Saturday, 30 June 2012

#174 Running Wild - Black Hand Inn

If you follow the way in which I conduct my reviews, you'll realise that quite often, despite a new-release by a band being hot off the press, I'll review one of the band's older albums. While making me a bit of a bastard, this is simply  the way of things, which I will now demonstrate. I've enjoyed the musical exploits of Running Wild for a while now, and in this review, I'm turning my attention not to the new album, but to one of the band's older works; "Black Hand Inn".

Running Wild are, contrary to the awareness of many a young metal-fan, including myself at one time, the original heavy-metal pirates, and were conducting their skulduggery decades before the likes of Alestorm or Swashbuckle arrived on the scene. Black Hand Inn is an album which has the sound of a mature Running Wild, further developed than their earlier works such as the undisputed classic "Under Jolly Roger", and perhaps a little more intricate and akin to power-metal than the band's speed-metal roots, which nonetheless still pervade the music excellently, in the riffs and song-structures, making an epic, highly melodic and monstrously catchy work which manages to combine atmosphere, catchiness and an engaging level of musical prowess, a trinity of musical virtues which exist on this album at what seems to be very close to the optimal ratio. Of course, perfection is subjective, but even the greatest detractor of the bands work has to grant the sheer solidity of the music on this album a certain respect - the factors align nicely to make an album which really oozes with the spirit of what heavy-metal is all about.

I picked this album at random from the band's back-catalogue, but I feel I've certainly inadvertently picked a classic of the band, with the speed/power metal combo and booming vocals really feel like the quintessential sound of  Running Wild, in the way that Powerslave might be considered a very quintessential Iron Maiden album. It certainly manages to illustrate what I enjoy about the band; As always, the choruses are massive, the riffs instantly memorable, and the album overall sounding so strongly like the band that made it, if that makes sense. I knew from the onset, that the album would be difficult to review without sounding like I have only positives to say; such is the consequence of Running Wild's streak of classic albums which runs for at least the first fifteen years of their existence. Certainly, the album is of quite a tried and tested formula, and is indeed very consistent with what came before it, in many sense, certainly having songs which wouldn't have been out of place on an album half-a-decade earlier. This perhaps denies the songs the ability to strongly attach to a single album's character, albeit only a little. Fortunately, Running Wild are the kind of band who have discovered a seam of something good, and for a long-time, at least, just kept at it, not unlike bands such as Bolt Thrower, who are afforded a similar cult status.

 I've not listened to enough Running Wild to know as much as I'd like about the band - Most of my listening comes from the "Best of...", and I didn't know what to expect when I listened to a whole studio-album. I can safely say I'm pleased - it's definitely an excellent album. It must, I think, have been tricky to select the tracks for a best of, when there are so many good tracks available.

This is a 9/10, definitely. 


Thursday, 28 June 2012

#173 Nekromantheon - Rise, Vulcan Spectre

Seeing Death Angel live last night has really got me into my thrash-state-of-mind. I felt I should review a thrash album, and fate arranged that it would be this one; Nekromantheon's second full-length; Rise, Vulcan Spectre, an album which has met a good reception worldwide, as one of the finer thrash-offerings of young bands in recent years.

Nekromantheon play an impressively fast and intense brand of thrash, with an overall dark feel, in the vein of bands like Slayer, Sadus and a good number of black-thrash bands such as Aura Noir. The band sit somewhere in the middle in regards to style - dark, certainly, but perhaps not full blown black-thrash, more akin perhaps to the works of bands like Sodom, like whom, Nekromantheon manage to play a style of the music is generally taken to be  pure thrash-metal, but still sounding caustic, evil and dark. One of the most striking things about the bands style is the solos; there are so damn many of them, and they're exceptionaly tight and well-played - rolling out of the guitar perfectly, with an agreable and oldschool tone. The solos often really dominate the songs, and are definiely effective in grabbing the listeners attention. There aren't too many thrash bands out there at the moment where I'd be prone to saying to my friends "Holy fuck, have you heard the solo in..." but Nekromantheon have certainly managed that in this album - the solos are talking points, not mere decorations. The vocals, too, really stand out nicely, with an angry, harsh edge, slightly remeniscent of Watain to me, which suits the head-over-heels madness of the music excellently.

