Thursday, May 18, 2017
Spoiler: having traveled to the future beyond 2006, and survived, I can assure you that once this group signed to Germany's Einheit Produktionen for their sophomore, they gradually improved to the point that I would call their fourth (and potentially final) record Mana Ewah a solid and entertaining entry into the burgeoning field of European pagan/folk metal, checking off all the right boxes for my ale binges and pretending I am from an Era I am not. For Schlachtklänge ('battle sounds?) that was just not the case, as it suffers from a number of 'rookie' shortcomings that render it ultimately forgettable, if not a complete heap of oxen leavings. Before even listening through the album, you can tell it doesn't look like much, with its muted tree photography, bland logo, but just enough of the right symbology and font to clue you in on what style of music this might be...or at least to point you in the right direction. Really, the middling production and values and appearance hint that this is more or less a demo in album-length, one which sets the ground game from which the band could later sprout some more competent and memorable ideas.
Listen to any record from Turisas and their ilk and you'll hear that they go with the bombastic, sweeping sort of intro which synthesized horns, a clarion call to the goofy warfare that ensues, but strangely the Austrians place a three-minute guitar instrumental, which is surprisingly the best produced piece on the record, but has a kind of bluesy, incidental feel that doesn't quite match up the rest of the material. But then it's off to some mediocre, shuffling, middle placed power chords that are dressed up with folk melodies, all of which would prove passable if the mix were a little more even. The vocal growls feel too muffled, and not even mic'd properly, as if the guy might be blaring the backing tracks and then recording it onto tape. In fact, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if this whole thing was done simultaneously live, it has that sort of boxy, jam-room aesthetic which just doesn't capture for me the frolicking brazenness of what this niche should be all about.
This process is repeated through much of the remainder, with the band struggling to shift up its pacing enough to give the album the variety it deserves. Certainly some of the harmonies, which pitch far over the dingy rhythm guitars, stick more than others, and they show a lot of influence from both the Finnish and Swedish ethnic and melodic death metal scenes, but the production and lack of deviation or risk truly fucks everything over from having a positive impact. To me it sounds like this debut was the product of some well-meaning blokes who heard a couple records by Amorphis and In Flames, but were really into their Finntroll, Ensiferum and Eluveite and felt like bridging these two paradigms into a whole, which they might have done under better studio conditions. Don't get me wrong, there are a half-dozen sailing guitar melodies over the 41 minutes which do take you that glorious inner castle, but the weak, slathering vocal mix and the pedestrian crunch of the rhythm guitar, paired with the submissive drumming and lack of interesting bass-lines, detract severely from its potential.
Again, I don't want to come across too harsh on Bifröst, because they took the right strides to become a better band on their subsequent releases and I'd count myself a fan of at least their last two (in 2013 and 2016). If you're new to the band or just looking for more of that festival folk metal you might enjoy off the European territories, I'd head straight to Mana Ewah and then trace their trajectory backwards for as far as you can stand it. The debut is no diamond in the rough, nor particularly majestic or wintry, desolate or mighty, but a rough template from which the group could throw out the scraps and then run with the strengths. Not totally awful, if you think of it as a demo, but nearly tragic in how some of its melodic components really nailed its vision more than everything supporting them.
Verdict: Fail [4.75/10]
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
It does take a couple tracks to really win me over, and with the songs labeled as Roman numerals, you can tell they were going for a sum experience rather than picking out individual highlights. But straight from the start of "VI" (the enumeration continues from a prior EP release), and its slower, biting rhythm and an ominous low choir tone rolling out in an almost meditative manner, you can tell that they're going for a little more of a fulfilling, dynamic range than your garden variety necrotic European black metal entity. This is really brought through in the production, which is huge and clear and bright without sacrificing the aggression the group is capable of ripping into when they explode into a blast beat sequence. The vocals, a familiar, enormous and often sustained rasp, might seem a little more traditional to the style than some of the riffing selections, but I loved how they anchored both the faster and slower progressions with this level of sickening angst that smoothly transitions the two. I think it's the rhythm guitar tone on End of Chapter, however, which exemplifies the record's balance of the jarring and fluid, with a slightly post-hardcore motif embedded in the dissonance of various chord selections.
