrows, I am almost reminded of DC's Klarion the Witch Boy character if he were a little older, high and paranoid off a fat spliff, and having a disagreeable hair day. But it's got the pentagram straight in the bottom center, the primitive logo and title which look like they were some attempt at stenciling an old English font, and perhaps its most important detail, the Eargasm Productions iconography in its bottom left corner. Ugly as sin, indeed, but all things considered, transports me back to a time in which I'd scribble and color witches and warlocks from my 1st edition AD&D adventures into my notebooks, which, coincidentally, was around the same time this album dropped.

Musically, I was fairly impressed by how polished Salem's Rise is sounding, especially when you consider the limited resources and distribution, and lower budget that must have gone into this. The guitar tone is clear and workmanlike, the bass-lines throbbing and evident, and the percussion has a nice, old school sound to it which pops along with the rhythm guitars. Leads are simple but chosen well, and just bright enough to remain distinct from the backdrop. Vocals are well represented in the mix, and in strict adherence to the practices of their era, placed much in the forefront of the album, especially when you consider that they are hands down the weakest component of the recording. At best, you're getting blue collar, bar-band level quality which wouldn't have stood a chance in hell against the charismatic greats of the 80s, but even prove lackluster in terms of honest hometown, homegrown heavy metal, a mid-range, ambition-less delivery which becomes all the goofier when the singer 'Ace' tries to pitch out a few screams. He's not particularly terrible, and certainly knows how to frame a chorus, but he's just never interesting enough to remember here.

Another flaw on the recording is in its mild stylistic consistencies. Much of the music is a laid back heavy metal or hard rock style redolent of Judas Priest, Steppenwolf and Accept, if lacking the punch and power of the band's precursors. Occasionally, though, some sleazier, lame duck rock groove pollutes the tracks as in "Beckon", which is also one of the tunes where the vocals are experimented with a lot more and sound corny as hell, especially where he seems a little unable to finish hitting the pitch while belting out the song title in the chorus. They also experiment with a little of the proggy synths circa early Ozzy, as on "Will I See You Tonight", but once again the music is spoiled by the higher pitched vocals whose reach cannot exceed their grasp. Salem's Rise is the sound of a band just getting its feet wet, not quite positive where it's going to end up, and there's a lack of confidence and delivery that drag it well below the hidden gem category, not to mention that, even at their most functional, the riffs are just nothing special whatsoever in a year which produced works like Metal Heart, Branded & Exiled, Walls of Jericho and The Specter Within.

I was drawn to check out the record years ago by its potential theme, however, since I'm a huge fan of cult horror, and the band definitely seems to share this passion with anthems of monsters, mythology, and black magic, with subjects ranging from "Loki" and "Lady Medusa" to "Teen of Darkness" and the title track. The bad new is that, beyond the titles and lyrics and the fact that it's heavy metal in the first place, it just doesn't cultivate these topics well enough, or the vocals are just so vapid in their delivery that they ruin the rest, such as the peppy doom grooves of "Salem's Rise" itself, or the pitch issues in closer "Something Evil", which otherwise is perhaps the strongest song on the album. It's never capable of cashing in on its nostalgia with creepy melodies or atmospheres, or evil sounding lyrical lines, and ultimately there's just so little point to listening to when I could just spin Fatal Portrait or Love You to Pieces for the millionth time each and be infinitely more engaged.

Witch was not complete garbage, though, and there are clearly dreams, ideas, and riffs here which with further molding and a better front man might have developed into something cult. There are thousands of such records out there by bands who met for a couple years, in a garage, in a basement, in an attic loft, a studio space, and riffed out some heavy fucking metal, smoked and drinked, played for their friends, their ladies, their dudes, and lived it...if just for a little while, during the Golden Age of the medium. And, whatever their flaws, whatever hurdle they couldn't leap, you can't ever take that away from them. Why would you?

Verdict: Indifference [5/10]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Entrench - Through the Walls of Flesh (2017)

The first Entrench record, Inevitable Decay, was this awesome slab of Teutonic-infused thrashing nastiness out of Sweden that really impressed me across a score or more of spins, but sort of fell out of my rotation for whatever reason as I was exploring a lot more throwbacks into the whole blackened speed/thrash style, which one might argue they were bordering on the periphery of, including the amazing Antichrist and their debut stunner Forbidden World. Its follow-up Violent Procreation was likewise pretty solid, but didn't seem to get much buzz, and I didn't listen to it quite as much as its predecessor. Forward to 2017, and now Entrench are on the same label as Antichrist (I Hate records), and still spitting out some of the more vitriolic, sincere, atmospheric stuff in this category.

It's hardly novel, it's not without  its flaws, but Through the Walls of Flesh is very enjoyable, hearkening back to that European proto-thrash that developed in both response and accordance with the West Coast US emergence of Slayer and Possessed. We're not talking a shallow knockoff of Pleasure to Kill or Sentence of Death here. There is a degree of that, but Entrench do a damn good job of giving it a fulfilling treatment so that it's something you might not IGNORE in lieu of its influences, but actually want to experience alongside them. Barbaric, fast paced tremolo picking is the go-to, but they keep these rhythm guitars interesting enough, bloodied and fresh even when the style itself seems highly redundant to a hundred tracks you've already heard. Fredrick Pellbrink also has this really caustic, nihilistic bark to him that works extremely well as it navigators the dirtnap inducing speed and volatile instrumentation, like an evil Swedish Razor. He's like an unholy amalgamation of Ron Rineheart (Dark Angel), Ron Royce (Coroner) and Tom Araya, and without him the music might lose some of its sense of immediacy and anger, which is impressive since he's also the guitarist...

I also like the little touches of proto-death metal that rear their primal, ugly heads here in tunes like "Enter the Fray" or "Iron Coffin", channeling a little of the early Death circa "Pull the Plug". The drums are just a raging force throughout the record, driving and blasting with ample thunder, while the bass guitar peals along pretty well so you can hear it right along the rhythm tracks. There's a whole lot of hellish 'hustle' when the pacing picks up, like you're being trampled by a herd of abyssal bulls being driven away from their demonic wranglers, for fear of their damned afterlives. Lots of flavorful, evil little licks here that will thrill fans of Antichrist or Deathhammer, and the leads are well-structured to complement the rhythm guitar riffs while adding just the proper level of escape and atmosphere that elevate the music into a total package. I'm not saying that everything here is equally memorable, but Entrench is another band who seem like they're really on the level, cognizant of where they come from, and translating their influences into something that is still vile, resonant and worthwhile even in 2017, rather than the vapid indistinct pizza thrashing of lesser scum. Good stuff here; I think Inevitable Decay remains my favorite, but this one certainly lives up to its legacy.

Verdict: Win [8/10]