I wouldn't want to give the impression in writing this that the band are for the most part defined by solos and vocals however, the riff's are equally impressive in places; Almost always dark, with hints of Slayer, especially in terms of the notes and scales used, but also packed full of black-thrash style tremolos and all-encompassed by a rabid, rampaging tempo which is in places mind-blowing, and at all times impressive. It may make the album whizz-past at incredible speed, sometimes a bit too quickly for me to wrap my brain around, but on the plus side, I'm very much aware that what just whizzed-past was a damn good album. The themes which the band use in the album appeal to me especially, with Greek-mythology being, without exaggeration one of my all-time favourite things ever, which render Nekromantheon's lyrics fascinating to me, in addition to being a refreshing change from beer, nuclear-war, and the other themes which dominate both modern thrash and thrash hailing from the 80's. It's excellent to hear something a bit different

All in all, I find Rise, Vulcan Spectre to be a solid, albeit quite quick, album. It's definitely a bit too intense to have on in the background, but that's a good thing, because when, like I finally got around to doing, you listen to the album free from distraction, it's a massively rewarding collection of music.

I'm giving this an 8/10.

Nekromantheon on Myspace
Nekromantheon on Facebook
Nekromantheon on Metal Archives

Friday, 22 June 2012

#172 Death Angel - The Ultra Violence

The Ultra Violence is quite a late debut as thrash-bands go, but 1987 is certainly still a year of important debut albums; Testament, Sacred Reich, and many others in addition to Death Angel, had much remembered debuts that year, and many will argue that while Death Angel aren't the biggest thrash band of that time, The Ultra Violence is certainly worthy of the status of a 1987 classic.

The album's first, and very lasting impression, is that the album manages to blend a very impressive level of technical ability with an almost chaotic sound and production style, very rough around the edges, but at the same time not losing any of the feeling that the album has very intricate guitar work. Effectively, this allows the album to harness the appeal of both the crunchy, energetic and rock n' roll values of conventional thrash and the impressive, head-turning capabilities of the high-octane breed of the genre. Not only is the album technically impressive, but it's also varied - often notably fast and energetic, but also boasts some forward-thinking sections, such as the intro to the title track, which not only sounds magnificent, but is also quite unlike anything I've heard in thrash, perhaps more akin to traditional metal. Aside from that example, there are countless moments on the album which you can tell happened quite obviously as a result of the band thinking out of the box, and often manifest themselves catchily, quirkily and almost always executed well, complimenting the song, as opposed to being "the wrong kind" of innovation.

The albums tempo is quite relentless, more so than many of the other thrash-bands of the time, even. At no point, if I have listened well enough, is the album ever truly "slow". Certainly, it slows down a little in places, but a lot of the time the music is consistent in being blisteringly speedy, and really captures what thrash is about - somewhat better, in places, than many of the classic albums which had already come into existence at the  point that the album was released. The riffs, on top of being memorable, really lend themselves to moving with the music, headbanging, and generally doing what good thrash metal is meant to do - and doing it well. The chaotic production really gives the feel of musicians playing in a non-sterile environment, not quite live, but with a great deal of character, with bits which sound partly improvised, and an all permeating feeling of refreshingly minimal post-recording editing and crease-removing - I often say that albums sound "organic" but this one exceptionally so.

While quite possibly one of the lesser known great-debuts of a time in which thrash metal was one of the rising forces across the world, The Ultra Violence is undoubtedly also one of the most solid and accomplished. The band managed to create a very mature but energetic work, without the juvenile feel which so many of the debuts around the same year had. A damn good record.

This is a 8/10 thrash album, I feel.

Death Angel Official Site
Death Angel on Myspace
Death Angel on Facebook
Death Angel on Metal Archives

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Feature: Innovation to the rescue: Why the 90's weren't that terrible

Bearing in mind that I wasn't strictly speaking aware of the existence of cutlery, let alone of music, let alone Metal in particular. I can nonetheless look at that decade and build up a picture of it in my head. I've heard at many times that that fateful decade was a giant, malicious vacuum cleaner which sucked up good music and covered it with dead flies, dust, and plastic soldiers. Metaphors aside, the nineties get a bit of a bad press, and I'm not entirely in agreement with that consensus. Let me tell you why...