First couple tunes are solid, no doubt, but once you get into that opening groove of "IX" you're starting to encounter the album's finer moments, where the riffs just cling to your memory with a bit more rock & roll charm. "XI" is also a favorite for its modest but driving, creepy potency. The production and moving nature of their songwriting also has the power to overcome track lengths that I might otherwise find too swollen, especially on the songs near the middle of the order. As with their labelmates Deluge, these guys are extremely consistent, but I find this record a lot catchier and more emotionally resonant. If you're looking for the next Deafheaven or Ghost Bath, you'd be better to seek them elsewhere; likewise, Au-Dessus doesn't get as spastic or grating as modern NYBM like Krallice, but if you'd be interested in what Blut Aus Nord's post-industrial material might have sounded like if it were more vocal-driven and packed a harder punch, track this down.
Verdict: Win [7.5/10]
Thursday, May 11, 2017
I bring up the 'Polish' angle again, because similar to bands like Vader, Masachist, Hate or Trauma, Rebel Souls are quite adept at giving you that balanced strain of death metal which doesn't veer off into the too wanky or showy area despite the obvious level of confidence and competence here. Loads of frenetic, pinpoint rhythmic chops delivered through the mute picking sequences, prominent and audible bass tones that move with an agility to rival the guitar, and beats that stick effortlessly to the furious level of energy the band generates across almost the entire 28 minutes of playtime. They do not entirely eschew the melody of their other project, but here it's used more like a subtext to just balance out the dizzying levels of punishment, and I'd point out that a number of the riffs here have a clear lineage to thrashing, neck jerking material from several decades ago, only clad in the brutality that the guttural growls and more intense drum patterns offer them. The only place this really lets up is in the album's intro, and the intro to "Doomsday", which are moody, glinting acoustic vignettes set to haunting storms or ambiance, setting up the ensuing onslaughts accordingly.
I don't know if The Forces of Darkness wins a lot of marks for originality, and the riffing choices aren't always going to resonate within your memory forever, but the level of proficiency here in both the performance and the production of the material easily rivals that of bands with decades more professional experience and exposure. For veterans who appreciate this sort of gestalt style which draws on several aspects or categories of its parent sub-genre, this record is the business, and I doubt you can spin it without reveling in its tight execution, never once threatening to overstay its welcome or stray from its clobbering course even when it gives you those few precious breaths of air. Discs like this are almost like the natural evolution of the whole Reign in Blood shtick; just a fast and furious exercise in violent aural art that understands itself all to well, and rather than trying to rock the boat, it sinks it with as much ordnance as the two band members can muster. Did I mention it was just two guys? Yeah, and many groups twice that size don't play this hard. Extra credit for name dropping the German counterpart to Thor.
Verdict: Win [8/10] (shorn of every virtue and passion)
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
In some ways this can come off as a more dense and confusing effort, as if you're being stuck within the flumes of magma on its cover and are being suffocated and immolated simultaneously. The riffs hit harder, a barrage of claustrophobic, almost grinding distortion that channel as much Napalm Death in spots as they do the Morbid Angel and Deicide influences that populated the first record. Bass tone is fatter, the tempos shift on the drop of the time but manage to pull off some stronger transitions even though the rhythm guitar tone can get a little clunky in the recording. The focus here is on more blasted material permeated with atmospheric/ambient passages; a contrast which works well as they set up "Son of Fire", for instance. Overall more intense and musically proficient than prior material, but most importantly I felt like the growling was mixed off better against the lava flows of dextrous percussion and carnal, writhing guitar chords.
They vary the pacing up just enough so that it doesn't become monotonous, and often accent the harder rhythm sequences with cleaner, ringing guitars that give it a more arching, massive feel to it, almost an early experimenter in spots with a style that bands like Ulcerate and Gorguts would take to a far broader, dissonant extreme. The atmosphere is constant without ever choking out the meat of the metallic undergrowth, and the drums are fast and mean and prominently featured. Occasionally they've got some riffs here which are stronger than the rest, redolent of old Death and Obituary and Malevolent Creation, but I'd warn that this is still not the catchiest material of its era...the rushes of leadwork and overwhelming aggression help create an 'overall package' sort of record which doesn't really age all that poorly, seeming just as sinister as it did in its day, especially on cuts like "From the Abyssland" where those eerie low piano keys and choir-like cheesy ambiance inaugurate the serious, punishing turbulence of the band's limbs. Arguably the peak of Damnation, and an album easy to recommend if you're chasing down unsung Polish gems or simply bands in the same wheelhouse as a Sinister, Vader, Morbid Angel, etc.