One of the most glaring things which the nineties did - the leather-clad, spiked, homicidal elephant in the room, as it were, was that around the start of the decade, they practically invented black-metal as we know it today; Bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone took what they knew, threw it in a corner, and made something completely different - Something harsh, dark, and most importantly new; Nobody had done anything quite the same before. The bands which influenced them also did a lot in the early nineties and beyond, with albums like "Twilight of the Gods" by Bathory being unique and hauntingly beautiful in places, enough to forgive later albums like "Octagon", which are certainly evidence that the nineties happened.

 Above: "Well hello, I don't remember meeting you in the 80's"

Bands like Enslaved and Emperor were among the first to take this newly forged genre to experiment with it - eagerly incorporating varying styles of synth and progression, spawning classics like "Frost" and "In the Nightside Eclipse". While Burzum continued to release albums which threw black-metal convention, new as it was, to the side, and unleashed many an album which has remained unreplicated. Albums which influence bands, even whole styles of black-metal to this day. Black metal certainly gave metal a boost when it was in it's hour of need - Thrash bands were beginning to wear checkered shirts, Glam was well and truly dead, and a lot of traditional metal was well and truly spent.

 While black metal was, according to some, formed in opposition to death-metal, interesting things were going on in that genre as well. Bands like the ever-so-slightly-mainstream-but-never-mind Cannibal Corpse released classics like "Tombs of the Mutilated", and others, throughout the decade. On a more underground level, bands like Asphyx, Bolt Thrower and Obituary, among countless others reached their terminal velocity throughout the early nineties. While pioneers of the genre, Death, progressed and innovated their way through a number of album, many of which met high acclaim. Yes, death metal was alive and well throughout the decade, despite the fairly observable rises and falls of the style during that time.

Traditional metal was certainly surviving as well, with already veteran bands at best releasing classics, and at worst refusing to die. "Painkiller", considered a huge classic of the style, opened the decade, albeit to be followed by long gap and em... Jugulator. Of course, when many people describe the problems of the nineties, one of the major themes, especially with regards to traditional metal, is the drop in new bands emerging in the genre. Fortunately, bands like Slough Feg were on hand to guide the torch though that haphazard time, to the present day, where there are so many bands playing traditional metal that if you stand up too fast you'll bang your head on one.

Thrash probably took the biggest blow that decade, often almost vanishing, as the eighties-veterans began to disappear or sell-out, with very, very little in the form of new bands. It was only really after the nineties that thrash metal recovered at all, and in this case, I have to argue that, while the nineties may have sent thrash packing, it did not die. Many of the veteran bands weathered the storm, emerging from the other side with varying degrees of success, ranging from St. Anger to Ironbound. Out of the crash, in the early nineties, some thrash musicians turned their attention to other things. A certain Peter Steele, formally of Carnivore, was involved in an outfit by the name of Type O Negative, and together with  majority-favourite Pantera, released solid albums throughout the decade.

And that, my friends, is why I believe that the nineties weren't that bad. Certainly, in the decades either side of it, metal has been a stronger force, that is quite plain to see. But nonetheless, there was always plenty going on - Metal is prone to being pushed underground... but that's where it thrives.

And now, links to all of the bands I mentioned, both directly an indirectly; (linking to metal-archives - I like to do this, as some bands have no Facebook, others no Myspace, etc. Metal Archives works well as a standard, in that just about every metal-band, ever, is on it)

Cannibal Corpse
Bolt Thrower
Judas Priest
Slough Feg
Type O Negative

Monday, 18 June 2012

#171 Manowar - Kings of Metal

Manowar are something of an institution in the world of metal, and such a titanic outfit cannot be ignored. Both to my musical taste, and to the variety of reviews I aim to do, Manowar have become simply too large an elephant in the room to ignore. I've not listened to a whole Manowar album before, and it seems to be a good time to do so. I didn't entirely know what to expect. Kings of Metal seems to be something of a quintessential album, and as such, seemed the one to aim at to whet my appetite.

Manowar are, I've always got the impression, one of the pioneers of the "metal is great, lets play metal songs about metal because we're really metal" persuasion of traditional metal. This is a lot more forgivable from a band with the veteran status of Manowar, and they manage first and foremost to make it quite fun, and only as egotistical as is absolutely necessary. Cheesy is certainly something the band manage to do, but I'm assuming that this happens to a greater extent in later albums, because this album certainly wasn't as over-the-top as I expected, and had braced myself for, in fact, a decent number of the songs transcended being fun and catchy, and were genuinely quite epic - "Heart of Steel" for example, was actually quite a heartfelt and stirring ballad, albeit done in the synth-heavy, warrior style which the band, to this day, have made their own. This, frankly, suits me fine, and seems a very sturdy vehicle to transmit the songs beauty. While less immensely well known than other traditional acts of a similar time, such as Maiden and Judas Priest, Manowar are certainly not mediocre, and are certainly, at least on albums like this, quite impressive in what they do.

The vocals on the album are impressive - powerful, often emotional, and unsurprisingly very metal, a mid-range singing voice, with occasional and unexpectedly competent falsetto screams here and there certainly make the vocal department of the music near-perfectly contain what amounts to metal. While the guitar-work isn't as intricate as some bands of the time, or indeed, in general, it still manages to be damn catchy, which I feel is definitely fairly close to what Manowar were aiming at - nothing particularly self-indulgent, bar perhaps the somewhat mind-boggling bass cover of "Flight of the Bumblebee", instead the band have made a solid album out of songs which are fun, and well worth singing along to. Unlike so many of their peers, Manowar go down the path of making the songs arse-kickingly enjoyable, as opposed to aiming primarily at beautiful or evocative, although, if you remember paragraph-one, they manage that from time to time too.

Manowar, it seems, are one of the bands I need to throw on the growing "I should have listened to that a lot sooner" pile. A little bit cheesy, perhaps, and the lyrical themes are quite predictable, but that can be ignored when the music is so thoroughly enjoyable. More than expected it to be, which is fantastic.

I'm giving this an 8/10.

Manowar Official Site
Manowar on Myspace
Manowar on Facebook
Manowar on Metal Archives

Saturday, 16 June 2012

#170 Askival - Eternity

One of the more noteworthy events in the Scottish black-metal scene of late is the revival of one-man project Askival. Taugh, the man behind the project, initially discarded it in 2009, stating a lack of inspiration, but has recently restarted the project and indeed left the other outfit which he was involved in, Falloch, with the intention of focusing on Askival. "Eternity" is so far the only album which Askival have released, but is widely regarded as a splendid debut.

Askival is, seemingly, in a similar group to bands such as Wodensthrone and Winterfylleth - steeped in the theme of Pagan myth and aesthetic. Askival has, of course, a more Celtic, Scottish, and occasionally Norse aspect to it's sound, but nonetheless holds a reasonable amount of common ground with such bands. The album contains as many moments of folk as it does of black-metal, with many lengthy clean sections which, along with several ambient sections, grant variety from the fury which the bands sound can produce, such as the intense riff-work present in the heavier sections of "Last March of the White Wolves". These heavier sections never compromise the proudly Scottish, folk-laced nature of the music however, and folk-instruments and styles are present throughout, and are at all times sincere. Much like the work of Falloch, the traditional instruments are never, ever cheesy, instead being gorgeously vast, epic and at times almost ethereal in their atmosphere, and thoroughly spine-tingling time after time. The scale of the soundscape is matched by the scale of the songs on the album - massive, generally over-ten-minute chunks of epicness are divided by smaller tracks. It's good to see an album which is so clearly well-planned in this area, and the order of the music really made the album feel complete and digestible - it caters towards listening to the whole thing, which, really, is what an album is supposed to do.