Verdict: Win [8/10] (let's soar to the sky in red)
Thursday, May 4, 2017
Now, to be fair, I think these Germans at least touch upon that Western appeal superficially, as much of their discography feels like you're about to pop in your Silverado or Young Guns DVD, a clear lineage from the sort of big, bright, burly 80s entertainment some of us grew up on, along with Alex Kraft and company. Plenty of bluesy acoustic guitar sequences. Cliche-ridden lyrics that speak to you of the hard life on horseback. The rather obvious saloon fonts used for the rather effortless cover artwork. A solid, atmospheric intro piece that feels exactly like you're strolling into a town alongside some tumbleweeds... whistling, guns being cocked, and a natural swagger to it that simply belongs to this thematic genre. They even manage to draft a couple semi-heavy power/speed licks circa their German heritage mixed with a little late 80s Zakk Wylde-driven Ozzy ("Hell & Back"). Sadly, this level of energy is the exception rather than the rule, and most of the writing is cemented in safe, run of the mill hard rock rhythms that generate little more vitriol than Skid Row; both the riffs and the vocals, with some grooves, some slide guitars layered in there, and not a lot of surprises.
That doesn't make it bad, per se, and 80s MTV purists might revel in how it takes that throwback sound and mixes in a heavier dose of Western, but this and most of its predecessors just don't seem to have a lot of ambition, and I come away feeling as if it was just too snug and comfortable. It's not because Desperadoz bite off any particular band too much...no, even Alex's vocals mirror a little bit of Sebastian Bach attitude, only with a lower range edge akin to Peavy Wagner of Rage, a higher melodic sustain reminiscent of The Cult's Ian Astbury, and some harmonies that remind me of the mid or slow paced hits from the Alice in Chains lexicon. The drums and bass sound bright and clear, and the riffs do possess a degree of variation to round out the album from sounding too samey. The country ballad material ("All the Long Way Home") is a bit tacky, but fits the concept, and the instrumental pieces here actually spin a competent cinematic narrative which I'm sure several directors of 80s and 90s flicks would have loved in their soundtracks.
The thing is, I don't really want Silverado or Three Amigos! in hard rock form. I want The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, or Once Upon a Time in the West, set to some tunes that can thunder across the plains like a desperate gunman and his steed on the run from some pissed off outlaws. Not prim, proper, stadium anthems, but a gritty and grimy orchestra of bullets and knives. Not just 'one shot for the road', but stinking drunk and pissing itself with fear and tension. Call of the Wild has a modicum of spit and fire by hard rock standards, but it just doesn't take enough chances, and ends up with their last couple efforts as an example of good production standards and professionalism without the extra oomph that surpasses an average listen. Plenty of qualities, and thematic qualifications, but every time it spits a little tobacco, it feels like a janitor rushes in to clean it up all too conveniently. Far from a complete bust, but I feel like I'd enjoy these Desperadoz better if they were more pissed and trigger happy.
Verdict: Indifference [6/10]
Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Reborn... was the first of the three full-lengths they'd produce, and for my ears, the shabbiest, but not for a lack of trying. The clear inspiration here was early Florida, with a guitar tone and riffing style not unlike veterans Deicide, slightly muffled in the mix on the tremolo mutes, but not enough to hide it's frantic pacing. They branched out a little further than that, though, with a more atmospheric use of the strings in tracks like "Maldoror is Dead", and also possessed an explosive edge on some of the faster tracks which will no doubt bring to mind Morbid Angel or Malevolent Creation. Leads and transitions are often rough spots on this recording, with the former occasionally nailing a degree of evil resonance, but more often a little awkward and undeveloped. The latter sometimes just coming off more sloppy than intended as the drummer throws out some brutal fills, or perhaps it's just the production casting some untoward attention in the wrong places, creating a bit too broad a gulf between the percussion and the guitars. That isn't a complete detriment, however, since I'll grant that Reborn... does gain a boost to its atmosphere thanks to the combination of clarity and crudeness.
Vocals are a voluminous guttural, punctured only by a few sparse snarls, and they too help to round out the mean and murky feel they're going for, spitting forth lyrics about darkness, sorrow, and the occult which were all fairly comparable to other early European death metal acts, with a little of the overt Deicide/Slayer sacrilege for good measure. Some samples and ambient sections are used to decorate the record's playtime, and these feel a little uncouth and undercooked much like their metallic counterparts...cool for the cheesy, ominous horror they allude to, but could have been better implemented to rocket off into the metal segments. All told, for its production flaws and lack of really interesting or memorable riffs, I have to hand it to Reborn... for at least sounding like one of those 'genuine' retro death metal experiences that you can place to the year of its own conception. If you're only seeking to thrust yourself back into that earlier 90s mindset, to submerse yourself in the morbid humours of that decade, then you could probably do much worse...however, I would note that the busier sophomore Rebel Souls is a superior album in most every way, the real hidden gem of their catalog.
Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (I trample the cross of hypocrisy)
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
That said, I would not be quick to write this off if you're a purist for the sort of brutality developed in lieu of groundbreaking acts like Suffocation and Cannibal Corpse, or in particular if you're a fan of Californian acts in the medium like Deeds of Flesh, Flesh Consumed or Inherit Disease, because if nothing more, it's well enough crafted stuff that keeps you entertained, if not guessing. I liked the use of the ambient instrumental parts and samples here, they help flesh out the atmosphere of the record, but I only wish they'd include a little more variety in the meat of the material, the death metal itself. Sure, you'll occasionally hear little guitar bits that veers off to the unknown in cuts like "Blood Scorched Earth", but this is all rooted in the blasting, chugging, tremolo picking you'd expect, and while the riffs are better executed and mildly more memorable than on the album previous, and the tempos a little more varied, so much of it treads on familiar ground as opposed to the alien or 'weird' that you'd really hope for when delving into subject matter with such potential as Xenopocalypse.
But it sticks enough landings to make it to the scoring round...the leads, while not catchy, flail around above the roiling, pounding, punishing low end of the riffs like eels or snakes cut in half. They rarely if ever settle for cheap slam grooves here, instead relying on constant brickwork and fret exercises to perk up the listener's attention and never let he or she get quite comfortable. Even were they do, as in the verse of "Planetary Obliteration", they thread enough in there so it feels like the groove isn't too cheap or effortless, more like an engine breaking down and then repairing itself as they thrust into another volatile blast. Small waves of arpeggios and such might seem a little passe for the style, but they keep the listener apprised of which side of the death metal spectrum Horde Casket strives for. The vocals are unrelentingly brutal gutturals, but they seem a little more empowering than in a lot of cases where it becomes monotonous and boring...these give me an Immolation feel which works well contrasted against the far more spry and energetic instrumentation. Along with Slab, this is one of their better albums, and where its so difficult to make a name for oneself in the sub-genre, these guys are another band who seem like they only need a fraction more of a distinction...certainly the raw materials are here through their ability to make the punishing performances seem easy.
Verdict: Win [7.25/10]
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Vengeance Through Violence is a three-track vinyl EP released between their second and third records, Hospital Hallucinations Take One and Both Ends of the Path. Or, more accurately, it's a single for one of the tunes off the former album, the title track, packaged with a couple of tracks that are unique to to the 12", or at least one of them is, and another appears to be re-recorded from one of the band's demos. These guys played a style of thrash pretty typical for the time, with meaty riffs that kept busy while hinting only slightly at the technicality other acts from Europe were employing at this same time. I like the brash, raw but brutish tone of the guitars, the winding mute patterns of the title track that keep my head banging up to the chorus with it's excellent gang shouts. But I'll be honest in saying that it sounds a hell of a lot like Belladonna-fronted Anthrax, only with the rhythm guitars more firmly planted in the late 80s Exodus camp. There are plenty of minor differences, but the overall sound is very much an American, urban street thrash rather than the Teutonic brilliance or savagery, and that works for me, because "Vengeance Through Violence" is actually a solid cut.
"Blow Under Belt" is similar, but the guitars patterns here make it feel more like a party thrash version of something that might have been left on Master of Puppets' cutting room floor. Maybe a little Whiplash, Xentrix, or if you can remember the East Coast band I.N.C, it cultivates that sort of silly atmosphere with the way the guitars break up in the chorus. Not a terrible track, but less robust and effective than the first. Sadly, "Cable Terror" with its staggering verse riff progression isn't much of an improvement; despite a great gang shout in the chorus, it just doesn't hook me overall, and I'd even say the production on these two doesn't seem as good as "Vengeance...". In the end, we can figure out why this EP wasn't named after one of those, or why they didn't wind up on the full-length, but I can certainly say that if you're feeling the material, then it wouldn't be a bad idea to check out ANY of their three full-lengths, since it's not a far cry from even the debut Thank God It's Monday. These are hardly top tier, or even B-tier records, but if you're nostalgic for the purity of the scene's underground in the 80s they're nothing I'd scoff at...just make sure you head for whatever you can find from Stone or A.R.G. before bothering.
Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
It works, and it works fairly well. While the band is still not writing the knockout choruses you'd really need to carry this style into a broad audience, the production is rich and vibrant, the tunes always possessing some interesting undercurrent, and despite how easy it might have been, you can still see a few glints of their heavier, more metallic, chugging roots shining through the emphasis on cleaner strings, pianos, scarce electronics, and subtle orchestration used as an ambient motif to backup the central rock fundamentals that hold up the tunes. Nothing is really off the table, with a track like "My Halo Ground" producing a Middle Eastern vibe through the instruments that steer it, or the title track which is very much a big acoustic/orchestra piece which really feels like you're that kid in antlers staring out over the horizon on the cover. The band knows when to lay into their big chords at precisely the right moment, and they tender those sequences with simple, added melodies. Rob Vitacca reminds me a lot of a mix between Wayne Hussey and Ville Vallo, limited in range but really expressing himself better here than on most of the Lacrimas records I've experienced. The beats are also pretty impressive, using interesting patterns to keep even, simpler, airier moments like the verse of "Aramis" a lot busier than you'd expect, and it pays off once the chorus arrives.
Hope is Here is more or less a modern, Gothic rock infusion of the Moody Blues, just right for those moments driving on an open road or lying under an expansive sky and seeking something that can encapsulate the experience with just the right, moderate level of pacing and depth. Production here is scintillating, thorough, and amazing, and goes a long way to creating compulsion for even the most vapid riffing they might add to it. Lacrimas Profundere have found a way to translate the emotions already present in much of their earlier material to something that is more refined and rewarding, and even if this puts them in a less traveled space where bands like Anathema have divided up their own followings, it takes a lot more guts and dedication than churning out yet another bland effort like Antiadore or Songs for the Last View...not that either of those was an expressly bad record, but they were too easily lost in a crowd of bands that focused in on a sound which was extremely hot for a few seasons and then sort of dispersed, still practiced but never really mastered by anyone who hasn't taken it into a heavier, dirtier Christian Death/Sisters of Mercy direction. This is a good album, and a good place to build from as we follow that balloon across the cloudscape.
Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (the past is consigned)
Thursday, April 13, 2017
Antiadore is their 10th full-length record, and it more or less employs the tropes and conventions we've come to expect from this sort of watered down Gothic metal which lacks most of the frills and genuine darkness of the genres which inspired it. Safe verse/chorus song structures, choruses that are not too high in pitch but go for a clear level of radio appeal, solid fashion sense, marginal use of electronics which can add some nuance to the predictable chord patterns. Once you've heard a track or two on a record like this, you're pretty much heard them all, the only variations are in the minor details like subtle shifts in tempo or particular melodies used to layer over the chords. Rob Vitacca has a seasoned, graceful voice, but there is little range, and for that reason a lot of his lines feel rather samey with not only their neighbors here, but the last half dozen or so discs the band has released. The drums and bass are well mixed and appropriate, but never stand out on their own, leaving the full emphasis on the riff passages and vocals, which unfortunately do not deliver much beyond the usual four chords. When the band goes 'heavier', it's simply safe groove metal patterns which are used to get the blood flowing temporarily until another of these maudlin, mediocre choruses...
Occasionally you'll hear a harsh vocal, but it sounds really out of place, overwrought in an attempt to channel genuine pain and emotion, where proper Goth rock or Goth metal needs no such gimmick. The lyrics and song titles are generally just cliches or cultivate imagery you've already seen in this niche a million times, and in truth there is next to nothing which separates the songs on a record like Antiadore from commerial, mass appeal rock music, except maybe a little more guyliner or the clubs and crowds that this might be played at or adhere to the genre. Here in the US, this style had very little impact beyond H.I.M. or Sentenced; even when Paradise Lost was nailing this sound with a catchier and slightly 'edgier' record like One Second it wasn't being talked about. It seems like by about 2013 this would feel out of date, or the band would adapt once more into something new, or a blend of their older/later styles for variety, but Antiadore is about as bland and insipid as you can get...I kept waiting for one song to really hook me in, but most of them were simply the sort that might have been memorable if I had heard them 'first', 25-30 years ago. It's far from a bad album, since the band is so slick and confident at playing it safe, but they need to throw a lot more curve balls, atonality or dissonance or eeriness or haunted atmosphere to do their meta-genre justice.
Verdict: Indifference [6/10]