One observation about Askival's sound which pleases me is the consistency of the atmosphere - the songs themselves are varied, from clean guitar to black-metal to ambient, but in all of these, the atmosphere remains the same. Not unexcitingly, that is - the sound may be constant, but is works excellently, with the whole album feeling tied-together and complete, but still diverse enough to be exciting to listen to, which it certainly is. When I say diverse, too, I may overuse the term, but in Askival, I'm fairly certain I'm correct. There is a lot going on - easily three or four different approaches to each instrument used, with chanted vocals, harsh vocals, clean vocals, and as much variety in every other aspect, which makes the consistency of the album even more impressive, and opens many doors for the album to be enjoyable. The procuction is really nice too - everything is just there. It sounds more or less perfect. The programmed drums are odd in some places, but other than that, the production job is impressive.

I really can't find anything to fault about the album. I'm usually a bit weary of handing out really high ratings for albums unless I feel genuinely blown-away by them. Frankly, that's what Askival does. I've always hugely enjoyed black-metal of this style, and I've always enjoyed Scottish folk a great deal. Combining the two is excellent indeed, and when you include the Norse elements, well, I love it.

This is a 9/10.

Askival on Facebook
Askival on Metal Archives

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

#169 Amon Amarth - Twilight of the Thunder God

Amon Amarth are another of those bands I should probably know a little bit more about, but doing this review of them will be the first time I expose myself to their sound for a prolongued time. Hailed tentatively by some as viking metal, my initial reaction years ago was to exclaim "where's the viking in that?" but I'm beginning to see what they meant, at least, somewhat.

At heart, the creature which is Amon Amarth is distinctly of the melodic death-metal variety, but upon listening to more than the first fifteen seconds of a track, I definitely noticed the viking feel which the music has. This Norse feel is generated by somewhat folky, medievel twists, which evoke an epic, often wide-open, wind-through-your-hair feel throughout the album, especially the tremolos and melodies, which, when and wherever they arose, made me feel the icy wind and look over the snowy lands. While the music may border quite frequently on being a little bit cheesy, it often manages to be sincerely enjoyable and beautiful, or at the very least, bursting with adrenaline and viking-mead, certainly music which caters towards major headbanging. Amon Amarth seem to be part of the select school of melodic death metal who encorporate many of the fundamentals of power metal, and definitely have the prominent lead guitar and tempo which, without taking account of the guttural vocals which dominate the songs and forge their identity,  could be just as easily power-metal as melodic death metal - as it is, however, the band sit somewhere in the middle, and on this album, pleasingly so - definitely the best of both worlds, as opposed to a clashing mixture.

On of the most major keywords to be applied to this work is, unsurprisingly, "catchy". Most probably with the prefix "very very". Most of the tracks are in at least some way engraved into my mind after one listen, and while it's in the nature of both melodic death metal and power-metal to be catchy, Amon Amarth really go above and beyond. Perhaps this is in no small part down to the Norse twist which definitely permeates every single song, but I also wouldn't hesitate to consider that the band have made a very catchy record without overly relying on a single theme, more accurately, they've simply made a record which is solid. Twilight of the Thunder God is a much more enjoyable album than I anticipated, and while I don't listen to much melodic-death metal, this is really what I look for when I do - catchy, memorable, energetic and a little bit over the top. It's safe to say that this album is all of these things and more.

It feels good to listen to something of this style - quite crisp, definitely well-produced, but also rough around the edges, harsh, and sitting comfortably on the line between cheesy and unapologetically epic. All in all, a very enjoyable concoction.

This is an 8/10.

Amon Amarth Official Site
Amon Amarth on Myspace
Amon Amarth on Facebook
Amon Amarth on Metal Archives

Thursday, 7 June 2012

#168 Bretus - In Onirica

In Onirica is the promising debut full-length by Italian doom-metal outfit Bretus. I'd not heard of the band until they sent me a download of the album and asked me to review it, and, today, about a month later, I've gotten round to reviewing it. From the very onset of the music, it became apparent that the band are a force to be reckoned with.

Sound wise, Bretus seem to sit on the line between being bluesy, psychedelic and "stoner" doom and something more epic and traditional. Crushing and head-nodding, but also imbued with a thoroughly clean feeling, with tones which are murky, but also have a wide open and clear-headed. The kind of doom which you don't have to take any drugs to fully enjoy.  The production of the album, especially, is extremely agreeable, sounding very, very natural and really bringing everything together in the most wholesome way possible - to be vague, the production is simply nice, certainly ticking all of the boxes for what I look for in production - the guitars sound organic, clear, but also pleasingly enveloping, in that quintessentially doomy way, and the drums sound fresh and un-tampered with. The songs are solidly written, with massive riffs which are very much larger than life, memorable and often very well written. The whole album feels like that; solid, professional, and very much a cohesive, complete sounding work.

The album isn't entirely mono-stylistic however, and there's definitely enough diversity and experimentation to keep the album interesting and engaging. While consistent, the songs also journey through a fairly interesting range of experimentation, with twists of many styles here and there; acoustic sections, and darker, almost occult sounding parts which differ from the albums typically epic, somewhat light sound. The occasional more energetic, higher-tempo material also kept my attention, and certainly gave the album an injection of force and movement. The album also shows plenty of imagination, with songs like the closing instrumental "Black Sheep", aptly named for sticking out from the rest, bordering on the insane, with all manner of keyboard work, tempos and styles mashed into one splendidly mind-boggling track. The vocals, throughout the album, have an epic, melodic egde, but also possess a toughness which keeps the music a little rough around the edges, to good effect - Bretus may have made an epic doom album, but it's definitely not over-the-top, at least, not in a bad way.

I'm impressed by Bretus, and I can safely say I recommend their music to anyone who likes doom in all it's forms. In Onirica is a solid, very complete sounding album, and is fantastically well-rounded. If the band can keep up the quality of this release, they will achieve great things.

This is an 8/10.

Bretus on Myspace
Bretus on Facebook
Bretus on Metal Archives

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

#167 Cannibal Corpse - Tomb of the Mutilated

Cannibal Corpse are one of the biggest names in death metal, and arguably metal in general, and yet, my experience of them has, sadly, been very scarce. Until earlier today, I'd only heard the occasional song, and, consequently, I've decided that it would probably be very good for me to listen to a whole album or two. Where better to begin than with a classic? Tomb of the Mutilated seems to very nicely fit the bill.

It's easy, and quite common, for people to dismiss Cannibal Corpse as being very "vanilla-flavoured" and unexciting death metal, and I'd certainly heard such opinions from several people. I don't like to perceive bands on such a basis, however, and listening myself is generally the way I aim to form my opinions on music. The band are a great deal more enjoyable sounding than I'd come to expect. Perhaps I don't really know what "generic" sounds like when in a death-metal context, novice to the genre that I am, but I certainly saw nothing wrong with what Cannibal Corpse play - while perhaps quite typical in sound, the music is pleasingly varied, with a noteworthy mixture of fast and mid tempo material which makes up an album which, while in places equipped with neck-snapping speed, is also has it's share of stomping, brutal and often groove-laden sections which leave plenty of room to thrust your fist in the air without inevitably detaching it from the rest of your body. The balance between the tempos, I'll venture, really is just right, and the band certainly succeed in this respect, creating a death-metal album which is exceptionally catchy, as well as heavy.

The album is, perhaps, a bit predictable, but not in a bad way - I don't mind the fact that the songs don't hugely surprise me when they're nonetheless very solidly written and tight, in the same way that, despite being very, very consistent, AC/DC still carry a certain appeal, about which millions of people can't be wrong. I still found things to be surprised about upon listening to the album however, mostly based on the gulf between my expectations and how much I ended up enjoying it - It's technically adept, with  memorable, and most of all quite fun to listen to. The kind of album which, if I knew the words, I'd enjoy singing along to, which, I think, goes a long way to explaining the commercial success of Cannibal Corpse. Tomb of the Mutilated does a good job, in it's running length, of explaining precisely why it deserves it's classic status - perhaps the production is a little thin, and it is slightly derivative of albums like Death's Scream Bloody Gore, but it's still solid as a rock, and I have no real grievences with it.

From start to finish, I really enjoyed Tomb of the Mutilated, and I can safely say that it has really improved my perception of Cannibal Corpse, and I've definitely gone from vague indifference to interest - who knows, I might listen to a couple more albums at some point.

I'm going to give this an 8/10.

Cannibal Corpse Official Site
Cannibal Corpse on Myspace
Cannibal Corpse on Facebook
Cannibal Corpse on Metal Archives